The New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning rounded out the conference finals of the NHL playoffs over the last two nights. Here’s a look at how each team won their matchups with Washington and Montreal respectively…
NY RANGERS OVER WASHINGTON IN 7
I was able to watch most of this series and it was fitting that a low-scoring overtime Game 7 decided it, with the Rangers winning 2-1 in Madison Square Garden last night. Every game was a grinding war and the smallest of breaks decided it.
The Caps won Game 3 because a puck took a fortuitous glance off a Ranger skate into the net. New York won Game 5 because their tying goal was redirected in…off a Washington player’s stick. From the moment the puck dropped in Game 1—a game the Capitals won with a last-second goal—everything about this series screamed “SEVEN GAMES!”
But that doesn’t mean there weren’t some edges. Washington has become a tougher, physical team over the last couple years and that’s the style they tried to impose on the more talented Rangers. But if you use 30 shots a game as an artificial benchmark for determining whether the offense or defense was in control—and as one who’s read a lot of hockey boxscores over the past few years, I think that’s pretty reasonable—then New York was in control.
The Rangers got 30-plus shots (not including OT shots) in five of the seven games and the two they missed were at 28 and 29. The Capitals stayed in the series because of the talented young goaltender Braden Holtby, who went toe-to-toe with Henrik Lundqvist, just as Holtby did with the great Tim Thomas back in 2012 when Washington was on the winning end of a 2-1 overtime Game 7. This time it was just a hair short of being enough.
I want to close out the Capitals season with a defense of Alex Ovechkin. He’s taken a lot of heat for his playoff failures and most of that heat has been fair. Too often, he’s been a non-factor in big games. But this series was not one of them. He scored the first goal last night and he was on the attack throughout the series, consistently taking 4-6 shots a night, a solid number.
It’s been noted that Ovechkin has failed to reach the conference finals in his ten NHL seasons. Again, I think that’s unfair. This isn’t the NBA, where a star player can will his team through an entire series. The most potent NHL scorers average less than a goal per game. If a player scores five goals in a seven-game playoff series that’s an offensive explosion.
The reality is that hockey is a goaltender’s game. And if a goalie like Lundqvist is locked in it’s going to be tough to do a lot of anything. In this series, both goalies were on their games. New York just got a few more shots.
TAMPA BAY OVER MONTREAL IN 6
TheSportsNotebook was ringing the alarm bells early on Montreal goaltender Carey Price, a fantastic netminder, but who had shown some inconsistency in the first-round win over Ottawa. Those alarm bells turned into a full-scale fire here. The Canadiens played a good defensive series on a team-wide basis and didn’t let the talented Lightning scorers, notably Steven Stamkos, go crazy attacking the net. But Price had an exceptionally rough go of it.
That’s most obvious in the power play numbers. Tampa Bay converted 7-for-21 power plays, a ridiculously high number. Montreal has been on the other side of this—last year in this round they were the underdog who beat Boston because of dominance on the power play.
I’m also seeing some headlines talking about Stamkos pushing his team into the conference finals. I’m not here to knock the Tampa star, who is easily one of the league’s most potent players, but it’s two other guys that deserve the headlines. Tyler Johnson has been the team’s best player in the entire postseason, including a seven-game series win over Detroit. And Nikita Kucherov was much more productive in the Montreal series in particular.
Also, high marks go to Ben Bishop, the Tampa goalie. I also sounded the alarm bells on him after a spotty first round, but in this case, he turned it around and repeatedly turned back Montreal charges. Max Pacioretty was particularly aggressive for the Canadiens, but Bishop kept favored Montreal under control each time except Game 5.
The conference finals are set. New York and Tampa Bay will begin play on Saturday afternoon (1 PM ET, NBC) from MSG, and then Chicago-Anaheim begin out West on Sunday afternoon (3 PM ET, NBC). We’ll have a conference finals preview on either Friday or Saturday morning complete with analysis and betting lines.