Tuesday, April 25, 2017

One Round In

Some thoughts on the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, now that the first round is in the books:

No Sevens?
Is it just me, or does it seem strange that none of the first round series went seven games? It seems like there are usually a couple that do... but the lack of sevens does not mean there was a lack of drama, for overtimes were aplenty, especially in the breakneck series between Washington and Toronto which saw five of its six games go to OT.

The King is Back
Two years ago, Henrik Lundqvist was his usual unflappable post-season self as he backstopped the New York Rangers to within one game of what would have been their second straight Stanley Cup Final.

But one year ago he looked horrible when the Rangers were eliminated by Pittsburgh in the first round. He surrendered 4.39 goals per game, recorded an abysmal .867 save percentage, and was pulled from the net three different times. Then he followed that up with the worst regular season of his career -- a regular season during which he turned 35, so it's obvious to see why many observers, myself included, suspected that his status as an elite goaltender had come to an abrupt halt.

But when the puck dropped to start these playoffs, the determined Swede donned his armor and wielded his sword and proved us wrong. Throughout this season's first round, Lundqvist rang up an eye-popping .947 save percentage and 1.70 GAA, and based very largely on those sinews his Rangers vanquished the Atlantic Division champion Habs, who were also backstopped by a goalie who is considered a creme de la creme generational talent.

Montreal's top five scorers, combined, only managed two goals against Lundvist for the entire six-game series. Their top scorer, Max Pacioretty, did not score at all against him.

It's good to know there is something you can count on, like snow in Tahoe and sunshine in San Diego and the swallows returning to Capistrano. The eleven days from April 12th through 22nd assured us that Henrik Lundqvist excelling when it matters most is one of those things.

Between the pipes
Defense wins championships everywhere. In hockey, goaltending wins 'em even more so. If you want to see just how important the goalie position is, look not only to Lundqvist in New York but also to the men between the pipes in St. Louis and Nashville.

Last year the big question in St. Louis was which one of the goalies in the Blues' well-performing platoon they would choose to keep. Now that they've dispatched the Minnesota Wild, it is obvious they made the right decision opting for Jake Allen over Brian Elliott. Although the Wild soundly outplayed them in the series, averaging 10 more shots per game and out-Corsi'ing them 60.11 to 39.89, the Blues prevailed in five games and never appeared to have any doubt that they would prevail. That is a direct resut of stellar goaltending.

Meanwhile, in Music City, Pekka Rinne spent the first round performing like some cyborg combination of Plante and Tretiak and Hasek all in their primes. Chicago entered the series not only a mere 22 months removed from their second Cup in three seasons, but still in their prime and sporting the best record in the Western Conference -- only to find that Rinne has suddenly become impregnable. The 34-year-old Finn did not allow a goal until Game Three, pitching shutouts in both road games and logging a supernatural .976 save percentage. He even tallied a pair of assists, thus equaling the points production of star Blackhawk forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. And just like that, the top-seeded Blackhawks were not only eliminated from the dance but swept from the dance, like a helpless puck slapped into the corner by a kick save.

I've been watching hockey for decades and do not recall a goalie having as dominant a series as Rinne just did. If he has another one like that, he will be so far ahead in the Conn Smythe conversation that he'll be lapping the field.

Bring it on
By which I mean, the about-to-commence series between the Penguins and Caps. Nothing says Eastern Conference playoffs like these two facing off -- and as everyone knows, nothing screams shrink's couch any louder than a Washington Capitals hockey club entering the second round and seeing the team in yellow and black lining up across the red line.

To be sure, Washington's playoff fragility, whether real or perceived, goes much deeper than the ground beneath Pittsburgh. For a decade now the Caps have been an elite team that is always talked about as legit Cup contenders (and often as the Cup favorite) yet they have not gotten past the second round in all that time. They were the top seed in 2010, but lost to bottom-seeded Montreal. A year later they were again the top seed, but got swept by Tampa Bay. And they dropped three consecutive Game Sevens to the Rangers.

But their playoff submission to Pittsburgh stretches even farther back. The teams have met nine times in the post-season since 1991, with the Penguins winning eight of the nine series despite having trailed in eight of them. Last year might have been the biggest mic drop, seeing as how the Caps had by far the best record in the NHL only to have the Penguins eliminate them in the second round en route to winning the Stanley Cup.

On an individual basis, Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Washington's Alexander Ovechkin began their NHL careers in 2005, have never changed teams, and are considered the top two hockey players on Earth across that period of time. However, across that period Crosby has two Stanley Cup rings and two Olympic gold medals testifying to his greatness, while Ovechkin has not touched the Stanley Cup and has not won an Olympic medal of any type.

Will this be the year things change? The Caps again have the best record in the NHL, so they are again favored against the Pens and again have home ice advantage. But does that make their chances better or does it invite the kind of psychology that makes their chances worse? I can't wait to find out.

et ceteras
If Nashville makes a run to the Finals (and especially if they win the Cup once there) it should be a marketing gold mine for the NHL. The Predators are a model franchise with a fervent fan base; Carrie Underwood comes to their games because she is married to their star centerman, Mike Fisher; and the most charismatic star on this Deep South team is P.K. Subban, a black man. A marketing gift such as this would be like manna from Heaven -- so rest assured that if the gift is given, Bettman & Co. won't take advantage of it and NBC will short-sightedly sulk that Anaheim (LA!) didn't win the West.

I am experiencing cognitive dissonance. I have long thrown barbs at the Maple Leafs organization and its fans, and especially at the propaganda pawns who pretend to be objective journalists while obsequiously praising the Leafs franchise -- which hasn't won a Cup in 50 years -- as the pinnacle of the world of hockey. Nonetheless, I found myself guiltily rooting for their plucky roster of youngsters after the playoffs began, and I found myself admitting that the Leafs contending is good for the game. This goes against everything I believe, and I am slapping my head over it.

No matter what I said in the above paragraph, if the Leafs ever face the Lightning in the post-season, I hope they get blown out four straight games and become a laughingstock. I hope Victor Hedman shuts down Auston Matthews, and Anton Stralman intercepts every pass Mitch Marner attempts.

Ryan Kesler versus Connor McDavid. The pesky irritant from Michigan versus the poetic icon from Ontario. This is the individual battle, the game within the games, that I most want to watch this round... Kesler's Anaheim Ducks are the veteran squad aiming to hoist the Cup before their window closes, while McDavid's Edmonton Oilers are a youthful bunch hoping to bring it back to Alberta for the first time since 1990; but it's the individual clash between these two forwards that I am most eager to watch, for you know Kesler will be sent out to badger defend against the phenom who dazzled with 70 assists and 30 goals this season.

Derick Brassard versus Mika Zibanejad. This is the individual battle I most want to watch in the East. Granted, it's not technically an individual battle because it's not like the one will be sent out to defend against the other. But they were traded for each other in the offseason, with Brassard going from New York to Ottawa and Zibanejad going from Ottawa to New York; and with the Rangers and Senators facing one another this round, it will be impossible not to compare and contrast... Ottawa wanted Brassard specifically because of his history of playoff production, and after a ho-hum regular season he made them look like geniuses by leading the team with eight points during their six-game playoff win over Boston. Meanwhile, down in the Big Apple, Zibanejad proved that he too knows how to deliver when it counts by scoring the overtime winner in Game Five and assisting on the the game-tying goal in what turned out to be the decisive Game Six.

And with that...
...I need to put down my pen stop typing. Bring on the games!

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