Month: May 2017

NHL playoff series digested: Washington Capitals – Toronto Maple Leafs (4-2)

On paper, the clash between the two-time defending Presidents’ trophy winners and the upstart Toronto Maple Leafs was considered the most lopsided in the first batch of matchups, however reality painted a much different outlook: through six games of electrifying, fast-paced hockey, startling changes of momentum and copious amounts of overtime drama, Washington and Toronto actually cobbled together the most compelling series of the opening round.

In the end, though, the Leafs succumbed on the verge of forcing a do-or-die Game 7, and Washington moved on to the much-anticipated rematch with Pittsburgh.

Series Results:

Game 1: Toronto Maple Leafs 2 @ 3 Washington Capitals (OT)

Game 2: Toronto Maple Leafs 4 @ 3 Washington Capitals (2 OT)

Game 3: Washington Capitals 3 @ 4 Toronto Maple Leafs (OT)

Game 4: Washington Capitals 5 @ 4 Toronto Maple Leafs

Game 5: Toronto Maple Leafs 1 @ 2 Washington Capitals (OT)

Game 6: Washington Capitals 2 @ 1 Toronto Maple Leafs (OT)

 

Determined Capitals dictated the tempo when the finish line twinkled on the horizon

The greatest discrepancy between the two sides related to playoff experience, but in the flow of the action that factor was mostly muted by the pulsating youthful exuberance emanating from the Leafs setup, as the teams amounted for the same number of even strength goals (13-13) over the series and Toronto actually edged Washington in total shots on goal (213-211).

However, not all moments are created equal and the Capitals’ resolve and familiarity in high-pressure situations eventually came to the fore late in the series, not incidentally at the same time the Leafs slowly eschewed their underdog mentality and thoughts of completing the upset creeped in.

That much was evident in Game 5 overtime, when the Leafs were a shot away from getting back home one win away from round two and they conceded the winner less than 1 minute into the extra period. Two nights later, after a lucky bounce and Auston Matthews’ sublime execution gave them the lead in the third period, Toronto allowed the Capitals to take over the game right away, tying just five minutes later and monopolizing the play in overtime (6-0 SCF, 5-1 SOG, 9-1 CF) until Marcus Johansson struck the final dagger.

Marcus Johansson pots home the rebound goal in OT to lift the Capitals past the Maple Leafs in Game 6 (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

With five games decided in extra time and a narrow 3-2 record in favour of the Capitals, we can’t definitely ascertain Washington’s supremacy in key situations, as the Leafs rallied back more than once and took Game 2 in the second overtime of a back and forth contest (15-15 SOG in OT), but it’s fair to stress the Capitals eventually found a gear the Leafs simply didn’t possess.

Washington’s star players answered the call

After a badly timed penalty allowed the Leafs to bag Game 3 in overtime and jump to a 2-1 advantage in the series, the whispers regarding yet another impending Capitals collapse took on a life of their own. In times like these, it’s up to a team’s core group to find a way to right the ship and Washington’s top dogs came through, revelling on the challenge.

In Game 4, first-line wingers TJ Oshie and Alex Ovechkin (PP) gave the Capitals a commanding two-goal lead just five minutes in to settle the rowdy Air Canada Center, and in the third period Oshie added an insurance marker less than one minute after Auston Matthews cut the lead to 4-3, securing a crucial away victory to level the series.

Then, in Game 5, the top powerplay unit manufactured the 1-0 tally before the second line (M Johansson/E. Kuznetsov/J. Williams) vanquished the opposition in their inaugural overtime shift, setting the stage for some more Game 6 heroics, when the trio tied the game with 7 minutes to go in regulation and later buried the Leafs in overtime.

Justin Williams (#14) and Marcus Johansson celebrate after scoring the deciding goal in Game 5 (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Overall, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, TJ Oshie, Marcus Johansson, Evgeni Kuznetsov and Justin Williams accounted for 14 of the Capitals’ 18 goals and 30 pts in 6 games. No surprise at all those numbers were sufficient to get the team over the hump when goaltender Braden Holtby decided to get in on the act, allowing just two goals on 63 shots faced in Games 5 and 6 after being light up 14 times in the first four matches.

Blueline depth helped turn around the series

Despite boasting a better mix this season, namely with the addiction of Kevin Shattenkirk, Washington’s defence struggled to contain the speed of the young Maple Leafs throughout the opening matches, not unlike what happened against the Pittsburgh Penguins last spring.

However, providentially, this time Barry Trotz stumbled onto the solution when Karl Alzner went down with an injury after Game 2 and he had to turn his sights towards 25-year-old Nate Schmidt. Fleet of foot and incomparably more apt moving the puck, Schmidt drew in alongside John Carlson for Game 3 and the pair would blend into one of the major driving forces behind the Capitals’ improvement, tilting the ice with bravado (close to 60% CF and SCF%) and featuring in six goals for and just one against over the next four games.

Washington’s defenseman Nate Schmidt takes the stick of Toronto’s Leo Komarov in front of Braden Holtby’s net (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Their success balanced Washington’s defensive unit and it wasn’t long before they started being trotted out behind the top forward line (TJ Oshie/N. Backstrom/A. Ovechkin), preserving the duo M. Niskanen/D. Orlov for the unenviable task of shadowing Auston Matthews as soon as the American prodigy caught fire from Game 3 onwards.

Meanwhile, on the other side, the injury bug also made its victims and Mike Babcock wasn’t as fortunate papering over the cracks. Without top four blueliner Nikita Zaitsev for the first two games and with Roman Polak knocked off the series in Game 2, he was cornered into playing Matt Hunwick (-4) alongside Morgan Rielly and frequent healthy scratch Martin Marincin on the third pair, exposing his team way more than intended. Evidently, it didn’t end well.

Best players in the series

TJ Oshie (Washington Capitals)

The 30-year-old winger was a ubiquitous presence in the thick of the action, clocking 16 hits and 11 blks, and he has the offensive numbers to back up his importance in the outcome of the series.

His 7 points and 21:25 min of TOI/GP led all forwards, and the three goals he scored proved vital to flip the script following Game 3, as Oshie broke the ice in the next two matches and neatly took advantage of a defensive miscue to wire the eventual game-winner in Game 4.

Auston Matthews (Toronto Maple Leafs)

After a 40-goal rookie campaign, the Maple Leafs saviour took a pair of playoff games to get into the groove before the goals started spilling out again.

Toronto’s Auston Matthews (#34) prepares to pass the puck after pulling away from a couple of Capitals’ players (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Matthews scored in four consecutive games and added one assist to collect a total of five even strength points – tied for the series lead with Nicklas Backstrom – in 20:18 min TOI/ GP, most amongst Leafs forwards.

Moreover, in spite of going head-to-head with the dynamic Evgeni Kuznetsov line, the 19-year-old finished with a +2 rating and positive possession (53.45 CF%) and scoring chances (51.82 SCF%) stats, which is also a testament to the work of his teammates Zach Hyman (4 pts, 21 hits) and William Nylander (4 pts, +4, team-best 58.94 CF%).

Will the Toronto Maple Leafs return to the playoffs next year? 

Definitely…or the centre of the hockey world may lose its collective mind. In Year Two of the Auston Matthews Era, just reaching the playoffs would be small potatoes, so anything less than a first playoff series win since 2004 won’t sooth the mob.

In order to achieve it, and perhaps stake a claim for the top divisional seed, GM Lou Lamoriello can count on a ton of cap space and impressive flexibility moving forward, as the Leafs have some 11-12M to work with for 2017-18 plus 10.55M in cap relief from the incapacitated Nathan Horton and Joffrey Lupul. That’s more than enough to pluck in a decent backup for Frederik Andersen, bring back RFAs Connor Brown and Zach Hyman, retain or substitute UFA defensemen Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick, and have a fair shot at keeping hulking 4th line centre Brian Boyle.

Maple Leafs’ Center Tyler Bozak is mobbed by teammates after notching the OT winner in Game 3 (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

Furthermore, the remaining money could be stashed for later, when they’ll have a clearer picture on the second contracts of William Nylander (RFA 2018), Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner (both RFA 2019), or used to accommodate an impact addiction on the backend that could solidify the roster. James Van Riemsdyk (UFA 2018) and defenseman Jake Gardiner (UFA 2019) are attractive pieces to dangle or keep as part of the core moving forward, while Tyler Bozak’s (UFA 2018) stint in Toronto is presumably approaching the end.

Anyway, regardless of all decision to come, the Leafs are set up nicely, with just three players locked long term – Nazem Kadri (2022), Morgan Rielly (2022) and Zaitsev’s new deal at 4.5M until 2024 – supplemented by the 1.2M due to Phil Kessel for five more seasons. No doubt whatsoever: The good times are coming back to the margins of Lake Ontario.

*For an explanation of the “advanced statistics” terminology cited on this article, read Corsica’s glossary. Unless stated otherwise, all data refers to 5-on-5 play and was retrieved from Corsica.hockey (currently down), Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com.

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NHL playoff series digested: Ottawa Senators – Boston Bruins (4-2)

Enmeshed until the waning days of the regular season in a battle for home ice advantage in the first round, the Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins – divisional opponents since 1993 – secured the second and third places in the Atlantic Division to lock horns in the postseason for the first time ever.

The three point gap between the teams in the final standings foresaw a close series and expectations hardly could have been more on point. After six thrilling games, all decided by one goal and four only settled after extra time, the Sens took advantage of a battered foe to advance to the second round for the first time since 2013.

Series Results:

Game 1: Boston Bruins 2 @ 1 Ottawa Senators

Game 2: Boston Bruins 3 @ 4 Ottawa Senators (OT)

Game 3: Ottawa Senators 4 @ 3 Boston Bruins (OT)

Game 4: Ottawa Senators 1 @ 0 Boston Bruins

Game 5: Boston Bruins 3 @ 2 Ottawa Senators (2 OT)

Game 6: Ottawa Senators 3 @ 2 Boston Bruins (OT)

 

Superlative Erik Karlsson shreds Boston apart

It’s a rare occurrence in the unique battleground of the Stanley Cup playoffs, but from time to time we get to witness it. A player emerges from the mist of two conflicting 20-men factions to define a playoff series, inspire his side to victory, and cement a legacy with an extraordinary performance for the ages. In this series, Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson ascended to that rarefied pantheon, and on his way the two-time Norris trophy winner defeated the last sceptics, who now understand the tag “generational player” suits him just fine.

In fact, the 26-year-old defenseman turned an entire series on its head with three mindboggling plays in consecutive games, as a looming 2-0 series lead for the Bruins morphed into a commanding 3-1 advantage for Ottawa due to the power of his sheer brilliance.

Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson tries to contain the progress of David Pastrnak in Game 5 (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

To wit, first he ambled at the top of the zone before firing a gorgeous cross ice feed for Derrick Brassard’s game tying goal in the third period of Game 2. Then, he wired a physics-defying, jaw-dropping 116-feet long, 10-foot high, saucer pass from behind his goal line that landed perfectly on the tape of a darting Mike Hoffman, who converted on the breakaway to open the score in Game 3. Finally, he delivered a flawless, one-timed slap pass right on the tape of Bobby Ryan for the game winning goal late in Game 4.

Still, beyond all the highlight-reel moments, the Swedish rover was an absolute rock on the backend, accounting for a 67.46 adj. SCF% and 58.74 adj CF% (+11.37 rel CF%), picking up 12 hits, 12 blks and 6 total assists while skating to a +3 in 30:23 mins per game – tops amongst all players in round one. And all this in spite of enduring the excruciating pain caused by two hairline fractures in his left heel…

Boston gets punished for lack of composure late

Digging into the numbers, we may recognize the Senators were marginally better (187-165 SOG, 51.02 adj.CF%, 49.97 adj. xG%, 57.14 GF%) than the Bruins, yet the series arguably lurched Ottawa’s way because of Boston’s inability to stay out of the box in the dying minutes of action.

For instance, in Game 2, the experienced Zdeno Chara committed a delay of game infraction with just 13 seconds left in the third period and OT in sight. The Bruins penalty killing unit allowed their captain to return, but the Sens kept them hemmed in and just 10 seconds later a Dion Phaneuf blast flew past Tuukka Rask to tie the series at 1-1.

Senators players react after Dion Phaneuf’s overtime goal in Game 2 as the puck rests behind Tuukka Rask (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

In the following game, Bruins forward Riley Nash got involved in a skirmish with Bobby Ryan in extra time and was sanctioned with an unnecessary roughing penalty. On the ensuing powerplay, the same Ryan worked a two-on-one with Mark Stone to seal the deal and give Ottawa the series lead.

That’s two victories handed on a platter, and one would think the Bruins would be extra-careful from then on, but they weren’t finished undermining their own chances.

In Game 4, with the Senators clinging to a 1-0 lead and just over four minutes to go, a “Too many men” punishment was issued to the Bruins bench, stifling a reaction that could have found a crack at any time, while, in Game 5, a similar penalty put the Sens on the powerplay with just 2:28 minutes to go in the third. However, Boston managed to kill it with the season on the line, and escaped again on a Patrice Bergeron interference call just before gutting out a victory in the second OT to extend the series to six.

It was as far as it would go, though, as their luck run out when a holding penalty assessed to David Pastrnak five minutes into Game 6 overtime was quickly converted by Clarke MacArthur into the series-winner.

Goal-scorer Clarke MacArthur (#16) and teammates Bobby Ryan and Mike Hoffman rejoice after the series deciding goal in Game 6 OT (Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

The toll of Boston’s injuries proved too much to handle

The last few days of the regular season were nefarious for the Bruins roster, with powerplay quarterback Torey Krug and top pairing defenseman Brandon Carlo knocked out due to injuries, and things didn’t get any easier when the playoffs rolled around.

After playing just three minutes in Game 2, Adam McQuaid, a penalty kill stalwart, also went down with an upper-body injury and, as a consequence, coach Bruce Cassidy was forced to overplay his hand. He gave rookie Charlie McAvoy and usual third-pairing blueliner Kevan Miller over 25 mins of ice time per game, inserted 24-year-old Joe Morrow into the top four on his maiden playoff campaign, and drained 40-year-old Zdeno Chara, who logged an inappropriate 28:45 mins per game. The Captain and McAvoy were still able to keep the Sens at bay (54.72 adj CF%, SCF 8-6, GF 1-3), but the other pairs (Morrow/K. Miller and Liles/C. Miller) suffered with the skill scattered down the Sens lineup.

Meanwhile, up front, the scenario didn’t look more promising as second line center David Krejci missed the first two games of the series, only to drop out again after a knee-on-knee hit in the first period of Game 5. The Czech left a major hole behind the top line of Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak which David Backes tried to fill, but he could only leave a mark in Game 5, when his unit – comprising newcomers Sean Kuraly and Tim Schaller – scored twice.

Boston’s Brad Marchand is denied by a sprawling Craig Anderson in Game 4 (Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Pastrnak teamed up with Krejci in Games 3 and 4 as Backes joined Bergeron and Marchand to some success (57.8 adj CF%, SCF 8-1, GF 1-0), yet the Bruins were actually shut out in the latter encounter and couldn’t muster enough offense, top to bottom, to progress.

It certainly didn’t help their cause that 39-goal man Marchand, Pastrnak, who amassed 70 pts during his breakout season, and Bergeron only combined for five total goals, but the problems simply rumbled much deeper, as attested by the fact that Sean Kuraly was their only two-time goal scorer at even strength.

Best players in the series

Erik Karlsson (Ottawa Senators)

We’ve already documented how Erik Karlsson towered over everyone else in this series, but Ottawa was far from a one-band crew, boasting a couple of high scoring forwards that made their fair share to deserved a slice of the spotlight.

With 8 points (2 goals) in six games, center Derrick Brassard was the top scoring non-Penguins player in the first round to substantiate the gamble Ottawa took on him last summer, while Bobby Ryan emerged from an anonymous regular season – he failed to register a point in 12 of the last 13 games – to collect 7 points and 4 vital goals, including two game winners, in just 15:54 min TOI/GP (8th most amongst Sens forwards).

Senators forward Derrick Brassard celebrates after scoring the tying goal in Game 2 (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

Last but definitely not least, a shout-out to the martyrized Clarke MacArthur, who returned from two years battling concussions in time to score in Game 2 and draw the penalty that would allow him to finish off the proceedings in Game 6.

Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins)

With Boston’s big guns unable to light up the scoresheet, it’s far from a stretch to appoint the 19-year-old rookie as the best player during the Bruins’ short postseason run.

Signed to an NHL deal just a couple of days before the playoffs and rushed to the lineup due to multiple absences on the backend, the 14th overall pick in the 2016 draft had an amazing debut, logging 24:11 minutes and crucially holding the puck in the offensive zone before Marchand buried the game-winner, and kept impressing throughout the series.

Patrolling the ice alongside Zdeno Chara on the top pair and anchoring the main powerplay unit, McAvoy was pressed into many high-stakes situations as part of his heavy usage (26:11 min TOI/GP) and, for the most part, didn’t look overwhelmed, picking up three assists, driving possession better than any other Bruins defenseman (51.44 adj CF%, 60.08 adj. CF%) and taking care of the puck (just 1 giveaway to 6 takeaways). It was definitely a mouth-watering performance from a player that will be a cornerstone of Boston’s defence for years to come.

Charlie McAvoy (L) and David Pastrnak (R) exult after a Bruins powerplay goal in Game 3 (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Will the Boston Bruins return to the playoffs next year? 

Similarly to their rivals from Montreal, the Bruins won’t have their work cut out for them in the wide-open Atlantic Division, but they might just be able to sneak in if Rask doesn’t slip, their in-flux defence holds up and there are no decisive injuries up front.

In Tuukka Rask (UFA 2020), David Krejci (2021), Brad Marchand (2024), Patrice Bergeron (2024) and David Backes (2021), the Bruins have their building blocks in place even if all are already past the age of 30, except for Marchand (29) and RFA David Pastrnak (20), whose extension should be the team’s first order of business this offseason.

The Czech may be looking at upwards to 6.5M per year on a 7 or 8-year deal, and he will significantly whittle down the Bruins’ ability to add elsewhere, since they have just 10M in cap space and only Matt Beleskey (3.8M until 2020…) and Jimmy Hayes (2.3M) lined up as clear-cut options to trim. Drew Stafford and Dominic Moore are cheap veterans the team may try to resign, while RFAs Noel Acciari, Tim Schaller and Ryan Spooner have arbitration rights, with the latter perhaps in need of a change of scenery.

Patrice Bergeron, Charlie McAvoy, Ryan Spooner, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak (L-R) greet their teammates on the bench (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

On the blueline, Zdeno Chara is staring at, probably, his last NHL season as his contract ends in 2018 and the Bruins should hand the keys to Torey Krug (2020) and youngsters Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy (both RFAs in 2019). Meanwhile, John Michael Liles (UFA) and Joe Morrow (RFA) could return for another season where additional fresh blood should be piped into the lineup, including well-regarded prospects Matt Grzelcyk (a MA-native) and Rob O’Gara.

In goal, Anton Khudobin has one year left on his contract (1.2M) but his spot is far from safe after a poor season, as Don Sweeney may well look to save a few bucks if he believes either Malcolm Subban or Zane McIntyre, both RFAs, can do a better job or a solid veteran backup becomes available.

*For an explanation of the “advanced statistics” terminology cited on this article, read Corsica’s glossary. Unless stated otherwise, all data refers to 5-on-5 play and was retrieved from Corsica.hockey (currently down), Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com.

NHL playoff series digested: Montreal Canadiens – New York Rangers (2-4)

Three years after a contentious battle at the 2014 Eastern Conference Final, the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers clashed once again in the postseason, with Habs fans still acrimonious about Chris Kreider’s hit on Carey Price that helped tilt the ice last time.

By virtue of being a Division winner, Montreal held home ice even if the Rangers actually amassed more points during the regular season to pick up the first Wild Card in the East and thus cross over to the Atlantic Division’s section of the bracket. For many, that meant an easier path to the Conference Finals and the outcome of this first round encounter didn’t rebuff those opinions, with New York taking out Montreal in six games to extend their lead to 9-7 in the all-time playoff series record between these two “Original Six” franchises.

Series Results:

Game 1: New York Rangers 2 @ 0 Montreal Canadiens

Game 2: New York Rangers 3 @ 4 Montreal Canadiens (OT)

Game 3: Montreal Canadiens 3 @ 1 New York Rangers

Game 4: Montreal Canadiens 1 @ 2 New York Rangers

Game 5: New York Rangers 3 @ 2 Montreal Canadiens (OT)

Game 6: Montreal Canadiens 1 @ 3 New York Rangers

 

Montreal dearth of scoring threats undermined their chances of progressing

It’s a drum banged to exhaustion regarding this Canadiens team and something everyone but GM Marc Bergevin could see a mile coming, yet here we are. A team built around their star goalie, lacking in puck-moving skill on the blueline and dressing just a couple of high-end forwards up top failed to muster enough offense to sneak past the first round… shocking.

Despite dropping the shot battle in just one of six games and controlling 51.69% of adjusted shot attempts, Montreal accounted for less scoring chances (48.17 adj. SCF) than their opponents in this series and the lack of talent certainly played a part in that.

Max Pacioretty, Montreal’s top goalscorer, was one of the most frustrated Canadiens in the series (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

For instance, you can’t expect to go on a long run when your top line pivot is a player with 50 career points in 135 regular season games, no matter the decent enough job Phillip Danault (2 A,  57.61 adj. CF%) did driving the play between Alexander Radulov (7 pts) and the struggling Max Pacioretty (0 G, 1A).

Furthermore, on his second unit, Claude Julien meshed 34-year-old Tomas Plekanec, coming off a 28-pt regular season, Brendan Gallagher and the tenacious Paul Byron, who posted career-highs of 22 goals and 43 pts this season but lacks the toolbox of an offensive force. To the surprise of no one, the trio slumped to an adj. 45.05 CF% and was embarrassed in scoring chances differential (4-12, 25.0 SCF%) in just short of a full hour of five on five play.

Meanwhile, the talented Alex Galchenuyk started the series in the fourth unit, lining up with notable goal scoring threats such as Andreas Martinsen and Steve Ott, before finally replacing Dwight King alongside Andrew Shaw and rookie Artturi Lehkonen (2G, 4 pts). In 25 min of action, they carved a 58.17 adj. CF% but couldn’t make it count on the scoresheet.

Creating chaos in front of Henrik Lundqvist wasn’t enough to beat the Swede in most occasions (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Jeff Petry, paired with Jordie Benn, tried his best to provide a boost from the backend but the unit’s 58.90 adj. CF% and 15-8 SCF differential failed to deliver the goods (1-2 GF), while the veteran top pairing of Shea Weber and Andrei Markov (51.23 adj. CF%, 15-12 SCF, 3-2 G) had enough on his plate just trying to slow down the speed of the Rangers to further focus on offense. Ideally, the Canadiens would possess a dynamic, risk-taking difference maker on the blueline to support the rush, however Montreal hasn’t been lucky enough to fall into one. Or have they?

Henrik Lundqvist edges Carey Price in showdown of superstar goaltenders

The matchup between two of the NHL’s premier netminders, New York’s Lundqvist versus Montreal’s Price, was one the major calling cards in this series and the duel definitely lived up to the hype. Both man performed up to their standards in the heat of the tight six-game quarrel, yet Lundqvist managed to stand a bit taller as he pushed the Rangers over the top by delivering a vintage performance, which came on the heels of a regular season that bred scepticism over his ability to carry the team at age 35.

The “King” kicked off the playoffs on the right foot, pitching a shutout while Price let in a single goal to allow the Rangers to steal Game 1, and from there he masterfully withstood several instances where his team got outplayed. With just 11 goals conceded in 206 shots, Lundqvist amassed a dazzling 0.947 Sv% and 1.70 GAA in round one – numbers only surpassed by Pekka Rinne and Jake Allen – as well as an eye-popping 0.952 even-strength Sv%, among the best of his career over a playoff series. Moreover, his 0.902 HD Sv% looked mightily impressive as no other goalie faced more high-danger shots (41) against, contributing decisively to a league-best 6.68 GSAA (goals-saved above average) rating.

Henrik Lundqvist reacts to the empty net goal in Game 6, which sealed the Rangers series’ victory (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Conversely, Price laboured to a 0.933 overall Sv%, 0.936 EV Sv% and 1.86 GAA, all comfortably amongst the top half in the first round, but couldn’t come up with the extra save the Canadiens desperately needed in key situations. Case in point, we’ve referenced Tanner Glass’ eventual winner in Game 1, but may also mention Jesper Fast’s shorthanded tally to tie Game 5 or Matt Zuccarello’s short side marker in Game 6, the only powerplay goal Montreal’s goaltender allowed in fifteen opportunities.

It’s unfortunate for Price that the team in front bears such a narrow margin of error, yet his antagonist stole a game or two and he could not.

The Rangers speed finds a way to swing the momentum

In a series stuffed with nail-bitters and as tight as this one (12-11 NYR in terms of non-empty net goals), the winner usually emerges as a convergence of a few small details that add up for one side, and something as little as a minor change can function as a catalyst.

A few days after deciding Game 1 with a rare goal, fourth liner Tanner Glass was taken off the lineup with his team down 2-1 in the series and in need of a jolt. Youngster Pavel Buchnevich was slotted in by Alain Vigneault with a dual purpose: a complete reshuffling of the deck on offense, with four new lines breaking in to reset the matchups, and a return to the four-line rotation stocked with speed and skill that fuelled the Rangers in their early season success.

It was time to double down on their determination to skate the Habs out of the building and expose the lack of mobility on their defence, and it worked as the Rangers slowly turned the tide in the series at the same cadence their new combinations jelled.

Mats Zuccarello and fellow Rangers’ forwards celebrate the tying goal in Game 6 (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

New York dominated and won Game 4 – breaking a six-game losing streak at home in the playoffs – with the first goal stemming from a turnover forced by their hard-checking fourth line, featuring the likes of Michael Grabner, Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast. Later, they ripped further benefits in Game 5 overtime, when a gassed Montreal team scrambled to keep up with the Rangers until Mika Zibanejad’s unit (Chris Kreider and Buchnevich) sealed the deal as the shot counter flashed a NY 10-3 advantage in extra time. Then, in Game 6, the same line drew the penalty that originated the 1-1, before Mats Zuccarello, Kevin Hayes and JT Miller manufactured the second goal that would stand as the series-winner.

Best players in the series

Alexander Radulov (Montreal Canadiens)

With Max Pacioretty, his linemate and team captain, unable to break through all series, Alex Radulov stepped up to the task and was absolutely instrumental in Montreal’s two victories. In Game 2, he assisted on the late equalizer by Plekanec before barging to the net to jam in the overtime game winner, while in Game 3 he added one assist before generating a spectacular, highlight-reel goal that put the game away late in the third period.

Montreal’s Alexander Radulov is grabbed by teammates Shea Weber and Max Pacioretty after scoring the overtime winner in Game 2 (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

However, the Russian winger wasn’t satisfied and also featured prominently on the team’s solitary tallies in Games 4 and 6 to close the series with 2 goals and a team-high 7 pts, his strength and skill noticeable in every contest as he tried to carry the offense on his back. He missed out, but picked up a few more fans amongst the Habs faithful on the way home.

Henrik Lundqvist (New York Rangers)

We’ve documented the heroics of Lundqvist above and his numbers leave no room for discussion, yet a few other Rangers also filled critical roles to propel the team over the hill.

For example fellow Swede Mika Zibanejad, the only Rangers player to collect 4 points and scorer of a huge goal in the overtime of Game 5 to put his team on the verge of advancing. Or Matt Zuccarello, who potted three goals, including two in the series clincher, and led all Rangers forwards in ice-time (20:48min TOI/GP). Even the much-maligned Rick Nash, who barrelled his way to two goals and three even strength points, including the game-winning goal in Game 4, while playing relevant minutes in all situations, or bottom-line forward Jesper Fast, who also tallied twice, including a shorthanded goal, and ended up with a +5 rating.

Rangers’ forward Rick Nash scores on Carey Price in Game 2 (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

Will the Montreal Canadiens return to the playoffs next year? 

The answer to this question may well hinge on the moves GM Marc Bergevin is able to do this summer, since the Atlantic Division is overflowing with uncertainty and as much as six teams have a decent shot at winning the Division next season (Montreal, Boston, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Ottawa, Florida) if they play their cards right.

Montreal’s franchise player, Carey Price, is a UFA in 2018 and therefore the Canadiens time to strike is now. They currently have 22M in cap space but over half of it should be set aside for UFA Alex Radulov – should Bergevin agree to give him a long-term contract – and RFA Alex Galchenyuk. The 23-year-old completed a bridge contract worth 2.8 M per year, and might be looking to double that amount, yet his inconsistency and failure to stick at center may convince the Habs that a trade is the right course of action (it’s not).

If one or both forwards leave, the team may use its vast resources to plunder the market, where names like TJ Oshie and Martin Hanzal stick out. Moreover, don’t rule out a push for defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who would be a great replacement for veteran Andrei Markov (5.75M), an UFA whose time in Montreal may be ending at age 38.

Montreal’s Bell Center will be as raucous as ever next year regardless of the Habs’ ability to improve their roster in the offseason (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Elsewhere, the Canadiens have to decide whether to keep defenseman Nathan Beaulieu and Nikita Nesterov (both RFAs) or offer opportunities to their two best prospects, former first round picks Noah Juulsen (2015) and Mikhail Sergachev (2016), while depth forwards Dwight King, Brian Flynn, Andreas Martinsen and Steve Ott are UFAs whose permanence shouldn’t be a priority.

*For an explanation of the “advanced statistics” terminology cited on this article, read Corsica’s glossary. Unless stated otherwise, all data refers to 5-on-5 play and was retrieved from Corsica.hockey (currently down), Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com.

NHL playoff series digested: Pittsburgh Penguins – Columbus Blue Jackets (4-1)

The peculiarities of the NHL playoffs divisional format determined a 1st round confrontation between two of top four teams during the regular season as the Pittsburgh Penguins renewed hostilities with the Columbus Blue Jackets three years after their first and only postseason battle.

In 2014, after six hard-fought encounters, the Pens marched on by disposing of their industrious opponent, and the same fate was destined this time, with the firepower of the star-laden defending Champions proving too much for their rivals.

Series Results:

Game 1: Columbus Blue Jackets 1 @ 3 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 2: Columbus Blue Jackets 1 @ 4 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 3: Pittsburgh Penguins 5 @ 4 Columbus Blue Jackets (OT)

Game 4: Pittsburgh Penguins 4 @ 5 Columbus Blue Jackets

Game 5: Columbus Blue Jackets 2 @ 5 Pittsburgh Penguins

 

Columbus fails to capitalize on frantic road starts

Playing a perfect road game in the playoffs usually entails deference to a series of bullet points, and the first item on the list usually calls for a fast start that can temper the home crowd and harness the opponent’s grumble coming out of their locker room.

The Blue Jackets game plan in their playoff debut incorporated these notions and right from the hop they set out to follow it, especially with Marc-André Fleury forced to man the net for the Penguins after Matt Murray’s warmup injury. They wired 16 shots on goal to just 3 from Pittsburgh in the first period, but were unable to find the opener and would pay for it later. The home side scored three in the second to seize control and Game 1 fell to Pittsburgh.

In Game 2, a similar story. With eight minutes played, the Jackets held a 15-2 advantage in shot attempts but a blunder by Sergei Bobrovsky led to a Sidney Crosby tally, and the Penguins were once again in the lead despite making zilch to deserve it. Pittsburgh cruised to a 4-1 final scoreline and 2-0 advantage in the series.

Pittsburgh’s Olli Maatta knocks out a flying puck in front of his net to deny the Jackets an early goal in Game 5 (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

Back in Columbus, the Jackets stuck with their approach but his time reaped the dividends, scoring just 11 seconds into Game 3 and twice more in six minutes to rock their own building. They would let that match slip away, but not the ensuing Game 4, avoiding the sweep by riding their 2-0 advantage after twenty minutes.

However, in Game 5, with the chance to plant the seed of doubt on their opponent, the Jackets clocked six shot attempts in the first three minutes but again failed to make it count. Pittsburgh would score twice in the second period to jump in front and despite peppering Fleury with 51 shots on goal, Columbus wasn’t able to stave off elimination.

Sergei Bobrovsky’s Vezina-level play vanishes in the first round

Russian goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky was, arguably, the driving force behind Columbus franchise-record, 108-points regular season campaign. Still, his career playoff totals were mediocre entering this postseason and the Jackets just couldn’t afford another middling showing – he amassed a 3.17 GAA and 0.908 Sv% against the Pens in the 2013-14 series – if they hoped to outlast Pittsburgh.

Unfortunately for John Tortorella’s squad, the 28-year-old was even shoddier this time,  posting a 3.88 GAA – tied for worst amongst starters in the first round -, a 0.882 Sv% and 0.898 EV Sv% – both 2nd worst in the NHL – and conceding 10 goals in 37 high-danger shots against (0.729 Sv%). It was a calamitous performance that only Calgary’s Brian Elliot could match in round one, and helped amplify a woeful playoff trend for the Jackets, who have now allowed 3 or more goals in every one of their 15 playoff games.

The puck shot by Pittsburgh’s Tom Kuhnhackl finds the net behind Sergei Bobrovsky. Not a lot went well for Columbus’ All-Star goaltender (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

Individually, in 18 career playoff games (14 starts), Bobrovsky has collected just three wins and compiled a mediocre 3.63 GAA and 0.887 Sv%, numbers completely out of place measured against his massive 7.425M cap hit and simply unacceptable for a goalie of his rank.

The Penguins superstars took over when necessary

The Columbus Blue Jackets carried the play for most of the series, and while you can attribute some of it to score effects, it’s still difficult to explain how they lost in just five games despite a 194-171 edge in SOG or an adjusted 53.7 CF%, second best in the first round to the Minnesota Wild. As referred, the subpar goaltending of Sergei Bobrosvky was a key factor, but we also can’t dismiss the effect having elite offensive talent can have on the outcome. The gap between the teams is steep in that area and it showed.

With the help of a powerplay rolling at 33.3 % (5 of 15), Pittsburgh’s superstars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel accounted for six goals and 26 pts in five games, and most of those proved absolutely essential to save their team from tricky situations.

Penguins’ forward Phil Kessel reacts after scoring a PP goal in Game 1 (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Malkin (2 G, 9 A, 11 pts) and Kessel (2 G, 6 A, 8 pts) led all NHL players in points during the first round and their partnership at even strength (87.27 GF%) pulled the matchup in Pittsburgh’s way. The duo ended with a sparkling +7 rating and provided the basis for Bryan Rust’s four-goal tally across the series, which included the opener in Game 1, two goals in the second period of Game 3 to rally the team back to 3-3, and another marker in Game 5 to pad the score after Kessel’s short side snap shot with the man advantage broke the ice.

Meanwhile, Crosby (2 G, 5 A, -2 rating), riding alongside rookie Jake Guentzel, also found a way to contribute despite a bumpy matchup at even strength (48.27 CF%, 39 GF%, 46.32 SCF%), featuring on the team’s first two goals in Game 2 before dancing behind the net to set up Guentzel’s overtime winner in Game 3. Furthermore, the Penguins’ captain would put the exclamation point in the series with a powerplay blast that halted the Jackets’ comeback in Game 5.

Best players in the series

Jake Guentzel (Pittsburgh Penguins)

Pittsburgh’s rookie winger closed the regular season on a five-game goal spree and he sustained his form into the playoffs, becoming the first newcomer since Maurice Richard in 1944 to tally five times in his first four playoff games. Guentzel notched the GWG in Game 1 by finishing a two-on-one with Sidney Crosby, but the highlight was definitely the hat-trick in Game 3, which included two identical goals where he deftly banked the puck off Bobrovsky’s body plus the overtime decider on a quick flick from the slot.

At times, his line was goaded into a frenzy of odd-man rushes both ways and his -2 rating showcases that, but you can’t deny Guentzel’s productivity and impact on the series ending.

Pittsburgh’s Jake Guentzel (#59) and Sidney Crosby (#87) celebrate the Penguins second goal in Game 2 (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

William Karlsson (Columbus Blue Jackets)

The Jackets third line (Matt Calvert-William Karlsson-Josh Anderson) manufactured two goals in their Game 4 victory, significantly outperformed the opposition (51.32 CF%, 64.29 SCF%, 3-0 GF) and gave the Penguins fits throughout the series with its physicality, so it’s fair they get the spotlight here.

Karlsson, the 24-year-old center, tied for the team lead in goals (2), points (3), +/- (4) and even strength points (3), won a healthy 53.5% of his faceoffs, fired 12 shots on goal and soaked 2:16 min of shorthanded time per game, the most of any Columbus’ forward. Not bad for a playoff debutant.

Will the Columbus Blue Jackets return to the playoffs next year? 

In the highly competitive Metropolitan Division, only a couple of teams are safe from a severe tumble down the standings and the Jackets don’t strike as one, so it’s entirely possible they fail to build on this season’s success.

In fact, with a roster populated by pricy, lengthy contracts (Dubinsky, Foligno, Hartnell, even Bobrovsky) that aren’t bound to age well and just 2.9M of cap space for next season, Columbus margin for improvement is rather thin. UFAs Kyle Quincey, Lauri Korpikovski and Sam Gagner, who picked up 18 goals and 50 points this season for just 0.650M, are unlikely to return but that won’t open the necessary breathing room for substantial adjustments.

Columbus’ Fifth Line will return with the Jackets in 2017-18, but maybe not to the playoffs (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Top-line center Alexander Wennberg is the team’s notable RFA and Jarmo Kekalainen will have to play his cards right to extend the Swedish pivot long term without further compromising their salary structure. To clear the books, the Finnish GM would love to offload Scott Hartnell’s 4.75M cap hit, but it’s doubtful he’ll find many suitors eager to take on a broken down, 35-year-old forward with two years remaining on his deal.

It helps their cause that Zach Werenski and fellow blueliners Gabriel Carlsson and Markus Nutivaara are still tied up on their entry-level deals, yet more decisions loom around the corner, with defenseman Jack Johnson and Ryan Murray in need of new deals in 2018, just like the team’s leading scorer, winger Cam Atkinson. To muddle things up, LW Pierre-Luc Dubois, the 3rd overall pick in 2016 and their only Grade-A prospect, laboured through an unimpressive, injury-marred season in the junior leagues and isn’t ready to crack the lineup just yet.

In short, don’t expect Columbus to contend for the Stanley Cup in the near future unless Kekalainen can work a few miracles along the way.

*For an explanation of the “advanced statistics” terminology cited on this article, read Corsica’s glossary. Unless stated otherwise, all data refers to 5-on-5 play and was retrieved from Corsica.hockey (currently down), Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com.

NHL playoff series digested: Edmonton Oilers – San Jose Sharks (4-2)

After an absence of 11 years, the Edmonton Oilers broke the NHL’s longest playoff drought this season to grant Connor McDavid the first taste of postseason action on his burgeoning career. The 19-year-old could have hardly projected a more challenging opponent to serenade a fiery baptism, with last year’s Stanley Cup runners-up, the San Jose Sharks, standing in his way.

However, Peter DeBoer’s seasoned group ended the regular season banged-up and limping to the finish line, and they wouldn’t be able to muster enough to hinder the enthusiasm of a bunch of kids eyeing some prom shenanigans. Back in 2006, the Oilers ousted the Sharks in six games on their way to the Cup final and this season the outcome was the same. Only time will tell whether they have what it takes to go that far again.

Series Results:

Game 1: San Jose Sharks 3 @ 2 Edmonton Oilers (OT)

Game 2: San Jose Sharks 0 @ 2 Edmonton Oilers

Game 3: Edmonton Oilers 1 @ 0 San Jose Sharks

Game 4: Edmonton Oilers 0 @ 7 San Jose Sharks

Game 5: San Jose Sharks 3 @ 4 Edmonton Oilers (OT)

Game 6: Edmonton Oilers 3 @ 1 San Jose Sharks

 

Inexperienced Oilers rebound from losses in style

Facing a team of greybeards, Edmonton’s ability to keep the emotions in check as they balanced out the highs and lows of a playoff series would determine their chances of success.

With their brand-new barn rocking in Game 1, the Oilers quickly jumped out to a two-goal lead but got caught in the frenzy to allow the Sharks to steadily battle back, tie the game and eventually prevail in overtime. It was a game that exposed how much experience can influence the momentum swings in playoff action, but the Oilers brass and, in particular, Todd McLellan, made sure the Oilers reacted the right way to adversity.

In Game 2, a thoroughly dominant performance by the hosts avoided a trip south of the border with a troublesome two-game disadvantage, and then Edmonton also responded positively in a tense, tight-checking, playoff-type Game 3 that would fall their way after a defensive zone miscue by the Sharks.

Zach Kassian celebrates the GWG in Game 3 against a backdrop of stunned Sharks’ players (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

The less be said about the shellacking of Game 4 the better yet, once again, Edmonton rebounded impressively in Game 5, showing resiliency and maturity beyond the age of most of their key players. The Oilers still opened the score, but only to see San Jose notch three times in 18 minutes to take the reins of the match and, in the eyes of many, the series. Wrong. Edmonton clawed back to make it 3-3 late in the third and then snatched victory in an overtime session where they flexed their muscles (27-7 CF, 11-2 SCF).

Two crass errors by the Sharks in Game 6 generated the breach they needed to finish the job back in San Jose and they wouldn’t throw the opportunity away, hanging onto their lead until the handshakes were inevitable.

The revolving door of playoff heroes

It is an annual playoff tradition. In the heat of postseason action, where all details are accounted for and matchups step into the forefront, more times than not the best players on both sides cancel each other, vacating the stage for unheralded figures, names not used to hit the board regularly.

In this 1st round battle, Edmonton’s grunts stepped up to the task and contributed directly to all four victories, with the winning goal always coming off the stick of one of their bottom line attackers. In Game 2, rugged forward Zach Kassian broke the deadlock on a shorthanded breakaway after a mistake by Sharks captain Joe Pavelski and he would also end the stalemate with less than 10 minutes to go in Game 3, shrewdly taking advantage of a dismal defensive zone turnover.

In Game 5, with the clock ticking and the Sharks closing on a 3-2 series-lead, fourth line center David Desharnais wheeled around the offensive zone to set up Oscar Klefbom’s blast that tied the score, and later sneaked into the slot to seal the contest in overtime.

David Desharnais’ shot finds the mesh behind Martin Jones to give Edmonton victory in Game 5 (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

In Game 6, the honour of scoring the series-clinching goal would fall to Anton Slepyshev, who beat Martin Jones on a breakaway to give Edmonton a 2-0 lead the Sharks could only cut in half.

With Connor McDavid (4 pts, but none 5 on 5) hounded by Marc-Edouard Vlasic throughout the series, Leon Draisatl quiet for the first four games, and the second unit (Lucic-RNH-Eberle) bogged down with defensive duties against the Sharks greatest threats, Edmonton needed timely contributions from their unsung players and they answered the call at all the right times.

Hobbling and wounded, San Jose’s big guns misfire

If you take away the empty net goal in Game 6, Connor McDavid was largely ineffective at even strength, as the Vlasic/Braun pair was able to slow him down despite getting caved in possession (42.9 CF%). Neutralizing McDavid is a big step towards beating this Oilers team, yet the Sharks also needed something from their own stars and they didn’t respond.

In fact, outside of Game 4, where Joe Pavelski’s goal just 15 seconds in set the tone for the 7-0 drubbing, the Sharks top-five earners combined for just 2 goals and 5 points throughout the series and went a putrid 1-18 with the man advantage, contributing decisively for a 12-7 goal deficit that ruined their chances of advancing.

Logan Couture slams into the boards in Game 2. Not a lot went well for San Jose’s best players against the Oilers (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

The aforementioned tally constituted the only even-strength point for captain Pavelski, while All-Star defenseman Brent Burns unloaded 28 shots but couldn’t find the back of the net or pick up a point in any of their losses. Logan Couture, who played much of the series with a full cage and a wrecked jaw, tallied twice in Game 4 but posted a single assist elsewhere, whereas Joe Thornton, miraculously suiting up for the last four matches despite a torn ACL and MCL, pitched in two assists, one of those in Game 4. Veteran Patrick Marleau performed better, scoring the go-ahead goal in Game 5 and the late mark in Game 6, but it wasn’t enough to swing any of those encounters.

After carrying the team to the Stanley Cup final last summer, the Sharks core group faltered when it mattered the most this season, and it’s likely they won’t get a chance to atone for it in the future.

Best players in the series

Cam Talbot (Edmonton Oilers)

The backbone of Edmonton’s success in the regular season was also their safety valve in the first round, cleaning several rookie mistakes and holding the fort in the instances San Jose found another gear and put the Oilers on their heels, such as in the third period of Game 6.

Beyond two crucial shutouts in Games 2 and 3, Talbot posted a 2.03 GAA and a solid 0.927 Sv% that would look even better (0.950) if not for the team’s disastrous appearance in Game 4, where he gave up 5 in 24 shots.

Oilers’ goaltender Cam Talbot aknowledges the crowd after securing a SO in Game 2

Tomas Hertl (San Jose Sharks)

The young Czech forward didn’t light up the scoresheet, notching just two assists in six games, but his all-around effort in the postseason was certainly encouraging as a pivotal time for the future of the franchise approaches.

Centering the Sharks second line  – third unit after Thornton’s return –  Hertl was heavily relied upon by Peter DeBoer for his ability to drive the puck in the right direction, logging 19:17min TOI/GP, second amongst Sharks forwards, winning 62.6% of a team-high 83 faceoffs, and compiling an excellent 59.7 SCF%. He also dished out 13 hits, blocked 6 shots and fired 15 SOG for a body of work that stands out in a disappointing team campaign.

Will the San Jose Sharks return to the playoffs next year? 

With the emergence of Edmonton and Calgary, the Sharks presence at the 2018 NHL playoffs is far from guaranteed regardless of the important decisions they make this offseason.

Franchise icons Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, both 37 years old, are free agents and assuming they return with something resembling their current cap hits, the team will have around 4.5M to add a couple of forwards and re-up with RFAs Melker Karlsson, Joonas Donskoi and Chris Tierney. That would mean, though, that they’ll take another couple of swings at the piñata with one the oldest cores in the NHL, as Pavelski (33), Burns (32), Vlasic (30) and even Couture (28) are also past their premium years.

It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s probably the only pathway the Sharks can pave which doesn’t include a complete teardown, since in neither this year’s underwhelming free agency class, nor their own roster or prospect pool, they will find contributors to soothe the transition in the immediate future. If Thornton and Marleau leave, San Jose can only hope Tomas Hertl and 20-year-old RW Timo Meier evolve into standout top-six forwards or wait something else falls onto their lap.

The San Jose Sharks may look very different next year..or not. All will depend on whether they stand pat or start a rebuild (Photo by Scott Dinn/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Sharks’ two goaltenders are under contract for 2017-18 as is all of their defence, including Brent Burns, whose monstrous 64M, 8-year extension kicks in exactly 12 months before Vlasic is scheduled to become a UFA in line for a significant upgrade on his current 4.5M annual pay check.

*For an explanation of the “advanced statistics” terminology cited on this article, read Corsica’s glossary. Unless stated otherwise, all data refers to 5-on-5 play and was retrieved from Corsica.hockey (currently down), Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com.