Thursday, May 11, 2017

Two Rounds In

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

The "Old" Guys
From Kucherov to Tarasenko, to McDavid and Eichel to Matthews and Laine (to name but a few), the NHL has recently been blessed with an influx of extremely young players with extremely high-end skills. Tons of ink has been spilled on this topic and rightfully so.

But the sheer volume of ink (combined with a weirdly worshipful attitude toward youth being displayed in venues like Puck Daddy) has created a false impression that hockey players peak a couple years before they turn 25 and are well past their primes before they turn 30. Fortunately, these playoffs are providing plenty of antidotes to that way of "thinking."

Pekka Rinne and Marc-Andre Fleury are the highest performing players so far this postseason and their ages are 34 and 32, respectively.

Evgeni Malkin's 18 points this postseason (5 G, 13 A) are more than anyone else. He turns 31 in July.

Yes, 20-year-old Connor McDavid was the NHL's leading scorer in the regular season and is sure to be named its MVP at the awards show next month -- but in the second round of the playoffs, he was neutralized by 32-year-old Ryan Kesler whenever they were on the ice at the same time.

Again, McDavid was the NHL's leading scorer in the regular season and is sure to be named its MVP at the awards show next month -- but in the battle between his Edmonton Oilers and the Anaheim Ducks, the latter's 31-year-old Ryan Getzlaf was, in the words of TSN's Frank Seravalli, the "best player in this second-round series -- and it isn't even close."

A player racing past an opponent's defensive corps, then deking the opposing goalie and slipping the puck through his five-hole to score, is not unheard of -- but Pittsburgh's Matt Cullen is forty and he did that to break a scoreless Game Two tie against Washington when Washington was on the power play!

Like Fred G. Sanford once protested: Old! Who you callin' old?

It had to go like this, just had to... Penguins versus Capitals in Round Two for the second straight year... with the Caps having the best record in the league for the second straight year, yet the Pens being the defending Stanley Cup champs... and the Pens taking the series of course, this time via a Game Seven shutout in the Caps' building, just for kicks.

The history of Washington's playoff futility against Pittsburgh over the years, and their inability to get past the second round during the past decade despite being a perennial Cup contender, has been written about time and again. However it felt like the script might be different this time, because the Caps seemed to dominate every game and their youngsters Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky seemed oblivious to pressure.

Washington frequently controlled long stretches of play in their offensive zone. They had dominant possession numbers and controlled 61.5 percent of the shot attempts at 5-on-5. They outshot Pittsburgh in literally every one of the seven games, often by wide margins. They banked 32 or more shots on goal in five of the games and never registered less than 26, whereas Pittsburgh was thrice held to 18 or fewer shots on goal and only twice registered more than 22. For the series, the Caps outshot the Pens by a staggering 229-154.

But in the end, none of that mattered. The Pens' quality depth was so good that whenever they found an inch, they took a mile and put the puck in the net no matter which line was on the ice -- such as in Game Two, when they netted 6 goals on 17 shots while the Caps managed just 2 on 36,  and in Game Four, when they were outshot 38-18 but won 3-2.

And let's face it: The reason Pittsburgh's superior efficiency was able to make a difference was that Marc-Andre Fleury's goaltending was nothing short of brilliant. He kept the Penguins in games until their snipers were able to ripple the nets and thereby fire darts through Washington hearts. He faced 75 more shots than Washington's Braden Holtby and surrendered fewer goals -- and many of his saves were so spectacular they qualified as grand larceny.

Makes you go hmmm...
In his first year as head coach of Tampa Bay, Guy Boucher had the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final. Now in his first year at the helm in Ottawa, he has the Senators in that same position. This means that in fewer than four full seasons as an NHL head coach, Boucher has twice reached conference finals -- not bad for a 45-year-old scarface who never played in the league and has degrees in history, biology, and agricultural engineering.

Bryan Rust's winning goal in Game Seven on Wednesday marked the eighth time in his two-year career that he's recorded a point in an elimination game.

Prior to this year, Justin Williams was 7-0 in Game Sevens and known as "Mr. Game Seven" -- but now he plays for the Capitals, which means that streak has gone the way of the dodo.

Although there has been incredible depth of superb goaltending this postseason, there have already been 21 games in which teams came from behind to wipe out deficits of two or more goals.

After an outstanding Round One, Henrik Lundqvist fell a ways back toward Earth in Round Two. There was nothing he (or any other netminder) could have done to stop Jean-Gabriel Pageau's two late goals that forced overtime in Game Two, but be that as it may, there is no getting around the fact that Lundqvist wound up on the losing end of two games in which his team scored 4+ goals on the road. His numbers were still impressive for the two rounds -- his .927 save percentage ranks third among the 21 goalies who have logged ice time these playoffs -- however his window is closing and now he needs stout defenders in front of him more than ever.

Many people (including me) thought it was silly for Ottawa to adopt a "win right now" strategy this year when they didn't make the playoffs last year, didn't seem good enough to scare anyone, and are financially strapped. But after one go-round with Dion Phaneuf, Derick Brassard, and Alex Burrows on their roster, it's hard to laugh at the Senators now.

Am I the only person who can't see Drake Caggiula's name in print without thinking that the surname is Calligula?

In their entire franchise history, the Penguins have never lost a Game Seven on the road (they're 6-0 after Wednesday).

I call on...
...the league to crack down on embellishment next season, and to make its crackdown severe and obvious.

...the Anaheim crowd to behave in every game of the WCF just like you did in Game Seven on Wednesday.

...Edmonton fans to not spend the next twelve months bitching about non-reversals as they relate to goaltender interference non-calls. You've got nothing on Buffalo fans circa 1999.

...Nashville fans to continue showcasing just how great a hockey market your city is.

...Corey Perry to stay out of the crease.

...that's enough for now, other than my prediction, which is this:

Erik Karlsson will have a great ECF but it won't be enough to overcome Pittsburgh's depth, even though Pittburgh's blueline is depleted... and meanwhile the Ducks will be their provoking and annoying selves in the WCF, but it won't be enough to overcome Pekka & the Preds, who are playing like they're destined to win the West and perhaps more... and so, we will have Pittsburgh-Nashville on stage in a couple weeks.

Bring it on!

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