Saturday, May 27, 2017

Three Rounds In

Some more thoughts on the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, now that the conference rounds are done and the Stanley Cup Final is set:

Nash-Pitt
Music City versus Steel City. The 'Ville from the South versus the 'Burgh from the North. Two great hockey markets, one of which is the oldest in the United States while the other is in only its second decade among the pros. Two loud and cocksure fan bases. Two teams loaded with speed and skill.

This is the SCF everyone not from Ottawa or Anaheim wanted to see, or should have, and I am glad we get to see it. The only way I could be happier is if my Tampa Bay Lightning had made it instead of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but 'twas not meant to be this year.


The "Old Guys"
In my May 11th post I gave shout-outs to some of the non-whippersnappers who have excelled in these playoffs. Today I am going to follow that up by pointing out that the best player in the ECF was 36-year-old Craig Anderson, and by pointing out that the best player in Game Seven was 37-year-old Chris Kunitz, who scored the first goal and then scored the winner 5:09 into the second overtime. Kunitz also set the screen of Anderson that enabled Pittsburgh's other goal, which was scored by Justin Schultz.

What does this mean? Mostly, it means I get to quote Fred Sanford -- "Old! Who you callin' old?" -- in back to back hockey posts. I have to be the only person on Earth who has ever done that!

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The Housley Effect
Phil Housley was one of the best defensemen of his era, a fact that gets overlooked because of how often his offensive stats are cited. The 1,232 points he tallied made him the highest-scoring American player at any position in NHL history, and today, a full 14 years after he played his final game -- 14 years of unprecedented numbers of Americans excelling in the league -- only one person has managed to pass him on that list.

Where was I going with this? Oh yeah: Phil Housley has been an assistant coach for the Nashville Predators since 2013, and his mark is firmly imprinted on them as they enter the SCF for their first time ever.

He is a Hall of Fame defenseman, which tells you he ain't the kind of person who believes you should ever ignore your defensive responsibilities, but a big part of his philosophy is summed up by the old adage that the best defense is a good offense. What better way is there to defend against an opponent than by getting the puck out of your end and moving it to their end, then sapping their energies by preventing them from exiting and by generating scoring chances and applying constant pressure? The Predators' defensive corps executes that philosophy to the hilt up and down its depth chart, and it is a major reason they won the West.

Nashville's top four D'men -- P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, and Roman Josi -- are among the best in the world when it comes to moving the puck and passing it and creating points. Three of them (Subban, Ellis, and Josi) were among the team's top five scorers this season, despite the fact that the team has lots of good forwards. This is not by accident or mere coincidence.

Housley will tell you he is fortunate, that he is blessed by being able to coach talented blueliners such as these. They will tell you they are fortunate, that they are able to excel because Housley communicates a philosophy with which they agree and he trusts them to put it into action -- because he gives them the green light to use their skills, rather than trying to put a leash on them like so many coaches prefer to do with players.

There is some truth to both, and Ellis summed it up nicely when he recently said: "Phil has been awesome. Since Day One he came in here, I think for a lot of the D he was a similar player as the way he thought the game...it's easy to listen to a guy like that and take what he has to say and understand it and learn from it."

The bottom line is that one of the main reasons the Preds are fun to watch is that they have a group of dynamic players at a certain position, who are able to execute a dynamic style preached by a coach because they and he embrace the same vision. Enjoy watching them play over the next 9 to 18 days, before this season moves into the history books.


The Veteran Effect
The Pittsburgh Penguins play an uptempo style with lots of urgency, but never seem desperate or panicked. There is a tinge of serenity about them that seems inconsistent with the game itself and especially with their pace of play. This comes largely from their veteran presence and the personality of their longtime captain, Sidney Crosby.

Contrary to what media profiles might make you think, Crosby should not be confused with an angel or saint. He hits hard and doles out his fair share of calculated slashes and cross-checks. Still, his game is based on skill without goonery and he never lets opponents get under his skin even when they play dirty (see Senators, Ottawa; ECF, Game Six). Watch Crosby on the bench and he is collected. Watch him in interviews and he comes off calm and even-keeled, as the kind of man who keeps everything in perspective. Seeing as how he is the Pens' leader and has everyone's respect, his demeanor certainly rubs off on others.

He and Evgeny Malkin are superstars in their twelfth and eleventh seasons in the NHL, respectively, and they have never played for another team. This is their fourth trip to the SCF and they won the Cup their last two trips. They continue to shine despite their supposedly advanced ages, with Crosby leading the league in goals this regular season and Malkin's 24 points during this postseason (7, 17) being more than anyone else in the league.

The aforementioned Chris Kunitz is now in his ninth season with the Pens. He has been to the SCF three times before (with the Pens in 2009 and 2016, and Anaheim in 2007) and won the Cup each time.

Marc-Andre Fleury is in his thirteenth season with the Pens, and like Crosby and Malkin has never suited up for another franchise. Although he lost his starting job to Matt Murray after getting injured last year, he is the winningest goalie in team history and won the Cup as their starter in 2009. When called on this postseason after Murray got injured, Fleury played like a Conn Smythe winner and was the team's best player through the first two rounds. Without him acting as their backstop, the Pens would not have made it past the second round.

Trevor Daley (thirteenth year in the league) returned from injury late in the the ECF, and when he did, Pittsburgh's defensive play sharpened instantly and noticeably all along the blue line.

Getting back to the matter of Malkin being the NHL's leading points scorer this postseason, I feel compelled to mention that Crosby is second on that list with 20 (7, 13) while one of the two players tied for third is another Penguin: Phil Kessel. Though Kessel (7, 12, 19 this spring) is in only his second year with the Pens, he has been one of the NHL's best scorers for eleven years and was the Pens' best player during last year's postseason title run. Of the 231 NHL players who have appeared in 50+ playoff games over the decade-plus that Kessel has been in the league, he ranks first in goals per playoff game.

This high degree of certainty, dependability, and successful history among Pittsburgh's veteran core acts like a car battery that charges itself while running the engine. The veterans know what to do and act like it, the young players see that and emulate it, and results follow. It is not by accident or mere coincidence that young guys like rookie Jake Guentzel and second-year winger Bryan Rust have made an impact in the 'Burgh this spring.


Prediction
The Penguins are insanely deep when it comes to forwards, the Predators when it comes to defensemen. The Penguins' injuries are concentrated on their blue line, the Predators' among their forwards. The Penguins have an outstanding young goalie who already has a ring and has shone in the three games since he returned from injury, while the Predators have an outstanding graybeard who has played like a Conn Smythe winner ever since the playoffs began.

In other words, this is a compelling and evenly matched SCF, so I am simply going with my gut. Because my eyeballs have been telling me the Predators look like a team of destiny, I predict they win it all. In six games. Which means they will lift the silver chalice in front of their home fans and the scene up and down country music's Broadway will become the stuff of legend. A big part of me thinks that would be a truly great thing.

But an equally big part of me thinks about the long-lived excellence that so many of Pittsburgh's players have been able to sustain, and admires the hell out of it. That part of me believes it would be a truly great thing for those guys to get their names engraved on the chalice again to further cement their legacy, to make their greatness undeniable. Three championships across nine years would place the Crosby/Malkin Penguins ahead of the Brodeur/Stevens Devils, who also won three in nine but did so before the salary cap.


Random Stuff
Mike Sullivan was born in Marshville, Massachusetts and Peter Laviolette in Franklin, Massachusetts. That makes this the first SCF in which both head coaches are U.S.-born.

Game Seven of the ECF was one of the better Game Sevens in years.

I was planning on dedicating part of this post to defending the character of the Anaheim Ducks, and another to defending the quality of Ottawa's play and dedication of Ottawa's fans -- but I've already gone long so I'll save those topics for another post (maybe).

Here is proof that P.K. Subban does not neglect his defensive duties, and that he in fact meets and exceeds them in the manner you would expect from one of the world's best defensemen.

Here is a brief and incomplete yet very informative article about the history of the playoff beard.

And lastly, am I the only one who thinks Filip Forsberg could pass for Errol Flynn? Should someone check to see if the swashbuckle thespian was gallivanting around Sweden back when Forsberg's grandmother was of childbearing age?

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