Author: duartefmagalhaes

Mock Expansion draft: Devising the Vegas Golden Knights roster (Part II)

(Part I is available here)

Montreal Canadiens: C Tomas Plekanec

The 34-year-old Plekanec is way past his prime, and his 6M paycheck would be a tough pill to swallow for a budget team, yet, as a veteran center used to match up against the other teams’ best pivots, he can definitely help Vegas in the short term. Moreover, in light of the shortage of alternatives from the Habs, the Golden Knights wouldn’t be losing a lot by going for immediate gratification here.

Still, there’s a good chance they won’t take Plekanec, and the next options are defenseman Brandon Davidson and 22-year-old left winger Charles Hudon, whose three productive seasons in the AHL placed him on the verge of the NHL roster.

Nashville Predators: RW James Neal

You’re not supposed to expose a 29-year-old winger with a 40-goal season on the curriculum, yet Nashville’s surplus of defenseman forced David Poile’s hand and Las Vegas should take advantage. For all the promise behind Colton Sissons and Pontus Aberg, a Stanley Cup Final run tends to build up complementary players and it would be a shame if they passed on Neal only to get left holding a perennial bottom-six performer or a tweener, which is still a possible outcome for the two forwards.

Moreover, if Neal fails to adapt to Las Vegas and doesn’t re-sign, he still fetches a first round pick from a team willing to bet on his ability to fill the net in spurts.

If selected by Vegas, winger James Neal will be counted on to score a lot of goals

New Jersey Devils: D Jon Merrill

At 5M per year for the next two seasons, oft-injured forward Mike Cammalleri wouldn’t be a wise investment for the Golden Knights, but it’s certainly a challenge trying to pinpoint a valid alternative. Maybe defenseman Ben Lovejoy, Dalton Prout or Jon Merrill can be of use if half the roster gets intoxicated on a night out in Vegas? Is any Golden Knights’ staff member a former coach/GM of Devante Smith-Pelley, Beau Bennett or Stefan Noesen?

I’ll just email Pierre McGuire to find out, but until I get an answer back let’s pencil in Jon Merrill, the youngest, lower-priced defenseman amongst the lot referenced above.

New York Islanders: C Brock Nelson

Garth Snow got super protective of his defensemen, and decided to shield five blueliners and just three forwards before reportedly working out a deal to steer Vegas off a few more players. The various reports diverge on the identity of those – seriously, ponying up to maintain Casey Cizikas?? With that contract??? – so I just picked up the best player remaining, 25-year-old Brock Nelson, who qualifies to ghost a solid “top-six center” rendition by pitching in 20+ goals and 40+ points per season.

Forward Brock Nelson would be a great addiction to Vegas but the NY Islanders may have other ideas

Former 5th overall pick Ryan Strome would also be an intriguing selection for Vegas if they believe there’s a way to unlock his potential, while Calvin de Haan is a RFA in need of a significant raise the Golden Knights shouldn’t be eager to negotiate.

New York Rangers: C Oscar Lindberg

Goalie Antti Raanta is dying to get out from under Henrik Lundqvist’s shadow, but his chances of starring in Las Vegas don’t look promising according to the news emanating over the last few days, consequently drafting him just to trade his rights isn’t the appropriate course of action.

The Rangers have a couple of undervalued forwards lingering around the edges, and I believe Vegas could use a smart, efficient two-way forward like Oscar Lindberg, who not only shores up the lineup but could also grow into a larger role. Jesper Fast fits the same mould but is a winger, while Michael Grabner is flashy but more expensive and a UFA to be in 2018.

Ottawa Senators: D Marc Methot

Dion Phaneuf’s refusal to waive his NTC compelled the Sens to expose Methot, and since experienced, top-four blueliners don’t grow in threes and are always in demand, Vegas should take him and then proceed to explore opportunities to offload his rights. At age 31 and with two seasons to go on his hefty contract, he’s just a strange fit on the Golden Knights roster but his value surpasses any of the other options.

Ottawa’s Marc Methot may be chosen by the Golden Knights but his career could still resume elsewhere

In the improbably case they don’t see a market, nabbing fellow defenseman Fredrik Claesson would make them look clever in a hurry, since the 24-year-old Swede demonstrated during the playoffs that he’s more than ready for regular NHL duty.

Philadelphia Flyers: G Michal Neuvirth

Michal Neuvirth’s two-year, 5M pact with the Flyers reeked of expansion draft bait at the time of its signing, but that doesn’t mean the Czech goaltender is not the appropriate selection here. It would obviously depend on the other goalies Vegas will be tempted to elect (Raanta and Pickard, for example), nonetheless Neuvirth is an excellent guy to dangle around teams in need or to assume a backup role if they decide to jettison Petr Mrazek for a sweet package.

If the option is a forward, Michael Raffl should be preferred to 31-year-old Matt Read, yet Vegas may well wager on Jordan Weal, a deft 25-year-old winger with a few productive AHL seasons under his arm who has yet to stick in the NHL.

Pittsburgh Penguins: G Marc-Andre Fleury

Based on every report coming out of Pittsburgh, Marc-Andre Fleury is poised to become the first starting goalie of the Vegas Golden Knights, and the choice shouldn’t be censured despite an abundance of younger, cheaper – and maybe even better – alternatives. The 32-year-old is not only a recognizable face the Golden Knights can market, and a veteran that oozes a lively, engaging personality inside a locker room that will need time to mesh, but he’s also a goalie used to carry the load throughout a full season, thus stabilizing the net as the team gets off the ground during its first two seasons.

If, for some reason, Vegas opts for another player, expect it to be 25-year-old Bryan Rust, who hustles past Carl Hagelin in a sprint because he’s not hauling a 4M dollars trailer.

San Jose Sharks: D David Schlemko

My first leaning here was veteran Joel Ward, a proven playoff warrior title contenders would skirmish to land in exchange for an interesting haul, yet David Schlemko is the sensible option as the 30-year-old carries a 2.1M cap hit fitting of a no-frills, consistent third pairing defenseman that can move up seamlessly. Danish winger Mikkel Boedker excelled at the desert before while playing for the Arizona Coyotes, but the 12M left on his deal (2020) would hurt in case he doesn’t turn his game around.

San Jose’s unassuming blueliner David Schlemko may play for the Vegas Golden Knights next season

St. Louis Blues: LW David Perron

St. Louis’ incomprehensible decision to shelter fourth line agitator Ryan Reaves will cost them a forward with real value, and Vegas should take the time to profess the correct call. As an UFA in 2018, David Perron’s price has been plummeting for some time, but he’s still a highly skilled attacker many teams would dig in need of an offensive jolt, therefore he may be the man to watch.

Still, not further back on his trail is 24-year-old Dmitrij Jaskin, a player that craves more ice time to showcase his quality, and a plethora of wingers that were once prized prospects but never justified the hype, including Ty Rattie, Nail Yakupov and Magnus Paarjarvi.

Tampa Bay Lightning: D Slater Koekkoek

Taking into account Tampa Bay’s head-scratching resolution to shield Braydon Coburn, it’s probable an handshake agreement is already in place to ensure Vegas as the next destination for 32-year-old Jason Garrison, however there are better options on the table they should explore.

Slater Koekkoek, a former 10th overall pick, boasts decent size and an offensive pedigree that’s primed for a top-four role, therefore the Golden Knights should take the leap on the 23-year-old’s potential or simply go after RFA Andrej Sustr, a more valuable commodity than Garrison. Furthermore, fellow young rearguard Jack Dotchin impressed late in the season for his physical presence and may also be on Vegas’ radar.

Slatter Koekkoek is a young rearguard Vegas should target

Toronto Maple Leafs:  LW Brendan Leipsic

With more than two thirds of the Leafs roster either exempt or protected, Toronto’s list lacks clout but still contains a couple of diamonds-in-a-rough Vegas can explore, namely wingers Kerby Rychel and Brendan Leipsic. While Rychel is bigger, a few months younger, and a former first round pick, he’s still in need of more seasoning at the AHL, a league where 23-year-old Leipsic has nothing left to prove.

As a speedy, high-energy, skilled forward, the former Nashville prospect may be able to crack the Vegas lineup out of training camp and carve an important role on a lower line, injecting life into a forward group that will be short in youth.

Vancouver Canucks: C Brendan Gaunce

The Vancouver Canucks pool is a wasteland where even a below-par defenseman like Luca Sbisa stands out – and not only because of his salary – consequently it’s entirely possible Vegas just throws a dart at the board and moves on. I can envision a scenario where they take on Sbisa’s contract just to flip his rights immediately to a team that still regards him and can fit the ticket under the cap, nevertheless Vegas should just nab center Brendan Gaunce, Vancouver’s first round pick in 2012, and hope he graduates into a reliable checking pivot than can chip in offensively.

Washington Capitals: D Nate Schmidt

German goaltender Philipp Grubauer has posted excellent numbers at every professional level and would make for a great selection, but I can’t shake the feeling Vegas would hit one out of the ballpark by acquiring Nate Schmidt, whose potential is bound to be finally realized in 2017-18. The soon-to-be 26-year-old is a smooth-skating, possession-driving defenseman with good offensive instincts that would thrive in a second pairing role, and the expansion side should be the one to offer him the consistent minutes he’s clamouring for. They won’t regret it.

Nate Schmidt’s burgeoning offensive potential could impact Vegas’ blueline for years to come

Winnipeg Jets: C Marko Dano

Unless the Golden Knights have a deal in the offing for veteran defenseman Toby Enstrom, versatile forward Marko Dano is going to be the player plucked off Winnipeg, and Vegas could do much worse than the talented 22-year-old. A prolific scorer for Slovakia’s youth teams at the international stage, Dano has bounced around a bit since crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 2014, but his hardworking, speedy game should eventually translate into consistent offensive contributions at the NHL level.

 

Final roster and considerations

The greatest strength of Vegas’ inaugural roster is bound to be its depth in goal and on defence, and coach Gerard Gallant would be wise to magnify those qualities by instilling a smothering defensive system that relies on the mobility of its rearguards and the two-way acumen of some veterans up front.

On attack, as they struggle to manufacture goals due to the lack of game-breaking offensive talent for the first couple of seasons, Vegas should strive to roll four consistent lines that can check and aim to preserve the puck on the right side of the ice. The forward group colligated should be able to achieve that, while a few younger faces like Karlsson, Gaunce, Dano or Leipsic soak in important minutes that will aid in deciphering what their long-term future in the league will be.

Meanwhile, Vegas blueline looks to feature a one-through-six homogeneity that few NHL teams could match, with adequate amounts of mobility and skill scattered around despite the lack of a legitimate, minute-munching No.1 defenseman. They’ll compile a defensive corps that blends a few names who have experienced the hardships of playing against top players on a daily basis (Methot, McNabb, Vatanen, Schlemko), undervalued athletes looking for room to expand their limits (Schmidt, Dumba) and raw youngsters willing to grow (Oleksiak, Koekkoek), moulding a unit that should be the bedrock of the triumphs they may achieve.

Finally, at the net, despite all the uncertainty, it’s already been established that the expansion draft will allow Vegas to draw up its future while banking on an above-average tandem that may steal a few wins along the way and won’t sink their effort, which is something many bottom feeders can’t escape.

In short, don’t expect the Golden Knights to be the lowest ranked team in the closing 2017-18 NHL standings, and prepare for a possible playoff appearance by Year Three provided their brass doesn’t accumulate miscues and manages to hit on the multiple high draft picks to come.

Mock Expansion draft: Devising the Vegas Golden Knights roster (Part I)

NHL hockey in Las Vegas, Nevada, is getting closer and the last major step before the Golden Knights hit the ice is the selection of their roster by virtue of the upcoming expansion draft, the first in the league since 1997.

After months of anticipation, protection lists were disclosed last Sunday giving the Knights 72 hours to make their picks from each one of the other 30 NHL teams, and allowing for a few days of fun in predicting who they’re going to pry away.

Mock drafts are already trickling down the internet, and I decided to take my swing at the piñata, using the exceptional expansion draft tool provided by www.capfriendly.com to help sort through the requirements regarding positions, contract commitments for next season and salary cap considerations.

The overall philosophy that will be followed by George McPhee and his staff to build their squad is a mystery, but we know they’re looking to ice a competitive team from Year 1. Consequently, in this exercise, I’ll be looking for a mixture of useful veterans and promising youngsters that can jell together, prioritizing contracts Vegas can flip for futures right away or at the 2018 trade deadline, and avoiding long term anchors that can submarine their efforts as soon as the glut of draft picks they’re bound to acquire are ready to enjoy prime time in the NHL.

In this article, I’ll name the player I’m expecting Las Vegas to pluck away from each of their opponents, explain my reasoning, and appoint the other alternatives they may have in mind considering other perspectives of roster building. Furthermore, it has been reported that a few teams – namely Anaheim, Columbus, Chicago and the NY Islanders – have already hammered out deals with the Golden Knights to convince them to lay off from some of their prized assets, so I’ll take that into account too.

Well, enough with the introduction, here’s the future Las Vegas Golden Knights expansion draft roster:

Anaheim Ducks: D Sami Vatanen

The Ducks weren’t able to trade Vatanen before the roster freeze on Saturday, and are therefore on the unenviable position of having to surrender the Finn or 25-year-old Josh Manson since I’m having a tough time buying the rumours that GM Bob Murray somehow found a way to safeguard both in side deals with LV. However, if he really did, the price should be exorbitant since the remaining options are depressing.

The Golden Knights would probably be looking at a forward so… 23-year-old LW Nicolas Kerdiles, a former U. Wisconsin standout that rode a point-per-game pace in the AHL playoffs? Maybe Ducks’ fourth line forwards Logan Shaw or Chris Wagner? I don’t know, but I’m sure neither will amount to anything relevant.

Anaheim Ducks’ puck-moving defenseman Sami Vatanen is one of the best options at Vegas disposal

Arizona Coyotes: RW Alexander Burmistrov

If there weren’t so many decent defensemen available, my best “bang for the buck” pick would be 27-year-old Kevin Connauton (1M), but we should just burn a forward spot here, so I’m looking at former 8th overall pick Alex Burmistrov, a tough, skilled, versatile forward that showed signs of life in Arizona (14 pts in 26 Games) after never breaking out in Atlanta and Winnipeg. Alternatively, if they’re looking for warm bodies at center, Peter Holland and his 243 NHL games could be of interest, while Jamie McGinn is a respectable bottom-six forward but there are much better uses for his 3.3M until 2019. As for Teemu Pulkkinen, his stock has fallen so much despite decent AHL totals that I don’t see him as a credible option.

Boston Bruins: G Malcolm Subban

The Golden Knights aren’t touching Matt Beleskey or Jimmy Hayes, and, at age 30, defenseman Adam McQuaid isn’t the shrewdest allocation of 2.75M. Thus, Colin Miller, a RFA in 2018, is the obvious option and he could slot right into the top four, but I would roll the dice on young goalie Malcolm Subban. The former 1st rounder has seen his development hindered by injuries, however he would be a good asset, an option to tend the AHL net right away and an intriguing option for the main role down the road.

Young goaltender Malcolm, Subban would be an interesting pick from the Boston Bruins roster

Buffalo Sabres: G Linus Ullmark

Another promising goaltender pilfered from a team that isn’t stocked with appealing options. Vegas should stay away from Zach Bogosian and Matt Moulson – unless they have a John Tavares trade up the sleeve – and I don’t see how 22-year-old William Carrier moves the needle.

Unsaddled by the likes of Tyler Ellis and Johan Larsson, Carrier is young but lacks upside as more than a bruising forward since his scoring record isn’t stellar dating back to junior and the minors. Conversely, Ullmark is another raw, lanky (6’4) Swedish goalie that, with a bit of work, can be polished into something…or not. But I would take the chance.

Calgary Flames: C Matt Stajan

Veteran Matt Stajan could service the Golden Knights in multiple ways

The 33-year-old Stajan will be an UFA in 2018, and therefore a prime candidate for trade deadline fodder yet, in the meantime, he could alleviate the burden down the middle during Vegas’ maiden campaign. Steady pivots that can run a top-three forward line don’t abound in the expansion draft, and Stajan can ultimately provide more value than 2012 first round pick Hunter Shinkaruk, who has struggled to translate his impressive WHL offensive totals into the professional game, much less the NHL. Moreover, Troy Brouwer’s deal is already shaped like an albatross and it won’t get better over the next three years.

Carolina Hurricanes: RW Lee Stempniak

Not much of a discussion in this case, as Stempniak seems bound to don the jersey of an 11th NHL team. The 34-year-old is still capable of collecting 15+ goals on a top-six role and also fits a dual proposition, representing additional trade bait for the 2018 trade deadline. In alternative, I can also understand if the Golden Knights take a look at 25-year-old Joakim Nordstrom or, even, goalie Eddie Lack, especially if they receive some extra incentive.

Chicago Blackhawks: D Trevor Van Riemsdyk

All signs point to a side agreement between Chicago and Las Vegas that would see the Knights take on both Van Riemsdyk and center Marcus Kruger to relieve the Hawks’ cap situation, hence one of the two should hear his name called Wednesday night. However, if that’s all smoke, I believe the right option would be the 25-year-old defenseman, who still possesses a sizable upside. In the unlikely scenario a different names surfaces, we would probably be looking at Finnish blueliner Ville Pokka.

An opportunity in Vegas could do wonders for the career of defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk

Colorado Avalanche: C Mikhail Grigorenko

The first selection announced will hail from the league-worst Colorado Avalanche and we’re in for a hell of a start. In the lamest sense of the word, as the Avs, naturally, are short in any semblance of unprotected impact players.

They covered the likes of Matt Nieto, Blake Comeau and Sven Andrighetto just because they had no one else, and that’s not a great omen for my choice, 23-year-old Mikhail Grigorenko, the  12th overall pick in 2012 the Sabres gave up on and the Avs are ready to bail out on too. However, he’s a skilled young forward, and to balance out the choices he’s a better fit than goalie Calvin Pickard, who is too valuable to be a third or fourth string option (like Subban and Ullmark) and not good enough to beat the two starting goalies to come.

Columbus Blue Jackets: C William Karlsson

Reports indicate the Jackets are ready to toss a package including a first round pick and a prospect to retain defenseman Jack Johnson, forward Josh Anderson and goalie Joonas Korpisalo, therefore the Knights should have their work cut out for them. William Karlsson is 24 years old, fast improving, as he displayed in the playoffs, and a good third-line center that I think could bump his way up the ladder if necessary. There’s a world where Vegas chooses Matt Calvert instead, but it’s not this one.

Swedish Center William Karlsson could thrive in Vegas in a larger role

Dallas Stars: D Jamie Oleksiak

Provided there’s no extra motivation to grab a goalie like Kari Lehtonen, the best odds regarding the selection from Dallas’ roster may belong to Cody Eakin, but I’m not sure Vegas wants to get stuck with a third line center making 3.85M per year until 2020, and whose upside is the 40-point range. Instead, I would rather clutch my hands on their collection of young defenseman and snatch either 25-year-old Patrik Nemeth or, preferably, hulking yet mobile blueliner Jamie Oleksiak, ready at age 24 to fill a larger role and capable of firing up a crowd with crushing body blows from time to time.

Detroit Red Wings: G Petr Mrazek

The availability of Petr Mrazek was one of the major surprises of Saturday’s unveiling, yet Vegas can’t overthink the issue and should move swiftly to tag the talented Czech goaltender regardless of the supposed character flaws that may have been the basis of Detroit’s decision. The 25-year-old has shown the ability to carry a team on his back for stretches, and could ultimately get peddled or challenged to usurp the starting job.

Petr Mrazek’s destiny is up in the air after the Red Wing’ surprising decision

In the eventuality McPhee gets cold feet, he has other options: young defensemen Ryan Sproul and Xavier Ouellet are there for the taking and both are capable of cracking their defensive rotation next season.

Edmonton Oilers: LW Benoit Pouliot

Vegas would be doing the Oilers a favour by taking 30-year-old Benoit Pouliot, yet there are a few reasons why they should think about it. At 4M per year, Pouliot is expensive for what he brings to the table but not unreasonably so, he can score, his ability to play up and down the lineup could come in handy, he’s an experienced player but not necessarily in decline and, just as relevant, the other options are nothing to write about. Sure, they can yank another goalie in Laurent Brossoit or take a flyer in a dwindling Griffin Reinhart, but they’ll eventually need solid hockey players and Pouliot could assist in securing a few wins.

Florida Panthers: RW Reilly Smith

The Panthers’ protection list elicited a lot of discussion as a result of some interesting choices and, in turn, provided a lot of fodder for Las Vegas staff, as they’ll have, at least, three excellent players to argue about.

At first, I jumped at the opportunity to select defenseman Jason Demers, but a logjam on defence may be brewing so perhaps it makes more sense to split hairs between forwards Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith. Coming off a 30-goal breakout season and boasting a trifling 750k cap hit, the tiny Marchessault looks tantalizing but only until you notice he’s a UFA in 2018 and won’t shoot 15.5% forever. Conversely, Smith has a better track record – both from scoring and possession viewpoints – and is signed to a solid 5M cap hit through his prime seasons. He’s the logical choice here.

Florida Panthers’ forward Reilly Smith is one of the best players available in the expansion draft

Los Angeles Kings: D Brayden McNabb

How far down have slid the 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup Champions? Despite protecting just four forwards, the Kings’ offense leaks nothing of note since the remaining players are old, broken down and signed for too long (Dustin Brown, Marian Gaborik), or simply not good enough (Lewis, Nolan, Clifford). I suppose the Golden Knights scouted Nic Dowd (27 years old) and Nick Shore (24), but it’s difficult to anticipate they’ll be able to venture away from the probable path: selecting 26-year-old blueliner Brayden McNabb, a UFA in 2018 who, at times, partnered Drew Doughty, and then see if they feel like searching for a match to work out a trade.

Minnesota Wild: D Matt Dumba

Chuck Fletcher was another GM that spent the last few weeks trying to solve his expansion draft riddle and, as far as we know, he was unsuccessful, since the Wild ended up exposing many players they would definitely like to keep. The good news, though, is that Vegas can only tap one and it won’t be Eric Staal or Erik Haula.

Marco Scandella would be a strong addiction as a 27-year-old, top-four blueliner signed at 4M until 2020, but I just don’t see how you spurn 22-year-old Matt Dumba, a physical, offensive-minded blue liner just scratching the surface of his potential, and someone who can be part of the foundation of this team for the next decade.

(Please click here for Part II)

The Notebook: 2017 Roland Garros (Women’s singles)

The pre-tournament buzz in Roland Garros focused entirely on the wholly unpredictable nature of the women’s event, and two weeks later, pundits couldn’t have been more on point. The clay Major surely could have used the star power of Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova or Victoria Azarenka, but the wide-open tournament ultimately didn’t disappoint in terms of drama, intensity, gamesmanship and self-combusting, captivating narratives until its epilogue with the coronation of a stunning, first time Grand Slam Champion.

Hence, time to dust off the notebook and run through the characters and storylines that dominated the fortnight in the terre batue of Paris.

  • Schedule makers have a way of sensing how to kick off their tournament with a bang and in Paris, once again, we were presented with a crash-and-burn special from a contender in the first hours of action. Not that anyone was expecting anything grandiose from World No.1 Angelique Kerber, who had yet to beat a top-20 opponent in 2017 and accumulated first round exits in the tune-up events, yet getting dispatched without as much as a speck of a fight isn’t the attitude expected from a player of her status. Handed out a tough first assignment in Ekaterina Makarova, a former top-10 player who relishes the big stages, the German failed the test emphatically as she struggled to find her footing, her spirit and her shots in the red clay to become the first women’s top seed to lose in the 1st round of Roland Garros in the Open Era. At the mercy of mathematics and the performance of her closest rivals, Kerber eventually retained her spot but for how long?

Angelique Kerber’s campaign in Roland Garros ended in Day 1 of the 2017 edition

  • Kerber was the main scalp of the early days, but the list of underachieving players that couldn’t validate the established hierarchies encompasses a few more relevant actors. For instance, another woman struggling to re-enact the stellar exhibitions of 2016, Dominika Cibulkova (6th seed), vanquished in round two by Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur, who went from lucky loser to trailblazer in a matter of days by becoming the first Arab woman to qualify for the third round of a Grand Slam. Johanna Konta (7) cruised through the first set against Taiwanese Su-Wei Hsieh and seemed well on her way to a first career win in Paris only to collapse to the World No. 116. Australian Open semifinalist CoCo Vandeweghe (19) dissolved at the hands of another player ranked outside the top-100, Slovak Magdalena Rybarikova, the fans she rubbed the wrong way rejoiced and her coach was dismissed. Fellow American Madison Keys (12) stamped an important victory as she gaits on the comeback trail, but then run out of batteries against a qualifier. Agnieszka Radwanska (9) did what she usually does at the Slams: bag a couple of wins, bow out meekly and unceremoniously when adversity, in the form of home favourite Alizé Cornet, stood on her way to greater things.

 

  • Emanating an entirely different vibe while saying goodbye to Paris was Czech Petra Kvitova (15), the heart-warming story of the first week. A surprise participant just six months after the home assault that could have terminated her tennis career, the two-time Wimbledon Champion welcomed back delighted tennis fans with a beaming smile and showed the worst is in the past as her stabbed hand and tendons withstood the challenge. Fighting rust and lacking match fitness, Kvitova defeated Julia Boserup in round one as her dominant left ripped 31 winners, and later succumbed to Bethanie Mattek-Sands after two hard-fought tie-breaks. Nevertheless, the most important had already been accomplished and the 27-year-old is almost ready to resume contender status in Major tournaments, maybe as soon as Wimbledon.

Petra Kvitova aknowledges the crowd after her first round victory in Paris

  • Svetlana Kuznetsova (8) is a tough nut to crack as her level fluctuates wildly during the season, especially in the latter part of her career, yet a decent clay-court season and a game relying on smarts and an exquisite variety of spins and slices promised to serve her well as she navigated a draw that lacked a alfa dog. The Russian was my pick for the title, hopefully energized by a golden chance to add another Roland Garros title on the backend of her career, but the 31-year-old never looked comfortable, much less dominant as she saw off Christina McHale in two long sets and then narrowly squeaked by Oceane Dodin and Shuai Zhang in the following rounds. Her campaign would end with a dispiriting effort against Caroline Wozniacki, where she rattled off the unforced errors (41 to 26 winners) and botched successive attempts to nudge the Dane into uncomfortable situations with her serve or net play. All in all, it was certainly a huge opportunity that went to waste.

 

  • Defending Champion Garbiñe Muguruza (4) faced an uphill battle to retain her crown from day one as the pressure of having to hold on to a boatload of points conspired with a mined path ahead, yet the first signs were reassuring towards dispelling notions of fragility. The Spaniard bounced back from an early setback to knock off Anett Kontaveit and closed out straight set wins over former Champion Francesca Schiavone and 2016 QF Yulia Putintseva to reach round four unscathed, however the temperature was about to rise exponentially. Next up was preeminent French hope Kiki Mladenovic to materialize one of the most anticipated matchups of the tournament and, unfortunately, Muguruza shrank under the weight of expectations and the antics of the hostile crowd, squandering an erratic serving performance by her opponent to fizzle out in three sets. Intermittent since transforming into a Grand Slam Champion, maybe the cordial 23-year-old can recapture her best tennis now that the memories of Roland Garros are in the rear-view.

Garbiñe Muguruza wasn’t able to glimpse the finish line this time at Roland Garros

  • Players who came out of nowhere to stretch their campaigns into the second week of the French Open: Veronica Cepede Royg and Petra Martic. The 24-year-old Royg made history for Paraguay by reaching the fourth round and her path was far from a cakewalk, ousting former finalist Lucie Safarova and Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (16) – one of the most consistent WTA Tour performers in 2017 – before labouring to push Karolina Plískova to the brink, leading 4-3 in the third before the Czech took over. Meanwhile, the Croatian Martic chained six consecutives triumphs in Paris (including the qualifying), took down 12th seed Madison Keys and 17th seed Anastasija Sevastova, and was frightfully close to shocking Elina Svitolina in round four, leading 5-2, 0-30 in the third until the Ukrainian whipped into a frenzy to nab 20 of the next 24 pts.

 

  • France is still looking for someone to succeed Mary Pierce, the 2000 women’s winner, on the Roland Garros panel of singles Champions, but the 2017 edition left everyone convinced that the ladies are due to break the drought sooner than the men. Caroline Garcia (28) finally took a step forward, trudging into the latter stages of a Slam for the first time at the expenses of countrywoman Alizé Cornet, but just couldn’t muster enough to overcome the stout Plískova in the QFs despite fervent support from the home fans.

 

  • Meanwhile, Kiki Mladenovic (14) endured epic third-set escapades in rounds one (Jennifer Brady) and three (Shelby Rogers), and seemed destined to reach the stars buoyed by a singular ability to embrace and channel the energy from outside until her dream was crushed in the last eight. Her impressive blend of athleticism and shot-making was, at times, exhilarating but lacked baseline consistency to deal with the resourcefulness and variety present in Tímea Bacsinszcky’s display during their bumpy QF encounter. Nonetheless, the 24-year-old Mladenovic will be back next year and probably in an even better condition to challenge for the trophy.

The rapport established between Kiki Mladenovic and the French public wasn’t enough to get her over the hump

  • Elina Svitolina (5) arrived in Paris on the heels of a WTA Tour best 31 wins and four titles in 2017, boasting a wealth of confidence after triumphing in Rome and carrying previous history at Roland Garros she could tap on (2010 Junior title and breakthrough QF appearance in 2015). What she lacked, though, was the experience of being a Grand Slam favourite and the pressure that comes with it. In the first week, the top female players can manage to slip through it but as soon as the schedule dwindles and the limelight shifts and intensifies, mental cracks get amplified and even an unheralded opponent like Petra Martic can augment into a tricky obstacle. In the fourth round, Svitolina was able to patch the fissures just in time and she did it so delicately that for much of the QF blockbuster versus Simona Halep her forehand looked unstoppable, her serve unsolvable and her resolve unbreakable. However, up 5-1 in the second, she relieved the stiches just a bit while daydreaming of a maiden SF appearance and her opponent took the chance to see if there was something else to get out of the match. It wasn’t long before momentum switched for good, the lead evaporated, Svitolina panicked like a novice and balls started to weight tenfold on her racket. One bicycle wheel later, she was off on a devastating ride home.

 

  • Karolina Plískova (2) may be a fish out of water in clay, flopping around the court awkwardly and gasping for air after having to play one, two, three more shots than she’s used to, but the Czech is also a top player with weapons few others possess and she knows that. Consequently, even if her stupendous first serve bites much less, her second serve gets blunted and her flat strokes dulled bouncing on the crushed brick, Plískova realizes the smaller margins of error shouldn’t change her approach or gameplan. In Paris, the 25-year-old stuck to her guns to advance through five rounds with little fanfare and under different degrees of duress, and found herself unexpectedly just one win away from assuming the World No. 1. On the other side of the net lined up a player, Halep, of similar calibre and ambition but considerably more suited for the grind to come than a lanky, machine-like ball striker. And the Romanian won in three sets, naturally, to take the spot in the final and refer Plískova to the grass practice courts, where things will look significantly different and enticing prospects await the Czech.

Karolina Plískova’s serve got her out of trouble multiple times at Roland Garros

  • For a 13-year veteran with undeniable talent, Timea Bacsinszky’s résumé is sparse in honours, counting just four singles titles and few deep runs at landmark tournaments. However, there’s no rebuffing that she’s found a home on the terre batue of Roland Garros and the results speak for themselves as the Swiss reached the last eight in Paris for the third consecutive season with a crafty combination of versatility on the forehand, deceiving power, especially off the backhand, ability to slice and dice at will, and a distinctive propensity for well-disguised drop shots. Despite that, Bacsinszky (30) was overlooked at the start of the tournament only to dismantle her first three opponents, rout Venus Williams in the last two sets in round four and squash the French faithful with a composed, methodical takedown of Kiki Mladenovic in the QF. After that triumph, the 28-year-old surely fantasised with hoisting the trophy two years after losing to Serena Williams in the SF, but she too struggled to tame Ostapenko when the Latvian found another gear in the third set of their semi-final affair.

Swiss Timea Bacsinszky in action at the Court Philippe Chartier

  • Simona Halep (3) was the closest figure cutting unanimous favouritism entering Roland Garros but a rolled ankle in the days leading up to her debut tempered expectations and, oddly, the Romanian seemed to benefit from it. She usually begins the Slams in a tentative way and that would only ramp up with the extra attention, however the Constanta-native racked up routine victories throughout the first week and destroyed clay-court specialist Carla Suarez Navarro in round four with an immaculate exhibition of top-notch counterattacking tennis to confirm her title bid. Halep was ready to avenge her loss to Svitolina in the Final at Rome, but for close to an hour she was engulfed by her rival’s masterclass in controlled aggression. Until, of course, the moment Svitolina’s level slipped and Halep unexpectedly found a handle on the game, her tactical nous slowly chopping down the 1-5 disadvantage in the second and staving off a match point before prevailing in the tie break. The third set would prove nothing more than a formality with her opponent heart-broken, and the Romanian started gearing up for the next commitment, a clash with World No.2 Karolina Plískova, another player whose balls she would have to hunt down relentlessly.

 

  • The semi-final between the two most decorated competitors left in the field was a fascinating two-hour battle of attrition between players with contrasting styles. While Pliskova tried to blast the points open as early as possible by pouncing on the rising balls and targeting the lines, Halep looked to return everything, force her opponent back by going long and high and surprise by redirecting the ball while transitioning from defence to offense quickly. None got her way decisively as every set was decided by an extra break but, in the end, the Romanian just had more options to draw the line and prevailed to repeat her Final appearance of 2014. Yet, this time it wasn’t Maria Sharapova standing on the other side and Halep wasn’t the wide-eyed debutant. She would face an unseeded youngster with nothing to lose and unwavering belief in her own game.

Simona Halep celebrates after ousting Elina Svitolina in the Quarter-Finals

  • Five months ago, in the heat of Melbourne, a 19-year-old Latvian girl was on the verge of ousting the World No.5 and stride into uncharted territory, the second week of a Grand Slam. Up 5-2 in the final set, Jelena Ostapenko got “tight”, in her own words, and Karolina Plískova moved on instead. A few weeks later, in Charleston, the same teenager wasted a brilliant run to her first clay final with a mistake-laden performance against another promising youngster, Russia’s Daria Kasatkina, whose measured, nifty style disrupted Ostapenko’s rhythm so much that defeat came in the brunt of a 6-3, 6-1 scoreline in just over one hour. Watching the trophy presentation, I couldn’t help to think Kasatkina’s surgical efficiency would yield a breakthrough performance soon while the Latvian’s go-for broke rush would need time to deliver a standout result, much less in the slowest of surfaces. Fast forward less than two months and that impatient, streaky, volatile adolescent is a Grand Slam Champion, a National hero and the newest star of the WTA Tour.

 

  • Most tennis aficionados have known about Ostapenko since 2015, and the danger she could present in any given day to any opponent was well documented. A ferocious ball-striker that hits as fast, as clean and as hard as anyone in women’s tennis, her draw placement at Roland Garros, on the section of an hobbling Angelique Kerber, opened leeway for a breakthrough campaign should Ostapenko manage to adapt to the fluctuating weather conditions and how those could affect her timings. Incidentally, the Latvian would drop her first set at the tournament, but progressed to round two by rallying over the next two, and she would follow that framework to a tee several times during her magical campaign, toppling former finalist Sam Stosur and her heavy top spin in round four, and eventually putting the field on notice by draining a barrage of winners on the Tour’s foremost defender, Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki.

Jelena Ostapenko prepares to zip another forehand during a match at the 2017 French Open

  • Her semi-final opponent, Timea Bacsinszky, in many ways bears a resemblance to Daria Kasatkina’s game, and it was fitting that Ostapenko used the semi-final to showcase the improvements that a short stint under the direction of clay-court specialist Anabel Medina Garrigues provided to complement her bread-and-butter all-out aggression. While at her best planted on the baseline smacking the ball, Ostapenko’s quicker movement and body adjustments sustained her disposition to step inside the court, deal with Bacsinszky’s changes of speed and finish at the net, as well as an effort to dictate at a lower cadence and deliver safer, brushed strokes not necessarily aimed for the lines at all times. It would work as she edged past the Swiss to secure a spot in the 2017 Women’s singles Final.

 

  • It would have been understandable if the 20-year-old took a few minutes to settle into the ambiance of the biggest match of her career, but Ostapenko came out blazing, broke at love in the first game and kept swinging freely throughout, unfazed by the pressure, the nerves, the weight of the occasion, the evolution of the score, the futile attempts of her rival to force her into a corner. Lashing onto every ball headed her way, she kept following her own brand of high-risk/high-reward tennis, gunning relentlessly for winners from everywhere and in any shape or form: ripping cross court or down the line, on the run or returning a serve, forehand or backhand, all while dismissing negative thoughts and self-doubt with a growl or a sardonic smile towards her box regardless of how many errors she would queue at times. It was a firebrand festival of power, obstinacy and competitive adrenaline that many times resorted into a one-person recital, with Halep shoved into the sidelines, “a spectator” on what was also her show, unable to say her own lines, to impact the game using her superb defensive skills as the ball blew past her, sometimes drifting wide or long, sometimes landing between the white lines.

Jelena Ostapenko serves against the backdrop of a packed stadium in Paris

  • In the pivotal moments, a set and 3-0 down in the second, and later trailing 3-1 in the third, Ostapenko actually cranked up the intensity, tried to hit even earlier, even harder, to further take the destiny out of the Romanian’s hands and eradicate any chances she could conjure an alternative course of action. Maybe by instigating fewer cross-court exchanges that vacated the corridors, looking to force her rival to hit from a central location, or perhaps experiment with slices, drop shots and even moon balls to halt the Latvian’s furious pace.

 

  • On the back of 54 winners and equal number of unforced errors, the Riga-native eventually guaranteed an opportunity to wrap up the match, and she didn’t hesitate to launch another backhand missile on the return, directing the ball down the line one final time and raising her arms for the first time, in an incredibly restrained reaction from a 20-year-old who had just won her maiden professional title at a Grand Slam, something not seen in two decades. The same premature composure displayed on court would reverberate as she acknowledged the crowd and filled her media obligations, poised, collected and discoursing with no hesitations as if she hadn’t just become Latvia’s first Grand Slam winner, the youngest Major Champion in a decade and the first unseeded player to win the French Open since 1933. Just another remarkable image to bookend a bizarre yet fascinating tournament.

Jelena Ostapenko holds the first rophy of her professional career, Roland Garros’ Coupe Suzanne Lenglen

NHL playoff series digested: St. Louis Blues – Nashville Predators (2-4)

Coming off two upsets in the first round, long-time Division rivals St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators crossed paths for the first time in their playoff history with a spot in the Western Conference Final on the line.

For the Blues, a success would have represented a second consecutive appearance in the third round, something they haven’t accomplished since 1970, however Nashville proved stronger, labouring past them to rewrite the franchise’s history books, winning two consecutive playoff series for the first time ever.

Series Results:

Game 1: Nashville Predators 4 @ 3 St. Louis Blues

Game 2: Nashville Predators 2 @ 3 St. Louis Blues

Game 3: St. Louis Blues 1 @ 3 Nashville Predators

Game 4: St. Louis Blues 1 @ 2 Nashville Predators

Game 5: Nashville Predators 1 @ 2 St. Louis Blues

Game 6: St. Louis Blues 1 @ 3 Nashville Predators

 

Nashville’s blueline drives the offense

Any sensible NHL observer already knew about the embarrassment of riches on the Preds blueline and the way the backend impacts every aspect of Nashville’s game, including the generation of scoring chances, nonetheless an offensive outburst in the biggest of stages always helps drilling the point home.

In this series, the top three point getters – tied with five points – were all Predators defenseman as Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and PK Subban ruled the show while their forwards took a backseat after contributing decisively to the stunning sweep of Chicago.

For instance, Ellis scored in three consecutive matches (Games 2 to 4), including the opening goals in Game 3 and 4, to fire up the home crowd, while his partner, Josi, contributed with the insurance tally in Game 4 before tying the score in the series-clinching Game 6 off a gorgeous cross ice feed by fellow blueliner Matthias Ekholm.

Roman Josi reacts after scoring Nashville’s third goal in Game 3 (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

The physical Swedish defenseman put up just one other assist during the six-game slate, yet his work smothering Vladimir Tarasenko and the Blues top line was top-rate, allowing accomplice PK Subban to spread his wings offensively, namely in Game 1, when he notched a goal and two assists.

Furthermore, third pairing defensemen Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber, while pointless in just under 12 min of TOI/GP, dominated in the possession front (59 adj. CF%) and also in scoring chances (26-18 SCF) differential to round out a group that really carried the mail in the series.

Special Teams forge separation between the sides

Against the Minnesota Wild in round one, the St. Louis Blues were able to survive a rotten powerplay effort (6.7% PP conversion) due to Jake Allen’s heroics, yet very few teams are able to plow through the grind of the NHL postseason without some timely contributions from the man advantage.

The eight best group in the regular season desperately needed to regain its mojo in time, but the second round brought an equally discombobulated unit that mimicked the numbers (1/15, the same 6.7%) recorded in the previous series, and it would prove the difference as the Predators middling (15th-ranked PK and 16th-ranked PP during the regular season) special teams stepped up.

Predators’ defenseman Ryan Ellis shovels the puck past Jake Allen in Game 4 (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

At even strength, Nashville and St. Louis scored 10 times apiece, but the Blues third- ranked penalty kill (84.3%) was bested in 4 of 17 opportunities, including twice in Game 1, facilitating the road triumph Nashville would need to advance, and once in Game 4, when Ryan Ellis broke the ice in the third period to push the Blues to the brink of elimination.

Moreover, the same Ellis blasted the opener in Game 3 just three seconds after Ryan Reaves elbowing penalty expired, another critical moment on a series where Vladimir Tarasenko’s lone Blues PP tally allowed his team to level Game 2 before snatching victory.  Since both teams enjoyed virtually the same time with the man advantage – 28:12 min for St. Louis versus 28:10 min for Nashville – buying an extra couple of goals, especially on the road, would have been a perfect springboard to rally the Blues back in the series.

Pekka Rinne outlasts Jake Allen in battle of hot goalies

Going into this series, there was no way to dance around the juiciest storyline: goaltenders Pekka Rinne and Jake Allen, otherworldly during the first round, were about to stare down each other and who would blink first?

It turned out both men did, performing below their high standards in Games 1 and 2 to come back to Earth, splitting wins while clocking below-0.900 Sv%, but eventually settling down over the next four matches, tight affairs that ended up as a pair of 2-1 encounters, a 3-1 showdown with an empty netter aggregated and a 3-1 Predators victory in Game 4.

Goaltenders Pekka Rinne (#35) and Jake Allen (#34) greet each other in the handshake line after Game 6 (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

Under such thin margins of error, Rinne would prevail over Allen by conceding just five goals in 112 shots for an outstanding 0.955 Sv%, while Allen filed in a good-but-not-great 0.918 Sv% (eight in 98) on a stretch that included three games in Nashville, where the Predators and their Finnish goaltender stringed nine consecutive playoff games.

Overall, another test passed with flying colours by Pekka Rinne, who finished the second round with a 1.37 GAA and a 0.951 Sv% in 10 postseason games.

Best players in the series

Jaden Schwartz (St. Louis Blues)

With sniper Vladimir Tarasenko getting roughed up at every opportunity, linemate Jaden Schwartz tried to pick up the slack similarly to what he did in round 1 though he fell short this time. In six games, the 24-year-old posted two goals in 18 shots and four even strength points in just over 21 mins of ice-time per game, but still managed to maintain his head above water both in terms of possession (50.95 adj CF%) and scoring chances (50.9 SCF%).

St. Louis forward Jaden Schwartz flicks the puck past Rinne in Game 5 (Photo by Scott Rovak/NHLI via Getty Images)

Honourable mention for defenseman Joel Edmundson, whose +6 rating and 4 points collected alongside Colton Parayko on the Blues most effective pairing capped off a breakout spring campaign that gets slightly bogged down by a 7:1 giveaway/takeaway ratio in round two.

Ryan Ellis (Nashville Predators)

Amongst the cadre of Nashville’s high-flying rearguards, Ellis earns the cake because of his three-goal bundle, including two opening markers which forced the Blues to chase Games 3 and 4.

Additionally, the fully-bearded 26-year-old assisted twice, hurled 13 shots on goal and blocked a series-high 19 shots launched at his own net in 22:35 mins of TOI/GP. His partnership with Roman Josi suffered through some ups and downs, as illustrated by a 43.59 5 on 5 adj CF% and 44.9 SCF%, but there’s no denying the direct impact on the Predators’ accomplishment.

Will the St. Louis Blues return to the playoffs next year? 

Maybe. The Central Division promises to be even more competitive next year with Dallas and Winnipeg expected to mount better challenges, but don’t count the Blues out just yet even if their margin for improvement isn’t encouraging.

In fact, St. Louis is bumping against the cap ceiling and the few millions in store (5M) are earmarked for 24-year-old stud Colton Parayko, a RFA with arbitration rights that may be a prime target for an offer sheet this summer. However, don’t hold your breath as GM Doug Armstrong has indicated he’ll match any proposal since he can open critical space without shaking the foundations by swinging David Perron (3.75M), a 2018 UFA.

Re-signing towering defenseman Colton Parayko should be St. Louis’ main priority this offseason (Photo by Scott Rovak/NHLI via Getty Images)

If more is required, top-line pivot Paul Stastny, whose four-year, 28 M pact agreed in 2014 expires next summer, could be an option despite Jori Lehtera’s status as a preferable remittance at 4.7 M (2019). Meanwhile, trading Patrick Berglund (3.85M until 2022) and veteran Alex Steen (NTC, 5.75M until 2021) is tougher as both possess some kind of No-trade protection for some reason.

Fortunately, Vladimir Tarasenko (2023) and Jaden Schwartz (2021) are locked down at decent rates, as is Captain Alex Pietrangelo (2020) and starting goalie Jake Allen (2021), consequently, outside of Parayko, the Blues’ main concerns this offseason relate to the outer edges of the roster. Will fourth-liner Scottie Upshall return? Will they retain the rights for RFAs Nail Yakupov and Magnus Paarjavi, two former lottery-picks who haven’t pan out? Who will be the seventh defenseman?

Not exactly roster-breaking resolutions nor expected to impact what must be taken care off in 2018: potentially tricky negotiations with the fast-improving Joel Edmundson (23-years-old) and Robby Fabbri (21).

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 finished 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 had happened against the Pittsburgh Penguins last spring.

However, providentially, this time Barry Trotz stumbled into 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 trot 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 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.

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 foreseen 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)

On 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 shoot 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.

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 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-pts 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 on 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

On 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 tieing 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 Lundvist (New York Rangers)

We’ve documented the heroics of Lundqvst 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 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.

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

The peculiarities of the NHL playoffs divisional format determined a 1st round confront 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 in 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 Jon 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 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 junior 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.

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 retool (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.

NHL playoff series digested: Minnesota Wild – St. Louis Blues (1-4)

Two years ago, the Minnesota Wild and the St. Louis Blues squared off in the first round of the NHL playoffs, with the Wild, who finished the regular season nine points behind, upsetting in six games a Blues team with eyes set on the Stanley Cup. Entering the 2017 playoffs, the roles were reversed, with the Wild, fresh of pushing forward all their chips at the trade deadline, expecting a long spring campaign and the underdog Missourians determined to crash their party.

Funny enough, former Wild coach Mike Yeo also exchanged benches in the meantime, and he played his part to once again shake hands for the winning side as St. Louis extolled their small revenge to book a place in the second round. How did they manage it?

Series Results:

Game 1: St. Louis Blues 2 @ 1 Minnesota Wild (OT)

Game 2: St. Louis Blues 2 @ 1 Minnesota Wild

Game 3: Minnesota Wild 1 @ 3 St. Louis Blues

Game 4: Minnesota Wild 2 @ 0 St. Louis Blues

Game 5: St. Louis Blues 4 @ 3 Minnesota Wild (OT)

 

Jake Allen bested Devan Dubnyk

On his first NHL season as St. Louis’ undisputed starter, Jake Allen went through hell in the winter before finding his footing in March, arriving at the postseason on the crest of a 0.942 Sv% amassed over his last fifteen games. Truth be told, the Blues benefited from a soft schedule late and few believed Allen would maintain such a hot streak, yet he flat-out stole Game 1 in Minnesota with a 51-saves performance and then kept frustrating the Wild for the rest of the series.

Over five games, the 26-year-old posted a superlative 0.956 Sv% and 1.47 GAA, marks that ranked second amongst peers in the first round, and captured a series win his team had no business picking up. Not only because Minnesota significantly outplayed St. Louis in four of five matches, but also because his counterpart Devan Dubnyk put together an unappreciated effort that went to waste.

Jake Allen gobbles the puck on another Minnesota Wild chance in Game 2 (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

The Wild’s All-Star goaltender, who hit a rough patch late in the regular season, concluded the series with excellent numbers (.925 Sv% and 1.86 GAA) but he just couldn’t touch the same high notes as Allen. For example, at even strength, both man allowed one goal in low-danger shots and two in medium-danger opportunities, yet Allen blocked 23 of 24 (0.958 Sv%) high-danger chances whereas Dubnyk let in 4 of 20, sinking his EV Sv% to 0.911, fifty-seven points below Allen’s stellar 0.968.

Thus, it wouldn’t matter that Dubnyk stood close to perfection when the Blues were on the powerplay, deflecting 26 of 27 shots, as the one that snuck through went down as the game-winner in Game 2. So harsh can be the life of a goaltender come playoff time…

No Shattenkirk, no problem

With 19 points obtained in 26 playoff games over the last two postseasons, Kevin Shattenkirk was a major cog of St. Louis’ defence up to the deal that sent him to the Washington Capitals. While Doug Armstrong’s hand was forced by the need to recoup some assets, his absence represented a major drawback to the Blues’ chances this spring, and they needed someone to pick up the slack, especially five on five.

Cue the Blues second defensive pair, composed of sophomores Joel Edmudson and Colton Parayko. Mobile, large, strong and, in this series, effective on both sides of the puck, the duo did a commendable job stepping up to the challenge. The less heralded Edmundson scored the OT winner in Game 1 and later broke the ice in Game 2, posting a series-high +6 and 16 blks in 22.10 min TOI/GP. As for the 22-year-old Parayko, he opened the scoring in Game 3 and set up Alex Steen for the Blues’ second goal in Game 5, skating to a +4 with 14 SOG and 13 blks in vital 24.44 min TOI/GP.

It wasn’t always pretty, but Parayko and company found a way to keep the puck away from their net. (Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)

Much like the majority of St.Louis’ players, It’s fair to point out they got plastered five on five in terms of possession (39.7 adj. CF%), but the pair still came out on the positive side in Scoring changes for (6-5) and, naturally, goals (4-0), while the same can’t be said for the Blues No.1 pairing, as Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester amassed a 37.0 adj.CF% and bled scoring chances (5-9).

Parayko and Edmundson accounted for a 111 PDO, which means they’re bound to regress hard – probably already against the Predators – but, for now, they’ve rewarded Mike Yeo’s confidence.

Bruce Boudreau tinkered his forwards lines incessantly but couldn’t find the winning combination

The Minnesota Wild manufactured 3.21 goals per game during the regular season, second best in the NHL, but those numbers don’t necessarily portend they possess a surplus of firepower up front. Bruce Boudreau’s team lacked a 30-goal scorer or a 70-pts player, and boasted just two forwards (Mikael Granlund (69) and Eric Staal (65)) niched inside the list of top 50 point getters. In other words, they lack the game-breakers that usually come in handy at playoff time and against an inspired Jake Allen that deficiency proved fatal.

The Wild mustered just 8 goals in the equivalent to five and a half games of hockey, and only Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle accrued two points at even-strength. The Wild’s top nine forwards in Game 1 were staggered in an All-Finnish line with Erik Haula, Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund, a Zach Parise – Eric Staal – Nino Niederreiter combination, and the duo Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle flanking Martin Hanzal, but it didn’t stay that way for long as Bruce Boudreau cranked up the blender in a hurry.

Martin Hanzal rams through Jake Allen in Game 3, but to no effect. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

For Game 2, Zucker returned to the left of Koivu and Granlund to try to rekindle the magic of the regular season, while Niederreiter was dropped to the fourth line to make room for Charlie Coyle. Then, in Game 3, Haula was moved to centre between Jason Pominville and Chris Stewart, with Niederreiter joining Hanzal, but nothing seemed to juice up the offense.

Down 3-0 in the series, Boudreau separated the Granlund/Koivu and Parise/Staal duos and connected Pominville, Hanzal and Zucker, who scored on the Wild’s win. You don’t change what’s working, right? Nope. In Game 5, the wheel kept spinning, with Parise alongside the reunited Koivu and Granlund up to the moment Eric Staal left the game injured. After that, more reshuffling, obviously. And, soon after, the Blues closing the series in overtime.

All things considered, despite controlling the puck (58.9 adj. CF%) like no other team in the first round, averaging 9.6 more SOG per game (36.4 to the Blues 26.8), and slugging to a 55.1 adj. SCF%, the Wild scored just five even strength goals – one with Dubnyk pulled – and registered a single forward line who logged more than 20 minutes together. Jake Allen’s brilliance may have been the major reason for the Wild’s demise, but Bruce Boudreau’s actions didn’t help.

Best players in the series

Jake Allen (St. Louis Blues)

For the reasons exposed above, Jake Allen was the X-factor for St. Louis in the series, yet forward Jaden Schwartz deserves an honourable mention. The 24-year-old picked up a series-high 5 pts (2+3), and his contributions encompassed the game-winners in Game 2 and 3, three shots on goal per game, 22 min TOI/GP – tops among Blues forwards – and respectable underlying metrics. In fact, Schwartz and linemate Vladimir Tarasenko were the only Blues’ forwards simultaneously above 44.0 adj. CF% and 54 adj. SCF%.

Jaden Schwartz is about to blow the puck past Devan Dubnyk to give the Blues victory in Game 2 (Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)

Mikael Granlund (Minnesota Wild)

Without standout Minnesota Wild performances in the series, left winger Zach Parise – 3 pts (1+2), including the late goal to tie Game 1 – wouldn’t be a terrible choice here. However, he also accounted for a -4 rating and 4 minor penalties, therefore I’ll appoint Mikael Granlund. Minnesota’s best forward during the regular season struggled to make an impact on the scoresheet, collecting just 2 assists in 5 games, but he still looked dangerous at most times, impacting the play with a massive 85.1 adj. SCF% (1st on the team) and excellent 63.1 adj. CF% (4th).

Will the Minnesota Wild return to the playoffs next year? 

Boudreau’s teams have always turned into regular season juggernauts, so you can safely bet on that. However, Minnesota’s long-term prospects don’t look good with Ryan Suter (32) and Zach Parise’s (soon to be 33) contracts running until 2071 (approximately) and age clearly catching up to them.

Dubnyk and most of the defensive core have contracts with a few years left, providing cost certainty in the near future, which is exactly why 22-year-old Matt Dumba (RFA in 2018) may have to be sacrificed in the expansion draft instead of Marco Scandella (UFA 2020) or Jonas Brodin (UFA 2021). In a perfect world, they would rather ditch 34-year-old forward Jason Pominville – whose 5.6M deal until 2019 looms large – yet his NTC/NMC prevents that.

The Wild have 15 players signed for next season and 11.4 M in cap space, but most will be absorbed by the contract extensions of RFA’s Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter. In a conservative estimative, the Wild should assume their raises will trim that number to less than 3M, which won’t be enough to bring back 30-year-old Martin Hanzal, in line for a healthy increment from his current 3.1 M cap hit. And they can’t bring back the valuable picks they forfeited for his five playoff games either…

Maybe the Minnesota Wild will have more reasons to celebrate next season (Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)