Friday, May 13, 2016

Two Rounds In

I already opined about my Bolts when they advanced past the second round by ousting the Islanders. They start the Eastern Conference Final tonight against the Penguins; but first, now that the rest of the second round series have ended, here are more of my overall brain droppings about this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs:

Old Time Hockey
One of the ironies about Slap Shot is that so many people believe its signature phrase -- "old time hockey" -- refers to bare-knuckled fisticuffs. But in reality, when Paul Newman's character Reggie Dunlop called for "old time hockey" before leading the Charlestown Chiefs onto the ice for their final game, he was imploring them to abandon such tactics and "play it straight."

Why am I talking about a movie from 1977? Because the ECF between Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh provides a golden opportunity to see the kind of old time hockey Dunlop was talking about, the kind based overwhelmingly on speed and skill -- and this is true despite the fact that Steven Stamkos, the only NHL player to have recorded a 60-goal season in the last nine years, remains sidelined by blood clots.

I do not mean to sound pompous, or self-righteous about my team. Hockey is and should be a rugged sport in which you can't win without checking hard and fighting through checks, and the Lightning and Penguins both have players who exploit the gray area to get under a foe's skin (see: Callahan, Ryan; Letang, Kris).

But both teams play it clean, not dirty, and are about excellence rather than corner-cutting. Thanks to their abundance of talent, they succeed while living up to the ideal.

Pittsburgh's virtuosi include Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Matt Cullen... Tampa Bay's include Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, Victor Hedman, and the suddenly cresting Jonathan Drouin... And as if to put the lie to the word "old" being in the phrase "old time hockey," seven of those eight players are in their 20's and all four of Tampa Bay's are 25 or younger.

Get ready for playmaking, shooting, and entertainment galore. The Pens are favored, and should be given their down-roster points production, but it will not be a big surprise if the Bolts knock 'em off.

They can be a blessing or a bitch. Some are deserved and some are not.

It would be hard to argue that the Washington Capitals haven't earned their reputation as post-season underachievers. Despite always being loaded with talent and often fielding teams that look like legit Cup contenders, they haven't even made it to a conference final over the last 18 years... Five years ago they were the top seed in the East, but got swept in the second round by Tampa Bay... This season they had far and away the best record in the NHL and many observers were expecting them to win it all; yet they just got eliminated in the second round by the Penguins, a franchise which has now prevailed in eight of the nine playoff series between the two.

So the Caps as an organization deserve their rap, but how fair is it to extend that rap to some of their individual players?

Lots of people hate Alexander Ovechkin (not without reason) and every one of them enjoys calling him a playoff choker because the Caps never get past the second round.

But take a look at the numbers and you will see that Ovechkin himself plays extremely well in the post-season, as evidenced by him notching 82 points (on a perfectly even 41 goals and 41 assists) in 84 career playoff games. That puts him at a playoff PPG average of .976, which is better than Jaromir Jagr (.966) and Brett Hull (.941) and way better than Pavel Datsyuk (.720). Nobody has ever accused those other three players of disappearing in the playoffs, have they?

The dude can't play on all four lines, nor can he stop something from happening in the right circle when he's jockeying for position in the left circle. Perhaps people should look somewhere else to find blame for Washington's post-season defeats. Just sayin'.

Speaking of reputations, boy did the San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues put to rest the long-standing and widely-held belief that they lack the character to succeed in the post-season. Their upcoming battle in the Western Conference Final will not be as old-time-hockeyish as the Bolts-Pens battle in the East, but it won't be far behind on that meter and it will be ahead on the hard-hitting meter.

It should be a joy to watch and I think the Sharks will pull it out. They have the edge on the ice, for as good as Tarasenko and Stastny are for St. Louis, having them is just not the same as having Thornton, Pavelski, Couture, and Burns. Plus, the Sharks have the edge behind the bench.

It goes without saying that goaltender is the most important position in hockey, but has there ever been a more vivid illustration of that truth than this year's Dallas Stars?

They were a high-flying scoring machine, finishing with more goals than any other team and 17 more than the next-closest team in that metric. They had the best record in the Western Conference. Their roster included the league's second-leading points-scorer in Jamie Benn and one of its most respected defensemen in Johnny Oduya.

And despite all that, everybody knew their chances of winning the Cup were no more than a snowball's chance of not melting after floating across the River Styx -- all because the Stars' two-headed goaltending platoon was not up to snuff.

Antti Niemi logged time in 48 regular season games, Kari Lehtoen in 43, and they managed unintimidating save percentages of .905 and .906. In the playoffs those numbers did what they absolutely could not be permitted to do -- get worse, with Lehtonen's save percentage slipping to .899 and Niemi's plummeting to .865. Their combined goals-against average went up by .45 per game even though their shots faced went down by 1.5.

Two of Dallas's four losses to St. Louis were by the score of 6-1. In Wednesday's series- and season-ending defeat, Lehtonen surrendered three goals on the first eight shots, including one with 3.5 seconds left in the first period.

Dallas's roster is stacked and will continue to generate strong winning seasons for the team. But until something major changes in goal, they will remain DOA for every post-season and that will prove a major frustration for their fans.

Conn Smythe
Since we're all the way to the conference finals, it's not too early to talk about which players are in the running for the Conn Smythe from each team. As I did last year, I am not going to mention goalies for the simple reason that they already have the inside track.

Tampa Bay Lightning:  Victor Hedman. As much as I want to give my hypothetical vote to Nikita Kucherov for his impeccably clutch goal-scoring, there is no getting around the fact that Hedman, a defenseman, has carried an insanely disproportionate load of work due to the absence of Anton Stralman. He just got done making John Tavares a non-facor in the second round and is playing superb on offense as well as defense, having produced nine points (versus only eight penalty minutes) in ten games.

Pittsburgh Penguins:  Phil Kessel. For once I have something in common with Leafs fans, which is that I don't understand how Kessel -- a rotund, cholesterol-soaked dead ringer for John Kruk -- can possibly be a skilled sharphooting NHL forward. But he is, and so far he and his line are the straw that is stirring Pittsburgh's drink this post-season. He has 12 points in 11 games, including the first two goals in Tuesday's series-clincher against Washington.

St. Louis Blues:  Vladimir Tarasenko. 7 goals and 6 assists for a total of 13 points in 14 games, despite being underutilized and played for too few minutes by Captain Kangaroo Ken Hitchcock. Just imagine what he would be doing if he had a ballsier coach like Joel Quenneville or Jon Cooper calling the shots.

San Jose Sharks:  Joe Pavelski. The old mountain man in me wants to nominate Joe Thornton and his crazy ass beard, but I gotta be honest: No matter how incredibly Thornton passes the puck and sees the ice, my eyeballs tell me that it's Pavelski, the 31-year-old spark plug from Plover, Wisconsin, who is making the Sharks' engine run. He is always doing something good with the puck, always buzzing his opponents, always making things happen.

And now...
...bring on the games!

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