Taking stock of the NHL Playoffs
If you’re a hockey nut like myself, this Easter weekend was Nirvana (not the band) crossed with the Rapture.
Saturday in particular was a hockey fix that would leave one feeling like Frank Sinatra in “The Man With The Golden Arm” – crawling around in a fetal position looking for one more hit.
Four games over the course of the day, followed by three more on Sunday.
Needless to say, I loved it, and quite possibly drove my in-laws nuts keeping hockey on the tube for hours on end (sorry guys!).
Clad in my Washington Capitals Nicklas Backstrom Winter Classic jersey (my wife’s favorite since Backi is her favorite Cap), the big event for me was Saturday’s Game 5 between the Caps and the New York Rangers.
The big question heading in was whether the Caps could exercise the demons of last season, when they were the Eastern Conference’s top seed (just like this year) and up 3 games to 1 on an eight-seed.
The Caps shed those demons and then some, with their most decisive victory of the series, a 3-1 win that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. The boys in red were all over New York for much of the game, wearing out the Rangers’ tiring best players – goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and defensemen Marc Staal and Dan Girardi.
Truth be told, the Rangers were done like dinner after Game 4, where they blew a 3-0 lead, losing 4-3 in double overtime. In Game 5, the Caps were ruthless, efficient and business-like in the way they finished the series (much the way Detroit was in sweeping Phoenix), something that has all too often not been the case throughout the Caps’ tortured postseason history.
The crown for collapse this year may very well be on the heads of the Vancouver Canucks, who, like the Caps last year, entered the playoffs with the top offense in the league and were winners of the President’s Trophy for having the best record in the regular season.
Vancouver looked well on its way against the 8th-seeded Chicago Blackhawks, taking a 3 games to none lead.
But the Hawks’ have since turned the Canucks’ all-world goalie, Roberto Luongo, into a Section 8, ala Private Pyle in “Full Metal Jacket.” They dropped six on him in a 7-2 Game 4 win, then lit up Bobby Lou for four more in a 5-0 Game 5 romp.
Canucks coach Alain Vigneault benched Luongo for Game 6 in favor of backup Cory Schneider, a gamble that took a weird U-turn when Schneider got hurt early in the third period and Luongo had to come back in.
Vancouver lost that game, 4-3 in overtime, with Luongo, fighting the puck on the few shots he faced, flopping around like a fish as Chicago’s Ben Smith beat him in overtime to tie the series 3-3.
Having followed the Washington Capitals all my life, I know a collapse when I see one, and in my humble opinion, if Vancouver loses Game 7, it is officially the biggest meltdown in the history of the sport. Sure, the Caps blew a 3-1 lead to Montreal last year in a similar situation, and 3-0 leads have been lost three times in NHL history, the most recent being Philadelphia’s comeback from 3-0 down against Boston last year.
But never before have you had the best team in the league during the regular season coming unglued in such spectacular fashion. Perhaps the Canucks are too much like last year’s Caps, a team fat with regular season success that has no Plan B when things go wrong in the playoffs.
It certainly is telling when dogged Chicago forwards like Dave Bolland have been all over the ice, raising havoc and seemingly wanting it more, while the Canucks’ Sedin brothers have started flopping all over the ice looking for calls. If you don’t believe me, just watch when Daniel and/or Henrik Sedin get a little crosscheck in the back and react like a sniper hit them from the mezzanine.
One team I think that has avoided a potential meltdown is Philadelphia. Despite their well-documented goaltending issues this postseason – they’ve already used three – I don’t see any way the Flyers don’t smoke Buffalo in Game 7.
The Sabres had their chance to take out Philly in Game 6 and didn’t take advantage. Buffalo has blown too many leads in this series, Ryan Miller hasn’t been in top form in goal and Philly is simply the better team. Not sure about the Flyers chances in Round 2, but I think they get by Buffalo easily tomorrow night.
I think most hockey fans, at least those that don’t root for the Anaheim Ducks, were happy to see the Nashville Predators finally win their first playoff series in franchise history. Preds coach Barry Trotz goes back with me to the old days of the Baltimore Skipjacks. Nashville general manager David Poile might be the best in the league in terms of building an organization.
If nothing else, the Preds’ advancement gives non-hockey affiliated media members the opportunity to continue to ask Nashville’s Mike Fisher about his marriage to country star Carrie Underwood. Speaking of which, there’s comedy, then there’s the horrified look Mrs. Fisher gives when husband Mike is shown fighting Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf on the Jumbotron. Just go to YouTube and look up “Mike Fisher Ryan Getzlaf” – it’s priceless.
The two series still out there that could go either way are San Jose-Los Angeles and Pittsburgh-Tampa Bay.
Out west, the Kings have had a rollercoaster series they easily could have won by now. The lost Game 1 in overtime, won Game 2 4-0, blew a four-goal lead in Game 3, got blown out in Game 4 and won Game 5 3-1. San Jose has really only played one complete game this whole series (Game 4) and are the better team. But much like Philly, the Sharks’ goaltending has been shaky. Combine that with the fact that San Jose’s playoff history is as gory as Washington’s, and it’s not hard to imagine the Kings pulling off the comeback.
With the Penguins and Lightning, it all comes down to who can impose their style of play on the other team. If it’s low scoring, it favors the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin-less Pens. But if it turns into a shootout, the Lightning can come back and take this series.
Tampa has won their two games in this series by a count of 13-3, so they would be well-served by turning it into a track meet with scorers like Steven Stamkos, Simon Gagné and Vincent Lecavalier rounding into form. Without Crosby and Malkin, Pittsburgh is not built to come back from three goal deficits.
Tampa won Game 5 8-2, so I’m sure they’re hoping they saved some goals for tonight’s Game 6 and a potential Game 7. I really think they have to try to open things up, because if it’s close, Pittsburgh will find a way to pull out the win. And if they don’t, surely the refs will do their best to bail them out (just kidding Pens fans).