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: Seventh heaven
Well, that was an interesting weekend for the Edmonton Oilers.
On Friday, they suffered one of the most devastating playoff losses in recent memory, blowing a 3–0 lead with just over three minutes left in regulation before losing in overtime. That collapse had them facing elimination last night, in front of 18,000 Edmonton fans praying that the team could make it to seven.
That was seven as in a seventh and deciding game. Instead, they got seven goals, with the Oilers going full 1980s mode on a hapless Ducks team that just couldn’t keep up. The Oilers had put three pucks past John Gibson before the game was nine minutes old, and the onslaught had only begun. By the time it was over, the Oilers had taken the game by a 7–1 final, racking up their biggest playoff blowout in 27 years.
The lopsided score doesn’t necessarily mean anything heading into Wednesday night’s Game 7. Oilers fans know that well, after watching their team get waxed 7-0 by the Sharks in the opening round before winning two straight to close out that series. Momentum from a big win typically lasts right up until the opening faceoff of the next game.
But there’s more than one bad loss at play here. The Ducks have a history of crushing Game 7 losses. And this isn’t a Washington Capitals type of history, stretching back decades to a time before some of the players were even born. Anaheim has seen its season end with a Game 7 loss on home ice in each of the last four years, and several key players were there for each and every one of them.
Last time around, it cost Bruce Boudreau his job and had Bob Murray demanding more from his core. Now they’re facing the possibility of it all happening again.
Maybe none of that matters. Maybe the Ducks put together the sort of 60-minute game we haven’t seen much of from them during this series, close out the young Oilers and move on, ending all the Game 7 talk in the process. But it’s not hard to picture them gripping their sticks a little tighter if things go south early. And that’s especially true if Gibson looks anywhere near as shaky as he did last night.
Either way, four weeks into the post-season, we’re finally getting our first Game 7. And the dream of two Canadian teams in the conference final for the first time in 23 years is still alive, with the underdog Senators now just one game away from sending the Rangers home.
On to the weekend’s rankings…
Celebrating the players, teams, storylines and themes that have had the best week.
5. Vegas Golden Knights: The Knights have yet to make a trade, or at least any that we know about. But with six weeks to go until the expansion draft, George McPhee and company have been keeping busy. They signed their second player over the weekend, landing highly covered KHL star Vadim Shipachyov. And according to one report, he could be joined by Shipachyov’s former teammate Evgeni Dadonov soon.
Targeting the KHL isn’t a bad strategy for a Golden Knights team that won’t get much help from the expansion draft. They’re going to have plenty of holes in the lineup, especially if McPhee can start locking down some deals that see him acquiring picks and prospects in exchange for passing on certain teams’ veterans. And because the roster won’t be very good, they should have plenty of cap space to work with. Signing establish NHL free agents could be a tough sell, so raiding the KHL makes sense. And it’s nice to see the Knights finally start to feel like a real team.
4. Conspiracy theories: It’s been a good week for the tinfoil-hat brigade.
After shaking off the disappointment of a draft lottery that didn’t really offer up much in the way of conspiracy fodder, fans who see hidden plots lurking behind everything that happens in the league took centre stage after the Alex Ovechkin/Matt Niskanen/Sidney Crosby incident.
Most of us saw a play that was somewhere between an unfortunate accident and an outright dirty hit. Not so, argued others — it was all part of a secret plan, hatched by the Capitals at a players-only meeting held after Game 2, and then ruthlessly executed in the early moments of Game 3.
Meanwhile, as the Capitals were planning the demise of their opponents, the NHL and its officials were apparently doing the same for the Oilers. Thanks to a pair of questionable goaltender-interference calls — and we’ll get to those in more detail a bit later — we now know that the fix is in.
Why? Well, because obviously the league doesn’t want Edmonton in the conference final. You see, the Oilers don’t have much to offer the league beyond its very best and most marketable young player, and Anaheim is a really big TV market that… wait. OK, the logic here may need more work.
But logic is never the point for these sorts of things. They’re dumb and pointless, and deep down we all know it. But sometimes it’s good to vent, and if a shadowy backroom plot helps that along, so be it. It’s the playoffs; we can all reactivate our brains once the offseason arrives.
3. The return of Sidney Crosby: Whichever team you’re rooting for, seeing Crosby return to the lineup for Game 5 was great news. The NHL is a better league when its biggest stars are playing. And when Crosby went down in Game 3, it sure looked like we wouldn’t be seeing him back in action for a long time.
And sure, Crosby’s speedy return raised a few eyebrows — given this league’s recent history, we’re all a little nervous about players being rushed back. There’s an uneasy hope that the Penguins wouldn’t do that, and that Crosby’s playing because he’s 100 per cent and the risk of re-injury is minimal. And that seems like a reasonable assumption to make, especially given how Pittsburgh has tended to be careful with other injured stars.
Now we wait and see whether Crosby and his teammates can earn some extra time off by eliminating the Capitals tonight. Then again, if the Pens can’t find a better effort than they served up on Saturday, they may be getting the rest of the summer off by Wednesday night.
2. The Predators bandwagon: They’re on to the conference finals for the first time in franchise history. They’ve got a red-hot goalie, they’re getting plenty of offence from the back end, and they just won a series where their first line didn’t even do all that much. And it’s all happening in front of a raucous fan base that’s blowing the roof off the building (even if they’re still getting the hang of this whole “playoff success” thing).
There may not be a team left in the post-season that’s as much fun to watch. Standing-room-only spots are still available on the bandwagon, but they’re going quickly. This is your last chance to hop on before the no-vacancy sign goes up.
1. Comebacks: Saturday’s dramatic win by the Senators was the 13th time in this year’s playoffs that a team trailed by multiple goals and came back to win, and the fifth game in the second round alone that featured a tying goal with less than two minutes left in regulation. Five games so far have seen a team rally back from being two or more goals down in the third period, a list which obviously includes Friday night’s madness in Anaheim.
There’s been a lot of talk in the hockey world about the league’s lack of goal-scoring; it’s a conversation that goes back roughly two decades. And there’s little doubt that for the overwhelming majority of hockey fans, more goals is a good thing. But when it comes to scoring, the “when” can be at least as important as the “how many.” If it’s 5–2, one more goal to make it 6–2 or 5–3 doesn’t move the entertainment needle all that much. And if an early two-goal lead feels insurmountable, there’s not much reason to watch the rest of the game.
That’s a big part of why this year’s playoffs have been so much fun. Scoring is still frustratingly low — teams have averaged just 2.61 goals-per-game, well below the already yawn-inducing regular-season mark of 2.77. But in many games, the goals are coming at the right time to keep things interesting. That means fans don’t feel like they’re wasting their time when a team grabs a two- or even three-goal lead, even late in the third.
Fans of teams like the Oilers and Rangers probably wish that leads were a little less vulnerable these days. But for the rest of us, this year’s post-season has felt like a time when anything can happen. That’s a good thing.
A look at the week’s biggest underachievers.
5. IIHF discipline: Hey, how many games do you think a player should get for kicking an opponent in the throat?
If you said “all of them,” then you’re in for some disappointment. Somehow, the IIHF decided that this play, by Slovenia’s Ziga Jeglic during Saturday’s World Championships game against Switzerland, was worth just two games.
Sorry, Department of Player Safety. We all complain about nearly every decision you make, and will no doubt continue to. But the title of worst suspension call of the year has been wrapped up, and it’s the IIHF that will take that crown.
4. Henrik Lundqvist: From a storyline standpoint, Lundqvist has been one of the most fascinating characters in this year’s post-season. The Rangers goalie has just about done it all in the NHL, short of netting a Cup win. And at 35 years old and coming off an up-and-down season, you had to figure that he didn’t have too many shots left. It all added up to Lundqvist being one of the year’s best Old Guy Without a Cup stories, with a palpable sense of urgency mixed in.
Eleven games in, his numbers look great. Lundqvist is sitting with a .930 save percentage, good for fifth best in the playoffs (and second among goalies whose teams are still alive). And he’s been excellent in three of the five games against Ottawa, coming in better than .950 in Games 1, 3 and 4. On the surface, he shouldn’t be anywhere near this section — not when guys like Gibson or Braden Holtby have far-worse numbers.
But Lundqvist has looked off in the other two games in this round, and those are the ones that could turn the series. He gave up six goals in Ottawa’s wild overtime win last weekend, and five more in that Senators comeback on Saturday. He didn’t look right from the outset of Game 5, fighting the puck from the first period on, and even his handful of highlight-reel saves were the result of misplaying easy saves into big chances.
That’s not to say that the losses were Lundqvist’s fault, and it’s not like the goals that got past him were awful. But when you look at those two overtime losses, the Rangers were one or two saves away from leading the series or even being on to the next round, and they didn’t get them. And Lundqvist’s frustration has been showing, to the point where Derek Stepan had to tell him to chill out.
Maybe this is all just part of the script, as Lundqvist and the Rangers face down some adversity before coming back to win the series. But if not, the missed opportunities against Ottawa could cost the future Hall of Famer his last, best shot at that elusive championship. And as much as that may hurt, the wound will be at least partially self-inflicted.
3. St. Louis Blues: As the only team out in round two so far, they have to wind up on the list somewhere. But not too high, given that they probably overachieved just by winning a round. Sure, the Predators matchup was a winnable one, especially with home-ice advantage. But for a team that fired their coach midway through the year and all but folded their hands at the trade deadline, an appearance in the second round seems like just about all you could ask.
Now the question is where they go from here. Rebuild? Reload? Full speed ahead? It feels like we say this every year, but Doug Armstrong has some tough calls ahead.
2. The Alexander Ovechkin narrative… for now: It’s never all that hard to figure out who will scapegoat when things go bad in Washington. When you’re the team’s captain, biggest salary and undisputed franchise player, you’re going to take the heat, and Ovechkin knows it.
With the Capitals facing a 3–1 deficit heading into Game 5 against the Penguins, we seemed to be getting a head start on the traditional Ovechkin-blaming. He was moved to the third line, which the Capitals assured us wasn’t a demotion despite nobody believing them. And Barry Trotz made it clear that he needed more from his best players.
By the time Game 5 rolled around, you could practically hear the knives being sharpened in Washington. Instead, the Caps earned a big win to stay alive, with Ovechkin scoring the key insurance goal. That continued a trend of being very good in elimination games — he has 20 points in 19 such games over his career — and rising to the challenge against the Penguins.
Will any of that matter? Not if the Capitals lose the series, which they could do tonight. But for now, we can hit the pause button on the finger-pointing, amateur psychoanalysis and far-fetched trade talk. For at least one more game.
1. Goaltender interference: Last year’s playoffs were all about offside reviews. This year, the focus has shifted to the crease, where it seems like every goal has to be thoroughly reviewed to figure out if it should be allowed to count.
No team knows that better than the Oilers, who had two controversial calls go against them this week. First, we had this goal counting despite Corey Perry clipping Cam Talbot‘s skate. And then came Friday’s late rally by the Ducks, one capped off by this goalmouth scramble.
Ryan Kesler gets shoved into the crease, and has his hand tangled up with Talbot’s leg. Some people see Kesler scrambling to keep hold of his stick, while others see a not-so-subtle yank on Talbot’s pad. But either way, is it goaltender interference?
I have no idea. Neither do you. Neither do the players. That’s the problem.
It’s not that the Oilers got robbed, although there’s a good case to be made that they did. It’s that nobody knows anymore. Yesterday you could run the goalie over and the goal still counted. Today, it will be waved off because you breathed near him. Tomorrow, who knows?
And it’s not just that we don’t understand the rule itself, which is already a grey-area judgment call. I’m not sure I even get what the NHL is trying to do with its review system anymore. Is it about catching the obvious missed calls, and letting everything else stand as ruled on the ice? Sometimes, yes, it seems that way. Or is it about getting the play right no matter what, even if it means breaking the play down frame by frame? Sometimes, sure, it seems that way, too.
It’s a mess. It’s been a mess for two years now. And as always, the NHL seems content to sit on their hands and let an obvious problem fester until it blows up in their face. Here’s hoping we can make it through the next few weeks without a rule nobody understands deciding any more games. I don’t like our odds.