NHL playoffs

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)

NHL playoff series digested: Chicago Blackhawks – Nashville Predators (0-4)

On their way to the Championships in 2010 and 2013, the Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Nashville Predators in the first round of the NHL playoffs. The Western Conference top seed had realistic expectations of reviving history, but facing a spiked, underperforming lower ranked team is always dangerous, and this time the Predators came out determined to bite back and change the narrative. They couldn’t have done it in a more emphatic way, authoring the most stunning first round sweep in the NHL this century and their maiden playoff triumph in just four matches. Let’s dive into the numbers to understand how such an outcome materialized.

Series Results:

Game 1: Nashville Predators 1 @ 0 Chicago Blackhawks

Game 2: Nashville Predators 5 @ 0 Chicago Blackhawks

Game 3: Chicago Blackhawks 2 @ 3 Nashville Predators (OT)

Game 4: Chicago Blackhawks 1 @ 4 Nashville Predators

 

Pekka Rinne, the Great Finnish Wall

The career of the Predators goaltender has been dotted by more peaks and valleys than his pedigree would anticipate and, following an average regular season, all eyes were on him as pundits gauged Nashville’s chances of making a run for the Cup. In four of Rinne’s five previous playoff campaigns, his overall Sv% didn’t rise above .912, consequently it was time the Finnish goalie justified his hefty 7M cap hit in the postseason. However, few could have predicted the level of domination he displayed against the Blackhawks.

Nashville’s goaltender Pekka Rinne, erected a brick wall in net during the series first two Games in Chicago

The 34-year-old stonewalled the high-flying offense of Chicago on the road in the first two games of the series, turning aside all 59 shots thrown at his net, and kept his spectacular form in the friendly confines of the Bridgestone Arena, pitching two more wins to close out the series with only three goals allowed in 126 shots faced.

That’s a scintillating 0.976 Sv% and 0.70 GAA over a near perfect series, where Rinne allowed a single even-strength goal in 115 shots (0.991 Sv%!), 15 of those of the “high-danger” variety, and posted a preposterous 6.21 goals saved above average (GSAA) rating in just four games. Such brilliance turned the Predators into the 13th NHL team to quell their opponent to three or less goals in a four-game series, and just the fourth in the last 38 years (1994 NYR, 2001 TOR, 2003 ANA & 2013 BOS).

For good measure, Rinne also picked up two assists in Game 2, something no Blackhawks player could do over the entire series.

Pounce early on to steal away home ice advantage

The noise inside Chicago’s United Center after the usual pregame festivities is further amped up came playoff time, and it was imperative the Predators were able to withstanding the impact of the first few minutes on the road, as Chicago posted the second best Win% after scoring first (0.740) during the regular season.

Furthermore, Nashville had dropped 9 of the previous 10 games in Chicago and compiled the worst road record amongst playoff teams in the NHL this season, yet the visitors looked anything like an anxious bunch as they scored early in both games to put the Blackhawks on their heels.

The tallies by Viktor Arvidsson, with 7.52min played in Game 1, and Ryan Ellis, just 3.44 min into Game 2, both due to the work of Nashville’s top forward line against the Jonathan Toews unit, calmed the crowd, injected life into Peter Laviolette’s bench and forced the Hawks to take chances and shorten the bench as the clock advanced.

In Game 1, the pressure of Chicago, especially the Kane-Anisimov-Panarin trio, almost cracked Rinne, but the Predators were able to hang on to a 1-0 victory, while in Game 2 their strategy worked to perfection. They dominated possession and scoring chances metrics throughout, and took advantage of the Hawks lackadaisical defensive play to deliver two back-breaking goals in the second period that put the game away.

Nashville Predators players celebrate the team’s 2nd goal in Game 2 (Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)

Bolstered by two road performances “by the book”, the Predators returned to Tennessee with home ice advantage, a firm grasp on the series and the seed of doubt planted in the mind of their accomplished opponent.

The Predators top line tortured Chicago, the others delivered the knockout punches

Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg combined for five goals, 17 points, a  60.2 FF%, 12 scoring chances for and just 2 against – an outstanding 88.3 SCF% -, six goals for and 0 against while on the ice.

There’s no way around it. The Predators top forward unit dismantled the Hawks, who had no answer for them even if Joel Quenneville tried everything. Going power on power with the Panarin-Anisimov-Kane line, deploy Jonathan Toews to slow them down, tap on the defensive prowess of Marcus Kruger and Marian Hossa, and shuffle his defensive pairs when Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson (13-28 Shots For, 3-8 SCF, 0-3 GF) botched the job. Eventually, he would be forced to load up with Toews between Kane and Panarin for Game 4, and they responded with a 66.7 CF% in 18 min together, despite struggling to create chances (1-3 SCF). It was already too late.

Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson exult after tieing the score late in Game 3 (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

With the No.1 line wreaking havoc on the Hawks, it was up to Nashville’s other forwards to find a way to impact the tie decisively, and all units had their moment in the sun. The physical Harry Zolnierczyk – Mike Fischer – Austin Watson group couldn’t drive play but still crafted a huge 2-0 goal in Game 2. Colton Sissons finished up a great shift by Craig Smith to follow up with the third on the 5-0 rout, and added a monumental tally in Game 4 that all but sealed the sweep. As for the second line, Kevin Fiala, Calle Jarnkrok and James Neal accounted for a 57.1 CF% and 61.6 SCF%, but looked snake bitten until they orchestrated the vital GWG in Game 3 OT.

On the other side, with the Patrick Kane unit unable to break through, the blender of Joel Quenneville functioned incessantly but to no avail. Their only 5 on 5 goal came off a good cycle by Marcus Kruger, Dennis Rasmussen and Richard Panik, opening the score in the second period of Game 3 and breaking Rinne’s SO streak, but the Hawks couldn’t hold onto the lead.

 

Best players in the series

Pekka Rinne (Nashville Predators)

As evidence above, the performance of Pekka Rinne was the primary factor behind the Predators smashing triumph, but many of his colleagues also excelled individually.

For instance, center Ryan Johansen, who was a force up the middle and collected a series-high 6 pts (1+5), or Filip Forsberg, who posted 5 pts, including two goals in Game 3 to rally the Predators back. Meanwhile, defenseman Roman Josi netted twice in the series-clincher and his pairing with Ryan Ellis amassed a +5 rating in spite of heavy deployment and a whole lot of rubber flying around (24 blocked shots accumulated between the two).

Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks)

The reigning Hart Trophy winner couldn’t rise above the nightmarish series for the Hawks, failing to hit the scoresheet with the regularity Chicago fans expected, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort. While fellow superstars Jonathan Toews (-5) and Duncan Keith (-6) were mostly invisible, Kane flung a series-high 23 SOG, logged 23.55 min TOI/GP, and notched a PP goal on Game 3 to extend the Hawks lead at the time. And while things never broke his way, he wasn’t careless with the puck, giving the puck only once and picking up three takeaways.

 

Will the Chicago Blackhawks return to the playoffs next year? 

Absolutely. There’s probably another long run left on this group although the Blackhawks status as the class of the West is ever more fragile with every member of the core over 28 years old and hence with its best years behind. More importantly, there’s not one of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Artem Anisimov, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Corey Crawford that doesn’t possess some kind of NMC/NTC protection, which severely limits Stan Bowman’s ability to shake things up after a second consecutive first round exit.

On the Chicago Blackhawks core group falls the responsibility to bring the team back into title contention next year (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

Unless they decide – and find a way – to offload Seabrook, Crawford, Hossa or Anisimov, with Artemi Panarin’s extension kicking in and his cap hit jumping to 6M, the Hawks have minimal margin (around 3M) to compose their roster with two blueliners that can fill in for veterans Brian Campbell and Johnny Oduya – whose time in Chicago should be finished for good -, a couple of depth forwards and a solid backup goalie, now that Scott Darling appears ready for a more prominent role elsewhere.

RFA Richard Panik priced himself out of Chicago with a 22-goal season, and his role will have to be assumed by one of the young players that populated the lower lines this season (Ryan Hartman, Nick Schmaltz, Tanner Kero, Vinnie Hinostroza, Dennis Rasmussen) with mixed results. Unless the exciting Alex DeBrincat, who scored 65 times in 63 OHL regular season games this season, can jump right into the spotlight.

NHL playoff series digested: Anaheim Ducks – Calgary Flames (4-0)

The back half of April comprises what is, by far, the most compelling portion of the NHL schedule. The 1st round of the Stanley Cup playoffs is a delightful feast of action-driven evenings and late nights when hockey fans can barely manage to catch their breath while the scaled up intensity of postseason play bristles in multiple channels. Keeping an eye on all happenings and storylines is virtually impossible, thus the need to compile reports on the feats taking place across different boards.

This spring I’m aiming to do just that, so after every playoff series reaches its epilogue, I’ll provide a roundup of the aspects that concurred for the end result, regardless of whether we witnessed a routine triumph by a top-seed, a tight seven-game series or an epic upset. To maintain some resemblance of consistency as we move forward, I’ll try to stick to a structure that I believe will allow for a concise, informative dispatch targeted to those that couldn’t follow the matchup in question, but still want to comprehend the outcome.

Hence, I’ll start by objectively pinning down the three key factors that justify the final scoreline, offering the underlying rationale, before electing the best player in the series for each side. Finally, with an eye on the future, I’ll dispense my prediction on the response for a simple question about the future of the team that just got laid off: Will they be back on the same stage next year?

Fifteen best-of-seven series are contested in the Stanley Cup playoffs until the chalice is awarded, and the first to be completed pitted two Pacific Division opponents that seemed to find their stride late in the season. The Calgary Flames entered with a large cloud hanging over their heads, as the Canadian side had failed to secure a win at Anaheim’s Honda Center in 13 years, a string of 25 consecutive regular-season matches, but despite that many – including myself – still expected a evened up encounter. Obviously, it didn’t unfold that way and I’ll try to explain why:

Series Results:

Game 1: Calgary Flames 2 @ 3 Anaheim Ducks

Game 2: Calgary Flames 2 @ 3 Anaheim Ducks

Game 3: Anaheim Ducks 5 @ 4 Calgary Flames (OT)

Game 4: Anaheim Ducks 3 @ 1 Calgary Flames

 

Brian Elliott sputtered badly

The veteran goaltender was one of the building blocks behind Calgary’s push towards a playoff spot after the All-star break, but he authored a disastrous array of games which effectively submerged his team’s chances of going deep into the postseason. Just 52 seconds into the first game, Ryan Getzlaf’s long wrister found a way past Elliott’s shoulder, and the puck would continue to trickle through his body in virtually every way possible from then on.

An Jakob Silfverberg snap shot from the top of the circles crept below his arm to stand as the GWG in Game 1, and the Swedish winger also whizzed another shot past his tucked-in glove to open the score in Game 2 before Rickard Rakell stuffed the puck from behind the net for a Ducks two-goal lead. Then, in game 3, the 32-year-old found another gear, spewing out a terrible rebound to the front of the crease, right towards the onrushing Nick Ritchie, to wake up the visitors, contributing decisively to their three-goal rally from 4-1 down when a Shea Theodore wrister handcuffed him on the second goal, and finally surrendering the OT winner by deflecting a puck thrown from the boards towards a teammate standing in front, where it ricocheted to the net.

The puck sits behind Brian Elliott after the OT winner in Game 3 (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)

Elliott probably didn’t deserve to start Game 4 with the Flames season on the line, but he did, and responded by giving up another snoozer on a Patrick Eaves attempt from the boards that squeaked in short side. Just 5:38 min into the night, his season was finished as he was mercifully pulled by coach Glen Gulutzan.

Overall, Elliott posted a putrid 3.89 GAA and .880 Sv% in four postseason games and conceded a mediocre 7 goals in just 42 low-danger shot attempts faced, which is absolutely unacceptable for the AHL, let alone the NHL playoffs. The sweep is on him.

Calgary’s top lines controlled the play but couldn’t convert 5 on 5

The Flames scored nine goals in four games and their PP looked sharp throughout, connecting on 6 of 16 chances, but they just couldn’t keep up with the Ducks five on five, at least on the scoresheet. At even strength, the Ducks tallied 10 times to just two by the Flames, and only one of those came from Calgary’s top-six forwards. The Gaudreau – Monahan – Ferland combo squared off almost exclusively against Anaheim’s premium shutdown unit (Cogliano – Kesler -Silfverberg) and ruled the matchup to the tune of 60 CF% and 70 SCF% (12 For – 5 Against) but was unable to hit the twine even once. In their defence, the Flames’ stars can point out the +4 penalty differential aggregated, which contributed to the four goals buried by the opportunistic Sean Monahan on the powerplay.

Meanwhile, the other battle of heavyweights had more balance to it, with the two-way mastery of the Tkachuk – Backlund – Frolik line neutralizing Anaheim’s top guns, Ryan Getzlaf and Rickard Rakell, at large, but failing to tilt the ice in the right direction as the Flames needed. The Backlund unit managed a 51 CF% and created six scoring chances for while allowing just five, but lost 3-1 in goals. Since further down the lineup they couldn’t make up the difference, with the third forward unit tallying once while Anaheim’s fourth-liner Nate Thompson, for example, amassed 2G and 2 A at even strength, defeat proved inevitable.

Johnny Gaudreau was stifled by the Anaheim Ducks throughout the series (Photo by Robert Binder/NHLI via Getty Images)

Anaheim’s defensive depth holds the fort

With lynchpin Cam Fowler sidelined and Sami Vatanen missing in action after Game 1 (plus the long-time absences of Clayton Stoner and Simon Després), the Ducks had to rely on their flaunted defensive farm in key situations and the kids held their ground. Promising offensive-minded blueliner Shea Theodore was paired with veteran Kevin Bieksa 5 on 5 and the duo stood tall under pressure, spitting out a 51 CF% and surviving the negative (7 for – 10 against) scoring chances differential to post a positive +- rating (Theodore ended at +3, Bieksa +5). The 2013 first round pick, who played six playoff games last year, also collected five points on the series, including two goals at 5 on 5 and a couple of assists while anchoring the top PP unit ( 2.57 min PP TOI/GP).

In another pair, postseason greenhorn Brandon Mountour skated alongside Hampus Lindholm and they ended the series without surrendering a single tally at even strength  – and watching three pucks fly in on the other end – despite a CF% under 40. The duo still managed to balance out the scoring chances (7-7), but unsurprisingly will enter round two with a sky-high PDO of 113. Montour played a healthy 19:27 min per game, while Theodore soaked up over 20 mins, numbers that Anaheim would certainly like to temper a bit moving forward when Fowler and Vatanen return to top-four duty. Korbinian Holzer, the 29-year-old German defenseman, filled in for Vatanen on his first ever NHL postseason cameo, and also escaped with a neutral +-rating in 14.39 min of nightly action.

Best players in the series

Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim Ducks)

The Ducks captain set the tone in the series with the early goal in Game 1, finished it off with an empty net tally in Game 4 and, in the meantime, was a workhorse for coach Randy Carlyle, leading all forwards with 22.18 min TOI/GP. The 31-year-old collected a total of 3 goals and 2 assists over the four games, one point less than teammates Corey Perry and Rickard Rakell, but more than enough to deserve the distinction on a series where his team wasn’t bothered too much.

Mikael Backlund and Ryan Getzlaf race for a puck during Game 1 (Photo by Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images)

Mikael Backlund (Calgary Flames)

While Sean Monahan’s four goals and one assist sparkle, his dearth of production at even strength knocks him down in favour of Backlund. The impressive two-way pivot spearheads one of the NHL’s most underrated lines, and while they failed to reach the same heights in the postseason, the Swede never stop battling on his 19:48 min TOI/GP. He fired a team-high 14 shots on goal, picked up 3 points, and his excellent shorthanded goal in Game 2 brought the Flames back into contention until a fortuitous bounce gave Anaheim a two-game lead.

Will the Calgary Flames return to the playoffs next year? 

Yes, probably. Glen Gulutzan’s team charged up the standings late backed up by solid possession stats and the core group is locked long-term, with Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Michael Frolik, Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton and TJ Brodie all under contract, at least, until 2020. The only exception is Mikael Backlund, a UFA in 2018 the team can’t afford to lose.

This summer, the Flames have decisions to make on defence with Dennis Wideman, Deryk Engelland and Michael Stone all up for new deals, while retaining UFA Kris Versteeg should be a priority, as the 2010 Stanley Cup Champion pieced together a nice season. Micheal Ferland and Sam Bennett are RFA’s that won’t break the bank to re-sign, while Curtis Lazar and Alex Chiasson’s future needs clarification.

However, the time devoted to that will pale in comparison to the big resolution needed in goal. Both Brian Elliott and backup Chad Johnson are UFA’s, and if Johnson might return to reassume his role, Elliott’s playoff performance definitely sealed his fate in Calgary. The Flames will shop for a goalie and who they settle for will say a lot about their future.

Can they strike a deal with Ben Bishop, the biggest fish expected to be available on the market? Would they look to pry away Marc-Andre Fleury or Jaroslav Halak? Is one of the other free-agents to be (Ryan Miller, Jonathan Bernier, Scott Darling, Steve Mason) the answer they’re looking for? With a few more pieces added around the edges, this could be the difference between a true contender for the Cup in the coming seasons, or a team topping as a perennial challenger for a playoff spot.

The Calgary Flames say goodbye to their fans after the defeat in Game 4 (Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

[PT] Antevisão da Final da Stanley Cup: Pittsburgh Penguins vs San Jose Sharks

Pela primeira vez desde 2011, quando os Boston Bruins levantaram a Stanley Cup, o troféu máximo da NHL não seguirá para Los Angeles ou Chicago. Tanto os Kings como os Blackhawks foram eliminados na primeira ronda dos playoffs, pelo que chega a hora de outros nomes serem inscritos nos 16 kg de prata e níquel que compõe a taça mais desejada.

Após oito meses de competição, apenas se mantêm na corrida dois emblemas: os Pittsburgh Penguins, Campeões da Conferência Este, que procuram a quarta Stanley Cup da sua história; e os San Jose Sharks, debutantes nesta fase mas carregando um manancial de más recordações que só podem ser completamente erradicadas em caso de sucesso absoluto.

Pelo segundo ano consecutivo, os seguidores da NHL foram brindados com um embate final entre dois conjuntos recheados de executantes sublimes e equipas que praticam estilos de jogo atractivos e similares. Assim, espera-se um hóquei disputado a alto ritmo, com as equipas a apostarem na velocidade dos seus jogadores, em rápidas transições atacantes e numa pressão asfixiante sobre o portador do disco.

O espectáculo está reservado para a próxima quinzena, pelo que está na hora de conhecer melhor dos conjuntos finalistas.

Histórico das equipas

Os Penguins ganharam as suas duas primeiras Stanley Cups em 1991 e 1992

Fundados em 1967, como parte do alargamento inicial da NHL – que passou das seis equipas originais para 12 clubes – a primeira fase de ouro da história dos Penguins teve como ponto de partida a escolha de Mario Lemieux, provavelmente o 2º melhor jogador de sempre, no draft de 1984. O portentoso central canadiano levou a formação de Pittsburgh a dois triunfos consecutivos na Final da Stanley Cup em 1991 e 1992, e provavelmente só uma carreira amaldiçoada por diversas lesões e doenças graves, incluindo um cancro, impediu que voltasse a disputar a série decisiva até à sua retirada definitiva em 2006.

Por esta altura já um novo ícone envergava o equipamento preto e dourado, com uma pontinha de sorte a permitir que Sidney Crosby, outro jogador com um talento geracional, fosse seleccionado em 2005 numa altura em que a permanência do franchise na cidade de Pittsburgh estava seriamente ameaçada. Crosby, juntamente com o russo Evgeni Malkin, lideraram a equipa à final de 2008, perdida para os Detroit Red Wings, e à conquista no ano seguinte, numa desforra perante o mesmo adversário.

Nesse dia 12 de Junho de 2009, muitos pensaram que uma dinastia estava apenas a começar, mas uma série de peripécias de vária ordem impediram a equipa de chegar ao palco mais desejado nas últimas seis temporadas, com 2013 a marcar o mais perto que isso esteve de ocorrer, quando os Penguins foram varridos na final de Conferência pelos Boston Bruins. Da equipa que triunfou em 2009 sobram apenas cinco jogadores, que procuram assim fazer contar a quinta presença da formação do estado da Pensilvânia na Final.

Em 1991, nasceu na cidade californiana de San Jose a primeira equipa da NHL situada na zona da Baia de San Francisco desde que os California Golden Seals foram movidos para Cleveland quinze anos antes. Os San Jose Sharks, ao contrário de outras formações que nos anos seguintes se juntariam a uma NHL em franca expansão (aumento de 21 para 28 formações durante os anos 90), alcançaram resultados bastante satisfatórios a breve trecho, chegando à 2ª ronda dos playoffs logo em 1993 e 1994. As expectativas subiram e o clube tornou-se num dos mais competentes da NHL nas últimas duas décadas, falhando os playoffs apenas numa ocasião entre 1997 e 2014.

As temporadas dos San Jose Sharks têm tido sempre o mesmo desfecho: com a equipa do lado errado da linha de cumprimentos (nhl.com)

Contudo, seis títulos na divisão e um President’s Trophy (troféu atribuído à equipa com mais pontos obtidos na fase regular), em 2008-09, sempre souberam a pouco para os homens vestidos em tons de verde azulado (“teal”) e preto, face aos sucessivos falhanços na fase decisiva da temporada. Mesmo garantindo os serviços de um dos melhores passadores da história da NHL, Joe Thornton, em 2005-06, o melhor que a formação que tem como casa o temido “Shark Tank” alcançou foram três presenças na final de Conferência (2004, 2010 e 2011). Entre todas as desilusões, nenhuma foi mais traumática que a derrota com os LA Kings na primeira ronda de 2014, quando lideraram a série por 3-0 e permitiram uma reviravolta história, que haveria de culminar no ano seguinte com a primeira temporada fora dos playoffs em 11 anos.

Contudo, os Sharks reergueram-se e reescrevem novamente os livros em 2015-16, chegando à primeira final da sua história precisamente quando celebram 25 anos de existência.

Percurso até à final:

À deriva e perigosamente em risco de falhar os playoffs após dois meses e meio de temporada, a época dos Pittsburgh Penguins ameaçava tornar-se mais uma hipótese desperdiçada durante os anos de ouro de Crosby e Malkin quando o GM Jim Rutherford decidiu usar a opção de recurso. O treinador Mike Johnston foi despedido, Mike Sullivan resgatado à filial, e os Penguins venceram 33 dos 47 jogos que faltavam na fase regular para alcançarem o segundo lugar na Divisão Metropolitana com 104 pontos, firmando um embate inicial com os NY Rangers.

Perante uma formação que os tinha eliminado nos dois últimos anos, os Penguins aproveitaram o embalo e trataram rapidamente de Henrik Lunqvist e companhia, empilhando golos na baliza do guardião sueco durante cinco jogos que dominaram quase na totalidade.

A ronda seguinte trouxe um oponente formidável, os rivais Washington Capitals, vencedores destacados do President’s Trophy com 120 pontos em 82 jogos. Numa série tensa e em que todas as partidas foram disputadas até ao fim, culminando em três jogos que requereram tempo extra, as duas vitórias em casa nos jogos 3 e 4 provaram-se decisivas para oferecer uma liderança de 3-1 na série. Os Capitals ainda encurtaram distâncias no jogo 5, e recuperaram de uma desvantagem de três golos no jogo 6 em Pittsburgh, mas Nick Bonino marcou o golo de ouro no prolongamento para estender a incessante busca de uma Stanley Cup por parte da formação da capital americana e do seu capitão Alex Ovechkin.

Na final de Conferência, o equilíbrio foi ainda mais acentuado, com o máximo de jogos a ser preciso para separar os Penguins dos Tampa Bay Lightning. Ambas as equipas venceram dois dos primeiros três encontros que disputaram fora de casa, com a igualdade a resultar no jogo 7, em Pittsburgh, onde um herói improvável, o rookie Bryan Rust, bisou no triunfo da formação da casa por 2-1.

Quanto aos San Jose Sharks, somaram 98 pontos na fase regular para terminarem em terceiro na Divisão do Pacífico, atrás dos rivais Anaheim Ducks e LA Kings. O formato dos playoffs determinou assim novo embate com os Kings, dois anos após o humilhante descalabro que haveria de impulsionar a formação de Los Angeles até ao título.

Aproveitando alguma arrogância dos rivais, os Sharks afastaram os fantasmas do passado ao saírem de Los Angeles com os dois primeiros jogos no bolso e, após uma repartição de triunfos em San Jose, foram ao Staples Center desferir o golpe final. Na liderança por três golos no início do 2º período, os Sharks permitiram o empate e os seus adeptos temeram nova debacle. Contudo, três golos sem resposta no período final garantiram um triunfo extremamente saboroso e a passagem à 2ª ronda.

Seguiram-se os incómodos Nashville Predators, com as equipas a vencerem todos os encontros na condição de visitados. Os Sharks estiveram muito perto de roubar o jogo 4 em Nashville mas, após mais de 50 minutos suplementares, Mike Fisher deu o triunfo aos Predators no terceiro prolongamento e empatou a série a 2. A formação de San Jose voltou a não conseguir sair por cima no jogo 6, cedendo novamente no prolongamento, mas no jogo 7, em casa, não deixou dúvidas com um resoluto 5-0.

Os St. Louis Blues, outra equipa com um longo historial de frustrações nos playoffs, ergueram a barreira final no Oeste. A igualdade a dois jogos registada após quatro encontros penalizava os Sharks, que, com excepção do jogo 4, foram sempre dominantes, mas na partida seguinte o capitão Joe Pavelski bisou para liderar a equipa ao triunfo por 6-3 em St. Louis. Com a hipótese de fazer história perante os seus adeptos, os Sharks voltaram a não perdoar e encarreiraram cinco golos para obterem a 12ª vitória nos playoffs, o número mágico para atingirem a sua primeira final da Stanley Cup.

Treinadores:

Chegar à final da Stanley Cup no ano subsequente a falhar os playoffs é um fenómeno raro mas que acontece pela segunda vez na última década, com os Sharks a juntarem-se aos New Jersey Devils de 2011-2012. Atrás do banco de ambos os conjuntos surge o mesmo homem, Peter DeBoer, que consegue novamente atingir tremendo sucesso na estreia em novas paragens.

Um advogado de formação que deve fazer 48 anos em plena disputa da final (13 de Junho), DeBoer chegou à NHL em 2008 após 13 temporadas ao comando de várias formações da principal liga júnior canadiana. Os Florida Panthers foram o destino e, numa antevisão do que se seguiria, o nativo do estado do Ontário não demorou a mostrar trabalho, levando os “Cats” ao segundo maior total de pontos da sua história, que mesmo assim não foi suficiente para atingir os playoffs. Em 2011, após dois anos de regressão, DeBoer foi demitido, tendo rapidamente sido apontado como treinador dos Devils. Após um trajecto surpreendente, a equipa foi apenas travada pelos LA Kings na final da Stanley Cup, e a posterior saída do capitão Zach Parise marcou o começo de um declínio que o treinador não foi capaz de superar.

Peter DeBoer recuperou os San Jose Sharks após uma temporada de 2014-15 desapontante (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images North America)

Duas temporadas consecutivas fora dos playoffs fizeram o chicote estalar em Dezembro de 2014, abrindo as portas para a nomeação como treinador dos San Jose Sharks no começo desta temporada. Ultrapassado um começo titubeante, em que demorou a ganhar a confiança dos líderes do balneário, o grupo orientado por DeBoer subiu de forma a partir de Janeiro e tornou-se uma máquina de marcar golos assim que os playoffs tiveram início, podendo originar a sonhada conquista da Stanley Cup.

Apesar de ter igualmente nascido em 1968, a história de Mike Sullivan é bastante diferente. Desde logo porque conseguiu fazer carreira na NHL durante 10 temporadas, tendo inclusivamente representado os EUA a nível internacional. Pendurados os patins em 2002, foi nomeado técnico dos Providence Bruins, da AHL, sendo que o salto para a NHL ocorreu logo na época seguinte, com a promoção a líder dos Boston Bruins. Treinando uma conjunto onde pontificada Joe Thornton, Sullivan alcançou o titulo da Divisão mas a equipa foi eliminada de entrada nos playoffs. Após o lockout que anulou a temporada de 2004-2005, os Bruins falharam redondamente e Sullivan foi despedido, sendo que nova oportunidade demoraria a chegar. Entre 2007 e 2014 foi treinador adjunto dos Tampa Bay Lightning, NY Rangers e Vancouver Canucks, seguindo John Tortorella em todas estas passagens e acumulando um capital de experiência respeitável.

Mike Sullivan assumiu o comando dos Pittsburgh Penguins em Dezembro (Pittsburgh Penguins / Greg Shamus)

Nomeado treinador dos Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins durante o Verão passado, um excelente começo de temporada, com 18 vitórias em 23 encontros, impressionou tanto Jim Rutherford, GM da formação de Pittsburgh, que foi a ele que recorreu para suceder a Mike Johnston, afastado devido à incapacidade para tirar partido do talento ofensivo à sua disposição.

Quase uma década depois de ter sido pela última vez o líder no banco, Sullivan recebeu nas mãos um Ferrari errante e em acelerado estado de descrença, e colocou-o de volta ao trilho correcto, libertando as estrelas das amarras defensivas, reformulando o sistema de jogo e beneficiando da hábil permuta de peças que Rutherford foi efectivando ao longo do ano.

Avançados:


Rodar quatro linhas ofensivas capazes de manter os adversários presos na sua própria zona é crucial para ter sucesso na longa maratona dos playoffs, e são normalmente as formações que o conseguem a chegar longe. Sharks e Penguins podem-se gabar de poderem apresentar 12 atacantes competentes, sendo as duas equipas com melhor média de golos marcados nos playoffs, mas um vislumbre aos números mostra uma diferença essencial na distribuição dos tentos obtidos. Se os Penguins apresentam três linhas que alternaram momentos de supremacia ofensiva, a formação californiana baseia muito do seu sucesso em dois grupos absolutamente letais.

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