Friday, May 15, 2015

Two Rounds In

Some thoughts about the Stanley Cup Playoffs, now that the first two rounds are in the books:

MVP Talk
We've seen enough to start speculating about which players are making a case to win the Conn Smythe Trophy, and since it goes without saying that the Cup-winner's goaltender often has the inside lane, here are my thoughts about which non-goalie from each team is most deserving so far.

Anaheim:  Corey Perry. He leads all players in playoff points with 15 (seven goals, eight assists) despite his team having taken the fewest games to get this far. After appearing to play injured for much of Game Five against Calgary, he scored the OT goal that clinched the series and propelled the Ducks to the conference finals for the first time since they won the Cup eight years ago.

Chicago:  Patrick Kane. It might seem too easy to pick a team's highest profile and most glamorous offensive star, especially when the roster includes quite possibly the NHL's best defenseman of the last five years, but Patrick Kane is absolutely the correct pick. He has notched 13 points and sparkplugged the 'Hawks to an average of 3.2 goals per game, despite the fact that Game One of the opening round was the first game he had played since breaking his collarbone two months before.

New York:  Dan Girardi. If you've watched a Rangers game this post-season, you have probably noticed how often Girardi's name gets mentioned, for it seems like this scrappy defenseman does something effective every second he's on the ice. He has racked up 48 blocked shots and 29 hits while going +5 -- a crucial number when you consider that all 12 games have been decided by a single goal and that his team is averaging only 2.0 goals per game. Plus, he has chipped in offensively with four assists and been to the penalty box only once. 

Tampa Bay:  Tyler Johnson. He lit the league on fire with six goals in the first round against Detroit, including the one which sparked a late comeback in Game Four, plus the OT winner in that same game... Oh, and he also assisted on the tying goal which forced that game to OT... In the second round, he set the stage for the Lightning's Game One win by redirecting Matt Carle's shot past Carey Price for the opening goal; then, in Game Three, set an NHL record by scoring the winning goal with just 1.1 seconds remaining.

The Goalies
Of the four netminders still standing, only Corey Crawford has won a Cup yet it feels like he's the least reliable of the bunch. The Eastern Conference seems to have a distinct advantage at this position, with Henrik Lundqvist being Henrik Lundqvist and Ben Bishop having skyrocketed his save percentage to .931 after it being only .904 at the start of Game Seven versus Detroit -- which is to say, I am sticking with my pre-playoff prediction that this year's champion will come from the East.

Something about Lundqvist: While it would be easy to say "the king is the king" or "he is the calmest goaltender I've ever seen" and leave it at that, I cannot resist the temptation to point out some of his sickeningly good numbers. In elimination games at Madison Square Garden, he is 10-0 with a .969 save percentage and 0.87 goals-against average... and he has now won six consecutive Game Sevens -- a feat that no other goalie in history has managed to accomplish... and, eerily, Wednesday night marked the third consecutive May 13th on which he made 35 saves, with each of those 35-save performances coming in a Game Seven victory.

Something about Bishop: He might not look like Ron Hextall out there, but his stick-handling is every bit as good as the old Flyer who made stick-handling by goalies acceptable. Bishop often triggers offensive rushes by completing tape-to-tape passes to his forwards as they turn to head up the ice; and by handling the puck so well, he keeps opposing teams from forechecking and thereby makes it harder for them to establish themselves in the Lightning zone. 

The Defensemen
Defensively, Chicago's Duncan Keith is, like I said above, "quite possibly the NHL's best defenseman of the last five years." Offensively, he has put up ten points during these playoffs, which is more than all but seven forwards have put up. When it comes to plus/minus he leads every player in the playoffs with a mark of +10, the next closest being Perry and Kane at +8.

Although Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman does not get as much press as Keith, PK Subban, Erik Karlsson, et al, he has been almost perfect this post-season. The second overall pick in 2009, this 24-year-old Swede has owned the blueline, made no mistakes that I can remember, and also contributed mightily on offense. Hedman assisted on Johnson's overtime winner in Game Four against Detroit and on Johnson's buzzer-beating winner in Game Three against Montreal; in both cases, he carried the puck down the ice and passed it directly to Johnson's stick blade, in stride.

Coaching Contrast
I do not have a problem with Type A coaching personalities. When it comes to sports, I am Type A myself. However, reflecting on the Tampa Bay-Montreal series, I can say with absolute certainty that I would rather my team be coached by someone like Jon Cooper than someone like Michel Therrien.

I'm sure that Cooper's pulse rises during games just like mine and every other fan's does, yet he keeps his keel even and does not lose composure. He keeps his focus. And by osmosis, his players do the same.

Therrien, on the other hand, fulminates and throws tantrums and makes excuses. He loses his focus and forgets what he needs to do. And by osmosis, his players do the same.

Marketing people should be drooling over the many prisms through which they can present the Eastern Conference Final.

For starters, each team has several players that spent part of their careers with the other. The Rangers have Martin St. Louis and Dan Boyle, both of whom won the Stanley Cup when they played for the Lightning in 2004 and are now in the twilight of their careers. The Rangers also feature Dominic Moore, a centerman who played a starring role for the Lightning when they made it to the ECF in 2011 and pushed the eventual Cup champions to a seventh game before being eliminated by a single goal... Meanwhile, Tampa Bay has former Rangers Ryan Callahan, Anton Stralman, and Brian Boyle... There is the interesting matter of St. Louis being Tampa Bay's captain and Callahan being New York's captain when they were traded for each other hours before the trade deadline in 2014... And there is the "don't keep me off the ice" matter of Callahan returning to this series after an emergency appendectomy forced him to miss the decisive Game Six against Montreal... Plus, most movingly, there is the tragic human interest story of Moore having sat out a season to care for his wife Katie, who passed away from liver cancer in January 2013.

But all that is mostly soap opera. On the ice itself, this series features two teams that are based on speed and skill rather than clutching and grabbing; and both made it this far because their speed and skill are spiked with grit, complemented with physicality, and blessed with composure. This has the makings of a good series.

A Bad Rap
Let me first say that I am not an Alexander Ovechkin fan. He dishes out way more than his share of cheap shots and never rarely gets sent to the penalty box for them. When the Lightning played the Caps in the 2011 conference semi-finals, my dislike of him was so strong that I yelled countless F bombs and started calling him a "Soviet."

Nevertheless, I am starting to feel some sympathy for Ovechkin because of the way the media misrepresents his game and his reliability. Although he's been saddled for years with a reputation as a player who fails to deliver in the post-season, the numbers simply do not bear that out. Like I noted in my April 30th post, he began this season having accounted for 66 points in 65 career playoff games.

During this year's playoffs, he chalked up another nine points by virtue of five goals and four assists. Included in that tally was a goal that might stand up as the best of the entire post-season, and a clutch last-second steal and assist to Joel Ward that won Game One against the Rangers. Almost everybody, including his biggest critics, opined that Ovechkin was having the strongest and most impactful playoff campaign of his ten-year career.

Then, when answering questions from reporters following the Caps' Game Six loss on Sunday, he said of Game Seven that "we're going to come back and win the series" -- and after the Caps did not win Game Seven, sports reporters from coast to coast began waxing about how Ovechkin failed to deliver on what they called "his guarantee," and how that failure further cements his legacy as a playoff underachiever.

Almost immediately, those reporters chose to ignore that he played extremely well in Game Seven and was the only Washington player to put the puck in the net against the seemingly invincible Henrik Lundqvist (re-read the above "The Goalies" section if you've already forgotten how rare it is for anyone to score on Lundqvist in elimination games). Almost immediately, reporters and opinion-shapers chose to ignore that outside of Ward and Nicklas Backstrom, Ovechkin does not have much offensive help on his team's roster.

Looking back at his career numbers, with this season included, Ovechkin averages .475 goals per playoff game. That puts him ahead of Phil Esposito and Mark Messier, who averaged .469 and .461 and played in eras when goals were more easy to come by. It puts him way ahead of such luminaries as Pat LaFontaine (.377), Luc Robitaille (.365), Jaromir Jagr (.360), and Steve Yzerman (.357). And among his superstar contemporaries, it puts him in front of Conn Smythe winners Patrick Kane and Henrik Zetterberg (.427 and .424).

So what's the rub? Yeah, Ovechkin's defensive game leaves a lot to be desired, but that is true for many, if not most, prolific scorers. And unlike most prolific scorers, Ovechkin does not shy away from the bone-crunching part of the game. He is a relentless forechecker who deals out more bumps and bruises than he receives, and I don't believe I've ever heard that said about Gretzky, Lemieux, Fedorov, or Lafleur.

The fact of the matter is that Alexander Ovechkin is an outstanding player who has spent his entire career on teams that are far from outstanding, without the kind of supporting cast that is necessary to win a championship. You can accurately call him a number of things that are not flattering -- for example, you can call him a dirty player whose stick handle "accidentally" hits an awful lot of opponents in the face, or a non-champion who has neither a Cup ring nor an Olympic gold to his name -- but if you call him a choker, you have no idea what you're talking about.

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