Friday, May 11, 2018

Second One Won & Done

Some more thoughts about this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs, now that the second round is in the books...

Central Division Classic
I have written before about how many conference finals have proved to be more thrilling than the Stanley Cup Finals which followed. But this year's showdown between Winnpeg and Nashville was the first incidence I can immediately recall in which a conference semi-final proved to be so classically thrilling. I guess that's what happens when the NHL's relatively new numbskull insistence on divisional playoff bracketing within each conference forces the top two seeds to meet in the conference semis instead of the conference finals, but let's not focus on that right now.

Instead let's focus on how wonderfully see-saw this battle was between a team from the Deep South and a team from the True North. It was so see-saw that it ended with neither team winning two straight. It was so see-saw that Pekka Rinne shut the Jets out in Winnipeg in Game Six, marking the first time all season they were shut out at home, yet he also gave up so many goals that he got sent to the bench during Games One, Five, and Seven. It was so topsy-turvy that the home teams won only two of the seven contests. It was so wild that in Game Three, the Jets transformed a 3-0 deficit at the start of the second period into a 4-3 lead by the end of the second period. It had high-scoring battles (5-4, 7-4) but also blowouts (4-0, 6-2) and even one contest in which the Preds got a lead then ground things down to a slow, halting, 2-1 final score as if they had mistaken themselves for the 1995 New Jersey Devils.

This series had it all. Both clubs exhibited speed, skill, physicality, and depth. Both featured a Vezina finalist in their net and a black man as their #1 defenseman. "Tennessee's Team" had a top forward line with nothing but Swedes, while "Canada's Team" had six Americans play starring roles. And it went to Game Seven, because of course it had to go to Game Seven, kind of like Colorado and Detroit back in the day. And man oh man was it good.

But man oh man, the victors, those Winnipeg Jets, better not win the Stanley Cup. Because if they do, that would mean my Tampa Bay Lightning do not. Speaking of which...

My Lightning Indulgence
I have been a Bolts fan since Day One, more than 25 years ago, and short of their triumph in the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals, there might never have been a playoff series triumph sweeter than the one they just wrapped up over their proverbial white whale, the hated Boston Bruins.

It is too easy to say that the Bruins defeated the Lightning in three of their four regular season showdowns this season, and to cite the even more staggering statistic that prior to these playoffs the Lightning had won only 8 of the 54 games they had ever played against the Bruins in TD Garden. The big story was not the statistics -- it was the sheer arrogance with which the Bruins conducted themselves in seemingly every game against Tampa Bay prior to the last couple weeks, the way they always seemed to have their way with the Lightning even if the latter were ostensibly the better club.

But this time around, when it mattered more than it has since they met in the 2011 Eastern Conference Final, Tampa Bay came as close as it is possible to come to dominating a 112-point team. After the Bruins won Game One by a convincing score of 6-2, the Bolts flipped the tables and did the unthinkable by beating them four games in a row, including back-to-back in TD Garden, to chuck them out of the playoffs and deposit their ursine carcass on the side of the road.

It was not easy, of course. Game Four went to overtime and required a third period one-timer from Steven Stamkos to get there, after the Bolts had squandered a 2-0 lead and fallen behind 3-2. And the final scores in Games Three and Five were padded by last-minute empty-net goals. But it was as close to domination as possible, with multiple Tampa Bay players scoring at key times and with the team as a whole playing such strong D that it put a stranglehold on the Bruins and kept them from setting up in the offensive zone. Boston did not manage even a single even-strength goal in the final three games of the series.

'Tis time to forget about Brad Marchand licking Ryan Callahan's face, and to instead remember that Marchand was held to a single, pitiful, not-on-goal shot attempt in the decisive Game Five. 'Tis time to remember that Callahan played like a possessed shot-blocking matchine, and that he personally killed off at least 20 seconds of a Boston power play late in Game Five by pinning the puck against the wall deep in the Bruins' own end when they still had a chance to tie the game. 'Tis time to remember that Ondrej Palat prevented Patrice Bergeron from getting off a shot on a breakaway late in Game Five (which could have tied it up) by getting his stick under Bergeron's and lifting it up away from the ice and away from the puck. 'Tis time to remember that Tampa Bay was the more physical squad, that they hit hard and rattled the Bruins and beat them at their own bruising game.

Who knows if the Lightning will win the Cup, or even the Eastern Conference? Right now all we know is that they are one of an even smaller group of contenders than we originally thought existed -- and that they are better than the bullies from Beantown. Buh-bye, Boston.

Conn Smythe Talk
When you are halfway through the post-season, you have seen enough to start recklessly opining about which player from each team would win the trophy for the league's post-season MVP if these playoffs were to end right now, so here I go.

Tampa Bay Lightning - Brayden Point:  He has been a money player both offensively and defensively, spearheading the Bolts' designated shutdown line and successfully shutting down not only Boston's vaunted top line but also New Jersey's high-scoring superstar Taylor Hall. But Point is much more than just a shutdown guy, he's also a point-per-game offensive star with four goals and six assists in ten playoff games -- including two supremely clutch goals with his Game Four undressing of Zdeno Chara and Game Five hexing of Tuukka Rask. He sports a splendid shooting percentage of 17.4 this post-season.

Vegas Golden Knights - Marc-Andre Fleury:  In ten games, Fleury has pitched four shutouts, while flaunting a .951 save percentage and surrendering a paltry 1.53 goals per game, enabling his team to advance to the Western Conference Finals while barely breaking a sweat during either Round One or Round Two. And his infectiously relaxed and winning demeanor affects his teammates by giving them the confidence to do what they need to do, secure in the knowledge that if they take a calculated risk that goes bad, he will be there to make it right. Damn. Just damn.

Washington Capitals - Alexander Ovechkin:  This team captain and generational talent guaranteed that Washington would come back from a 2-0 series deficit in the first round against Columbus. Then he delivered, and then he kept delivering. Two rounds in, Ovie leads the Caps in goals (8) and points (15) and has proved to be just as adept at setting up others as he is at sniping his own shots into the twine: He assisted on two of the game-winners in the Pittsburgh series, including Evgeny Kuznetsov's series-winning overtime tally that put the Caps in the conference finals for the first time in 20 years.

Winnipeg Jets - Dustin Byfuglien:  Big Buff has had big impact since the puck dropped to raise the curtain on this post-season. He has done it with menacing hits and rock-solid defense that imposes his will on opponents and takes half the ice away from them. And he has done it with key contributions on offense as well, turning in several multi-point games, including that Game Three comeback against Nashville, which he punctuated with dance moves after scoring the go-ahead goal that turned their 3-0 deficit into a 4-3 lead.

Peter Laviolette's decision to pull Pekka Rinne, less than 11 minutes into the first period of last night's Game Seven, is getting much less criticism than it deserves. It strikes me as one of the most panicky quick-trigger-finger moves I've ever seen, considering that five-sixths of the game remained to be played and only two goals had been scored, and that Rinne is Mr. Predtaor Himself and likely to win the Vezina. I have to believe that Nashville's players noticed their coach's lack of confidence and that it affected them. Laviolette is a great coach with a Cup ring to his name, but that was a bad move last night... But still, looking at how Winnipeg played, the Preds almost certainly weren't going to win even if Laviolette hadn't panicked. He simply increased their odds of defeat from 95 percent to 100 percent. I see no weaknesses on the Jets. None. Nada.

Washington is for real. Braden Holtby is finally having a post-season that matches the kind of regular seasons he always put up when he was a perennial Vezina candidate, and Washington's skaters are playing with the kind of self-assuredness that was once lacking back when they were weighed down by the expectations brought on by league-leading regular seasons. And conventional wisdom is often wrong, and conventional wisdom says Tampa Bay has the Eastern Conference Finals in the bag. This combination makes me nervous... But if everything else remains as it has, the Bolts should prevail in the end (albeit after a long and difficult struggle) because they have a little more depth at forward and a lot more depth on defense.

Winnipeg, like I said, has no weaknesses I can see, so they should beat Vegas... But that series will also not be short, because Vegas has speed and confidence and is playing with nothing to lose. And because they have Marc-Andre Fleury, who (see above) is playing so well that he could prove to be the greatest equalizer or table-turner in many years.

And now...
...bring it, and let the games begin. In less than two hours!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I needed to thank you for this very good read!! I definitely enjoyed every bit of it.
I have you book-marked to look at new stuff you post…