NHL Playoffs: Phoenix Joins Los Angeles In Western Finals

The NHL’s Western Conference finals are set, as the Phoenix Coyotes finished off the Nashville Predators in five games to move forward to face the Los Angeles Kings. And while the Coyotes were reaching new heights for what’s been an embattled franchise, the Washington Capitals were reaching new heights in finding ways to torture their loyal fan base, as they dropped a heartbreaker in New York. TheSportsNotebook looks back on both games and ahead to Tuesday night’s lone game…

Phoenix 2 Nashville 1: The Predators did what they had to and hammered Phoenix goalie Mike Smith with 33 shots, while shutting down the Coyote attack and limiting them to 17 shots. But for the third time this series, the Preds got an unsatisfactory outing from goalie Pekka Rinne, who allowed two goals, while Smith turned back 32 of 33. It’s generally accepted in the NHL playoffs that not only does a goalie have to sustain his regular season level of play, he has to lift it. Rinne, one of the league’s best, went in the opposite direction this series, with subpar games all three times in Phoenix. Nashville is not a great offensive team—even with the 33 shots, the problems of depending too heavily on the defenseman showed, as Shea Weber’s seven shots were easily the most on the team last night. Phoenix is built around one singularly great goaltender who continued to carry his team. Nashville is built on a deeper team defensive concept, but that doesn’t work when it only takes 17 shots to score twice. Congratulations to the Phoenix Smiths—we may as well name the team after the guy—as they get set to host the first two games against Los Angeles.

NY Rangers 3 Washington 2 (OT):  Washington was seven seconds away from stealing a road win at Madison Square Garden and taking control of the series, when the Rangers tied the game and then won it a minute and a half into overtime. The Caps now trail this series 3-2 in games, and they’re a triple-overtime game plus seven seconds away from having closed it out in five. For a franchise desperate to win its first Stanley Cup and exorcise years of frustration, this one’s reaching new heights.  But we also have to acknowledge that as close as Washington came to winning this game, they were not the better team on the ice last night. The New York defense played its best game of the postseason, limiting Washington to 18 shots and astonishingly holding Alex Ovechkin without a shot. While Ovechkin did get an assist, it’s probably a bigger miracle they were seven seconds from winning than it is that New York finally tied it. Ovechkin’s non-activity contrasts sharply with Ranger stars Marian Gaborik and Ryan Callahan who combined for 12 shots and helped keep the pressure on Capital goalie Braden Holtby, whom they peppered with 38 shots. Cut the kid a break—to hold off that kind of sustained attack, most of it coming from the team’s best players all game long is almost impossible.

New Jersey can reach the conference finals tonight when they visit Philadelphia. The Flyers got word that center Claude Giroux is suspended one game for a hit in Game 4. Giroux is one of the NHL’s best passing centers and the key to a prolific offense. To take him away is like the NBA suspending Chris Paul from the LA Clippers. I don’t write this to say the NHL was wrong in handing out its sentence, but to illustrate how big an impact this will have on Philly. I would say that they’ll have to do it with defense and goaltending, but I don’t have a laugh track to insert here. Between a weakened Flyer team tonight and a home game in Game 6, if New Jersey can’t avoid a Game 7, they deserve to lose. As for Philly, you have to take all the problems and turn them into an opportunity—if they can win without Giroux, all the pressure goes on the Devils the rest of the way.