NHL playoffs

NHL playoff series digested: Anaheim Ducks – Nashville Predators (2-4)

One year after battling it out in seven gruelling games in the first round of the 2016 playoffs, the paths of Anaheim Ducks and Nashville Predators crisscrossed again with a bigger reward on the line: a spot on the Stanley Cup Final.

For the eight straight season a team from the state of California contested the Western Conference Final, but not even Anaheim, who reached this stage for the second time in three years, could stop the fledging Nashville Predators. Overcoming crushing injuries along the way, the Predators closed out the series in six games to become just the third Conference lowest seed to advance to the Final round in the salary cap era.

Series Results:

Game 1: Nashville Predators 3 @ 2 Anaheim Ducks (OT)

Game 2: Nashville Predators 3 @ 5 Anaheim Ducks

Game 3: Anaheim Ducks 1 @ 2 Nashville Predators

Game 4: Anaheim Ducks 3 @ 2 Nashville Predators (OT)

Game 5: Nashville Predators 3 @ 1 Anaheim Ducks

Game 6: Anaheim Ducks 3 @ 6 Nashville Predators

 

Ducks’ shutdown line wore down in the third round

Due to their inability to close out the Edmonton Oilers in Game 6, just 48 hours passed between the end of round two for the Anaheim Ducks and the beginning of the series against the Nashville Predators. Such short turnaround would stretch thin Anaheim’s roster and many key players exhibited signs of fatigue, including the in-form Ryan Getzlaf (0 goals, 4 assists, -2), however few struggled quite like the members of their rambunctious shutdown unit, Jakob Silfverberg, Ryan Kesler and Andrew Cogliano.

Anaheim’s Ryan Kesler (#17) blocks a shot in front of goaltender John Gibson in Game 2 (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Exhausted from having to chase Connor McDavid around the ice for seven games, the trio combined for just 4 pts in the series (3 from Silfverberg) and Kesler, in particular, was a diffuse shadow of his best. The two-way maven picked up just one assist (on the powerplay) in six matches, amassed an ugly -6 rating and got clobbered in the possession front (43.71 adj. CF%) as coach Randy Carlyle didn’t have the depth in personnel to scale back his usage (22:26 min TOI per game, 3:11 min SH TOI) or quality of competition.

Kesler and his linemates bandied mostly with the Predators top line of Viktor Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen for the first four games, and barely absorbed the blow (GF 2-4) as the Ducks miraculously eked out a split, yet they also couldn’t make the difference later in the series (GF 1-2) when their defensive responsibilities loosened up with Johansen’s injury and the spotlight shifted from Nashville’s stars to their less heralded characters….

Nashville’s depth steps up following Johansen’s injury

The Ducks had just broken Nashville’s 10-game home playoff win streak to level the series at two and headed home for a pivotal Game 5 when the news storm was unleashed. Nashville’s top line center, Ryan Johansen, would miss the rest of playoffs with a thigh injury and captain Mike Fisher, another pivot, would sit alongside him in the stands to carve two massive holes in the middle of the Predators’ lineup.  Meanwhile, Anaheim would be without the services of Rickard Rakell, probably their best forward in the series until then, and goaltender John Gibson would soon join him in the infirmary after sustaining a lower-body injury in the first period of Game 5.

Consequently, both teams were left scrambling at a crucial juncture of their postseason run – the team that wins Game 5 to take a 3-2 lead in a best-of-7 series was 198-54 in NHL history – and yearning for the emergence of the proverbial playoff heroes. For Anaheim’s undoing, those who seized the moment were Nashville’s grinders.

Nashville’s Pontus Aberg scores as he falls to the ice in Game 5 (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

With nine minutes left on the clock and the score tied at one in Game 5, Ducks’ backup goaltender Jonathan Bernier stopped Filip Forsberg’s shot only to watch as rookie Pontus Aberg spectacularly dove in and swiped the rebound into the net for the game-winning goal. The Swedish winger had just been elevated to top-six status, and his newly-formed partnership with Forsberg and regular fourth-line center Colton Sissons had more shenanigans up its sleeve.

Bottom-six forward Austin Watson broke the ice just 81 seconds into Game 6, and then it was the Sissons’ show. The 23-year-old doubled the lead in the first period, whacked home the puck to reclaim the two-goal advantage in the second, and later completed his first career hat-trick with six minutes to go to bomb the Preds in front for good.

Colton Sissons (L), Pontus Aberg (R) and Filip Forsberg (C) celebrate Sissons’ second goal in Game 6 (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

Watson would still add an empty netter and Pontus Aberg ended the night with two primary assists as Nashville’s depth sunk a Ducks squad that also received goals from overlooked parts like Ondrej Kase and Chris Wagner. However, they couldn’t make it count, going 0-7 on the powerplay in Games 5 and 6 and bobbling the puck on a late man-advantage that expired moments before Sissons scored the series-deciding marker.

Anaheim gets ransacked in third periods

The Ducks’ propensity to easily surrender momentum and cough away early leads had already emerged at various points during their previous series, and it would eventually prove fatal against the Nashville Predators.

For instance, on their first three defeats to the Predators, Anaheim scored first but couldn’t find a way to secure victory. They allowed the Predators to answer back with two goals in Game 1 before falling in overtime, played with fire in Game 3, when Nashville tied in the beginning of the third period and had two goals overruled before Roman Josi found the winner on a late powerplay, and slowly wilted in Game 5 up to the moment Pontus Aberg snatched another third period game-winning-goal.

Nashville’s Roman Josi (#59) pots his game-winning-goal in Game 3 (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Furthermore, Anaheim choked away a precious two-goal lead in the third period of Game 4 only to be saved by Corey Perry’s deflected shot in overtime, and conceded the final three goals in Game Six’s  loss right after rallying to tie the game at 3-3. All of this added up to a 10-4 goal deficit in third period play, and 10-2 (7-2 without empty net goals) in the last four games of the series, when Nashville simply found another gear and left Anaheim in the dust.

Best players in the series

John Gibson (Anaheim Ducks)

The Ducks’ goaltender may have left the ice early in Game 5 to never be seen again, but he was still the team’s finest player in the series, keeping the scores close for the first four matches even as Nashville dominated the run of play to the tune of a 57.5 share of all shots on goal and a 58.8% of 5-on-5 scoring chances for.

Ducks’ goaltender John Gibson makes a save in Game 3 (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

John Gibson responded to the assault by amassing an excellent 0.939 Sv% and 2.16 GAA, besting his counterpart Pekka Rinne (0.911 Sv%) to force the 2-2 tie after four games. However, unfortunately for Anaheim, when the 23-year-old went down injured, backup Jonathan Bernier couldn’t pick up the slack, allowing 6 goals in 34 shots (0.824 Sv%), including 4 in 16 on an abysmal Game 6 performance that doomed the Ducks’ chances.

Filip Forsberg (Nashville Predators)

With five goals and two assists, the Swedish winger was the main catalyst of Nashville’s offense throughout a series where he never failed to notch, at least, a point per game.

After tallying in Games 1 and 2, Forsberg tied the score in the third periods of Games 3 and 4, forced the rebound that Pontus Aberg nodded home for the game-winning-goal in Game 5, and banked the empty-net goal in Game 6, yet his contributions extended well beyond the scoresheet. A two-way force, Forsberg fired 25 shots on goal, picked up a series high +6 on the strength of his 7 even-strength points, and was a tremendous driver of possession (58.55 adj. CF%), scoring chances (65.88 SCF%) and high-danger scoring chances (21-13) in 20:44 min TOI per game.

Nashville’s Filip Forsberg scores on an outstretched John Gibson in Game 2 (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Will the Anaheim Ducks return to the playoffs next year? 

The answer is, probably, yes, but another deep run may be too much to ask with the burgeoning Edmonton Oilers on the verge of breaking out.

Unless, of course, they can find a way to use their 4M salary cap cushion to upgrade the attack, especially with a skilled third line center to relieve some scoring burden from the top-six. The names of Matt Duchene (Colorado Avalanche) and Alex Galchenyuk (Montreal Canadiens) have been floated around and the Ducks might have the assets and desire to complete a deal over the next few weeks, yet, for now, Anaheim is bound to enter 2017-18 with a roster very similar to the one they carried last year.

The Anaheim Ducks will bring the band back together next season (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

For Ducks’ fans, that isn’t exactly bad news, since they were able to dodge the expansion draft bullet Vegas had pointed at them. The price for retaining blueliners Josh Manson and Sami Vatanen was steep – the rights for 22-year-old defenseman Shea Theodore – but GM Bob Murray was also able to package Clayton Stoner and his 3.25M cap hit to Nevada, which facilitated the huge extension thrown Cam Fowler’s way (52M over 8 years, 6.5 M per). The Ducks will thus return the same defensive core to screen goaltenders John Gibson and Ryan Miller, the 37-year-old UFA who agreed to a reasonable 2-year, 4M contract to substitute Jonathan Bernier.

Up front, Anaheim is rooted to veterans Ryan Getzlaf (32-years-old), Corey Perry (32) and Ryan Kesler (33), who will drawing the big bucks for the foreseeable future, and therefore their Stanley Cup window inches ever closer to shutting down completely as their new waves of offensive talent fail to pan out outside of Rickard Rakell, who delivers great value at 3.78M until 2022, and Jakob Silfverberg, who may well break their bank if he keeps the same upward trajectory ahead of unrestricted free agency in 2019.

Anaheim Ducks’ winger Ondrej Kase scored in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final (Photo by Sanford Myers/Getty Images)

Patrick Eaves, a 33-year-old coming off a career year, agreed to return on a 3-year deal worth 3.15M per season, and Anaheim hopes he can hold a top-six role, which would ideally belong to former 10th overall pick Nick Ritchie or fellow 21-year-old winger Ondrej Kase. Moreover, Dennis Rasmussen was picked up from Chicago to replace Nate Thompson in the bottom six, a position a guy like Sam Steel, Anaheim’s promising 1st round pick in 2016, might not be ready to crack just yet. But he, and the like, better be soon enough, or Anaheim’s plunge into the deep waters of the Western Conference may not be more than a couple of years away.

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

NHL playoff series digested: Washington Capitals – Pittsburgh Penguins (3-4)

Under the fratricidal breadth of playoff action, it doesn’t get much better than when the Presidents’ Trophy winners face off against the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Much less when both can throw a constellation of stars into the fray.

For the second consecutive postseason, Pittsburgh and Washington squared off in round two of the Stanley Cup playoffs and through peaks and valleys ended up on familiar locations: the Penguins preparing for the next stage of their trip and the Capitals headed to the greens after the ninth downfall in ten postseason confronts between the two franchises.

Series Results:

Game 1: Pittsburgh Penguins 3 @ 2 Washington Capitals

Game 2: Pittsburgh Penguins 6 @ 2 Washington Capitals

Game 3: Washington Capitals 3 @ 2 Pittsburgh Penguins (OT)

Game 4: Washington Capitals 2 @ 3 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 5: Pittsburgh Penguins 2 @ 4 Washington Capitals

Game 6: Washington Capitals 5 @ 2 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 7: Pittsburgh Penguins 2 @ 0 Washington Capitals

 

Washington can’t turn thorough dominance into scoreline supremacy

A rundown of all major predictors of success in the NHL encapsulates how commanding were the Washington Capitals throughout the 7 game slate, yet hockey can be a pre-eminently chaotic game and you might as well just hang onto that notion to explain how a series like these could go the distance, much less tip Pittsburgh’s way.

In the balance of the tie, Washington outshot Pittsburgh by a 229-161 margin, a 58% share, and the discrepancy was even bigger at five on five (176-121, 59%). Moreover, encompassing all shot attempts, the Capitals controlled even more of the play, racking up a 61.41% CF%, which adjusted for venue and score still comes down to a preposterous 60.30%. This is almost uncharted territory in the most unbalanced of playoff series – for instance, no other team topped a 56% share of possession in round two – and if you inspect other metrics, such as scoring chances (65.74% at 5 on 5) or high-dangerous shot attempts (55.88%), things don’t look much brighter for Pittsburgh.

Washington administered the puck for most of the time but struggled to wreck Pittsburgh’s defensive wall (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

And still, Pittsburgh outscored Washington 20-18 overall and 16-13 at even strength to make the best of their limited opportunities and escape with unlikely victories in Game 1, when the Capitals wasted a 41-15 edge in scoring chances, or Game 4, when a Sidney Crosby-less Penguins squad survived a 13-39 shot attempts deficit in periods two and three.

Regression eventually seemed to be dawning in face of the victories secured by the Capitals in Games 5 and 6, yet they wouldn’t take much solace of that in a winner-takes-all Game 7, furiously responding to the Penguins’ ice breaker in the second period only to be abandoned to their own back luck once again. Washington would find their disheartening end after cracking in the third period, incidentally one of just five (in 22) periods over the series where Pittsburgh claimed a larger slice of the shot pie.

Bryan Rust watches as his shot sails into the net to give the Penguins a 1-0 lead in Game 7 (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Penguins’ resiliency shows up in crucial moments

Up two games to one in their 2016 series against Washington, Pittsburgh clawed its way to a vital home victory in Game 4 without the suspended Kris Letang to push the Capitals to the brink of elimination. Fast forward twelve months and Pittsburgh guts out a 3-2 triumph to tighten the grip on the series in an even more perilous situation, this time missing their ailing superstar captain Sidney Crosby in addition to Letang,

Finding ways to win against all odds are one of the hallmarks of Championship-calibre squads and the Penguins, no matter how ugly it got at times, proved they were masters at it. At least against a Capitals team that devises innovative ways to recoil when facing their biggest rivals…or when staring the prospect of advancing to round three of the playoffs.

In times of adversity, the Pittsburgh Penguins found a way to overcome Washington (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

And so, after 2009 and 2016, history inclemently strutted down the same trail, with Pittsburgh edging Washington as much for their mental toughness and fortitude as for their on-ice prowess. In between fluky bounces of the puck and incredible saves by Fleury, It happened in Game 1, when the Capitals momentum from recovering from two goals down was shattered by a backbreaking Nick Bonino tally with just seven minutes to go in the third.

It almost happened in Game 3, when Pittsburgh snapped out of the trance dictated by Sidney Crosby’s early injury to tie the score with two 6 on 5 goals in the closing minutes before falling in overtime while wielding a 3-0 sledgehammer. It would, obviously, happen in Game 4, as they withstood the Capitals’ barrage to manufacture Justin Schultz’s powerplay goal that would stand as the game winner.

A (flightless) Penguin helps a Capitals’ player hover the ice in Game 6 (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

And despite looking devoid of answers to counteract Washington’s physical pounding and clean up the bundle of turnovers that crippled their breakout in Games 5 and 6, it happened for Pittsburgh in Game 7, assembling a sturdy, unassuming road performance to shut down a desperate Washington team.

Braden Holtby gets outshined…again

During the 2016 encounter between these teams, Washington’s Braden Holtby was outplayed by rookie Matt Murray, but he still came out with the reputation unscathed since his final numbers looked respectable (2.57 GAA, .923 save percentage). Not this time though, as the 2015-16 Vezina Trophy winner shoulders much of the blame for his team’s demise in view of a pedestrian 0.887 Sv% (and matching 0.887 EV Sv%).

While it’s never easy to perform on such a light workload – the Pens wired an average of 23 shots on goal per game -, Holtby is rather accustomed to backstopping an elite team that suppresses opportunities and he still whiffed way too much in the series. For instance, the Canadian goaltender got beat below the blocker in Nick Bonino’s partial breakaway that decided Game 1, was pulled in the second intermission of Game 2 after allowing three goals in just 14 shots, and couldn’t muster an additional save in Game 4 to bail out his team in a crucial match.

The puck shot by Matt Cullen sneaks by Braden Holtby’s body in Game 2 (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Capitals’ netminder improved alongside his teammates later, shining in the third period of Game 5 to preserve the Capitals lead, but it all came crashing down in Game 7. Down 1-0, that weak, fluttering backhand from Patric Hornqvist which handcuffed the 27-year-old simply couldn’t fly past him. Not in the third period of a match where so much was at stake for the franchise. In that moment, an already deflated Capitals team capitulated for good.

Conversely, Marc-Andre Fleury, who filled in for the injured Matt Murray, had a series to remember, as much for his overall output (2.57 GAA, 0.921 Sv%, 0.930 EV Sv%, 1 SO) as for seizing the opportunity to recapture his playoff pedigree. Stepping up to the task brilliantly during the first four games, he then rebounded from getting light up in Games 5 and 6 to shut the door in Game 7. In the process, ghosts of years past were eradicated from his head. Maybe Holtby and the Capitals took notice.

Best players in the series

Evgeni Kuznetsov (Washington Capitals)

The Russian center found some redemption for the disappointing performance of last year’s postseason, when a single assist picked up in six games ascertained his status as one of the patsies of another Capitals’ letdown.

Evgeni Kuznetsov celebrates Washington’s go-ahead goal in the third period of Game 5 (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Kuznetsov’s 7 points tied Nicklas Backstrom for the team lead and his four goals, all obtained at even strength, seemed to pop out in important junctures: the 25-year-old momentarily levelled the score in the third period of Game 1, scored in back to back games in Pittsburgh, and later found a gap short side to substantiate the Caps rally in Game 5.

A dangerous presence who generated regular offense (24 SOG, 61.0 adj. CF%, 65.31 SCF%) regardless of the matchup against Evgeni Malkin or Nick Bonino, the 25-year-old’s contributions could have been even more significant had his linemates, Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson, been able to find the mesh in the many chances the play of Kuznetsov generated.

Marc-André Fleury (Pittsburgh Penguins)

The 32-year-old goaltender was Pittsburgh’s stabilizing force on so many occasions over the 7 games that it is impossible to name them all, but in Pittsburgh’s collective memory one instant will certainly linger. The moment when the shaft of Fleury’s stick deflected an Alex Ovechkin bullet billed for the top corner in the second period of Game 7, preserving the precious one-goal advantage.

Penguins’ goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury denies Evgeni Kuznetsov with a spectacular save in Game 3 (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

Fleury certainly savoured all the big saves on what was his greatest playoff series performance since 2009 – and final one in a Penguins sweater – yet some of his teammates also chipped in decisively.

Rookie Jake Guentzel amassed a series high +5 and 8 pts (4+4), while Evgeni Malkin (3 + 4) drove the Penguins’ group that drew closest to positive territory in the possession front (47.97 adj. CF%) and remarkably compiled a 17-10 advantage in high dangerous shot attempts. Meanwhile, Sidney Crosby, despite being knocked out by Matt Niskanen in the first minutes of Game 3 and appearing…vulnerable after coming back, surfaced in selective instances to post 7 pts and a +4 rating in direct confront with the Capitals’ top defensive pair and most potent forward line.

Will the Washington Capitals return to the playoffs next year? 

Yes, even if their reign at the top of the NHL regular season standings is probably a thing of the past. Such is life in the league when all the chips are pushed to the table in two consecutive seasons, the team falls short and a bevy of important players hit the market at the same time.

Due to salary cap constraints, tough choices needed to be made this summer in Washington and the result was a major facelift to the roster. Against most projections, the Capitals retained top-line winger TJ Oshie, but they had to fork over 46M to close an 8-year deal that they may soon regret, while Evgeni Kuznetsov used KHL leverage to pry his own max-term extension at the premium rate of 7.8M per year. Furthermore his compatriot Dmitry Orlov signed a six-year pact that will pay him 5.1M per season, essentially ending Kevin Shattenkirk’s brief cameo in red and blue and Karl Alzner’s long tenure in Washington.

Justin Williams was one of the players that left Washington this offseason (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The 28-year-old Alzner signed with Montreal, while fellow UFA Justin Williams returned to Carolina, squeezed out by Kuznetsov’s big ticket, which also forced GM Brian MacLellan to trade Marcus Johansson to New Jersey for pennies on the dollar. In between, RFA Andre Burakovsky re-signed and UFA forward Devante Smith Pelley was added to the fold, however defenseman Nate Schmidt, who was line for a promotion to a top-four role, was scooped up by Vegas in the expansion draft to compound an offseason of suffering for Capitals’ fans.

With 4M in cap space and just 17 players on the active roster, Washington still needs one or two top-nine forwards to replenish the attack in addition to couple of depth defenseman, therefore opportunities are inevitably on the way for their youngsters. Jakub Vrana, the 13th overall pick in 2014, and 23-year-old Travis Boyd, who collected 63 pts at the AHL level in 2016-17, are names to watch up front, while Christian Djoos, a 2012 7th round pick who posted 58 pts in the minors, and former second rounder Madison Bowie are eyeing regular blueline duty.

Developing the in-house reinforcements to pick up the slack of the departed lot will take time, but you can never discount a team built around the likes of Alexander Ovechkin (signed until 2022), Nicklas Backstrom (2020), Matt Niskanen (2021) and Braden Holtby (2020). At least in the regular season, that is.

Another season, another playoff collapse for Alex Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals in front of their fans (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

NHL playoff series digested: Ottawa Senators – New York Rangers (4-2)

While the heavyweights Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins were contesting what many revered as the early Eastern Conference Final, Senators and Rangers were left to scrap for the other spot in the third round under much less media attention. Unfortunate ended up being the ones that missed out on the second ever postseason meeting between Ottawa and New York, who did their part to spark the respective fan bases by holding serve at home for the first five matches of the series.

In Game 6, the streak was broken by the visiting Senators and that was all she wrote, as the Canadian side moved on to their first Final Four appearance since 2007, while the Rangers missed out on a third presence in four years and the opportunity to be the first Metropolitan Division team to hoist a banner reading “Atlantic Division Champions”.

Series Results:

Game 1: New York Rangers 1 @ 2 Ottawa Senators

Game 2: New York Rangers 5 @ 6 Ottawa Senators (2 OT)

Game 3: Ottawa Senators 1 @ 4 New York Rangers

Game 4: Ottawa Senators 1 @ 4 New York Rangers

Game 5: New York Rangers 4 @ 5 Ottawa Senators (OT)

Game 6: Ottawa Senators 4 @ 2 New York Rangers

 

New York craters on the road under Ottawa’s late flurries of activity

With the Senators holding home ice advantage to start the series, the Rangers knew the responsibility of stealing a road victory on the other side of the border fell on them, so they went to work on it from the get-go. After surviving a 21-shots first period blitz in Game 1, New York shepherded a 1-1 score into the final minutes of regulation only to fall to Erik Karlsson, who sentenced the match on an extraordinary moment of perception as he sniped the puck off the top of Henrik Lundqvist’s back while stationed behind the goal line and just off the side boards. You can’t prevent moments like that, so the Rangers just shrugged it off and focused on another opportunity coming in two days.

The loss in Game 2 would sting immensely more as the Rangers had the Sens by the horns in multiple occasions and couldn’t close out. Riding two shorthanded tallies, they reached a 3-1 advantage in the second period, and later led 4-2 and 5-3 until center Jean-Gabriel Pageau deflected two pucks past Henrik Lundqvist at the tail end of regulation. Despite the setback, the Rangers regrouped and had their chances to take victory in overtime, yet the game was destined to go down as a memorable affair for the Sens and Pageau, who concluded the proceedings with his fourth goal of the night.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau (#44) has just tipped a puck past Henrik Lundqvist (#30) to tie Game 2 in the last minutes of regulation (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

New York took care of business at the Madison Square Garden to level the series at two games apiece, and consequently booked a return trip to Ottawa for a pivotal Game 5, which would again elicit sleepless nights. The Rangers found their way into two early goals only to be upended, but reacted to secure a 4-3 lead heading into the final seconds. With the other net vacated, they would again crumble to the pressure of Ottawa and Derick Brassard pushed the contest to OT. This time, though, New York couldn’t settle down during the intermission and they were absolutely throttled by Ottawa (13-1 in shot attempts) until Kyle Turris scored the deciding marker just six minutes into extra time.

That goal pushed the “Blueshirts” to the brink of elimination, and they eventually ran out the time to get the job done in Canada since the fourth and last chance would never come.

Senators hit all the bases in Game 6 to reverse the trend

Unlike the Rangers, Ottawa couldn’t even sniff a road triumph in Games 3 and 4 as the Sens were clocked in matching 4-1 bouts that were over way before the final buzzer. The Rangers had raced to 4-0 leads in both matches while facing feeble opposition, therefore all the ingredients seemed to be on hand to force a winner-takes-all Game 7.

Senators’ goalie Craig Anderson makes a save on New York’s Mats Zuccarello during Game 6 (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Except the Rangers actually believed they would breeze in Game 6, and came out so flat for a team with the season on the line that Ottawa took notice and found a way to put together the mettle required to finish the job that night. For instance, for the first time in the whole series, the Sens broke the ice when Mike Hoffman redirected the puck just 4 minutes in, and then obtained their first two-goal lead, courtesy of a Mark Stone laser. In between, Ottawa killed a 4-minute, double minor penalty, and they would deny the Rangers’ powerplay twice more later on as goaltender Craig Anderson delivered a great performance to make up for the four consecutive games where he allowed 4+ goals.

Ottawa’s starting goaltender and two of their top forwards had already made huge contributions to the cause, and their captain and best player was about to join the fun. Just two minutes after Mika Zibanejad cut the Sens advantage to one, Erik Karlsson transitioned the puck up the ice, dished it to 7M-man Bobby Ryan and then grazed a soft spot in coverage to receive it back and fire past Henrik Lundqvist.

Erik Karlsson reacts after scoring Ottawa’s third goal in Game 6 (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

The 3-1 stunned the MSG, and not even Chris Kreider’s marker just 53 seconds into the third period changed the narrative, as a bit of luck and a lot of Anderson helped the Sens withstand the impetus of the now desperate Rangers and hold onto the precious lead to snatch victory, the fourth they needed to progress.

Henrik Lundqvist’s age finally catches up to his postseason play

In the first round, New York’s franchise goaltender had outlasted Carey Price in a battle of superstar netminders to showcase he’s still got it, but the Swede isn’t 28 anymore and can’t be asked to carry his team in the same way as he approaches the twilight of his career.

The wild fluctuations in Lundqvist’s level have been the norm over the last few regular seasons, and it was probable they would eventually spill into the playoffs regardless of the rest afforded to him throughout the season. It happened in the series against Ottawa, as the “King” posted a not-so-royal 0.905 Sv% and 2.80 GAA while mixing in great performances (Game 1), efficient outputs (Games 3 and 4) and pedestrian efforts in Games 2 and 5, where he allowed six and five goals, respectively.

A dejected Henrik Lundqvist sits down after allowing Derick Brassard’s game-tying goal late in Game 5 (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

While true that the 35-year-old is not to be faulted for the many deflections his teammates granted by declining to box out opponents or take away sticks in front, the Swede could and should have stopped a few important markers, such as Pageau’s first tally in Game 2 or Kyle Turris’ OT winner in Game 5.

Furthermore, Lundqvist had won 10 of the previous 11 home fixtures when the Rangers faced elimination, however he couldn’t sum up his best in Game 6, surprised by Hoffman’s high tip on the first goal and sharp – but in no way indefensible – releases by Stone and Karlsson later on.

In the end, “Hank” gets flack because his even strength Sv% reads 0.896, and that won’t cut it from a goalie that pulls in 8.5M per year and only had to be average to outperform his counterpart (0.907 sv%, 3.09 GAA) and bail out the team.

Best players in the series

Jean-Gabriel Pageau (Ottawa Senators)

The 24-year-old put forth the performance of a lifetime in Game 2 by becoming the first player in almost 7 years to score four times in a playoff game, yet Pageau’s overall display throughout the series also merits a host of accolades.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau rushes to celebrate his overtime winner in Game 2, his fourth goal of the night (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

He collected 11 hits and 8 blocks, posted a team-high 58.5 FW% and amassed a 53.84 adj. CF% to back up his all-around chops, while his final tally of six goals in six games – half the sum obtained in 82 regular season appearances – propped up his +/- rating to a series-high +4. Moreover, Pageau wired 20 SOG in 19:03 min TOI/GP, including 3:02 min recorded per game with a man down, a situation where he proved key in limiting the Rangers to a 8.3% (2/24) conversion rate.

Mika Zibanejad (New York Rangers)

Last summer Ottawa exchanged Zibanejad for fellow center Derick Brassard, and the Stockholm native don his best suit to the six-game rendezvous to demonstrate the Rangers won the bet even if they didn’t ultimately conquer the series.

Despite scoring just once, on a partial breakaway to pull the Rangers within one in Game 6, the 24-year-old led New York’s forwards with 5 points, all at even strength, and 21 shots on goal in 19:20min TOI/GP. Flanked by Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider, Zibanejad’s line was the Rangers’ most dynamic offensive unit, and that is expressed on the Swede’s impressive 50.61 adj. CF%, 55.88 SCF% and 68.75 HD CF%.

Mika Zibanejad celebrates with teammate Mats Zuccarello after a NY Rangers’ goal in Game 3 (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

Will the New York Rangers return to the playoffs next year? 

Perhaps. The Metropolitan Division seems to improve with each passing week hence even a small dip can bump the Rangers out of the playoff picture in favour of a team like the Philadelphia Flyers, NY Islanders or Carolina Hurricanes.

Nevertheless, so far, the Rangers have done some judicious work this offseason as GM Jeff Gorton cleared cap space looking out for the future. He started by buying out defenseman Dan Girardi, whose contract had grown into a tremendous headache, and then shipped out center Derek Stepan to Arizona to expose an extra 6.5M, giving the Rangers 15.6M to work with and 17-18 spots filled out after extending defenseman Brendan Smith at 4.35M per year.

A crestfallen Rangers team skates off the ice at MSG following Game 6’s defeat against the Ottawa Senators. Changes are in order before they come back for the 2017-18 season. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

That margin leaves the door open for a splash on July 1st, which could be the long-rumoured engagement with prized offensive blueliner Kevin Shattenkirk, or an impact addiction up front, preferably a center to replace Stepan and Oscar Lindberg, who was picked up by Vegas in the expansion draft. If it’s the latter, the names of San Jose’s veterans Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau quickly spring to mind.

Still, the Rangers need to be careful since a few of their players are bound to climb a few rungs up the salary ladder soon, including forwards and 2018 RFAs JT Miller, Kevin Hayes and Jimmy Vesey plus defenseman Brady Skjei. Additionally, they also have to re-sign RFAs Mika Zibanejad and Jesper Fast in the coming weeks, possibly chipping away as much as half of the available funds, add a couple more forwards, and secure a decent backup that can stand in for 35-year-old Henrik Lundqvist with the same composure of previous understudies Antti Raanta and Cam Talbot.

NHL playoff series digested: Anaheim Ducks – Edmonton Oilers (4-3)

Eleven years after dispatching two Californian teams in route to the Stanley Cup Final, the Edmonton Oilers aspired to rehash history by sending home the Anaheim Ducks following a first round scalping of the San Jose Sharks. They came close, stretching the tie to the limit after a slew of high-scoring games, but capitulated in Game 7 to the Anaheim Ducks, a team that pulled through by exorcizing the demons of recent meltdowns. Here’s how they did it. 

Series Results:

Game 1: Edmonton Oilers 5 @ 3 Anaheim Ducks

Game 2: Edmonton Oilers 2 @ 1 Anaheim Ducks

Game 3: Anaheim Ducks 6 @ 3 Edmonton Oilers

Game 4: Anaheim Ducks 4 @ 3 Edmonton Oilers (OT)

Game 5: Edmonton Oilers 3 @ 4 Anaheim Ducks (2 OT)

Game 6: Anaheim Ducks 1 @ 7 Edmonton Oilers

Game 7: Edmonton Oilers 1 @ 2 Anaheim Ducks

 

Kesler unit oppresses Connor McDavid

Playoff action is all about matchups and it doesn’t get much bigger than seeing the most exciting young player in the World chased unrelentingly by a pesky two-way maven and his two apprentices. In order to advance, the Oilers knew Connor McDavid would have to find a way to duck out Ryan Kesler, Jakob Silfverberg and Andrew Cogliano and impact the game at even strength, but it simply didn’t happen consistently.

The 20-year-old wunderkind picked up just two 5 on 5 points over the 7-game slate, and spent myriad shifts separated from the puck, unable to break out in transition with speed as the opposition grinded in the boards and Kesler attached himself by the hip as soon as the puck changed hands, limiting McDavid’s touches to a minimum and the strokes of genius to a single dazzling goal in Game 3.

Connor McDavid (#97) and Ryan Kesler (#17) tangled up during Game 4 (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

The outcome of such suffocating pressure was a flummoxed, frustrated superstar restricted to uncharacteristic sub-45% totals in adj. CF%, scoring chances for% and high-danger CF% despite a 7-6 edge in goals-for at 5 on 5 while on the ice. More than enough to allow the Ducks’ depth to take over and tilt the series, as Anaheim lumped a 55.69 CF% (2nd best in the second round), 55.1 SCF% and 54.3 HD CF% that sustained a 19-16 superiority in even-strength goals.

Oilers fail to nurse precious multi-goal advantages

For the second consecutive series, Edmonton squared off against a team boasting significantly more playoff experience, and the ebbs and flows of the series would end up ascertaining that can still be a germane factor in determining the victorious side. The youth, callowness and a certain lack of poise were readily evident in the way the Oilers cracked under pressure and conceded three goals in the final minutes of Game 5 to squander a crucial win, but there were a few more moments where things unravelled quickly while not necessarily leading to defeat.

Goal scorer Corey Perry (#10) and teammates Josh Manson (#42) and Rickard Rakell (#67) celebrate victory in the 2OT of Game 5 (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

For instance, the Oilers left Anaheim with a 2-0 advantage however not without a major dose of fortune, blowing a two-goal lead in a three-minute stretch during the third period of the first encounter only to get bailed out by a lucky banked shot, and barely surviving another third period push in Game 2 where Patrick Eaves and Cam Fowler found the post. And since these things usually even out, it went south for the Oilers on the return home.

In Game 3, the Oilers rallied back spectacularly from three goals down only to surrender all the momentum from McDavid’s amazing goal when fourth-liner Chris Wagner responded just a few seconds later. The Ducks would escape with a 6-3 win, and then overcame a two-goal deficit in Game 4 by striking three consecutive times in the second period before securing victory in overtime.

Edmonton deserves full credit for answering the bell emphatically in Game 6, with their season on the line and the sucker-punch of Game 5 still resonating, but it would again fail to seize control in Game 7 despite being gifted an early lead on a ludicrous bounce, and facing a team that bear the heavy burden of having lost five consecutive Games 7 at home after falling behind.

Ducks’ forward Nick Ritchie reacts after scoring the series-deciding goal in Game 7 (Photo by Robert Binder/NHLI via Getty Images)

Todd McLellan never found an answer for superlative Ryan Getzlaf

In nine seasons as a coach on the Pacific Division, the first seven at the helm of the San Jose Sharks and the last two with the Edmonton Oilers, Todd McLellan has faced Ryan Getzlaf and his Anaheim team in more than forty occasions. With that much insight, you would think the Oilers manager had already mastered a way to slow down the Ducks’ captain and major offensive hub, yet the 32-year-old ran rampant for the first four games, hoarding the puck, dishing physical punishment and posting 4 goals, 4 assists and a +4 rating as his group gobbled, chewed and spit out the Ryan Nugent Hopkins line and the Klefbom/Larsson pairing to the tune of +55 adj CF% and +62 SCF%.

Nevertheless, it would take an imperious four-point performance in Game 4 and a series tied at two games apiece for McLellan to act and scramble his lines, shifting the big Leon Draisatl permanently off Connor McDavid’s wing and onto a head-to-head matchup with Getzlaf. Territorially, the difference was slim, as Getzlaf’s scoring chances (+66 SCF%) and possession metrics (+62 adj CF%) actually improved, but, at least, he cooled off on the scoresheet, recording a single even-strength point – a primary assist on Corey Perry’s overtime winner in Game 5 – in the last three games as the series went the distance. Not that it mattered much when the imposing #15 watched from the ice as Nick Ritchie wired the puck past Cam Talbot to pot the series-deciding goal and set his final stat line at five goals, five assists and a +7. Simply superb.

Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf makes a play as Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins lags behind during Game 2 (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Best players in the series

Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim Ducks)

This pick requires no further argument as we just dedicated an entire section to the utter brilliance of Anaheim’s top-line center, yet Jakob Silfverberg also played a huge part in getting the Ducks over the hump and merited a few lines of his own.

The Swedish winger matched his Captain’s five goals, tallying once in each of the first four games to cap the streak with the overtime winner in Game 4, but he was thoroughly a force to be reckoned with, finishing with 8 points, 28 shots fired on goal in 19:59 mins of TOI/GP, and a sparkling 59.10 adj. CF% and 58.62 SCF%. All of this while devotedly assisting Ryan Kesler on the Connor McDavid assignment.

Leon Draisatl (Edmonton Oilers)

The German had already enjoyed tremendous success against Anaheim during the regular season, amassing 6 goals and 2 assists in 5 confronts, and he continued his excellence in the playoffs to justify the sobriquet “Duck Hunter”.

Draisatl notched a four-point performance in Game 1 to kick off the series in style, and he proceeded to make good use of the pockets of ice left available by the Ducks’ option of keying in on teammate Connor McDavid to post monster offensive numbers. In 21:02 mins of action per night, the 21-year-old tallied a +4 rating, totalled an incredible 13 points (5+8), opened the score twice, and banged in a hat-trick in Game 6’s 7-1 demolishing which kept the Oilers alive for a few more days. Not bad for a maiden playoff campaign.

Leon Draisatl shone under the spotlight during the Oilers’ second round series (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Will the Edmonton Oilers return to the playoffs next year? 

Barring a major Connor McDavid injury, the young Oilers will be a playoff team for years to come and perhaps the Pacific Division’s perennial favourite as soon as 2017-18. A luxury afforded by Connor McDavid’s MVP-calibre level at age 20 and the presence of a perfect sidekick, Leon Draisatl, the team’s main order of business this offseason.

Loaded with 19M in cap space for 2017-18, the Oilers should lock down Draisatl to a maximum-term extension in the 7-7.5M range, and consequently leave sufficient room to accommodate what should be a preposterous extension for the captain in 2018. McDavid may only settle for upwards to 12M per year, but maybe they can work out a four or five-year pact at around 10M that would mimic the structure of the 2nd contracts signed by the likes of Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Either way, GM Peter Chiarelli will have quite some time to mull over his options, since he’s already checked off most of what he needed to do this summer.

Edmonton’s players embrace after a goal as hats rain in Game 6. The Oilers will feature prominently at this stage of the playoffs over the next few seasons (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

For instance, the Oilers finally traded winger Jordan Eberle and netted Ryan Strome in return, a 23-year-old center that could slot in the third hole and thrive on a new environment, hopefully making expendable UFA David Desharnais. Depending on production, Strome can earn a fair raise next year as a RFA, and the Oilers may also prepare to compensate Patrick Maroon (1.5M) and Mark Letestu (1.8M) should they build on successful 2016-17 campaigns.

Moreover, it was expected the Eberle trade would land a top-four defenseman but instead Edmonton secured Kris Russell for four additional seasons at a 4M rate, an excessive compensation they may be able to live with for now since Adam Larsson, Oscar Klefbom and Andrej Sekera are tied up at reasonable figures. Matthew Benning and Darnell Nurse, both RFAs in 2018, round out the defensive group after Griffin Reinhart got plucked by Vegas in the expansion draft, therefore leaving forward Benoit Pouliot and his 4M in the books until 2019 and young backup goaltender Laurent Brossoit to cover for starter Cam Talbot.

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

Series Results:

Game 1: Boston Bruins 2 @ 1 Ottawa Senators

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

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

Game 4: Ottawa Senators 1 @ 0 Boston Bruins

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

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

 

Superlative Erik Karlsson shreds Boston apart

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

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

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

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

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

Boston gets punished for lack of composure late

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best players in the series

Erik Karlsson (Ottawa Senators)

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

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

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

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

Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins)

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

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

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

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

Will the Boston Bruins return to the playoffs next year? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Series Results:

Game 1: New York Rangers 2 @ 0 Montreal Canadiens

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

Game 3: Montreal Canadiens 3 @ 1 New York Rangers

Game 4: Montreal Canadiens 1 @ 2 New York Rangers

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

Game 6: Montreal Canadiens 1 @ 3 New York Rangers

 

Montreal dearth of scoring threats undermined their chances of progressing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henrik Lundqvist edges Carey Price in showdown of superstar goaltenders

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

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

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

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

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

The Rangers speed finds a way to swing the momentum

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

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

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

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

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

Best players in the series

Alexander Radulov (Montreal Canadiens)

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

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

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

Henrik Lundqvist (New York Rangers)

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

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

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

Will the Montreal Canadiens return to the playoffs next year? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Series Results:

Game 1: Columbus Blue Jackets 1 @ 3 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 2: Columbus Blue Jackets 1 @ 4 Pittsburgh Penguins

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

Game 4: Pittsburgh Penguins 4 @ 5 Columbus Blue Jackets

Game 5: Columbus Blue Jackets 2 @ 5 Pittsburgh Penguins

 

Columbus fails to capitalize on frantic road starts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Penguins superstars took over when necessary

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

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

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

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

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

Best players in the series

Jake Guentzel (Pittsburgh Penguins)

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

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

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

William Karlsson (Columbus Blue Jackets)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Series Results:

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

Game 2: San Jose Sharks 0 @ 2 Edmonton Oilers

Game 3: Edmonton Oilers 1 @ 0 San Jose Sharks

Game 4: Edmonton Oilers 0 @ 7 San Jose Sharks

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

Game 6: Edmonton Oilers 3 @ 1 San Jose Sharks

 

Inexperienced Oilers rebound from losses in style

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

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

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

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

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

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

The revolving door of playoff heroes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hobbling and wounded, San Jose’s big guns misfire

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

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

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

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

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

Best players in the series

Cam Talbot (Edmonton Oilers)

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

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

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

Tomas Hertl (San Jose Sharks)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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