Every Monday, Sean McIndoe looks back at weekend play in the NHL and the league’s biggest storylines. You can follow him on Twitter.
Opening faceoff: Finish them
They say the fourth win is the hardest one to get. The Jets are about to find out how true that can be.
After going into Nashville on Saturday and playing their best game of the series on the way to a 6–2 win, the Jets are back home with a chance to wrap up the series tonight. They’ve got home ice. They’ve got the momentum. They’ve got three lines clicking. And with Pekka Rinne getting yanked for the second time in the series, they’ve got the goaltending edge.
Add it all up, and the Jets look like they’re going to do this. Their path to the conference final is clear, and it’s short. One more win.
But it won’t be that easy because it’s never that easy. The Predators didn’t get to the top of the NHL standings without winning a few tough road games along the way. They’ve bounced back from losses before, including twice in this series. And for whatever it’s worth, P.K. Subban doesn’t sound worried.
The stakes are hard to overstate here; this will be the biggest game in Winnipeg’s NHL history, and it’s not all that close. If the Jets can finish the job, they’d emerge with home-ice advantage for the rest of the playoffs and clear Cup favorite status. They’d be facing an expansion team in round three. And they’d have buried the ghosts of nearly four decades of always being second-best, whether it was to the Oilers or the Flames or the financial realities or whatever else was keeping them stuck in supporting-character status. This year has been a statement; tonight can be the exclamation point.
It’s all right there for the taking. But it’s still one game away. And that one game, we’re constantly told, is the toughest one of them all.
Two other teams had the chance to wrap up their series yesterday, and both got it done. The Lightning became the first team through to round three with an afternoon win over the Bruins. That made it four straight wins for Tampa after dropping game one, as it became increasingly clear that the Lightning were the better team.
The Bruins certainly had their share of bad luck, including a handful of questionable calls and a growing injury list. But they were badly outclassed at 5-on-5, especially when their top line wasn’t on the ice. After some mid-season question marks, we can move safely move the Lightning back to the top of our Cup-contenders list.
The Golden Knights booked their own trip to the conference final last night, knocking out the Sharks with a 3–0 win in San Jose. The win followed the Knights’ blueprint: spectacular goaltending, some highlight-reel offence, at least one weird moment (in this case a Horn of Doom goal), and a bunch of experts trying to figure out what just happened.
That Knights’ win also gives the Jets even more reason to end things tonight; with a potential Game 7 not coming until Thursday, they don’t want to go the distance while giving Vegas nearly a full week’s worth of rest before the next round.
But that’s looking ahead. For now, all eyes are on Winnipeg. The Predators are a good team, and they’ve already called their shot about this not being over. It’s up to the Jets to prove them wrong, and earn a fourth win that would also stand as the biggest in franchise history.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a Stanley Cup.
5. Nashville Predators: Expect some adjustments from the Preds tonight; Peter Laviolette has never been afraid to mix things up as a series goes on.
4. Washington Capitals: Up 3-2 over Pittsburgh… what could go wrong? No really, I’m asking. Because it doesn’t feel like anything is off the table tonight.
3. Winnipeg Jets: Logic dictates that we have to rank them behind the two teams that are already through to round two, but for the record we’re still fully on the bandwagon.
2. Vegas Golden Knights: This was fun: In the hours before becoming only the third team to win two rounds in their inaugural season, members of the Golden Knights roster try to guess the other two teams. (Spoiler: They do not.)
1. Tampa Bay Lightning: The time off that comes with getting the Boston series over with so quickly could be huge, especially since that series started late. As far as we know, they’re already relatively healthy; now they’ll get some extra rest, too.
We’re down to six teams left in the playoffs, and could say goodbye to two more as early as tonight. Is it too early to start looking ahead at potential Stanley Cup final matchups? Probably, but that’s never stopped a hockey fan before.
So today, let’s get ahead of the curve by ranking all the best possible narratives we could see in June. These aren’t necessarily the best matchups from a hockey point of view, or even from an entertainment perspective. But they’d be the easiest ones to write columns and blog posts about, and I think we can all agree that’s what counts.
9. Golden Knights vs. Lightning: The toughest sell of the bunch doesn’t have any history or much in the way of common threads. We’d either have to go with a generic “both teams are good” or turn it into a geography lesson about southern markets.
8. Jets vs. Lightning: Another matchup without much common ground, unless you wanted to remind everyone that these teams are former division rivals, kind of. Or how about this: Steve Yzerman scored the nail-in-the-coffin goal in the last game the old Jets played in Winnipeg, and now he returns as a GM to deny the new version the Cup. Yeah, that one’s also a stretch. Maybe we just say both teams are stacked with star power and go with that.
7. Jets vs. Capitals: Laine vs. Ovechkin. The Rocket Richard race was a nice appetizer, but seeing the greatest pure goal scorer of his generation take on his heir apparent with a Cup on the line would be all sorts of fun.
6. Golden Knights vs. Capitals: The George McPhee final, in which the Vegas GM/miracle worker faces the team that fired him after 17 years on the job.
5. Predators vs. Capitals: The David Poile final, in which the Predators GM faces the team that fired him after 15 years on the job. OK, so that one came over 20 years ago, so maybe it lacks the same punch as the McPhee narrative. But this series ranks slightly higher based on the bonus subplot: The series where it’s pretty much guaranteed that Filip Forsberg is going to do something amazing just to really twist the knife on Capitals fans. Maybe the Predators can get Martin Erat to sing the anthem before Game 7.
4. Golden Knights vs. Penguins: One team ends up doing what we’d thought was impossible, as either the Penguins pull off a parity-era threepeat or the Knights capture a Cup in their very first season. But mainly, this would be the Marc-Andre Fleury show. Has a goalie ever got a standing ovation for a Cup final shutout on the road?
3. Predators vs. Lightning: The top Eastern and Western Conference seeds face off. That doesn’t sound all that exciting, but it’s remarkably rare in recent NHL history — it’s never happened in the salary cap era, and you have to go back to the Devils and Avalanche in 2001 to find it at all. That series ended up being a seven-game classic, by the way.
2. Predators vs. Penguins: The rematch. We haven’t had one since 2008 and 2009, which also involved Pittsburgh. That one saw a passing of the torch, as the veteran Red Wings won the first matchup before the Penguins took the crown in the second. That same storyline could play out again, only with the Pens playing the role of the reigning champs trying to hold off the up-and-coming Predators.
1. Jets vs. Penguins: Captain Canada against Canada’s Team. Sidney Crosby has been to four finals, but never against a Canadian team. He had the country behind him when he was scoring golden goals at the Olympics, but might get a slightly different response if he was trying to deprive the nation of its first Stanley Cup in 25 years.
The bottom five
Five stories from around the league that aren’t going so well.
5. Francois St. Laurent: He was one of the referees for Friday’s game between the Lightning and Bruins, and he took a spill early in the third period. No big deal, we all figured — it happens to everyone, officials included, and St. Laurent finished the period.
But then St. Laurent was replaced to start overtime. And the next day, we found out why:
Full points to St. Laurent for gutting it out, and giving us one more piece of evidence to throw on the “hockey is the toughest sport in the world” pile.
(And in case you were wondering if it’s the playoffs, check out the replies to that tweet from unsympathetic Bruins fans who are still furious over that Charlie McAvoy non-call.)
4. Toronto Maple Leafs: It wouldn’t be the playoffs without some off-ice drama in Toronto overshadowing some of the action. This week saw the end of the Lou Lamoriello era, at least as far as GM duties go, and rumours are swirling that he’s on his way to the Islanders. We don’t know yet who’ll replace him, although the assumption is that it will be one of Kyle Dubas or Mark Hunter. This weekend, reports emerged that choosing one candidate could cost the team the other. Meanwhile, Mike Babcock headed to Arizona for a face-to-face with Auston Matthews, which isn’t the sort of thing that typically happens when a coach and player are on the same page.
On top of all that, the Leafs just watched the Bruins team they battled hard through seven games go out rather meekly to the Lightning, which suggests that they’re farther away from being the division’s top team than they may have hoped.
None of this is insurmountable, and there are plenty of teams that would still love to switch circumstances with the Maple Leafs right now. But after nearly two years of optimism, the path to the league’s top tier suddenly looks a little rocky in Toronto.
3. Joe Thornton: We didn’t end up seeing Thornton in the playoffs after all, even though he’d been taking warmups for weeks. Now you wonder if we’ve seen the last of him in San Jose. With his contract expiring on July 1 and his 39th birthday arriving the next day, he may not fit in the team’s plans.
There hasn’t been any indication that he’s considering retirement, although that also may not be far off. For now, we wait and wonder if he’ll hit the open market, and where he might wind up.
2. Brad Marchand: It’s been a while since we’ve seen anyone do this much damage to their reputation over the course of a few weeks. Marchand spent years reinventing his image around the league, as he made the transformation from third-line pest to one of the best and most valuable wingers in the entire league. Despite racking up a long rap sheet along the way, Marchand seemed like he was winning the PR battle, even painting himself as a somewhat-sympathetic character along the way.
Then he started licking people.
Well, he continued licking people, if we’re being accurate. That’s not a distinction you expect to have to make when you write about hockey, but here we are.
In one sense, it’s far from the worst thing he’s ever done — nobody ever blew out an ACL or suffered a concussion because somebody tried to lick them. But Marchand’s act seems to have hit a nerve around the league, and whatever good will he’d built up over the last few years appears to have evaporated. (Outside of Boston, at least; Bruins fans still love the guy and probably always will.)
Mix in a second-round performance that saw him manage just one goal against the Lightning while earning the sort of phantom calls that suggest that the league’s referees have had enough of his act, and it was a rough week.
1. A threepeat on life support: The Predators won’t be the only contender facing elimination tonight. The Capitals will be looking to eliminate the Penguins tonight in Pittsburgh, on the heels of Saturday’s win in Washington.
It’s not the first time the Penguins have faced elimination during their current Cup streak; they’ve gone 4-0 with their backs against the wall over the last two years. Sidney Crosby and friends aren’t in the habit of going quietly.
And maybe more importantly, we’re talking about the Washington Capitals here. They don’t do things the easy way. If those things are winning big games, they usually find a way not to do them at all. Are they going to walk into their arch-rival’s building and be the ones to end their reign?
Maybe, but this still feels like a series that’s destined to go seven. And that’s especially true if Nicklas Backstrom can’t go. The Caps’ star barely played in the third period on Saturday, and the team says he has an upper-body injury. We’ll find out whether he can go tonight — and whether he’ll be needed for a Game 7 on Wednesday.
Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league
• Barry Trotz didn’t like this Jake Guentzel hit on John Carlson, and called for a suspension. The Department of Player Safety didn’t agree.
• Yesterday’s Bruins’ loss also spelled the end for Rene Rancourt. The team’s longtime anthem singer had previously announced his retirement at the age of 78, and will now spend more time theatrically fist-pumping with his family.
• David Backes didn’t return after this hard hit from J.T. Miller. The team didn’t specify the injury, although it’s hard not to wonder about his history of concussions.
• This was very good: The lonely existence of a Winnipeg Jets fan in Atlanta.
• No idea what’s happening here:
Bonne fête Brendan! On te laisse retourner à ton party maintenant.
Happy birthday @bgally17! We'll let you get back to your party now. #GoHabsGo pic.twitter.com/6JfOzfqyNc
— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) May 6, 2018
• More insight from Brian Burke, including barn fights, playoff suspensions, and why he didn’t lottery-protect the picks from the Phil Kessel trade.
• What the second round of the playoffs sounds like:
• The World Championships are underway; Canada picked up their first win over the weekend, edging South Korea 10–0.
• This stat is pretty crazy; it’s been a long time since we’ve been able to compare anything about NHL offence to the numbers we saw in the 1980s.
• Finally, if you’re already looking ahead to the off-season, here’s a good guide to how offer sheets work and who might get one.