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: The Grateful Eight
Game 6 doesn’t carry quite the mystique of a Game 7, for obvious reasons. But from a drama perspective, it’s not far off. One team will be facing elimination. The other will be desperately trying to finish things off and avoid facing a winner-take-all Game 7.
This weekend served up Game 6 tilts in five series. And all five of those ended with a handshake line. Just like that, the first round is done. No Game 7 for you.
The last of the Game 6s came last night, with the Maple Leafs hosting the Capitals at the ACC. The series even making it this far qualified as a surprise, and it’s not even like Toronto had fluked their way here. They’d gone toe-to-toe with the Presidents’ Trophy winners, never looking especially overmatched. They’d given the Caps all they could handle.
But good teams find a way to take all they can handle and still emerge with a win. The Capitals have a history of failing to do that, but maybe this year is different. It was last night, as Washington fought back after a lucky-bounce goal by Auston Matthews to tie the game and send it to the fifth overtime of the series. And once they got there, Marcus Johansson poked home a rebound to end it.
Barry Trotz said he wanted to see the Capitals push the Leafs off a cliff, and sure enough, by the end of last night’s action the Maple Leafs were reduced to a Wile E. Coyote-style puff of smoke. Still, when it comes to going over a cliff, Leaf fans will take a hard-fought Game 6 loss over Brian Burke’s 18-wheeler any day. For once, there’s a reason for actual optimism in Toronto.
There should be some optimism in Washington, too. They’ve got a rematch with the defending champs in round two in what may well be the best matchup of the playoffs. Find a way to win that, and the path to the franchise’s first Cup opens up nicely.
So now it’s on to round two for the eight teams left. And it’s on to the weekly top and bottom five for the rest of us.
Celebrating the players, teams, storylines and themes that had the best week.
5. Bruce Boudreau’s honesty: In the aftermath of the favoured Wild bowing out in five games to the Blues, their coach had this to offer:
That just isn’t something that NHL coaches are supposed to say. When you lose, you tip your cap to your opponent and move on. Suggesting that you deserved a better fate – especially when you just lost four of five – seems like making excuses. You win or you don’t, and deserving has nothing to do with it.
But here’s the thing: Boudreau isn’t wrong.
The Wild really were the better team in this series by several measures. They outshot the Blues badly; on a per-game basis, the Wild were second only to the Penguins in round one, while the Blues were dead last. In terms of shot attempts, the gap was even wider, with the Wild averaging better than 15 extra attempts per game. Minnesota had 60 per cent of the scoring chances in the series.
Some of that is score effects, but even allowing for that, there’s little question that the Wild really were the better team for long stretches of this series. It didn’t matter, because they ran into Jake Allen, and in the playoffs a hot goalie and some timely scoring can trump everything. That’s hockey, and the Blues don’t owe anyone any apologies here.
But neither should Boudreau. As much as it might go against our expectations of what coaches are supposed to say, he didn’t do anything but tell the truth.
4. Overtime: The first round featured 18 overtimes, with at least one for every series (three of which ended on sudden-death winners). That breaks the record for a single round, set back in 2013, and puts us on pace to challenge the all-time mark of 28 overtimes in a single post-season, set back in 1992–93.
Keep it coming, please. More overtime is always better.
3. Coaching payback: Mike Yeo, fired by the Wild last season, returns as the coach of the Blues and knocks his old team out of the playoffs. Todd McLellan, fired by the Sharks two years ago, returns as coach of the Oilers and knocks his old team out of the playoffs. We have to go back a few more years to find the Alain Vigneault/Montreal connection, but we might as well group that one in there, too.
Sadly, we won’t get a chance to see Claude Julien face the team that fired him just a few months ago, which would have been just about the peak scenario for the coaching-vengeance genre. But the lesson remains: Be careful when you fire your coach. These guys can come back to haunt you.
2. Parity: Two No. 1 seeds are out, while another had a much tougher time than expected. Three of the league’s top five regular-season teams are gone, and they managed to win just two playoff games between them. The worst playoff team based on the standings made it through in four games, and the worst according to the oddsmakers needed just five.
There’s little doubt that in today’s NHL, anybody can beat anyone. The days of jaw-dropping upsets are gone, no outcome should ever truly surprise us, and anything can happen.
Is that a good thing?
We’ve been over that debate before, and it really comes down to personal preference. Some fans love the unpredictability. The NHL certainly does, promoting their competitive balance at every opportunity. Other fans might long for the days when being a favourite meant something, and big upsets resonated with something other than a shrug.
Still, whichever way you lean, this is what the NHL has become. Over the next few days, we’ll all make our predictions for round two, but we’re flipping coins. There are eight teams left, and every single one of them could absolutely win the Stanley Cup.
1. Clarke MacArthur: We could go with plenty of fun stories from the Senators’ six-game win over the Bruins. Take your pick from Erik Karlsson‘s brilliance (apparently on a broken foot), to the Senators’ road dominance, to the Bruins’ stubborn refusal to stop taking terrible penalties, to the ongoing great story of Craig and Nicholle Anderson.
But we’ll go with MacArthur, whose career seemed over after another serious concussion in training camp. Even midway through this year, he was effectively ruled out for the season. But he made a surprise comeback in the season’s final week, and yesterday he scored the overtime winner to send the Senators on to round two.
Bruins fans aside, if you can’t get behind a story like that, you might be coming at sports from the wrong angle.
A look at the week’s biggest underachievers.
5. The non-playoff teams: It’s easy to forget about the teams that didn’t make the post-season; we typically don’t hear much from them until closer to the draft. But with the lottery coming up on Saturday, we’re reminded of the existence of those 14 other teams. And these days, two of them are making some pretty big headlines of their own.
In Los Angeles, the Kings have settled on replacements for Dean Lombardi and Darryl Sutter. We already knew that Luc Robitaille and Rob Blake were taking over hockey ops, and yesterday we found out that former assistant John Stevens would be promoted to head coach.
That means that all three positions will be filled from within, so this isn’t exactly a case of an organization sweeping aside the old way of doing things. That probably makes some sense for a team that’s had as much success as the Kings, but the new/old trio will have their hands full digging out from some of Lombardi’s salary-cap mistakes.
Meanwhile, the Sabres don’t seem like they’ll be following the same path. Owner Terry Pegula surprised many by firing both Dan Bylsma and Tim Murray last week, and the team will presumably want to move quickly to fill those roles. There have been conflicting reports over whether Pegula wants an experienced name as GM or would prefer a fresh voice, and it’s always possible that he takes the easy way out and just hires a popular former Sabre. Either way, we could find out as soon as this week.
4. The trade deadline: There’s good news for today’s generation of wimpy GMs who are scared of making trades: So far, this year’s playoffs haven’t offered up much evidence against the sit-on-your-hands approach.
The Canadiens were among the league’s busiest deadline teams, making several deals to bring in bulk and grit; they didn’t win a round. The Wild paid big to land Martin Hanzal, and they’re also out. Kevin Shattenkirk has been just OK for the Capitals, while the Blues were fine without him. The Flames, Blackhawks and Bruins all brought in reinforcements that didn’t help much. Deadline pickups like Curtis Lazar, P.A. Parenteau and Lauri Korpikoski have barely played. Teams like the Oilers and Rangers didn’t do much and still advanced, while the Kings and Panthers loaded up for a playoff run that never even came.
It’s not all bad. Patrick Eaves has been solid for Anaheim, Ron Hainsey has looked good with the Penguins, and Brian Boyle at least created an overtime goal for the Leafs. But on balance, the teams that were in the mix at this year’s deadline haven’t had much to show for it in the playoffs. And if that doesn’t change over the rest of the post-season, you can bet we’ll hear all about it when next year’s deadline rolls around.
3. The playoff format: There were plenty of complaints about the format heading down the stretch, but much of it seemed to die out once the first-round matchups were finalized. Other than the Penguins facing the Blue Jackets (and maybe the Senators and Bruins pairing), nothing really seemed out of place.
Whoops. We may have spoken too soon, because round two looks like a bit of a mess.
That seems, um, sub-optimal. But it’s what you get with a (mostly) divisional format, and the second-round matchups look like good ones. Time will tell whether the Capitals and Penguins pairing ends up being the unofficial Cup final, but it will be a fascinating series.
Just make sure we get four Game 7s, hockey gods. You owe us.
2. Closing windows: Getting knocked out of the playoffs is always a time to turn attention towards the future. In some cases, that’s a good thing – teams like Toronto and Calgary still have plenty to look forward to, and the Blue Jackets can at least feel like they’ve finally made real progress. But for other teams, the questions get harder.
Such as: Was that it for the San Jose Sharks? It feels like it may have been. With Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau heading towards the UFA market, Doug Wilson has an opportunity to try that whole rebuild thing he talked about two years ago but never really executed.
But even if the team decides to soldier on with the rest of its core, it feels like something is ending in San Jose. The Oilers have proven that the days of the three California teams having free reign over the Pacific are over. The Sharks aren’t anyone’s idea of a young team, and it showed against Edmonton.
The Wild are in a similar boat, although most of their key veterans are all locked up on long-term deals – too long, in some cases. Chuck Fletcher doesn’t have much room to maneuver here, which will lead to some tough questions in Minnesota. Disappointing playoff exit aside, was this year a case of the team finally making the big step into the league’s elite? Or did we just see an aging team enjoy its best-case-scenario season, only to have it still not be even close to enough?
The question gets trickier in Montreal, but it’s worth asking there, too. The team has been blessed with the best goaltender in the world and has failed to surround him with enough talent to make it out of the East. Year after year, Carey Price plays well in the playoffs but his team can’t score, and Montreal ends up making an earlier exit than they’d hoped.
So now what? Montreal isn’t exactly old, but Max Pacioretty is 28 and will need an extension next summer. Alexander Radulov needs a new deal, and reports about what that might cost are all over the map. And Shea Weber is 31 and locked into a big contract for almost a decade to come.
And then there’s the big one: Price, who has just one year left on his deal and can sign a new one on July 1. How much will it cost to extend him? Does he even want that?
In a league where it’s virtually unheard of for star players in their prime to reach UFA, the odds are that Price signs a mega-deal in July that will pay him pretty much whatever he wants. But once that happens, it will be up to Marc Bergevin to finally build a team around him that can win it all. As the last few weeks showed, there’s more work to be done than Montreal fans may have thought.
And of course, if you’re going to talk about closing windows, one team has to get special consideration…
1. The Blackhawks: When you’re the closest thing the league has to a dynasty, you get your own section. And after the series they just had, the only reason Chicago wouldn’t be in the top spot on this weekend’s bottom five is that I’m not sure they qualify. Their season was over so quickly that they didn’t even make it to the weekend, seeing their season end on Thursday in Nashville in a stunning four-game sweep.
Luckily, the Blackhawks made some news at their locker-cleanout day on Saturday, so we can sneak them in. First it was Stan Bowman, making it clear that he’s not happy with just about anything right now (although he’s keeping Joel Quenneville). Then it was Patrick Kane over their playing style.
We’ve been beating the drum for more entertaining hockey for years now, and having a star player on board with the cause would be great, but it’s hard not to look at the timing here and see Kane’s comments as anything other than sour grapes.
So where do the Blackhawks go from here? There were plenty of warning signs that they weren’t the elite team that their record indicated, and a handful of smart people picked the Predators to win the series. But nobody saw a sweep coming, let alone one in which the Hawks only managed three goals. It was the sort of result that’s nearly unprecedented in league history.
That leaves Bowman with some tough decisions on his hands. Clearly, the status quo won’t be an option – it never is in today’s NHL. But there’s a danger in overreacting here, too. Sometimes good teams just have bad playoff rounds, and tearing a roster apart over what amounts to one bad week can lead to disaster. Of course, Bowman may not even have that option, given a tight salary cap and all the long-term deals he’s stuck with. He may have no choice but to take his medicine, cool off and give this core group another shot.
Then again, if anyone can work his way around the cap, Bowman’s the guy. This is going to be a fascinating situation to watch over the next few weeks and months.