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: Road warriors
In the NHL playoffs, as the old saying goes, you’re never truly in trouble until you lose one at home.
There’s a corollary to that: If you lose two straight at home, you’re probably screwed.
The Ducks were facing that fate last night, after dropping Game 1 against the Predators on Friday night. It looked like Nashville might head home with a 2–0 series lead; the Predators held a two-goal lead after just 10 minutes, and led 3–2 midway through the second. But the Ducks stormed back, helped along by an uncharacteristically shaky outing from Pekka Rinne.
The two teams will now head to Nashville tied at a game apiece, with the series resuming tomorrow night.
The Penguins will be looking to follow the Ducks’ lead tonight, as they host the Senators in what feels close to a must-win game. The high-powered Pens couldn’t get much going in Saturday’s Game 1, trailing 1–0 for most of the night before Evgeni Malkin tied it up late to briefly wake up a largely comatose Pittsburgh crowd. That gave the Penguins an opportunity to steal a win in overtime, but instead it was Bobby Ryan who capped it off for the Senators.
Game 2 goes tonight, and a Senators win would send them back to Ottawa with a shot at a sweep. The Senators head into this one having won five of seven on the road in this year’s post-season.
On to the weekend’s power rankings…
Celebrating the players, teams, storylines and themes that have had the best week.
5. The Ryan Kesler vs. Ryan Johansen rivalry: The NHL playoffs are always better with a little bad blood mixed in, and the Nashville/Anaheim series is providing plenty early on. Much of it has come courtesy Kesler and Johansen, who’ve spent most of the first two games matched up against each other.
Things boiled over last night, with Johansen ripping on Kesler after the game. The mini-rant came after he appeared to be on the receiving end of a Kesler elbow, among other battles, and at one point included Johansen telling reporters that “I don’t know how you can cheer for a player like that.”
You can understand Johansen’s frustration, but you have to think those sorts of comments are music to Kesler’s ears. For the record, he was relatively complimentary of Johansen immediately after the game. But Kesler has been down this playoff road a few times before, and he knows how to get under someone’s skin. He’s apparently already there with Johansen, and there are still up to five games left to go.
4. Ben Bishop: The Dallas Stars got a jump on the off-season by locking down the first big-name UFA of the summer, signing Bishop to a six-year deal worth $29.5 million after acquiring his rights from the Kings.
The deal represents a pay cut for Bishop, who’ll average about a million dollars less per season than he did on his last contract. But the term will more than make up for that; Bishop is 30 years old and coming off an injury-plagued season, and the market hasn’t been especially kind to goalies in recent years. The track record for bigger goalies aging well isn’t great, so getting a six-year commitment from a team is a clear win for Bishop.
From the Stars’ perspective, Bishop is a clear upgrade at a position that’s been a problem for years. He didn’t come cheap (and they also had to give up a fourth-round pick to acquire his rights), but at some point GM Jim Nill needed to address his goaltending issues. There’s an excellent chance that the contract comes back to bite the Stars by the end, but right now Nill has a potential Cup contender in place, and going another season with the status quo wasn’t an option. Let’s tentatively call this one even from a Dallas perspective, at least until we see how they wriggle out from Kari Lehtonen and/or Antti Niemi‘s contracts.
3. That Bobby Ryan to Jean-Gabriel Pageau no-look pass play: Once might be a fluke, but twice is a pattern. They pulled it off against the Rangers last round, and on Saturday they opened the scoring by hooking up on a very similar play against Pittsburgh.
Might want to scout that one, Penguins.
2. Tools of the trade: Five of the Predators’ six goals in the conference final have been scored by players that GM David Poile brought in via trades, including James Neal‘s overtime winner in game one. Meanwhile, Anaheim’s leading playoff goal-scorer is Jakob Silfverberg, who they acquired in a trade with the Senators four years ago. The player Silfverberg was dealt for is Bobby Ryan, who had the overtime winner on Saturday. And the only Penguins’ goal in that game was set up by some nice board play from Ron Hainsey, who they picked up at this year’s trade deadline.
The lesson, as always: If your favourite team’s GM is still trying to tell you that trading is too hard in today’s NHL, he’s not doing his job properly.
1. Ottawa overtime: This is starting to get a little bit of a 1993 Habs vibe, isn’t it?
After Saturday’s Game 1 win, the Senators have now won six overtime games in seven attempts. That’s not quite within range of Montreal’s infamous 10-of-11 stretch that culminated in Canada’s last Stanley Cup, but it’s getting there. And the Senators might be getting to a Stanley Cup final of their own if it keeps up.
There’s always an element of luck involved in sudden death, but the Senators have earned their wins. They’ve outshot their opponents 52–31 in the seven overtimes, including three games in which they didn’t allow a single shot after regulation. They’ve had winners from five different players, with Ryan pulling double duty, and Craig Anderson is putting up a tidy .968 save percentage in extra time.
By the way, the Senators seem to prefer working overtime on weekends – all six of their Friday, Saturday and Sunday games have gone to sudden death. Plan accordingly for Friday night’s Game 4 in Ottawa, and Sunday afternoon’s game five in Pittsburgh… if necessary.
A look at the week’s biggest underachievers.
5. Power plays: It’s been a rough start for conference-final power-play units; in the weekend’s three games, teams combined to go just 1-for-21.
The power-play struggles aren’t new for the Ducks, who are clicking at just over 14 per cent since the start of the post-season; Sami Vatanen‘s goal last night was Anaheim’s first with the man advantage in over two weeks, dating back to Game 2 against the Oilers.
The Senators haven’t scored on the power play in six straight games of their own. And the Penguins’ slumping power play may have cost them Game 1, as the Senators took four minors in the opening period but still managed to escape with a 1–0 lead.
4. Coaching longevity: Just over three years ago, the Predators fired Barry Trotz and replaced him with Peter Laviolette. Three years doesn’t seem all that long, but in this year’s playoffs it’s enough to make Laviolette the longest-serving coach left standing. And it’s not all that close.
Laviolette’s stint behind the Nashville bench make him the only remaining coach who even has two full years with his current team. Mike Sullivan was hired midway through last season, while Guy Boucher and Randy Carlyle both came aboard last off-season. We often hear about new GMs needing three-to-five years to put their plan in place, but when it comes to coaching, a new voice can apparently turn things around quickly.
Meanwhile, of the eight NHL coaches who have been behind a team’s bench three years or longer, only Laviolette remains. Three others – Trotz, Alain Vigneault and Joel Quenneville – are already out, while a surprising four — Paul Maurice, Bill Peters, Jon Cooper and Dave Tippett – didn’t even make it all.
3. The case of the phantom whistle: Midway through the second period of Saturday’s game, the Senators put the puck into the Penguins’ net after it appeared Marc-Andre Fleury had momentarily had it covered. After a brief review, the goal was waved off, with the referee explaining only that “the play had been whistled dead.”
Except it hadn’t. Replays were clear: The puck was in before the whistle.
The problem here isn’t the dreaded “intent to blow” rule, which says that a referee just thinking about blowing the whistle is good enough. Plenty of fans hate that rule, but there are times when it can make sense. And it’s not even necessarily about the Senators getting robbed, because Fleury really did seem to have the puck covered, and the Penguins might have won a goaltending interference challenge even if the goal had initially been allowed to count. Ultimately, no-goal was probably the right call, at least according to the current rules.
But part of having a replay system is explaining what’s being looked at and why the call is being changed or not changed. If you’re going to make the fans at home and (especially) in the building sit around and wait for a review, the least you can do is offer up some detail. The NFL has some of the most incomprehensible replay rules in sports, but at least they try to have their officials take a moment to break down what they saw.
In the NHL, we just get “the play had been whistled dead,” even though we just saw a replay that made clear that it wasn’t. That’s not good enough. It would almost be better to go to MLB’s system and just signal yes/no and be done with it — at least they don’t mislead you.
The NHL’s official explanation of the play above, released on their website, is that the play wasn’t even reviewable in the first place (even though they still label it a “video review”). If that’s the case, then say so. If we’re going to spend up to five or 10 minutes standing around waiting for some of these reviews to take place, we can afford another few seconds to explain the call.
2. John Gibson: Gibson hasn’t been especially sharp in this post-season. But he hit a new low last night when he appeared to completely lose track of the puck on Nashville’s second goal. The end result looked like some sort of video-game AI glitch.
You know you’ve had a rough night when the other goalie can let in the winning goal with his face and yours is still worse.
1. The coming Senators backlash: No, it’s not quite here yet, at least not in full force. But it’s on the way. Give it until sometime this week.
Up until now, the Senators have been a hard team not to like. They’ve been an underdog, they’re packed with inspiring stories, Erik Karlsson is all sorts of fun, and they have an uncanny knack for always playing close games. What’s not to like?
But things change as the playoffs wear on, and a couple of factors are working against the Senators. For once, they’re the last remaining Canadian team. That means we’re starting to see silly calls for the entire nation to unite behind them, and that always rubs a lot of fans in the country the wrong way. Mix in a healthy dose of bitterness and old-fashioned jealousy, and a pushback from Canadian fans starts getting inevitable.
Then there’s the team’s defence-first style, which many fans around the league are getting a close look at for the first time. Guy Boucher’s 1-3-1 doesn’t always work the way he’d like – this team has played some pretty high-scoring games over this playoff run – but when it does, it can strangle the life out of a game. That’s what happened for most of Saturday night, and if that was your first real look at the Senators, you might have come away dreading four more weeks of them.
Should Senators fans care about any of this? No. Will they? Probably. But either way, it’s coming, if it’s not here already. These days, even the best Cinderella stories seem to come with an expiration date.