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.
The Stanley Cup playoffs are pared down to four teams, as we come out of a second round that saw favorites in the Boston Bruinsand Pittsburgh Penguins fall, along with the Los Angeles Kings’ Game 7 demolition of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. In fact, none of the four regular season division winners are still playing hockey.
I’m sure no one at NBC is complaining though, because what the league does have are the three biggest American markets, along with a team from Canada that is only the most storied organization in the history of the sport. As conference finals go, you could do worse than Chicago, Los Angles, New York and Montreal as your foursome.
NHL WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
Chicago Blackhawks-Los Angeles Kings
This is the titanic battle of the last two Stanley Cup champions. Neither team was great in the regular season, but the Blackhawks appear to be the NHL’s version of the Miami Heat, where they were just lying in wait until the postseason began. We should also note that Chicago caught a considerable break in drawing the Minnesota Wild in the second round, the Blackhawks took full advantage of the break.
Los Angeles had a similarly ho-hum regular season—not great, but never in danger of missing the playoffs. The Kings have also flirted with disaster in the playoffs, including digging a 3-0 series hole against the San Jose Sharks in the first round before becoming the fourth team in NHL history to win four in a row. The Kings were then down 3-2 in games to Anaheim before winning two straight.
Just as noteworthy as Los Angeles’ 6-0 record in elimination games this spring is that both Game 7 wins have been decisive. Clearly, this is a team that has heart. But do they have the talent to knock off Chicago, something they couldn’t do when these teams met in last year’s Western Conference Finals?
The answer is no, although that doesn’t make an upset (betting odds are not yet posted for this series that starts on Sunday at 3 PM ET on NBC, but I have to think Chicago will be the favorite) unthinkable. Chicago clearly has the more talented players, from Patrick Kane, to Patrick Sharp to Marian Hossa to Jonathan Toews to Duncan Keith. Los Angeles has some pretty good ones, starting with Justin Williams and including Jeff Carter—though he’s been very quiet this postseason—but there’s no comparison between the nets.
What Los Angeles can reasonably hope for is that goaltender Jonathan Quick significantly outplays Chicago counterpart Corey Crawford and the Kings win a series built around 2-1 and 3-2 games. The NHL playoffs are a goaltender’s time, so this is reasonable.
The reason I would be loath to predict it is that Quick has been up-and-down during these playoffs. He’s always righted the ship in time, but never against a team that has a consistent goalie. Crawford, admittedly, can frustrate Chicago fans, but he’s also won a Stanley Cup and is undeniably better than what Los Angeles faced against either St. Louis or Anaheim.
NHL EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
Montreal Canadiens-New York Rangers
The Eastern Conference finals start this afternoon (1 PM ET, NBC) at Bell Center in Montreal. The Canadiens are not a great team, but they combine several factors that make them a tough out—they play smart, they’re fast to the puck, they have a standout defenseman in P.K. Subban and a goaltender in Carey Price who ranked sixth in the NHL in save percentage this season.
Price is not unbeatable—he had some third-period lapses against the Bruins, and Subban can be contained if he’s forechecked aggressively when he handles the puck out top, something Boston consistently failed to do. But when you combine all of Montreal’s assets together, it adds up to a team that, while beatable, demands a high level of intensity and execution over a seven-game set.
Montreal is a (-125) betting favorite to move forward in pursuit of their first Stanley Cup since 1993 and what their fans hope will be reclamation of the glory years of the franchise that is the New York Yankees of the NHL, and even more pompous than those in pinstripes. Can the New York Rangers knock them off?
I knocked Ranger goalie Henrik Lundqvist after his shortcomings led to his team falling in a 3-1 series hole. Lundqvist promptly went into lockdown mode for the next three games against one of the game’s truly great offenses in Pittsburgh. That’s where Lundqvist has to be frustrating for New York fans—he’s capable of doing that for an entire series and carrying this team all the way to their first Stanley Cup since 1994. But will he do it again?
New York, like Montreal, isn’t a great team, but they have enough assets that, when you combine them with great goaltending, can win you a Cup. Rick Nash and Derek Stepan are solid offensive players. Martin St. Louis’ best days, when he led the Tampa Bay Lightning to the 2004 Stanley Cup are well behind him, but St. Louis has shown he has solid leadership skills and can be counted on at big moments.
This is a tough series for me, as a partisan Boston fan. I have no choice but to root for the Rangers, because rooting for the Canadiens is simply unthinkable. But that means standing in alliance with a New York fan base that I’m currently passionately rooting against in the ongoing baseball season. That’s depressing.
But seriously, the Ranger fan base is a great one, and I hope they get it done here and that Lundqvist finally makes the Stanley Cup Finals.
The NHL’s best regular season team is gone from the playoffs. The Boston Bruins won the President’s Trophy, given to the team with the most regular season points, and the Bruins then ousted the Detroit Red Wings in five games to open the playoffs. But it all came undone in the second round, as Boston lost Game 7 last night at home to the Montreal Canadiens by a 3-1 count. How did it happen?
My easy answer is these situations is just to say that it’s life in the NHL. And there’s a lot of truth to that. In no other sport are regular season results less reliable as a guide to postseason success than the National Hockey League.
In the NBA, if you have the best team you’re reasonably assured of at least getting to the conference finals and probably more. In the NHL, a 1-seed losing in the first round has been an occurrence that happens often enough that no one is even shocked. College basketball may have successfully marketed “March Madness”, but it really has nothing on “Spring Madness.”
That said, the better teams still win more often than not—it’s not a total crapshoot, and as a partisan Bruins fan, it would be the height of excuse-making to write this series off as nothing more than a coin flip gone awry. It was a combination of bad play and bad luck that undid the B’s in this series.
Montreal’s first and last goals from Game 7 illustrate the point. Here’s a link to the NHL Video Center with highlights of last night’s scoring (I can’t find links directly to each goal), and in the meantime I’ll describe them as best as I can…
*On the first goal, it started when Boston goalie Tuuka Raask took a soft shot and just chipped it away to the side where a Montreal player was charging hard. I’ve watched a lot of Bruins’ hockey over the last few years, including most of this regular season. You never see Raask make a save that tentative. He either aggressively attacks the puck and sweeps it out, or he just covers it up.
When he just chipped it to an opposing player, my first thought was “Nothing good is going to come of this.” The puck was still deep, and then Boston defensemen Matt Bartkowski made another mental error, in failing to cover Dale Weise on the back side, who got a pass for an easy goal.
Boston simply gave this goal away, and it’s not sour grapes to say Montreal did nothing to earn it. The Canadiens’ credit comes from the fact they didn’t make a similar mistake. The contrast in mental mistakes was a recurring pattern throughout the series, and what it did was take what should have been a mismatch and make it an even series.
Even given all that, Boston might have survived, but they created a situation where the breaks of the game would decide it. On the third goal, the Bruins did everything correct, tracking Danny Briere all the way down the ice as he carried the puck. He fired the shot and it slipped into the net off the skate off Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara. This is nothing more than a bad break, plain and simple.
It’s the kind of break that went against the Bruins all series long. Their shots repeatedly hit the pipes, with even the commentators of NBC Sports Network making note of the close-but-no-cigar theme that seemed to dominate Boston. It’s bad luck, and that part of this series is indeed the way of life in the NHL playoffs.
The good news is that the nature of the NHL playoffs doesn’t mean that losing as a 1-seed is some horrible missed opportunity. Boston could have an adequate regular season next year, come in as a 4-seed and end up winning the Stanley Cup. That’s how it worked for the Detroit Red Wings, who lost as big favorites in 1995 and 1996. The next two years saw Detroit finish third in their conference and they won the Stanley Cup both times. Good organizations just keep putting themselves in position and under the leadership of GM Cam Neely, the Boston Bruins of today are certainly that.
But the Bruins also have to learn the lessons of this series. There is simply no room for mental errors in a series. There’s enough luck issues floating around in a hockey playoff series that a good team must control what it can. Boston didn’t do it and paid the price.
For the third straight year, the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup, and there was no doubt they were the best team. Although unlike the previous two years, Montreal had to at least sweat out the Boston Bruins in the finals of the 1978 Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Canadiens finished 16 points ahead of second-place Boston in the league’s overall standings. Guy Lafleur scored 60 goals and passed for 72 assists, winning the MVP for the second consecutive season. Defenseman Larry Robinson would join Lafleur as a first-team All-Star. Future Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden was again the best at his position. Montreal barreled through two playoff opponents with a combined record of 8-1 to get to the Finals.
It was not a foregone conclusion that Boston would be the opponent in a rematch of the 1977 Stanley Cup Finals. The Bruins were only two points ahead of the New York Islanders, who had the core of talent just a couple years away from becoming a dynasty themselves.
Clark Gillies, with 35 goals and 50 assists was a first-team All-Star, and he was one of six players that scored 30-plus goals in an offensive attack second only to Montreal’s. Glenn Resch gave New York a great goaltender and they had the look of a team ready to be Montreal’s dance partner in the Finals.
In the quarterfinals, the Isles were paired up with Toronto, a pretty good team, but also well behind the pace set the league’s best five teams (also including the Buffalo Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers). The Leafs relied on an offense that was top-heavy, with 40-plus goal scorers in Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald, but little depth to the attack. When New York took the first two games at home, it seemed par for the course.
Toronto turned it around and won two games at home. The home teams traded wins in Games 5 & 6, but then in Game 7, home team magic finally ran out. It went to overtime and Toronto pulled out a 2-1 win. New York, with players like 21-year-old center Bryan Trottier and forward Mike Bossy, was on their way to greatness. But they would wait their turn.
The Smythe Division, filled with teams mostly from the Midwest, was awful. Its champion was not a serious title contender and the Chicago Blackhawks of 1978 were no exception. Their veteran goaltender, 34-year-old Tony Esposito could still get it done and was the reason the Blackhawks won the division, but the lack of offense kept them 8th-best in the league.
Just how far Chicago was removed from being a true contender was shown when Boston administered a four-game sweep in the quarterfinals, with only two of the games being close.
After Boston rolled Philadelphia in five games, they had their shot at the champs. The Bruins didn’t have a great offensive player, but the offense was balanced and defenseman Brad Park was a first-team All-Star. Still, when they dropped a 3-2 overtime decision in Game 2, to make it six straight Finals losses to Montreal, it looked like another year to break out the brooms.
Boston goalie Gerry Cheevers delivered a shutout in Game 3 though, a 4-0 win. Then late in Game 4, trailing 3-2, Park stuck in the game-tying goal and Boston won in overtime. Montreal won Game 5, but Parks scored the opening goal in Game 6 back in the Garden to give hope.
Alas, the Canadiens did what great teams do and that’s snuff out hope. Dryden didn’t allow another goal and Montreal sealed a third straight Cup with a 4-1 win. Robinson took home the Conn Smythe Award as MVP of the 1978 Stanley Cup playoffs. The dynasty thundered on.
Is there a goalie in the NHL with a better knack for coming up small in a big moment than New York Rangers’ netminderHenrik Lundqvist? New York has a goalie that is consistently one of the best in the NHL through the regular season. His presence looms over a playoff series because you know that if he gets locked in, he can personally carry his team. And yet it never happens. Last night was the latest case in point.
New York was trailing the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-1 in games. Lundqvist was immediately beaten by Evgeni Malkin for a goal less than three minutes in. After the Rangers tied it back up, Lundqvist was beaten for a shorthanded goal, where he was unable to cover the puck as it stood just a couple feet from him and was swept into the net.
You can come up with a reasonable excuse on either of the first two goals. Malkin made a great shot, and Lundqvist had lost his balance after the initial thrust on Pittsburgh’s shorthanded breakaway—and it’s certainly fair to ask New York’s power play unit how Pittsburgh managed to get an odd-man rush to begin with.
But there’s no excusing what took place in the third period. New York’s Matts Zuccarello had just scored on a beautiful move to pull the Rangers to within 3-2. There was about seven minutes to play, Madison Square Garden was rocking and the fans had renewed hope.
Within two minutes of game time, the hope was snuffed out. Chris Kunitz beat Lundqvist on a simple shot that a professional goalie—never mind one of the best in the NHL—needs to stop in his sleep. It was from close-in, and Kunitz is a talented offensive player. But there was no screener to block the goalie’s view and Kunitz didn’t have any room to put a move on. It was a simple shot off a pass and it found the back of the net.
Game over, and the Rangers now need to win three in a row.
You could overlook this if it were one bad night, but this has become a pattern for Lundqvist. While his performance in the playoffs overall has been fine, he’s got a knack for coming up small at the moments when his team cries out for a “get-on-my-back-and-I’ll-carry-you” kind of moment.
Lundqvist was outplayed by New Jersey Devils’ legend Martin Brodeur in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, the best chance Lundqvist has had to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. He was outplayed by Boston Bruins up-and-comer Tuuka Raask in the second round last year.
The New York goalie had an exceptional showing in last year’s first-round win over the Washington Capitals, which I suppose proves that he’s not as big a playoff head case as Alex Ovechkin, but I don’t think anyone considers that something to hang your hat on.
What the New York Rangers need to hang their hat on is not just decent goaltending, but exceptional goaltending. Right now, Lundqvist is the hockey version of Alex Rodriguez minus the PEDs—a great talent, one you can’t deny wanting on your team, one that opposing fans are aware can take over—but who manages to break your heart.
It would be a stretch to say the Boston Bruins are in a life-or-death spot in their NHL playoff series with the archrival Montreal Canadiens, trailing 2-1 in games after last nights’ 4-2 loss in Game 3. But the Bruins certainly need to have alarm bells going off and the biggest is the fact they’re most valuable asset—goaltender Tuuka Raask—is simply not getting it done in this series.
Rask is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, the goaltending equivalent of the Cy Young Award, and as the goalie who led the NHL in save percentage and played for the league’s most successful regular season team, I would imagine he’ll get it. There’s no doubting his excellence, but his showing these last three games leave a certain amount to be desired.
The raw numbers themselves could tell the story—Raask has faced 85 shots and allowed nine goals (Montreal’s 10th goal, the final one of last was an empty-netter). An 89 percent save rate puts you among the worst in the NHL during the regular season.
Now, in fairness, you aren’t playing one of the top eight teams in the league every single night in the regular season the way you do in the second round of the playoffs, but it’s still far from Vezina caliber.
Not every goal has been Raask’s fault. Certainly the first one last night was not, where Tomas Plekanec beat every Bruin defender to a rebound and an easy putback after Raask had already made a nice save. The goalie’s lateral movement is great, but somewhere along the line, defensemen have to clear the puck.
You could also argue for Raask’s acquittal on each of the next two goals, where P.K. Subban and Dale Wiese got the puck in the open ice and came on a breakaway. It definitely wasn’t a case of stellar team play, to expose Raask that way. But I’ve watched the Bruins play throughout the regular season—as a subscriber to the Center Ice hockey package, I probably watch anywhere from 60-70 regular season games. And Raask makes those plays more often than not.
That’s ultimately the rub. If you break down each goal allowed, some are blatantly the fault of the defense, and only a couple have been obvious breakdowns by Raask. But he is losing the one-on-one battles, whether it’s open ice, or Subban beating him consistently on the power play. Montreal—particularly Subban—is making genuinely outstanding plays. The problem is that Boston is used to seeing Raask win those kinds of battles.
Thus, it’s not that Tuuka Raask has been terrible. He hasn’t. What he has been is average, and that’s on a team that needs him to be great. It’s at the point in the postseason where the teams that move forward usually having goalies elevating beyond average and into excellence. Raask has done that all season long. He did it in the first-round series win over the Detroit Red Wings. He can still do it against Montreal, but the sand is slipping through the hourglass.
Whatever the Pittsburgh Penguins have managed to do the last two nights in the NHL playoffs is something they need to keep doing.
The Penguins, a team with immense offensive talent, can usually be relied on to fold up like a tent if they’re hit hard and forced into defensive games, which is usually what a postseason series against a genuinely good team amounts to. But after dropping Game 1 to the New York Rangers, the Penguins have won two straight games of the kind they usually blow.
Pittsburgh took Game 2 by a 3-0 count on Sunday night. For some reason, the league made the Pens and Rangers come back on Monday night, even though they had to travel to New York, and even though having Boston-Montreal play their Game 3 would have kept both Eastern Conference series on the every-other-day schedule. It was the Penguins who responded to the adversity, with a 2-0 shutout win to take a 2-1 lead in games.
I want to go beyond the obvious point of the shutouts, though even here we have to note that Marc-Andre Fleury would have been the last of the four remaining Eastern Conference goaltenders I would have expected to put two straight zeroes on the board. And he didn’t do it because his defense protected him—last night, Fleury faced 35 shots and turned them all back, making him 57-for-57 in two nights.
But let’s go beyond that and into the style of play the Penguins have won by using. This is an offense that normally breaks opposing goaltenders with a high volume of shots from the wings, from James Neal to Chris Kunitz. As skilled as the centers are—and in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin they’re as skilled as it comes anywhere in the world—they’re excellence lies in facilitation, rather than assaulting the net.
These last two nights have seen Pittsburgh win a different way though. Crosby and Malkin took the lead in taking shots in Sunday night’s series-tying win. Game 3 also saw Neal and Kunitz being kept off the puck.
This has to be frustrating for the Rangers—they’re doing what an underdog has to do, and its force the favorite into playing a way they might be uncomfortable with. When the Penguins still respond and deliver wins, it can rip the life out of you (at least it can as a fan, maybe the players and coaches are a little more resilient).
However New York responds, they’ve spent three games playing exactly the kind of hockey they need to win this series…and yet, they’re in a 2-1 series hole. That’s not a good feeling.
Elsewhere in the NHL playoffs…
*Boston and Montreal play Game 3 tonight. The Bruins have outplayed the Canadiens in each of the first two games, but the normally reliable Boston goaltender Tuuka Raask has looked uncomfortable, particularly against the power play. Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban is scoring and distributing with the man advantage with such ease that his shooting percentages are going to look like basketball stats rather than hockey.
*Chicago and Minnesota looked like a mismatch at the outset, and after the Blackhawks won the first two games by a combined 9-3, it’s up to the Wild to give us a reason to tune in when they return home for Game 3 tonight.
*Marian Gaborik is having the series of his life for the Los Angeles Kings against the Anaheim Ducks. Or maybe I should narrow it down and say he had the best period-plus stretched over two nights in his life. Gaborik scored the tying goal of Game 1 with seven seconds left. Then he scored the OT goal that won it. He came out in Game 2 and scored less than two minutes into the game to set the tone for a 3-1 win and put his team in command.
In retrospect, maybe the good people of St. Louis should have known in the first three years of the Blues’ existence that this hockey thing was going to be more traumatic for them than baseball. St. Louis got a hockey team for the 1968 season and made the Stanley Cup Finals the first three years. All three ended in defeat. The city is still chasing its first Stanley Cup and a Game 6 loss tothe Chicago Blackhawks yesterday only added to the St. Louis Blues playoffs problems.
St. Louis grabbed the first two games of this series. Then they never won again. If the fans felt like they had been here before, it’s because they had—in 2013, the Blues played the defending Stanley Cup champions (the Los Angeles Kings in that instance), won the first two games and then never won again. Both losses came in the first round.
And if we go back to 2012, the Blues did reach the second round, but lost in four straight to the Kings, who were barreling their way to a Stanley Cup. For all of St. Louis’ success in the regular season, they can’t get it done in the playoffs. Is head coach Ken Hitchcock the hockey equivalent of Marty Schottenheimer, seemingly destined to keep flaming out in the playoffs?
For the record, I consider a comparison to Schottenheimer be a high compliment, since it means your teams are consistently well-coached, disciplined and play to their potential and beyond it over a long period of time. I consider that an accurate description of the St. Louis Blues.
But, as NFL fans in Cleveland, Kansas City and San Diego know, the comparison to Marty comes with a bit of an edge too, as it means hopes raises that this is finally the year, and then the playoff bottoming-out.
When we look at the recent problems—specifically the last two years, we need to be fair to Hitchcock and the Blues. They drew teams that were better than St. Louis in both instances. In the case of Chicago, I consider the talent disparity to be dramatic. In the case of Los Angeles, there was a big difference at goalie.
Furthermore, the NHL’s change in playoff structure, moving back to a division-based format rather than a conference one, meant that St. Louis drew Chicago much earlier than otherwise would have been the case.
Although in either case, it still underscores that the Blues are not as good as other top teams in the West, at least when the puck drops in the playoffs.
I think the reason is simple—St. Louis wins in the regular season by playing very smart, disciplined defense and they limit the number of shots opponents get—third-best in the NHL this year at preventing shots from even getting off. But great defense doesn’t automatically mean great goaltending. The Blues traded for Ryan Miller this year, but even Miller only ranked 20th among regular NHL goalies in save percentage.
To win a postseason series against a really good team—and sometimes just to avoid an upset—you need a goalie who can put you on his back and win a game or two almost by himself. Whatever the virtues of Miller, or of his predecessor Brian Elliot, they aren’t of that caliber.
If the problem of playoff goaltending even looms over a team like the Pittsburgh Penguins, with all their offensive firepower, it certainly is going to loom over St. Louis, whose offensive talent is much more limited.
In short, it’s tough to win with defense when you don’t have a great player in the defense’s most important spot. Coaching can cover it up over a grinding 82 regular season games. There’s no covering it up in the playoffs, at least not against at the league’s upper crust.
I’m not sure that a solution exists for the Blues—it’s not like great goalies are just sitting out there waiting to be picked up. But until St. Louis finds one, the fan base can save itself further disappointment by not getting their hopes up.
When the NHL playoffs began, my upset pick was Penguins-Blue Jackets series, with a pick of Columbus in seven games. My rationale was that Sergei Bobrovksy, the Vezina Trophy winner (the goaltending equivalent of the Cy Young Award) in 2013 would give the Blue Jackets the edge against a vulnerable Pittsburgh defense, at a time of year when defense and goaltending take on a bigger importance.
Columbus won Game 4 and evened up the series at two games apiece, so I suppose I should be happy that my pick is progressing along as anticipated. Only I’m not. Bobrovksy has not been up to snuff in this series, and the Blue Jackets are not going to complete the upset bid at this current pace.
The reason is simple—every game has ended up 4-3, and while that’s not a shootout, nor is it the kind of defensive grind where the Penguins are vulnerable. Furthermore, Bobrovsky has blown two-goal leads in both of his team’s losses—actually, as a major oddity, the winning team in each game has been behind by at least two goals.
Pittsburgh can win crazy, up-and-down games like this. When your offense has the game’s best passer in Sidney Crosby keying the offense, and then filling in James Neal, Chris Kunitz and Evgeni Malkin, you’ll find ways to keep getting shots and staying on the attack. Heck, the best Penguin defenseman, Kris Letang, is probably a better offensive threat than anyone in the Blue Jacket lineup.
Against all that, Columbus threw Bobrovksy, against Marc Andre-Fleury, the Pittsburgh goalie who has done nothing since the franchise won the 2009 Stanley Cup (and Fleury was not as important to that championship as, for example, Tim Thomas was to Boston in 2011 or Jonathan Quick to Los Angeles in 2012).
That’s a lot to ask of a goaltender, to overcome a huge talent discrepancy between the nets, but we see this happen in hockey—especially in the first round—every year. The goalie in hockey is more important to his team than the quarterback in the NFL, and no one thinks twice about reducing the whole of NFL handicapping to who has the superior signal-caller.
I’ve always resisted that in football, and perhaps I should consider applying it to hockey. Because right now, even though the series is even, it’s because Columbus has had players like Jack Johnson step up and be surprisingly competitive with Crosby and his mates up and down the ice. It’s a tribute to them, and regardless of what happens, this is a successful season for the Blue Jackets.
But with this battle against the Penguins down to a best two-of-three, it has the potential to be more. That’s not going to happen if the scores of games don’t get down to 2-1 or at least 3-2. And that means Bobrovsky has to show he’s the kind of goalie that can put a team on his back.
Elsewhere in the world of sports…
*The Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues are waging a real grudge match, with the home team having taken each of the first four games. Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook was suspended for three games for a vicious hit on St. Louis’ David Backes. It’s not enough—Backes is out, and Seabrook should be out until Backes can play again. And if it can be confirmed that Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith taunted Backes while the man lay unconscious, Keith should be suspended. Enough is enough.
*Quick may have led the Los Angeles Kings to a Stanley Cup in 2012, and to the conference finals in 2013, but his team is staring at a 3-0 series deficit against the San Jose Sharks. Quick has been mediocre for each of the last two regular seasons, he was nothing special as the U.S. Olympic goaltender and now he appears to have extended the mediocrity into the Stanley Cup playoffs. His last stand begins (and perhaps ends) tonight.
*The NBA playoffs have been marked by surprises, perhaps none more so than the Washington Wizards and PortlandTrail Blazers. Each team is a 5-seed, so either one winning their series would certainly not be a shock, even given the historic chalkiness of the NBA bracket. But winning each of the first two games at home? That’s big. Washington has taken out Chicago by being better and tougher in the fourth quarter. Portland is winning because Lamarcus Aldridge is lighting it up, while James Harden is clanging bricks.
*Are the Indiana Pacers finished? I’m not talking about the first round, where they bounced back from their shocking Game 1 home loss to the 39-43 Atlanta Hawks with a decisive Game 2 win. But the Pacers have been free-fall mode for a couple months, even if they did hold the 1-seed in the East. I picked them to win the NBA championship back in October and am holding on out of blind loyalty, but I don’t know how I’d convince an independent observer. Even closing this series in five games isn’t going to answer the concerns.
*The powers-that-be in the West, the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, have each lost one of the first two games at home. In the short term, I’m concerned for the Thunder, because Memphis finished the regular season as a hot team and can match up with anyone in the paint. But at least that means it’s legitimate for OkC to be pushed. San Antonio is the long-term concern—I can’t see them losing the series to Dallas, but they’ve taken a decisive loss and pulled out a narrow win, playing some sloppy offensive basketball in the process.
*NASCAR returns to the track Saturday night in Richmond for the Toyota Owners 400 (7 PM ET, Fox). The new scoring rules, emphasizing wins over points, even prior to the Chase For The Cup, have created an intriguing dynamic. Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth are 1-2 in the points standings, while Kevin Harvick is 22nd. But it’s Gordon and Kenseth who need wins (and in fairness, they have until the end of August), while Harvick’s two wins all but assure him a spot in the Chase.
*How stupid is New York Yankees’ starting pitcher Michael Pineda? There was controversy over his use of pine tar following his last start against the Boston Red Sox a little over a week ago. Pineda takes the mound last night in Fenway Park and what does he do? Yep, puts pine tar on his neck. He was ejected in the second inning. Yankee GM Brian Cashman openly expressed his disgust with the pitcher, and for everyone in the organization (i.e., manager Joe Girard) for not catching Pineda in the act. Even though I’m a Sawx fan, I’m not in some state of moral outrage at Pineda cheating—truth to be told, I find this sort of chicanery rather humorous. But Pineda is clearly an idiot.
*And just how good is Cincinnati Reds’ starter Johnny Cueto? Cueto tossed his second three-hitter in less than two weeks against the Pittsburgh Pirates and has a 1.38 ERA after four starts. Cueto does his work in a small hitters’ park, making the numbers even more impressive. When health—which, admittedly, is not nearly often enough—this guy is as good as there is anywhere in baseball.