Every Monday, Sean McIndoe looks back at weekend play in the NHL and the league’s biggest storylines. You can follow him on Twitter.
Faceoff: On the verge
Five days into the NHL playoffs, and here’s the good news: Everyone is still in. Not a single team has been eliminated. Everyone still has hope.
Well, except for you, Blue Jackets and Wild. You’re basically already out.
Sure, none of the series have played more than three games, and the analytics guys we hired to crunch the numbers tell me it’s not possible to lose four games before Game 4 has even arrived. But you can lose three, and NHL history tells us that being down 3-0 means it’s basically over.
Two teams face that scenario today thanks to losses on Sunday. Minnesota dropped a third straight close one to the Blues, while the Blue Jackets lost a heartbreaker at home when Jake Guentzel snuck an overtime winner home to silence the Columbus crowd.
For both teams, an early exit would make for a devastating ending to an unexpectedly excellent season. Both spent time on top of their respective conferences, and both went into the playoffs as legitimate Cup contenders. Now, both are wondering if they can so much as win a game.
The Blue Jackets can at least point to a brutally tough matchup with the defending champs, as the league’s playoff format matched two of the league’s top four regular-season teams in Round 1. John Tortorella and his team were going to need to go through Pittsburgh eventually. But a better matchup would have been a welcomed boost for a team that’s never won a round, and now doesn’t look like they’ll snap that streak this year.
The Wild can’t even play the matchup card; they went into their series with home ice and as heavy favourites over the Blues, a team that the oddsmakers had installed as the playoffs’ biggest underdog in terms of overall Stanley Cup chances. St. Louis is making that look like a bad call, riding some timely scoring and Jake Allen’s sudden transformation into late-90s Dominik Hasek. Bruce Boudreau defended his team after the game, insisting that they were “friggin’ good,” but it’s becoming apparent they’ll need to be much more than that, and soon.
So can either team pull off the comeback? In theory, the NHL’s age of parity should make 3-0 comebacks more common; if every game is close to a coin flip, you’d expect to see a team come all the way back a little more than once every 10 opportunities. The Kings managed it three years ago and the Flyers did it back in 2010, so let’s not go and slam any coffin lids shut quite yet. But it’s close, and the Wild and Blue Jackets know it.
Columbus gets the first chance to stave off elimination Tuesday, while Minnesota has to wait for Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Flames and Blackhawks will try to avoid 3-0 deficits of their own Monday night.
During the regular season, this is the part where we ranked the league’s teams in our weekly top five/bottom five power rankings. Now that the playoffs are here, that format only takes us so far – we’re going to start running out of teams before long. So instead, we’ll broaden the approach and open our power rankings up to just about anything – teams, players, coaches, fans and even narratives.
Celebrating the players, teams, storylines and themes that have had the best week.
5. Overtime: Last year’s first round was disturbingly overtime-deprived; there were just seven OT games through the eight matchups. We got more as the post-season went on, finishing with 20 overtime games in total. But that wasn’t enough, because when it comes to playoff overtime, it’s never enough.
This year, the hockey gods haven’t made us wait. We’ve had seven overtime games already, covering six of the eight series. The Leafs and Caps have already played two, and we’ve had at least one sudden death game on every day of the playoffs.
The only thing missing so far is the marathon game that goes three or four extra periods. But you knew that couldn’t happen on a long weekend where lots of fans don’t have to work the next day. That would be too easy. That one’s coming on some random Tuesday night, where it can wipe a day’s productivity out of the Canadian economy. And it will be worth it.
4. Alexander Radulov: He put up three points including the OT winner in Game 2, then followed that up with two more points Sunday night. That included this highlight reel effort to seal the win.
Montreal may want to get that extension done soon, because the price is going up. Then again, with Carey Price looking sharp and the Rangers unable to win playoff games at home, the Habs are looking good to book some second round playoff revenue.
3. Dart Guy: The Maple Leafs are giving the heavily-favoured Capitals all they can handle, splitting two games in Washington thanks to Saturday’s double-OT win. That one ended on rookie Kasperi Kapanen’s tap-in, set up by a beautiful pass from Brian Boyle. And yet neither one of those guys emerged as the game’s defining memory. Saturday will always be the Dart Guy game.
The Maple Leafs fan with the dangling cigarette, dyed beard and Stanley Cup mohawk appeared briefly in a crowd shot during Saturday’s broadcast, and quickly became a sensation. Before the game was even over, he’d become the online world’s latest meme.
Dart Guy turned out to be Jason Maslakow, a Leaf fan who made the drive to D.C. for Game 2, and if you’re not on the Leafs bandwagon then you’ve probably already had just about enough of him. If so, well, too bad, because he’ll apparently be at Monday night’s game. We are all Dart Guy.
(Also, at the rate things are going, he’s probably going to logging minutes on the Leafs’ third pair by the end of the series.)
2. Injury comebacks: During the playoffs, just about everyone is hurt to some degree. Some of those injuries are known, while others are kept under wraps until the season ends. And everyone loves a good comeback story.
We got one Sunday night in San Jose, when Joe Thornton returned to the lineup for the first time in the series. He joined teammate Logan Couture, among those playing through obvious injury. Couture made the questionable choice to play without a full face-shield despite still dealing with injuries to his jaw. But it didn’t help, at least not yet, as Cam Talbot put up his second straight shutout to stake the Oilers to a 2-0 lead.
And then there’s Zach Werenski, who took a puck to the face Sunday night but returned to the game before sitting out overtime after his eye became too swollen to see through. He earned his coach’s respect for trying to play, although he won’t be winning any beauty contests.
The good news: If Werenski is looking to cover up, I know where he can probably get a good deal on some lightly used face masks.
1. Unlikely heroes: The playoffs are a great time for unexpected heroes to step up. The spotlight is so much bigger that even a big game or two can push a player onto highlight reels around the continent, and suddenly a guy who’d you’d barely heard from in months is headed towards being the next Chris Kontos or John Druce.
So far, this year’s post-season has served up plenty of candidates. Just five days in, we’ve already seen overtime goals by Tom Wilson, Melker Karlsson and Joel Edmundson. Guentzel’s winner Sunday gave him his first career hat trick. Harry Zolnierczyk is on the board for the Predators, and Boston’s had goals from Tim Schaller and Frank Vatrano. Allen looks unbeatable, and fellow goalie Pekka Rinne already has two assists, which ties him in the scoring race with Leafs’ tough guy Matt Martin (who got one on Saturday’s OT winner).
Mix in a few inspirational comeback stories like Zack Kassian and Clarke MacArthur, and it’s been a solid start to the post-season for guys we weren’t expecting to hear all that much from. The post-season still tends to be about the stars, and we’ve seen big performances from guys like Sidney Crosby and Ryan Getzlaf. But early on, at least, the big names are having to make some room in the headlines for the underdogs.
A look at the week’s biggest underachievers.
5. Scoring: To nobody’s surprise, scoring has been hard to come by early on. After yet another season of stagnant regular season scoring – the league finished under 5.6 goals-per-game for the seventh straight year, and under 6.0 for the 19th time in the last 20 – it would be unrealistic to expect teams to suddenly open it up now when the games matter most.
And so here we are, 20 games in and averaging just 4.35 goals per game. We’ve already had five shutouts, including a pair of 1-0 finals. Sunday night’s Blue Jackets-Penguins game was the only game so far to even top seven goals, and we’ve yet to have a game end in regulation that featured more than five.
Low-scoring games aren’t the end of the world, because it’s the playoffs – a 2-1 game in April will beat one in mid-January every time. And the flip side of low-scoring hockey is that it serves up close games, with only one game so far decided by more than two goals, not counting empty netters. We’ll no doubt see a 7-4 outlier somewhere along the way, but in the meantime, we may as well accept the playoffs for what they are, and enjoy the occasional offence we do get.
4. The Bruins-Senators series blue lines: Every team may be bruised and beaten up at this time of year. But some teams have it worse than others, and right now the Bruins may be in the worst shape of all. In addition to missing top-six forward David Krejci, Boston has lost a defenceman in four straight games. That includes Adam McQuaid and Colin Miller, both of who went down in Ottawa and joined Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo on the sidelines.
To Boston’s credit, they very nearly escaped from Ottawa with a 2-0 series lead despite the injuries. After a late comeback to steal Game 1, the Bruins’ held a 3-1 third-period lead on Saturday. But an Ottawa comeback featuring this ridiculous Erik Karlsson assist set the stage of Dion Phaneuf’s overtime winner, as the Senators avoided a home-ice disaster by knotting the series.
We don’t know yet whether some of those Bruins blue-liners could be back in the lineup Monday night. And it’s not like the Senators don’t know a thing or two about injured defencemen; Karlsson is clearly playing through a foot injury, Marc Methot made his return on Saturday and Mark Borowiecki left that game early. The playoffs are a war of attrition, and this series could come down to which team can still ice a (mostly) healthy blue line by the end.
3. The Flames: All five Canadian teams lost their playoff openers. Four of them came back to even their series in Game 2. Then there’s the Flames.
Calgary dropped both games in Anaheim, which maybe shouldn’t be a surprise given that they haven’t won there in over a decade. Still, it was a disappointing result for a team that seemed to head into the series riding some decent upset potential.
Maybe they still are. As the old bit of hockey wisdom goes, you’re not really in trouble until you lose at home. And it’s not like the Flames didn’t play well enough to win in either game; it took a shaky goaltender interference call and a fluky Ryan Getzlaf goal to finish them on Saturday.
Of course, moral victories don’t count for much in the playoffs, and the Flames are one loss away from being in serious trouble. They’ll be looking to make a series out of it Monday night.
2. Matt Calvert: Calvert became the first (and so far only) suspension of the post-season thanks to this ridiculous late-game attack on Tom Kuhnhackl.
After initial reports suggested that Calvert might escape supplemental discipline entirely, word emerged on Saturday that he’d have a hearing after all, and a one-game suspension quickly followed. While that’s better than nothing, it’s still a surprisingly light sentence. Even given the NHL’s well-noted reluctance to hand out excessive suspensions during the playoffs, Calvert can consider himself lucky that he didn’t end up missing multiple games.
1. The Blackhawks: So, about that Blackhawks-Wild showdown in the second round we were all expecting…
Well, maybe not all of us – shout out to Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek, whose Nashville Predators Cup pick is looking good early. But most of us headed into the playoffs expecting the two teams who spent the regular season battling for the division’s top spot to settle things for real in Round 2.
Instead, we’re well on the way to the two top seeds making way for a Blues-Predators matchup. We’ve already mentioned the early underdog success for St. Louis, but Nashville may have been even more impressive; they haven’t just beaten the Blackhawks, they’ve shut them down entirely. Apparently, Chicago’s post-season slogan was aiming too high.
The Predators’ pair of shutout wins in Chicago sends the two teams back to Nashville for Monday night’s Game 3 with the series on the line. The Blackhawks have talked about playing desperate hockey, but haven’t shown much of it yet, and the Predators have looked like a team that still may have another gear if they need it.
Nobody’s counting the Blackhawks out – there’s a reason they’ve hung three banners from the United Center roof in recent years. But if they can’t find a way to create some offence against Rinne and the Predators, the next time they see those banners in person might be on locker cleanout day.