We’re lucky. Two more Game 7s greeted us in Round 2 — one that went to overtime, and one that was a frantic one-goal finish.
It continues to be a surprising Stanley Cup Playoffs. Some of the Cinderellas were knocked off as three of the wild-card teams are crossed off the bracket. But in Carolina, one of them still remains and they look just as much of a contender as anyone else still in the field.
With the next round set to start on Thursday night, we’re taking one last look back at what we learned in the conference semifinals.
Rod Brind’Amour should have been a Jack Adams finalist
Jon Cooper, Craig Berube and Barry Trotz were your three finalists for the coach of the year award and really, you can’t argue against any of them. One led a team that became just the second to win 62 games in a season. Another turned a last-place team on Jan. 3 into one that was in the running to win its division on the final day of the regular season. And the third turned the league’s worst defensive team into the best in one season.
But re-do the voting today and it’d be hard to imagine Rod Brind’Amour not coming out a finalist. Who he’d bump out is up for debate, but lots of what Brind’Amour accomplished with the Hurricanes in the regular season was overshadowed by these other three. Carolina did finish 30-12-2 from Jan. 1 onwards, the third-best record in that stretch, and scored the second-most goals in the league since the calendar flipped to 2019.
People who followed the team closely all season were trying to tell anyone who would listen that this group and its behind-the-bench leader were special. The fact Brind’Amour’s Boys eliminated the defending champs and swept aside the Islanders with their engaged blue liners and suddenly stellar offence and goaltending has really made it obvious that had Brind’Amour bumped one of Cooper, Trotz or Berube in the Jack Adams voting, it wouldn’t have been at all controversial.
“We didn’t have much of an identity at the start (of the season), and over the years, and really, Roddy has demanded that from the start,” Jordan Staal said after the Round 2 win. “Our identity has got to be our work ethic, and all else kind of falls to the side.”
Owner Tom Dundon said of his team’s coach: “It’s unfair to boil it down to one thing, but the truth is he’s the one thing.”
Martin Jones is a playoff goalie
Look, if you didn’t pick the San Jose Sharks to even win one round in these playoffs, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be shocked they’re now in the Western Conference Final. I was among those who took Vegas and it wasn’t because I was a non-believer in the Sharks, per se. I was a non-believer in Martin Jones.
Finishing the season with an .896 save percentage (47th in the league) and 2.94 goals-against average (36th) will have that effect on people. Even his coach, Peter DeBoer, said as the team got off to a rough start in October that they weren’t getting enough saves.
And actually, through the first four games of that Vegas series the Golden Knights were in complete control for predictable reasons. Jones was pulled from the net in the first period twice as San Jose fell behind 3-1 in the series. The Sharks’ offence was averaging more than three goals in the first three games and it didn’t matter — this was exactly why I sided with the Golden Knights.
But then it all turned, suddenly and inexplicably.
From Game 5 of their opening round series through to today, Jones has a .928 save percentage and 2.13 goals-against average that ranks behind only Curtis McElhinney and Tuukka Rask. He’s been a completely different goaltender, but maybe we should’ve seen this coming.
That’s because while Jones’ numbers have always been average or maybe slightly above in the regular season, his playoff performances have always been stellar. In the 2016 Stanley Cup Final he stopped 93.2 per cent of the shots Pittsburgh threw at him in a six-game loss. Jones finished that post-season with a .923 save percentage that matched his counterpart in the final.
In a first-round exit the following season Jones posted a .935 save percentage, and he got to .928 last post-season.
The Sharks have one of the best collections of forwards in the NHL. Thornton is on the third line, Gustav Nyquist was a great, cheap deadline pickup and even when Joe Pavelski was out to injury you have the likes of Logan Couture, Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl were more than capable of picking up the slack. One of Erik Karlsson or Brent Burns is usually on the ice among the blue liners. They look like a Stanley Cup contender in every way.
It’s just that no team had a worse save percentage than San Jose this season. Having Jones play at the high-end level he has been for the past three-plus weeks is a game-changer.
Brad Marchand hasn’t learned how to be a cleaner hockey player
A key part of Boston’s ‘Perfection Line,’ we always wonder why Marchand needs to stoop to the level of cheap shot artist when he has all the star skill in the world.
And maybe, it seemed, he turned a corner this year. Marchand didn’t receive a suspension — his last one came all the way back in January of 2018 — and he hit the 100-point plateau for the first time to lead the Bruins in scoring.
It’s not that Marchand quit being a troll; he’ll always have the potential to lick someone. But since he hasn’t excessively elbowed, kneed or cross-checked an unsuspecting opponent in so long, maybe he finally lived up to his word and cut that component out of his game. It was a question being asked this playoff season and one we had explored before when he said he would turn over a new leaf.
And then this happened…
Marchand did escape suspension for the play, but no one was arguing how dirty or unnecessary it was. Head coach Bruce Cassidy said he was going to talk to his player, but also didn’t want to get in Marchand’s head to do it — playing on the edge, after all, is part of his style.
At the time of the incident, Marchand was in a four-game scoring drought and that frustration, Cassidy thought, was at the root of the punch.
“Generally, if he starts having some level of success that stuff goes away,” the coach said.
Sure enough, Marchand followed with four points in his next three games and there were no further incidents (in-game anyway). But to see a player with his track record lose his composure and slide back into an old habit, risking suspension at the most important time of year, shows us that Marchand is just as susceptible to this crap as ever.
Mats Zuccarello was the best trade deadline pick up
Among the teams still standing you have Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson in Boston or Nyquist in San Jose. But no single trade deadline addition did more for his team’s fortunes this season than Zuccarello did for the Stars.
In 15 games (regular season and playoffs) Zuccarello had five goals and 14 points. He was the only one who could solve Jordan Binnington in Game 7, but even more than the impressive individual totals he put up in Dallas, the flexibility he gave coach Jim Montgomery to shape his lines was invaluable.
The Stars finished the regular season with the 27th ranked offence and were deemed a one-line team. The best results came when Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov and Tyler Seguin were put together, but that didn’t leave a lot of firepower behind them.
Having Zuccarello made it so much more palatable to spread the wealth. He ended up with Seguin while Benn and Radulov formed a second line with breakout star Roope Hintz. In the first round Dallas scored 2.79 goals at 5-on-5 per 60 minutes, which was third-best among all playoff teams. They had a much harder time against the tighter checking Blues in Round 2, but Dallas was clearly a different team with a much better offence.
Whether or not Zuccarello stays will be a big storyline in Dallas this summer. After the run he put together, it’s obvious that losing him would make it critical for GM Jim Nill to add another elite playmaking winger and there’s no guarantee that player would find the same chemistry. Dallas was a much different and better team with him, but if they sign Zuccarello the conditional 2020 third-round pick they traded to the Rangers for him would become a first.
It’s definitely worth considering.
Big boy hockey lives on
The St. Louis Blues aren’t the fastest team in the league — in fact, they play like a slow one.
But what they lack in quickness they make up for in smarts and the all-important puck control. In the first half of the season, the Blues controlled less than 50 per cent of the 5-on-5 shots, ranking 17th in the league. But from Jan. 3 onwards they controlled 54.67 per cent of the 5-on-5 shots — the third-best mark in the league.
The Blues are a great cycle team and it’s hard to get the puck from them. As Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos said on Hockey Central at Noon that, above all else, is the most important factor in today’s game. How you control the puck doesn’t matter.
“Whether you play fast or slow is irrelevant if you have the puck and you keep the puck,” he started. “You can play as slow as you want as long as you don’t give it up. And they don’t give it up. You watch Bozak, Maroon and Thomas (in Game 7) and they’ll cycle you to death and it won’t matter if you think they’re playing fast or slow because as long as they have the puck they’re in control.”
Barclay Goodrow scored the Game 7 overtime winner for San Jose in Round 1. Charlie Coyle, all six-foot-three, 220 pounds of him, has five goals, three of which came in big moments. Brock McGinn, though not big in size, was third among Carolina forwards in hits this season and plays that rough and tumble style — he scored one of the three double-overtime winners in these playoffs. So too did Pat Maroon for St. Louis.
We’re not saying it’s wise to pay one of these depth players $5 million on a long-term contract. They are still moveable parts that should be relatively cheap against the cap. But we are saying that it’s still wise to have that presence on your playoff roster.