Nine Reflections On The 2014 NHL Playoffs
We’ve had a week without hockey, which somehow doesn’t seem right in the middle of June. It was last Friday night in the Staples Center that the Los Angeles Kings won a double-overtime Game 5 over the New York Rangers and the Kings secured their second Stanley Cup in three years. Here’s nine closing thoughts, covering both the Stanley Cup Finals, and the 2014 NHL playoffs as a whole.
*I know it sounds cliché, but the Los Angeles run was really a tribute to the value of having championship players. The Kings weren’t the best team in the season—third in the Pacific Division and fifth in the Western Conference and they often didn’t even look like the best team in the postseason.
But between Drew Doughty, Marian Gaborik, Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Quick in net, they had a group of players that just refused to roll over. The character and strength of this team to simply keep playing hockey in the face of adversity was their greatest attribute, and it’s why they managed to win three Finals games that they trailed in by two goals.
*When it was announced that Justin Williams had won the Conn Smythe Award as MVP of the entire postseason, my initial reaction was negative. I felt like Doughty or Kopitar would have been better choices, and that Williams’ reputation as “Mr. Game 7” was overriding common sense. But a review of the statistical data said that it was my initial reaction, not the vote, that was wrong.
Williams scored nine goals and had 16 assists. Kopitar had more total points, thanks to 21 assists. Carter’s 10/15 line was a little bit better. But Williams was close enough to his teammates in terms of bottom line production, and when you then add in his ability to come up with the big goal in big games, it justifies a vote for the Conn Smythe.
*Jonathan Quick was shaky during the regular season and he often needed his teammates to bail him out, notably in the Western Conference Finals against the Chicago Blackhawks. But the Los Angeles goaltender was at his best in the Stanley Cup Finals. His save percentage, at 91 percent in the regular season and lower than that for three playoff rounds, jumped to 93 percent for the Finals.
Two percentage points is a big deal for hockey goalies, and Quick’s 136 saves on 146 shots over five games don’t tell the story of how many spectacular saves he made in late game and overtime situations. Quick’s performance proved the adage that you can’t give great athletes repeated chances. Eventually they’ll show you greatness and Quick finally did in the Stanley Cup Finals.
*I was one of the Henrik Lundqvist critics when the playoffs began, believing the New York Rangers goalie would consistently let his team down in big situations. Even though they didn’t win a championship and let a trio of 2-0 leads get away, as far as I’m concerned Lundqvist vindicated himself.
He carried New York to the Eastern Conference title and those lost leads in the Finals don’t reveal how many outstanding saves the Ranger netminder had to make. Nor do they show they would have hung on in Game 2 had the Kings not gotten away with an outrageously obvious goalie interference on a third-period goal that set the stage for overtime.
*Kudos to Ryan McDonagh. The New York defenseman was stellar in these playoffs. He led his team in points with 17, and was their best player in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Montreal Canadiens.
*Looking out over the rest of the Eastern Conference postseason, this Boston Bruins fan is still having a hard time digesting the B’s seven-game loss to Montreal in the second round. Yes, some bad luck went against Boston, as their goals repeatedly hit the pipes. But the Bruin talent advantage was sufficient to win even without breaks. The problem was that Montreal just seemed to play much more intelligent hockey, and their defenseman P.K. Subban clearly has the number of Boston’s great goalie Tuuka Raask. Subban’s conversion on power play situations, with his laser shot from deep, was starting to remind me of a basketball shooter, in that it seemed like he was hitting about 50 percent.
*The Pittsburgh Penguins disappointed again, and with a city in fury, had little choice but to clean house, going for a new general manager and a new coach. Unless they make it a trifecta and go for a new goalie to replace Marc-Andre Fleury, they’ll be doing this same song and dance not spring.
Fleury didn’t play terribly this spring, but he’s shown himself capable of such depths. And more important, he’s not a goalie who can carry his team for at least one series, which usually needs to happen in a Stanley Cup run. Lundqvist can do that, as can Raask. Not coincidentally, those are the teams that knocked Pittsburgh out the last two years.
*I am absolutely and completely convinced that the ghost of Marty Schottenheimer is lurking over the St. Louis Blues and/or the San Jose Sharks. Well, actually Marty isn’t dead, but the former NFL coach was renowned for producing solid, well-disciplined teams that just didn’t win in the playoffs. Whether it was his fault or just a reality that his teams overachieved to begin with is a subject for debate, and I feel like that’s exactly what we’re dealing with when it comes to the Blues and Sharks.
St. Louis had Chicago down 2-0 and lost. San Jose had Los Angeles down 3-0 and lost. Do we blame the Blues and Sharks for losing, or just say they played over their heads to have strong regular seasons and get early playoff series leads against superior teams? Or is the answer some mix of both?
*The Chicago Blackhawks can do a lot of analysis over why their bid for a repeat Stanley Cup came up short in overtime of Game 7 against Los Angeles. But some of it is probably just the luck of hockey. The Blackhawks went to a Game 7 with the Detroit Red Wings last year. They went to six games in the Stanley Cup Finals against Boston, a series with so much overtime that it felt like seven.
Chicago was the best team last year and might have been this year, but there weren’t so far ahead of the field that they were above the fate that comes with the bounce of the puck. I know it’s a tough loss for Blackhawk fans—had they won a second straight Cup and third in five years, we could have used the “D” word—dynasty. That’s off the table for the time being, but they’re still the most talented team in hockey and posted as the 15-2 favorite to win it again next year.