Friday, May 25, 2018

Finals Set

Some more thoughts about this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs, now that the first three rounds are in the books and the Stanley Cup Final is on deck...

My Lighning Indulgence, Part I
This post is about my thoughts as a fan of hockey, not my feelings as a fan of the Tampa Bay Lightning, so I am going to jump straight to other, more positive topics before I opine about Tampa Bay's loss in the Eastern Conference Final.

In other words, there is actually no indulgence in this segment, and here I go...

Whited Out
In my post after the second round I wrote: "I see no weaknesses on the Jets. None. Nada."

And now that the Jets have been eliminated, in five games, by an expansion team? I stand by exactly what I wrote before. But unfortunately for the players and fans in Winnipeg, sometimes having "no weaknesses" fails to guarantee victory, because there are variables and uncertainties and also those mystical creatures known as the hockey gods, which is why you play the games on the ice instead of just declaring on paper who wins and loses.

There is an abundance of speed, skill, and heart in the True North but there is also an abundance of speed, skill, and heart in the Mojave Desert, and the latter won out for several reasons. For one, the Vegas Golden Knights made fewer critical errors than the Winnipeg Jets, and when the Jets did make those errors the Knights always seemed to capitalize by scoring right away -- such as in Game Three, when Connor Hellebuyck came out of the net to play the puck and turned it over to Erik Haula, who promptly passed it to James Neal, who scored into the vacated net to restore the Knights' lead a mere 12 seconds after the Jets had tied them.

Vegas also got more balanced scoring across all four lines... Plus they were obviously less tired, seeing as how they got plenty of rest coming into the Western Conference Final whereas Winnipeg only had one day off after a grueling seven-game battle royale against top-seeded Nashville... Plus they played looser and more carefree, probably because they were playing with a version of house money, seeing as how they weren't weighed down by high external expectations.

But the most significant reason the Jets lost to the Knights is that they ran into the ultimate hockey equalizer: A goaltender playing out of his mind. This is the one sport in which one guy has an insanely disproportionate power to affect the outcome in a team game, and fortunately for Vegas, in their case that guy is the man they call Flower...

Before Vegas snatched Marc-Andre Fleury from Pittsburgh in last summer's expansion draft, he already had three Stanley Cups and four conference championships to his name. But with Vegas, at the age of 33 and in his fourteenth NHL season, he has turned in the most impressive campaign of his career. That is true when it comes to both the regular season and post-season, but since we are talking about the post-season and that is where reputations are made, let's look at that.

Through three rounds and 15 games, Fluery's save percentage is .947, and in all of NHL history only two other goalies have posted a better save percentage through a post-season -- yet both of them (Marty Turco and Dominik Hasek) got eliminated in the first round, so they did not have to sustain their excellence anywhere near as long as Fleury has this year.

In the post-salary cap era, only one other goalie has exceeded a single-season playoff save percentage of .945, and that was Jonathan Quick posting a .946 in 2012. As you may recall, that was the year LA won the Stanley Cup and Quick's contribution to the championship was so large that he instantly went from being thought of as simply above-average to being spoken of in "possible Hall of Famer" conversations. As you may also recall, that LA team was a defensive juggernaut that was superb at suppressing opponents' scoring chances -- so much so that the volume of high-danger chances Quick faced that spring was quite a bit less than Fleury has faced this spring.

In short, the performance we are witnessing this post-season from the man from Sorel-Tracy, Quebec is the stuff of which legends are made, and is likely the greatest run of playoff goaltending in the history of hockey. I hope people truly appreciate what they are seeing. As far as I'm concerned, unless he suddenly starts giving up 8 per game, Fleury should win the Conn Smythe regardless of whether Vegas wins or loses the Stanley Cup Final.

In my May 15, 2015 post I wrote the following about Alexander Ovechkin: "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... 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)... 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... 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."

Last season, many of the Ovechkin haters critics delighted in declaring that he was in decline because he scored "only" 33 goals. Maybe they failed to notice that 33 was the 8th highest total in a league that had more than 600 skaters with ice time that season. And, well, this season saw Ovechkin rack up 49 goals to lead the league by a comfortable margin (second place Patrik Laine had 44) while also dishing out 38 assists to finish with more than a point per game while not missing a single contest.

Alexander Ovechkin entered the league in 2005 and this is his 13th season. Until last night, his haters crititics relished bringing up the fact that his team had never gotten past the second round of the playoffs despite usually being an elite team and not-infrequently entering the playoffs with the league's best record. Well, that argument is no more, because this season his Washington Capitals have made it not only past the second round but also past the third and all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, slaying their nemesis (Pittsburgh) along the way. He is averaging more than a point per game these playoffs with a total of 22 (12 goals, 10 assists) in 19 games.

We are talking about a legendary generational talent who has performed at all levels and in all situations, but through the whims of circumstances and bounces has yet to win a Stanley Cup, World Championship, or Olympic gold with which to shine and cement his legacy. But now, with his 33rd birthday lurking less than four months away, Ovie has a palpable chance to win the most hallowed award of that triumvirate, and to do it while leading the charge instead of just occupying a roster spot. How can you not like that?

My Lightning Indulgence, Part II
The team with the best record in the NHL (Nashville) did not make it even to the conference finals, and the team with the second best record (Winnipeg) did not make it past the conference finals. That tells you all you need to know about how Lord Stanley's Cup is the hardest trophy to win in all of professional sports. It also tells you why I am not going to write a histrionic obituary of my Bolts, and am not going to lambaste them for not getting more than three rounds into this year's playoffs, like I did on Facebook in 2016.

Here's the thing: The Lightning did not even make the playoffs last year, but this year they made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Final and during the playoffs they eliminated their longtime nemesis and most-hated rival (Boston) when most people (including me) thought they could not. And they did not lie down and quit last night -- they played fast and hard and created chances -- but when it came down to it, they simply lost to a better team, and that better team is the one that deserved to win.

I would rather lose with this roster than win with another. This is our team and they went down swinging, not whimpering, but hockey is a sport that is capricious and comes at you with margins that are sliced indescribably thin, which, let's be honest, is why we love it.

If Yanni Gourde had gotten his stick on that perfect feed from Victor Hedman with the net wide open, Game Seven two nights ago would have been tied and Washington would not have gotten that pivotal two-goal lead that cast the dye. If that earlier shot by Hedman had been on a trajectory just a centimeter different, it would have gone in instead of hitting the post, and the game would have been tied and Washington would not have gotten that dye-casting two-goal lead. If Alex Killorn had buried that breakaway instead of  Braden Holtby getting his blocker on it, Washington's 2-0 lead would have been halved to 2-1 with more than a period left to play, and who knows?

But like Stephen King said, "If is the only word a thousand letters long." Damn it hurts. But when we think back on this season, we should also remember what John Cougar Mellencamp said: "Hurt so good."

This was a good season for the Bolts and a good post-season as well, and those of us who are Bolts fans must not lose sight of that. Some of my fellow fans need to step back from the cliff, because I have heard them on the radio saying that management needs to blow up the roster and that stalwart players like Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov don't have what it takes. Come the fuck on people, you have no idea what you're talking about.

Stamkos scored goals in four straight games (and five of six) overlapping the Boston and Washington series. Kucherov is only 24 and has already accounted for 59 points in 62 playoff games (that's .952 per playoff game, compared to Pavel Datsyuk's .720) and his playoff goals include some of the most clutch in franchise history.

There are 31 teams in the NHL, and seeing as how it is hard just to make the playoffs, basically half of them, including some very good ones, get eliminated from Stanley Cup contention before the post-season even starts... And then the post-season is a brutal war of attrition with, as I said above, margins that are sliced indescribably thin... By the time the post-season gets rolling, there are maybe only a half-dozen teams with a realistic chance of hoisting the grail, and basic math tells you that one divided by six is 0.166 -- so even if your team is one of those "realistic" contenders and you eliminate all the other contenders from the mix, the odds that your team will not win the Cup are still more than 83 percent. That is a rather astronomical number to overcome.

In other words, if you let your emotions run away with your brain, and let them tell you that the only way you can be satisfied is if your team wins it all, you have set yourself up for misery. Why would you do that when you don't even play for "your team" and you cannot influence the outcome of even one game? Actually, I shouldn't pose that as a question because I too used to set myself up like that. But I don't do it anymore, and for that I am thankful.

Yet I still hate, almost literally, that my Bolts came up short. Am I making sense?

Count me among the people who complain that the Golden Knights are not a "real" expansion team because the 2017 expansion draft rules were designed to make it easy for them to field a competitive and even winning team right out of the gate. And because those rules ensured that they would not have to experience the growing pains that other franchises had to experience, like my Bolts starting in 1992.

But do not count me among the people who think that the Golden Knights' story is less inspiring because of what I wrote above. They are still an expansion team that did not even have a roster less than a year ago, whose players had not played together until less than a year ago and were in many cases cast off or given up on by their old teams. Yet here they are. My better angels tell me "God bless them because they deserve this" -- but my demons tell me "to Hell with their fans because they had it easy and have no idea how hard it is to get this far."

There is some talk that the Stanley Cup Final will prove to be Alexander Ovechkin versus Marc-Andre Fleury. That makes sense and is not entirely illogical, but don't buy it. There is Evgeny Kuznetsov flapping his arms like a bird every time he scores. There is Jonathan Marchessault solidifying his shoulda-see-it-coming evolution from overachieving fourth-liner to bona fide first-line star. There is Braden Holtby redeeming himself by finally having a post-season to match all those stellar regular seasons he has had this decade. There is Vegas coach Gerard Gallant (who once played for the Lightning!) showing his previous employer (those damn Florida Panthers!) that they are fools for having let him go. And there is Washington coach Barry Trotz finally getting four rounds in after all those years not getting past the second round.

Then there is Vegas general manager George McPhee. He spent 17 years as general manager of the Caps from 1997 to 2014 before being let go largely because no Cup materialized during his tenure. It was in those years that he made his name, and he drafted many of the players who make up the Caps' current roster. Today, one year into his tenure with the Knights, he will watch his current club battle his old club for the trophy he has yet to win despite all his years doing very well at his craft. On a radio interview last week I heard him say, with an unmistakable longing in his voice, that "I'd like to experience it at least once."

And check this out: The man who now has McPhee's old job in Washington -- Brian MacLellan -- was his college roommate at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where they played NCAA hockey after both being born and raised north of the border in Guelph, Ontario.

Who should you root for? Take your pick. There are good reasons to root for either the Knights or the Caps, but I am cheering for the Caps even though they eliminated my Lightning. Their fans have been hurting for years and Ovechkin deserves a Cup. Vegas's fans have not bled like those in our nation's capital, and if we are keeping this on the Ovie-versus-Fleury track, Fleury already has three Cups.

Bring it!

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