The NHL playoffs gave us two exciting Game 7s to close out first-round action. The Washington Capitals exorcised at least some of their playoff demons with a 2-1 win over the New York Islanders, and the Tampa Bay Lightning knocked out the Detroit Red Wings with a tough 2-0 win that wasn’t sealed until a late empty-net goal. Here’s a look at how the Caps and Lightning won their series…
WASHINGTON OVER NY ISLANDERS IN 7
Game 5 is the one that stands out. In a series marked by closely contested games, the Capitals blew the fifth game open early with a 5-1 win. You can make the case that this is simple–the tight games, the ones where a wayward bounce of the puck can decide it–split down the middle and Washington was the winner of the one game that was clearly decided. I wouldn’t dispute that, but there are some explanations that go a little deeper.
*Alex Ovechkin has been maligned for his playoff performances over the years and not without justification. Ovechkin scored one of the most important goals of his career when he tied up Game 2. The Islanders had taken the opener and then held leads of 2-0 and 3-1 in the second game. Ovechkin’s goal set the stage for the game-winner and the series was on.
*Braden Holtby, the Caps’ goalie, was spectacular in the middle games at Nassau Coliseum. The Islanders got the better of play, and by a lot, in Games 3 & 4. But Holtby’s brilliant performance in net helped his team gain a split of 2-1 overtime decisions and kept it a series.
*Evgeny Kutzenov was the hero of the decisive stretch in this series. He scored twice and had an assist in the Game 5 rout, a fruit of an aggressive game where he unleashed seven shots. Then in Tuesday night’s seventh game, with the game tied 1-1 in the third period and tensions in the Verizon Center unbearable, Kutzenov came through. He made a beautiful move, skating right to left to get around the defense and create a shooting angle. Even with his body moving away from the net, he put in the winning goal.
*The Washington defense left a lot to be desired through much of the series, with Holtby bailing them out. Game 7 was the opposite. The Caps’ defense was in lockdown mode. They only allowed 11 shots on goal and should have a shutout had Holtby not let in an absurdly cheap game-tying goal that seemed ready to add to the distressing history of Caps fans in the playoffs. This was the game where Holtby’s teammates paid him back for the middle games. Continue reading “Capitals & Lightning Win Game 7s To Complete NHL First Round” »
Last season, the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens met in the NHL’s Eastern Conference Finals, with both making dark horse playoff runs. This time around, the Rangers and Canadiens are on a collision course for a rematch, each as division champions in the regular season. They both held serve in the first round of the playoffs, New York beating Pittsburgh in five games, while Montreal ousted Ottawa in six. Here’s how the favorites advanced…
NEW YORK BEATS PITTSBURGH IN 5
The Rangers defense has a good reputation, with its physical play and a great goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist. They backed it up in a showdown with the Penguins’ offensive stars, notably Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. New York’s defense allowed more than 30 shots on goal only once, that being Game 5 when the Pens were playing with desperation urgency. Lundqvist was in lockdown mode, delivering three successive 2-1 wins, two of the in overtime, to seal the series.
What’s most notable is how much the Rangers turned Crosby into a non-factor. Other than Game 2, when he scored two goals in Pittsburgh’s only win over the series, Crosby simply could not get shots off, being limited to one or two cracks at the net per game. As for Malkin, only in Game 5 did he consistently get his shots and he never made an impact on the series.
Defense defined this series, and while Pittsburgh’s D, along with goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, was better than they’ve been in recent postseasons, that’s still a style that decidedly favored New York. The Rangers have enough offense to win, with Derek Stepan, Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis and Derrick Brassard, whose three goals led the Rangers in this series. And they have the physical defense that can control games.
MONTREAL BEATS OTTAWA IN 6
There’s a very analytical, scientific explanation for why the Canadiens won this series–they have better hockey players than the Senators do. I hope I didn’t overcomplicate that too much.
Montreal won the skating battle in most every game of the series, averaging nearly 40 shots a game through the first five games. Moreover, the shots were consistently coming from their best players. P.K. Subban, a great offensive threat at defenseman, fired his lasers at the net. Max Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec were consistently on the attack.
Ottawa made a goalie switch to Craig Anderson ,who held off the tide for a couple games, notably when he made 45 saves to win Game 5. But Montreal’s superior skating ability was too much to overcome.
The Canadiens have an elite goaltender in Carey Price, a candidate for the Vezina Trophy, as the NHL’s top goaltender. Price’s play was often so-so in this series, before he personally delivered the Game 6 win with 43 saves in a 2-0 win, the one game where his team lost the skating battle. He’ll need to be sharper moving forward.
New York will play the winner of the Washington-NY Islanders series, which will be settled in a Game 7 tonight (7:30, NBCSN). Montreal gets the winner of Detroit-Tampa Bay. The Red Wings go for a series clinch tonight in Game 6 (7, CNBC). A potential seventh game would be on Wednesday.
The second round of the NHL Western Conference playoffs is set. The Minnesota Wild beat the St. Louis Blues 4-1 in Game 6 on Sunday afternoon to advance and join Chicago, Anaheim and Calgary. Here’s a summation of how the Wild did it…
*It really starts with a complete goaltending breakdown by St. Louis in the final two games. This series was knotted 2-2 after four and neither team had gotten off as many as 30 shots in a game. The Blues were able to dominate shots on goal in Games 5 & 6, but goalie Jake Allen imploded and they lost both games 4-1.
The goaltender in the NHL is the most important position in professional sports–far more decisive than a quarterback in football and a little more so than a pitcher in baseball. You aren’t going to win when the goalie falls apart, especially when you’re a team built on discipline and defense the way the Blues are. Allen’s collapse continues a disturbing pattern of St. Louis goalies coming up small in the playoffs.
*The first four games were basically a battle between Minnesota’s Jason Pominville and Zach Parise, against St. Louis’ Vladimir Tarasenko. The latter had two spectacular games, a hat trick in Game 2 and two more goals in Game 4, both St. Louis wins. Pominville and Parise didn’t have the flashy games, but showed very consistent aggressiveness with the puck, were involved in the offense and never more so than Games 1 & 3, both of which their team won.
I’m happy for the fans of Minnesota. This is a great hockey town that got screwed when the North Stars moved to Dallas following the 1993 season. The Twin Cities haven’t had a real Stanley Cup contender, but the Wild are getting closer, having won a postseason series for two straight years. Goalie Devan Dubnyk, a hero in this series, will have his hands full with Chicago, but there’s no question the Wild are knocking on the door.
As to the good people of St. Louis, another playoff heartbreak comes their way. It’s becoming clear that the Blues are the antithesis of what the Cardinals are in baseball in terms of being counted on when it matters most.
It’s now Minnesota-Chicago and Calgary-Anaheim in the West. Schedules have yet to be announced, pending completion of all first-round series in the East, which will end either tonight or Wednesday.
The NHL Western Conference playoffs took on further clarity, as the Chicago Blackhawks and Calgary Flames moved on to the second round, joining the Anaheim Ducks. Three of the four positions in the Division Finals are now taken and the fourth could be filled by early evening if the Minnesota Wild can beat the St. Louis Blues in Game 6 (3 PM ET, NBC). Here’s a look at how Chicago and Calgary won their respective first-round series:
CHICAGO BEATS NASHVILLE IN 6
It was one of the best matchups of the first round, with the high-powered weaponry of the Blackhawks going against a good Predators’ defense, anchored by goalie Pekka Rinne. Chicago decidedly won this battle–they controlled pace, with high shot volumes on both sides marking the first four games when the Blackhawks all but wrapped up the series by winning three of them.
To make matters worse for Nashville, they couldn’t hold leads. The tone for the entire series was set in Game 1 when the Preds coughed up a 3-0 lead. The media storyline of the series was the controversy over who Chicago’s goalie would be, Corey Crawford or Scott Darling. But the more important storyline was that the great Blackhawk offensive players beat Rinne.
It’s not easy–in fact, sometimes it seems impossible–for great offensive talent to trump defense in the NHL playoffs. It’s a testament to the sheer depth of Chicago’s firepower that they made it happen. It starts with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa and concludes with defenseman Duncan Keith, one of the best offensive players on the back end anywhere in the league.
Darling stepped in and saved Chicago in the first four games, bailing them out with a superb effort in Game 1–he held Nashville at bay and allowed his team to comeback, even though the Preds took 32 shots in just the third period and first overtime of a game that ultimately went into the third extra session. Darling then faced a combined 89 shots in Games 3 & 4 and only gave up four goals in the wins that all but clinched the series.
But the Chicago goalie situation would end where it began–after Darling collapsed in the third period of Game 5 and then gave up three goals in Game 6, Chicago went back to Crawford, who stopped all 13 shots and his team came back one more time.
The Blackhawks await the St. Louis-Minnesota winner in the Central Division Finals.
CALGARY BEATS VANCOUVER IN 6
It used to be Vancouver that we thought of first when it came to great offensive talent. And while the Sedin brothers, Daniel and Henrik, aren’t the stars they used to be, they’re still awfully good. They played aggressively each game and along with Alex Burrows consistently attacked the next. Calgary won because for five games, goaltender Jonas Hiller turned back the tide and then an offensive onslaught secured the win in Game 6.
Amidst the stars of Vancouver, the Flames also got key goals from their defenseman. Kris Russell scored with thirty seconds to win Game 1. T.J. Brodie had an assist and a goal in Game 3. In a series where the combined score of both teams after five games was 11-10 Calgary, these were critical.
Hiller played poorly in the first period of Game 6 and his team fell behind 3-0. He was pulled, but having carried the Flames for five games, it was time for his teammates to bail him out. Jiri Hudler put in two goals and two assists. Calgary led 5-4 by the third period and then tacked on two empty net goals to secure the series. This was the kind of game Vancouver needed to create and when they finally got it, they couldn’t get it done.
The Flames will play Anaheim in the Pacific Division Finals, the only second round matchup that’s locked in. Schedules have yet to be announced.
The New York Rangers, winners of the President’s Trophy, have advanced to the Metropolitan Division Finals, with a 4-1 series in over the Pittsburgh Penguins. As the Rangers get company in the East’s second round, we’ll take a look at how they dispatched the Pens for the second straight year. Here’s how the other series look…
*Washington-NY Islanders–Tied 3-3 and headed for a decisive seventh game on Monday night in D.C. (7:30 PM ET, NBCSN). The winner plays the Rangers.
*Detroit-Tampa Bay–the Red Wings are up 3-2 and go to clinch at home on Monday (7 PM ET, CNBC)
*Montreal-Ottawa–the Canadiens are up 3-2 and can wrap it up tonight (6 PM ET, NBCSN). The Senators have already won two straight elimination games to stretch this series out.
All first-round series will be completed by the end of Wednesday night at the latest, and potentially by the end of Monday night.
The Boston Bruins have been a playoff mainstay in the NHL since 2008, qualifying easily in most years and succeeding in the spring, most notably with a Stanley Cup in 2011 and a trip to the Finals in 2013. This year’s been a tough one for the Bruins, and even with yesterday’s 6-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks for an NBC audience, the B’s are in a three-way fight for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot. Let’s take a look at why the Boston Bruins playoff chances are in jeopardy.
I’m a partisan Bruins fan and a subscriber to the NHL Center Ice package, so I’ve watched just about every game this team has played since the season started in mid-October. I find myself griping about what I see as a lack of defensive toughness, and questionable goaltending from the normally reliable Tuuka Raask. The overall numbers illustrate something different though.
The broad view of the Boston Bruins says offense is clearly the problem. They rank 21st in the NHL in goals scored, while ranking 10th in goals against. The #10 ranking in team defense comes in spite of ranking 15th in shots allowed—something that comes because Raask has a 91.9% save rate, one that ranks 13th among goalies with enough games to qualify. Is that enough ranks to throw at you?
There’s a reason for the contrast between my perception and constant fuming and the statistical data and it’s not for a lack of paying attention. The Bruins have rarely been a great offensive team over the last several years. What they have been is a great defensive team and Raask won last year’s Vezina Trophy, the goaltenders’ equivalent of the Cy Young Award.
Thus, while the defense is not the problem per se, it’s not the kind of work those of us who watch this team have gotten used to in recent years. What we have is a defense that’s pretty good, as opposed to outstanding. And the offense has not made any kind of improvement. In fact, it’s rather inept.
Patrice Bergeron is Boston’s best offensive producer, with 17 goals and 25 assists. To put that in perspective though, he’s tied for 58th in the NHL in points and goals When it comes to assists, the Bruins have no one in the top 60, and Bergeron, defenseman Dougie Hamilton and center Carl Soderberg barely slip in the top 90 (I use increments of 30, since that’s the number of teams there are in the NHL).
It adds up to a team that’s only three points ahead of the Florida Panthers in the race for the final playoff berth and just four points up on the Philadelphia Flyers, though Philly has played one more game than both Boston and Philadelphia, something that stands out more and more as the April 11 end to the regular season draws near.
Boston can reasonably point to injuries. Zdeno Chara, the great defenseman, missed a lot of time early. David Krejci, the center who was the team’s best player (outside of Raask) in the 2013 run to the Finals, has also been plagued with injury problems and is again questionable after a nasty collision on Thursday in St. Louis.
But in the bigger picture, some bad trade decisions are biting the Bruins hard this season. It goes back to the fall of 2009, when they traded Phil Kessel to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The B’s got back two good young players in Tyler Seguin and Hamilton. Seguin was emerging as a top scorer himself until Boston shipped him to Dallas on the Fourth of July in 2013. They got Loui Eriksson in return, and with 14 goals/19 assists, Erikkson has been merely average.
What it boils down to is that a team with serious offensive problems has traded two offensive threats, in Kessel and Seguin who would each lead the current cast of Bruins in both goals scored and assists. Hamilton is a nice young defenseman, but not enough to merit the loss of one of these players (the sequence of the trades demonstrate Boston could only have one of the two stars, not both).
I still think my hockey team is going to make it into the playoffs. They have the chance to be a dangerous team in the postseason. Boston plays better in the 5-on-5 game than in the power play and that’s a good harbinger for playoff games where you don’t want to depend on an officials’ whistle and games are called with more leniency. Raask continues to be the kind of goaltender who can win a playoff series by himself.
And if nothing else, the chances are decent that the Bruins could play the Montreal Canadiens, the rival to whom we took a bitter second-round loss last year. But we need the defense to return to elite level starting now. And the next time a really good scorer emerges, how about not trading him?
There are thirty games left in the NHL regular season and the Los Angeles Kings are in serious danger of missing the playoffs. After two Stanley Cups in three years with a trip to the Western Conference Finals sandwiched in between, the Kings have a long row to hoe if they are going to earn another opportunity this spring. What’s the problem and will they survive?
The Kings problems can be summed up simply–they aren’t finishing scoring opportunities and they’re allowing opponents to do so. That’s a pretty good formula for losing hockey games. Here’s the numbers that bear that out…
*Los Angeles ranks 9th in the NHL at getting shots, but are only 20th in goals scored
*Los Angeles ranks 6th in preventing shots, but are only 15th in goals allowed. The latter stat points directly to Jonathan Quick, the Olympic goaltender who won the Conn Smythe Award in the 2012 Cup run and delivered several clutch performances last spring. Quick’s save rate is 91 percent, a woeful 27th among NHL goalies who have faced enough shots to qualify. Any hope for a Kings’ renaissance has to begin with improved play from Quick.
But the offense has its own set of problems. The top points producers are centers Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter, but neither is in the top 30 of the NHL (that benchmark chosen because it’s a 30-team league). In of itself, that’s no big deal, but Kopitar, Carter and Tyler Toffoli are the only players in the top 100. It’s not like Los Angeles is making up for a lack of star power with depth.
Furthermore, Kopitar and Carter’s production is driven primarily by assists. The Kings need someone who can light the lamp on a consistent basis. Marian Gaborik is just such a player, and is the leading goal scorer on the team with 15. But that only ranks 52nd in the NHL, tied with 15 other players.
Gaborik has what it takes to be a big-time scorer and fellow forwards Justin Williams and Dustin Brown can certainly produce more than what they have. It’s this trio that has to produce. Brown is the team captain and he just called out the entire team for a lack of emotion. But the captain’s lack of production is a big part of the problem and head coach Darryl Sutter noted in response to Brown’s call-out that the captain needs to improve his own game. It makes you wonder if there’s not some clubhouse problems on top of everything else.
The Kings certainly have the talent to make the playoffs and to again do damage when they get there. Quick has an established track record of elevating his game at the most critical moments and all of the players we’ve discussed as needing to improve offensive production–Gaborik, Brown and maybe Carter–have their own good track records. The team’s strong rankings on shots and shots allowed suggest a basic ability to control the flow of play, even if they aren’t finishing.
But time is much shorter than even the thirty remaining games suggest. Los Angeles is tied with the Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars as the teams who are five points back of the Vancouver Canucks for the last playoff spot. It’s not like LA can just try and chase down one average team. They have to play at a high level consistently.
It’s also possible that a team like the Winnipeg Jets could come back to the back. The Jets have 61 points, but have played three more games than the Kings. The Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks are also on 61 points and have played two more games.
There’s enough opportunity out there that I still believe Los Angeles is going to make it. Three of the teams in front of them–Vancouver, Winnipeg and Calgary–are not particularly accomplished teams and the stress level and intensity of the games are going to increase dramatically. San Jose is a steady playoff team, but also one with a noted problem for closing out big games and series, never more dramatically than when they blew a 3-0 series lead last spring to these same Los Angeles Kings.
I think we’ll be watching Los Angeles in the playoffs. But in a league where the regular season has a hard time drawing interest from a lot of sports fans, the Kings late-season push is something worth following.
It’s been a long time since the first-place New York Islanders were relevant in the push for the Stanley Cup. This is a franchise that produced a dynasty in the 1980s, winning four straight Cups from 1980-83. They reached the Finals in 1984, losing to Wayne Gretzkyand the Edmonton Oilers and since then have fallen mostly off the end of the earth.
The Islanders haven’t advanced out of the first round since 1993 and they’ve only made the playoffs once in the last seven years. Now though, New York is atop the Metropolitan Division as the post All-Star break phase of the schedule gets rolling.
They’re leading teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins, perennially the most explosive team in the Eastern Conference and the New York Rangers, who reached the Finals last year. They have an MVP candidate leading the way. Are the Islanders good enough for a deep postseason run this spring?
John Tavares is playing outstanding hockey at center, with 21 goals and 24 assists. I have him atop my own personal ballot for the Hart Trophy, given to the league MVP. Tavares gets the nod over Tampa Bay center Steven Stamkos and Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne, because the Islanders rely on offense and the attack is top-heavy reliant on Tavares.
It’s not that there aren’t other productive players on a team that has produced the second-most goals in the NHL. Kyle Okpos has 30 assists, and is 15th in the league in points, although it was just reported on Monday that Okpos will be out up to eight weeks. Brock Nelson is steady, with 15 goals/15 assists and Ryan Strong is a good passer, with 25 assists. But when it comes to lighting the lamp, Tavares is the most important player on this team.
New York is getting solid team defensive play, with Johnny Boychuk, a veteran of the Boston Bruins’ 2011 Cup run, leading up the defenseman. The Islanders rank second in the NHL in shots allowed. When you get a lot of shots on goal and prevent the opponent from doing the same, that’s a pretty good formula for winning.
But the NHL is a goaltender’s game, and that’s even truer in the playoffs. And here’s where the problems come in for the New York Islanders. Jaroslav Halak’s save rate of 91 percent isn’t going to cut it.
91 percent might be good for shooting free throws, but not in a league where one percentage point on the save rate is a big deal and rivals like Marc-Andre Fleury in Pittsburgh, Henrik Lundqvist with the Rangers and Braden Holtby with the Washington Capitals are all a full point higher.
To say nothing of Atlantic Division leader Tampa Bay and their outstanding goalie Ben Bishop. Or Boston’s Tuuka Raask, who hasn’t played up to par this season, but was the NHL’s best goalie a year ago. Those are the teams that stand in the Islanders way of a playoff run.
Halak’s poor play is the reason the Islanders rank 22nd in goals allowed in spite of being second in shot prevention, a gap almost impossible to grasp. It’s the reason the Islanders are 28th in the league at killing penalties.
All of these flaws are fatal come playoff time. Not just for winning the Stanley Cup, but winning a single series. That’s why, in spite of how good a story this Islander resurgence is and how good a player Tavares is, the Islanders are a prime candidate to flame out early in the 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 Bruinsfan 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.
The 2014 Stanley Cup Finals begin tonight, as NBC is surely in a state of nirvana, as the get the nation’s two biggest TV markets, with the Los Angeles Kings and the New York Rangers. TheSportsNotebook has done reviews of the road both teams took to get here, both in the regular season and how each elevated their game in the playoffs. The links to those respective articles are below.
It’s the first time the cities of New York and Los Angeles have met for a championship since 1981. That year saw the Dodgers and Yankees play in the World Series for the third time in five years, and Los Angeles got their only win of those three meetings. There have still been some other notable postseason meetings between these two cities. Here’s three notable examples…
*When the Raiders were still in Los Angeles, they were a favored #1 seed in the 1982 AFC playoffs. The New York Jets came west and pulled off an upset in the divisional playoff round. It was the high point of the good Jets’ teams in the early 1980s and “The New York Sack Exchange” defensive line led by Mark Gastineau and Joe Klecko.
*Two years later, it was the Giants coming west, under the leadership of Bill Parcells and inflicting some misery on Los Angeles. The Giants upset the Rams in the 1984 NFC wild-card game. It was the first postseason win for Parcells, who would of course have many more.
*And of more recent vintage, the 2009 American League Championship Series pitted the Yankees against the Los Angeles Angels. The Yankees won the series in six games, with Alex Rodriguez having the one good October of his life and C.C. Sabathia winning two games.
Los Angeles hasn’t had much luck in these big battles with New York, but according to the oddsmakers, that’s going to change this time The Kings are a (-150) betting favorite, while you can get the Rangers and a nice (+170) price on the series moneyline.
I hope you find the information in the links below, regarding each team helpful, whether it’s predicting the series or just having some context to enjoy it. I really hope so, because my own prognostication record says you won’t find my picks all that helpful. Nonetheless, what’s the fun of this if you don’t make a pick? I’m taking New York to win.
My reason is simple—a hot goalie trumps all else in the NHL playoffs and Henrik Lundqvist is that goalie. I knocked him earlier in the playoffs for some of his past failings, but even that criticism made clear I respected his ability to take over a big postseason series and was just waiting for him to do it. Now he has.
I fully expect him to play well one more time, and while Jonathan Quick has a well-earned reputation for Los Angeles, but the Kings have survived in the playoffs this year more in spite of Quick than because of him. That’s enough to give me a lean to the Rangers, and the chance to get them at (+170) seals the deal.
The New York Rangers are in the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 22 years, as they get set for Game 1 tonight on the road in the Staples Center at the Los Angeles Kings. Here’s a look at how the Rangers got here, both in the regular season and then in the playoffs.
*New York went 45-31-6 through the season and that was good for fifth in the Eastern Conference. Defense was the key to success, as the Rangers ranked fourth in goals allowed, while being in the middle of the pack offensively, at 15th.
*In both cases, their performance in goals scored and goals allowed, was the reverse of what you would expect based on their shots. New York was the second-best in the NHL at getting shots on goal, while they were middle of the pack at allowing them. What’s more, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist ranked in the middle of regular NHL goalies with his 92% save rate, making this team’s ultimately strong defensive performance a curious statistical anomaly.
*New York swung a big deal at the trading deadline, moving Ryan Callahan to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for veteran Martin St. Louis, who was the hero of Tampa Bays’ 2004 run to the Stanley Cup. St. Louis’ 69 points in the regular season were the best on the Rangers, though that includes numbers compiled when he was in Tampa.
*The Rangers have quality second and third-level scorers. By that, I refer to their individual rank in the final NHL stats for points, goals, and assists. My crude statistical measurement is to take the top 30 in a category and consider them first-level, since a 30-team league means each of these players would be someone’s go-to guy if talent were equally disperses. By extension, ranks 31-60 would be second-level and 61-90 third level.
It’s far from a perfect system, but it establishes the Rangers have a nice array of depth, with Mats Zuccarello and Derek Stepan moving the puck and getting assists, while Rick Nash can light the lamp.
*New York got a break in the way the playoffs were structured. The league shifted from a conference-based format to a division-based one, and the result was the Rangers were able to play the Philadelphia Flyers, who had the sixth-best record in the East. New York won that series in seven games and then did the same to the Pittsburgh Penguins, rallying from a 3-1 series deficit.
Another break came when the Montreal Canadiensupset the top-seeded Boston Bruins in seven. The Canadiens were not only significantly less talented, but winning a rivalry series drained their emotions. And then the final break came when Montreal’s exceptional goalie, Carey Price, got hurt in the first game of the Eastern Conference Finals. The road certainly opened up for New York.
*That doesn’t take away from just how good Lundqvist has been in this postseason. His 92.8% save rate is the best of any NHL goalie in these playoffs and that includes seven games against Pittsburgh’s dazzling array of offensive weaponry. It also includes Lundqvist’s magnificent 1-0 shutout of Montreal in the clinching Game 6, a clutch performance that had been lacking from his otherwise strong career resume to date.
*Lundqvist has really carried New York in the playoffs. While Los Angeles has gotten here by seeing a variety of players increase their offensive production in the crunch, no one is really standing out for the Rangers. Ryan McDonagh was the team’s best player outside of the goalie in the Montreal series. But the 13 points of St. Louis and Stepan lead New York in the playoffs, while the Kings have six players at or above that number.
What it really comes down to is that Henrik Lundqvist is the Stanley Cup Finals version of what LeBron James is in the NBA Finals. In each case you have a player capable of carrying his team to a series win, but will have to do it against a superior team.
No position in sports—not an NFL quarterback, not the best player on an NBA team—can influence a short series the way a goaltender can in hockey. That alone is reason to reject the conventional wisdom that says the Kings all but won the Stanley Cup on Sunday night in Chicago. New York has the hot goalie and they have offensive players who the regular season suggests can lift their performances over and above what they’ve currently done in the playoffs.
The Stanley Cup Finals being tonight at the Staples Center in Los Angeles (8 PM ET, NBC). The Los Angeles Kings are the betting favorite against the New York Rangers. Here’s a look at how the Kings got here, which includes debunking some myths…
Los Angeles hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2012 and made it to the conference finals in 2013, before losing to the Chicago Blackhawks. Los Angeles avenged the latter defeat as they survived a thrilling seven-game series with Chicago to get to this round. Here’s a summation of the season arc for the Kings.
*Los Angeles went 46-28-8 in the regular season and were sixth in the Western Conference. The strength of the team was defense, as they were the best in the league in goals allowed. It stands to reason then, that the offense was a little shaky, and they ranked 26th.
*The path Los Angeles to their respective rankings on offense and defense was a little curious though. Goaltender Jonathan Quick did not have a good year, with his 91.5% save rate ranking 23rd among NHL goalies. It was outstanding team defense, limiting opportunities that keyed the Kings’ defensive success.
*On the flip side, Los Angeles had no problem generating shots on goal, ranking seventh in the league at assaulting the net. Over an 82-game schedule you would expect that to work itself out—especially with veteran scorers like Jeff Carter who know what they’re doing with the puck. But it did not.
*Anze Kopitar was the team’s most productive offensive player all year, with his 70 points marking him a top-30 player. I use the benchmarks of 30/60/90 since there are thirty teams in the NHL and if talent were equally distributed it gives a sense of who’s a front-line scorer, a second-line and third-line. A crude statistical breakdown to be sure, but it gives us a general sense of where players fit in the overall scheme of the NHL.
*Kopitar was a front-line player on both goals and assists, while Carter was a second-line scorer with 27 goals. The weakness of the offense came in that not a lot of other contributors stepped up.
*That all changed in the postseason. Los Angeles has been the most explosive offensive team in the playoffs, calling to mind their 2012 run when players like Drew Doughty and Dustin Penner suddenly morphed into Wayne Gretzky for a couple months. Penner is gone, but Doughty is one of the multitude of players whose game has found a new level. It includes Marian Gaborik, Justin Williams and Dustin Brown.
*Kopitar and Carter are still going strong. Kopitar is the leading point producer in the postseason and the leading Kings’ candidate for the Conn Smythe Award, given to the MVP of the entire playoffs. He leads in assists, while Carter ranks second in both goals and assists through three rounds of playoff hockey. Gaborik’s 12 goals are the most of any player.
*There’s a myth that exists which says that Quick—the Conn Smythe winner in 2012 and the U.S. Olympic goalie at Sochi this February—has elevated his game. In reality, he has not. Quick has had some very good games at some really big moments to be sure, and I’m sure no one in Los Angeles is complaining that he’s in net. But the 90.6% save rate for the postseason places him in the middle of playoff goalies. He coughed up third period leads in Games 5 & 6 against Chicago, both close-out opportunities that nearly cost the Kings dearly.
*Ultimately, the story of the Los Angeles Kings in these playoffs is that of a team that simply refuses to die. They were down 3-0 in games to the San Jose Sharks in the first round and became the fourth team in NHL history to win four in a row. Los Angeles won two straight elimination games against a very good team in the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
Finally, Los Angeles won a Western Conference Finals against the defending Stanley Cup champions in overtime of Game 7 on the road, concluding a series that met the very definition of epic. If the Rangers ever think the Kings are dead at any point in this series, New York might want to twist the knife and kick the body a few times just to make sure.
The first two games of the Western Conference Finals in these Stanley Cup playoffs have convinced me that all that’s necessary for a great player to turn his game around is for me to criticize him publicly. First it was New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Now it’s Los Angeles Kings forward Jeff Carter.
When I previewed the conference finals last weekend, I picked the Chicago Blackhawks to beat Los Angeles. One of the reasons I gave was that Carter has done nothing in the playoffs. And not to sound defensive or anything, but Jeff Carter really was doing zilch.
Los Angeles went the full seven games in series wins over the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Mighty Ducks, and Carter took either zero or one shot in half of those games. In only three games did he have 4-5 shot attempts. Carter wasn’t just silent, he wasn’t even attempting to speak.
The first two games of the Western Conference Finals have been different. Carter has been aggressive, taking 11 shots combined in the first two games in Chicago. And, predictably, when a great player gets aggressive, it’s only a matter of time before the puck starts finding the back of the net. Carter went for a hat trick in last night’s shocking Game 2—the shock wasn’t the Kings winning, but that they nailed Chicago goalie Cory Crawford for five goals in the third period, to get a 6-2 win.
I’m still not changing my overall series prediction. Chicago is the more talented team, and for as bad as Crawford was in Game 2, he was every bit as good in Game 1 when Los Angeles attacked him throughout the night but to no avail. But at least the Kings are on the attack, and nothing captures that better than the return to form of Jeff Carter.
When I criticized the Rangers’ Lundqvist, it was in the aftermath of a poor performance against the Pittsburgh Penguins, as he gave up soft goals in consecutive home losses that put New York in a 3-1 series hole. I said it was the latest case of a great goalie underperforming in the postseason.
Lundqvist has since morphed into Ken Dryden, as New York first rallied to beat Pittsburgh, and now takes a commanding 2-0 series lead over the Montreal Canadiens back to Madison Square Garden tonight.
Now it’s Carter’s turn to have this sudden turnaround, right after I critique him. I’d get carried away with myself and think that I have some unique motivational skill, but for one problem—the one player this didn’t work with was Boston Bruins goalie Tuuka Raask. I knocked him after the first two games of the Montreal series, and Tuuka, for the most part, stayed down. Since I’m a Bruin fan, it only stands to reason that the players this doesn’t work with are the ones I actually care about.