Thursday, April 28, 2016

One Round In

I already opined about my Bolts when they advanced by ousting the Red Wings. Now that the rest of the first round series have ended, here are some of my overall brain droppings -- so far -- about this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Half wrong
That might not prove to be the correct phrase, but my post from 12 days ago predicted that this year's champ "will be either LA or St. Louis" -- and LA got eliminated six days ago.

LA's quick departure at the hands of their prior whipping boys, the San Jose Sharks, was especially shocking. The Sharks are very good but have a reputation for post-season flops -- particularly against their downstate rivals, since the last two times the Sharks made the playoffs, in 2013 and 2014, it was the LA Kings who eliminated them. The 2014 elimination was historically notorious, as they charged to a 3-0 series lead only to see the Kings roar back and win four in a row, sending them home with their tails tucked between their fins, after which the Kings rolled on to win the Cup for the second time in three years.

With the Kings re-energized and playing powerfully this season, and Vinny Lecavlier enjoying a renaissance after arriving in a mid-season trade, it appeared they were set to make a deep run that could potentially end with them hoisting the Cup for the third time. However, it was not to be.

Dionne Warwick
Do You Know the Way to San Jose? Now that the Sharks have bared their teeth and exorcised their ghosts of playoffs past by hip-checking LA out of the race, it's worth wondering if they've figured out what it takes to be a champ.

It's also worth wondering if the Kings' tenure as an elite contender has run its course. After winning two titles and ten of eleven playoff series from 2012 to 2014, their last two campaigns have finished with them missing the playoffs in 2015 and getting bounced in one round in 2016. Plus, Jonathan Quick's performance has dropped off precipitously, which brings me to my next segment.

In decline?
Jonathan Quick and Henrik Lundqvist are still good goalies, and each of them might have enough gas in his tank to backstop a team to a title. But after this season, it's clear they are no longer among the top half-dozen (or maybe even top dozen) goalies in the game. And with Lundvist now 34 and Quick having turned 30 a few months ago, it's reasonable to ask if we will ever again see them dazzle like they did in the very recent past.

During the Kings' first Cup run in 2012, Quick earned the Conn Smythe with an otherworldly post-season that included a .946 save percentage and 1.41 goals-against average. In 2013 his post-season numbers dipped, but almost imperceptibly, as he remained superb at .934 and 1.86 and equaled his previous year's mark of three playoff shutouts. In 2014 the dip was more pronounced, to .911 and 2.58, but those numbers were still good enough to win the Cup and Quick turned in a bevy of clutch, highlight reel saves along the way... But now, after LA missed the playoffs in 2015, his 2016 post-season ended with positively pedestrian numbers of .886 and 3.04, which places him behind 15 other goalies who logged ice time in the first round.

Meanwhile, back East, Henrik "The King" Lundqvist was horrible throughout the week and a half his NY Rangers participated in these playoffs, surrendering 4.39 goals per game with a putrid .867 save percentage. He was pulled from three of the five games in the series, and that was after being yanked on eleven different occasions during the regular season... Sure, his team was thin on the blue line and his teammates gave him no goal support against Pittsburgh, but even if they had, the Rangers still wouldn't have had a chance. And most tellingly, Lundqvist lost his cool several times, which is not a good look for a man reputed to be the most unflappable player in the league.

Every playoff round is marked by a number of sudden conclusions. Not only do teams' seasons come to an end, but so do some players' careers. This year, Round One brought the curtain down on the NHL careers of two of the finest hockey players of the last 15 years: Pavel Datsyuk and the afore-mentioned Vincent Lecavelier.

The Lightning drafted Lecavelier with the first overall pick in 1998, and he went on to become one of the most revered figures in Tampa Bay sports history. During his 15-year tenure with the team, he served as its captain and played a key role in it winning the Stanley Cup in 2004, and in it coming within one goal of returning to the finals in 2011. He was the first player in team history to score 50 goals in a season, with his 52 in 2006-07 topping the entire NHL and earning him the Rocket Richard Trophy. In addition, Lecavalier was MVP of the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, which was won by his Team Canada.

Unfortunately he became a salary cap casualty in 2013, as the Lightning opted to buy out his contract. He spent most of the next three years being misutilized and often scratched by the Flyers, until that mid-season trade to LA led to a revival of sorts, with him becoming a major contributor on the Kings' special teams and chipping in 17 points.

Forever the good soldier and company man, Vinny Lecavelier always worked his butt off, always played productively, and never complained. A married father of three, he has routinely spent personal time visiting with critically ill children at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, FL, where he donated millions of his own dollars to create a facility for the treatment of pediatric cancer and blood disorders. Lecavelier is exactly what a superstar athlete cum role model is supposed to be... and the same can be said of Pavel Datsyuk, the 37-year-old centerman from central Russia who has played for the Detroit Red Wings since 2002, never once wearing the jersey of any other NHL organization.

Much like Igor Larionov, another Russian centerman who preceded him in starring for Detroit, Datsyuk's cerebral play was a perfect meeting of brains and skill. Although his points totals never jumped off the page at you, he made special things happen whenever he was on the ice, earning him the nickname "Magic Man," and was universally recognized as one of the world's most elite hockey players. He finishes his NHL days with 918 points in 953 regular season games, plus 113 in 157 playoff games.

Balance and all-around proficiency were Datsyuk's hallmarks. As if to prove that point, he won the Selke Trophy (for the forward who demonstrates the most skill at the defensive aspects of the game) three straight times from 2008 to 2010. The 2007-08 season ended with him leading the Wings to the Stanley Cup and leading the league with 144 takeaways -- compared to 86 for Mike Modano, who finished second in that stat.

On top of all that, Datsyuk won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy (for good sportsmanship) four straight times and has doggedly battled back from injuries in recent years.

Like Vinmy Lecavelier, Pavel Datsyuk is a man who sacrifices for the game but has his head screwed on straight and his priorities in order. His recent (apparent) decision to return to Russia, and thus forego the $7.5 million he would make by remaining in Detroit and playing out the final season of his contract, is based on family matters.

There is still a chance that one of them (especially Datsyuk) will change his mind, but that doesn't seem likely and it is sad to see them skate into the sunset. If only there were more professional athletes like them.

Wild indeed
The best game (or maybe I should say best period?) of Round One was Sunday afternoon's decisive Game Six between the top-seeded Dallas Stars and eighth-seeded Minnesota Wild.

Trying to force a Game Seven, and playing their first home game since hometown hero Prince passed away, the Wild paid tribute to him with a purple-saturated light and laser show prior to faceoff. Then they went out and got thoroughly dominated for the first two periods... Limping into the locker room for the second intermission, they trailed 4-0. But when they returned to the ice for the third period, they mounted a furious, adrenaline-fueled rally that had the crowd inside Xcel Energy Center rocking like Hendrix was in the house

3:48 into that final stanza, with the Wild on a power play, Jared Spurgeon pulled them within 4-1 when he found the puck amidst a goalmouth scrum and poked it in... Then, a mere 16 seconds after the ensuing faceoff, it became 4-2 as Minnesota broke into the Dallas zone and Jonas Brudin converted a perfect cross-ice feed from down low by Erik Haula... And 4:35 after that, with Minnesota on another power play, Spurgeon struck again when he took a cross-ice pass from Mikko Koivu and rifled it into a quite open net.

Just like that, with more than half the third yet to be played, the Wild had closed the gap from 4-0 to 4-3. The crowd's decibels spiked. Some 17,000 Minneapolis-St. Paul versions of the terrible towel were whipping in circles from the fists of upraised arms. You sensed that a historic, perhaps series-changing comeback victory was in the making.

Until the 10:28 mark. That's when a fluky bounce resulted in the puck being behind the Wild's goal line and the Stars being on the receiving end of the hockey gods' beneficence. Although Dallas's Alex Goligoski was credited with the goal that made it 5-3 Dallas, it was really scored by a tag team of Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk and Minnesota forward Charlie Coyle.

After losing sight of Goligoski's shot (which did not go in), Dubnyk skatterhopped in the crease while looking for the puck and decided to go down on his right leg... meanwhile, Coyle, who did see the puck, came swooping in from the left circle to clear it... but Coyle got there just as Dubnyk's foreleg touched the ice, with the puck resting on the net side of his pad rather than the open ice side... and with Coyle's and Dubnyk's converged momentum moving in the direction of the net, their sliding bodies pushed the puck backwards and across the goal line to make it 5-3 Dallas.

That sounds like a deflating moment, but the Wild had come too far back to let their surge die because of something fluky, so they kept attacking; and with 4:47 left, Jason Pominville scored off assists from Spurgeon and Nino Niederreiter to pull within 5-4. That amounts to four goals scored by one team in 11 minutes and 25 seconds, with yet another goal scored by their opponent during the same span.

When Pominville's shot went in, the crowd erupted and you could feel the momentum shift massively, as if the ice surface became tilted into Minnesota's offensive zone. You could just sense that the Wild were gonna tie it and force overtime; and as the final minutes played out, that sense never went away because they kept creating good chances and taking good shots.

The gut punch came with just 34 seconds remaining. That is when Niederreiter smacked a puck to the net and -- depending on your rooting interest -- it either crossed the goal line before it was stopped by the right pad of Dallas goaltender Kari Lehtonen, or Lehtonen's pad stopped its momentum just in time to keep it out.

Remember that in hockey, the entire puck has to be behind the line for it to be a goal. Unlike football, in which it counts as a touchdown so long as any molecule of the ball "breaks the plane" of the front of the goal line. With that in mind, I think it's clear this was not a goal, though the margin of difference was tiny and I get why that rankles some people.


So close, and yet so far. But such is the story of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

In the 34 seconds between that agonizingly close call, the Wild kept applying pressure, but it was all for naught.

Thrill of victory, agony of defeat. Game of inches. Thin line between victory and defeat. Never stop giving it your all... Apply every sports cliche you can think of and it will fit that Game Six. Gotta love it.

Looking forward
Regarding the series that will take place in Round Two:

Lightning-Islanders: My first thought was "should be a barnburner, good chance it'll go seven." Then the Lightning laid an out of sync stinker last night in Game One. I wasn't surprised they lost because I expected them to be rusty after their long layoff, but that performance was inexcusable. They should bounce back and will definitely do better, but they need to bounce back fast and do a lot better if they think they can make it to the conference finals for the third time in six years.

Penguins-Capitals: Actually, that's all you gotta say. "Penguins-Capitals," or "Pens-Caps" if that's your style. These franchises have playoff history against each other and are superbly matched.... The Pens have a slight edge when it comes to skaters, but what does that really mean when the Caps bring the likes of Ovechkin and Kuznetsov?... The Caps have a significant edge in goal since they are starting Braden Holtby while the Pens, thanks to Marc-Andre Fluery's lingering concussion issues, are starting 21-year-old rookie Matt Murray... But then again, Patrick Roy was a 20-year-old rookie when he backstopped Montreal to the title in '86.

Blues-Stars:  Are the Stars really worthy of the #1 seed when they have so many question marks in net? Are the Blues really ready to make a difference in the post-season now that they've gotten past the first round? Will Ken Hitchcock's refusal/hesitance to play Vladimir Tarasenko more than 20-21 minutes come back to bite the Blues in the derriere?

Sharks-Predators:  One of these teams will be going at least as far as the Western Conference Final. Which is good, because up until now they have both been saddled with the reputation of playing very good in the regular season then underperforming in the post-season. Now, will Pekka Rinne finally get some playoff credentials to match his multiple appearances as a Vezina finalist, or will it be Joe Thornton who finally turns in a post-season that's worthy of his skills? I hope they both do well individually, but I am predicting the Sharks will take this series and have even odds of winning the WCF.

Bring on the race, chase, fire, and struggle. If you don't enjoy the Stanley Cup Playoffs, you suck.

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