(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: When one week ends a season
Look, we did say “It’s one game”. We put that caveat right up front. Let’s be as clear as possible on that. But yeah, it’s fair to say that last week’s column hasn’t held up well. In case you missed it, that was the one where we reacted to game one of the Western Conference final by pointing out that the Jets had been better than the Golden Knights in just about every way. Between Winnipeg’s early dominance and the Capitals’ stealing the first two games in Tampa, we seemed like we could be headed to a pair of anticlimactic series. And in case that implication was too subtle, the piece was helpfully headlined “Jets, Capitals on collision course?”
Answer: No. No, they are not.
In the latest reminder of how much can change in one week, the Jets went from riding high last Monday to out of the playoffs altogether by the end of the weekend. Four straight Vegas wins spelled the end of what seemed to be shaping up as a dream season in Winnipeg, while continuing a Golden Knights’ run that everyone is struggling to explain.
Whether you’re loving this Golden Knights story or hating it – and there are plenty of fans in both camps – you have to give them full credit here. They didn’t steal this series, or back into the win, or luck their way to victory over a clearly better team. Instead, outside of that opener, the Knights went toe-to-toe with the best team left in the playoffs and finished them off with relative ease. The Jets struggled with the Vegas forecheck, coughing up several uncharacteristic defensive zone turnovers, enough of which ended up behind Connor Hellebuyck. And when Winnipeg did manage a goal of their own, the Knights were often right there to get it back within seconds. It was a frustrating stretch for a Jets team that hadn’t lost four straight all season long, and never quite found their best game after the opener.
As always when a team is eliminated, the question in Winnipeg turns to: Now what? The team was largely built by staying the course, even when impatient fans and media were calling for Kevin Cheveldayoff to do more. Do you stick with that plan now? Or do you acknowledge that it was the right strategy during the building phase, but that now is the time to take a more aggressive approach to finishing the job?
It’s a tough call, albeit one that roughly 27 other NHL teams would love to be facing right now. It’s easy enough to assume that the Jets will be back – the roster is certainly built for the long haul. But then again, plenty of other contenders have come close to a Cup and then drifted back to the pack, including more than a few Canadian teams.
The Jets will look to avoid that fate, and for Cheveldayoff, the offseason decisions start now. A lot can happen over the course of a summer. Maybe almost as much as can happen in a week.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a Stanley Cup.
5. Every other eliminated team except the one you root for (tie) – Man, tough break for your team, who drop out of the top five after making a brief appearance last week.
4. Winnipeg Jets – We’ll leave them here for one more week. Call it a 24-hour mourning period.
3. Washington Capitals – If Caps media was already writing leads like “Everybody you love dies” after two losses, imagine what the mood will be like if they reach four.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning – Honestly, I’m supposed to write something about the Lightning here, but I’m worried about the Capitals writer. You OK, bud?
1. Vegas Golden Knights – Did we all enjoy seeing a knight fighting an airplane? It’s OK to admit that we did.
The Eastern Conference series hasn’t taken quite as dramatic a turn as the West did, in the sense that it’s not over yet. But it’s close, and we could have our Eastern finalist tonight.
A week ago, when we were done explaining how unbeatable the Jets were, we went on to rave about how the Capitals were rolling over the favoured Lightning. They’d taken the first two games in Tampa and were heading home to Washington with a chance to sweep the series.
That didn’t happen, with the Lightning earning a pair of road wins to even the series and set up Saturday’s crucial fifth game. You might have thought that being back in Tampa would at least give the Capitals a chance to steady themselves, going back to basics to try to play a classic playoff road game.
That plan lasted 19 seconds, with Cedric Paquette scoring to take an early lead that the Lightning wouldn’t relinquish despite a frantic Caps comeback.
So far, this series has basically followed the same script as the 2003 meeting between the two teams, with two Washington road wins followed by three straight Lightning victories. If the pattern holds, we can expect Tampa Bay to end the series tonight, although it may take triple overtime to do it. We haven’t had any overtime yet in the conference finals, so we might as well wade into some Game 6 weirdness.
If the Capitals can hold on, we’ll get a game seven on Wednesday. It would be just the third of this year’s playoffs, so plenty of fans will be rooting for it. You can bet the Golden Knights will be too, since it would mark the second straight series that they’d get a nice rest before facing a tired team. We know how the last one turned out. If the Lightning would rather not go down that path, they have their chance to take care of business tonight.
The bottom five
Five stories from around the league that aren’t going so well.
5. Marian Hossa – Any slim hope of a comeback for the veteran winger was ended on Saturday, when Hossa made it official: he’s retiring from hockey after battling a skin disorder. The 39-year-old missed all of last season, but had held out some hope of an eventual comeback.
Of course, he won’t make that retirement official, staying on the Blackhawks’ books and on their LTIR until his contract that expires in 2021. That will keep the Hawks from getting hit with any cap penalties, thanks to the precedent set in countless other cases over the years. Fans of other teams won’t like it, but that’s how the system works. Maybe Hossa can get a job with the NHL, or even get traded years down the road. Meanwhile, Hossa’s next stop will be the Hockey Hall of Fame. While he looked like a borderline case a few years ago, he seems to be considered a lock today. He’d be eligible for the class of 2020.
4. The old coaching guard – We still don’t have the official word on the Rangers’ new coach (as of early Monday morning), but it sounds like Boston University coach David Quinn is going to get the job. Reports over the weekend indicated that the deal is all but done, and should be final shortly after GM Jeff Gorton returns from the World Championships on Monday.
That means that of the four vacancies from this offseason, only one went to a candidate who’d ever been a head coach in the NHL before. That was Bill Peters going straight from Carolina to Calgary, which was a bit of an unusual situation. The other three openings went to a pair of college coaches (Quinn and new Stars’ coach Jim Montgomery) and a longtime assistant (Rod Brind’Amour in Carolina).
That’s a reversal of the usual trend, which sees NHL teams pass up rookie coaches in favor of those who’ve already worked elsewhere. Last offseason saw names like Gerard Gallant, John Stevens, Rick Tocchet and Ken Hitchcock fill openings. But not this year.
Instead, experienced names like Darryl Sutter, Dan Bylsma, Lindy Ruff, Michel Therrien and Dave Tippett remain on the outside. You didn’t even hear many of those guys mentioned in the rumour mill. Maybe some of them are happily enjoying the time off, if not outright retirement. But in a league that typically loves to recycle old coaches, this has been a rough summer to be one who wants back in the game.
3. Any Conn Smythe suspense – If the Golden Knights win, it’s going to be Marc-Andre Fleury. That feels like a lock. Unless he got hurt early, or the final featured seven games that all finished 10-9, Fleury’s the overwhelming favourite to take home the Conn Smythe if Vegas wins the Cup.
Here’s a better question: If the Golden Knights don’t win, is Fleury still the favourite?
It’s exceedingly rare for a player on the losing team to win the Conn Smythe; it hasn’t happened at all during the salary cap era, and only once in the last 30 years. But of the five times it’s happened in history, four have gone to goaltenders. And it typically happens when a goaltender has been standing on his head for a team that wasn’t expected to win in the first place. The classic example was the last time it happened, back in 2003, when Jean-Sebastien Giguere won the award for leading the underdog Mighty Ducks to a game-seven loss against the Devils.
That sounds an awful lot like what’s happening with Fleury and the Golden Knights, so if Vegas were to lose a series that went the distance, there’s at least a chance that he’d get some support. (The fact that he’s a well-respected veteran probably wouldn’t hurt.)
Again, it probably doesn’t matter, because the Golden Knights are never going to lose again, because none of this makes sense and nothing matters. But it’s an interesting question to wonder about while we wait for the inevitable.
2. Finding the postseason’s ultimate loser – We all know how the NHL playoffs work. Sixteen teams enter, and one emerges as the champion. Everyone else goes out a loser, watching some other team celebrate. One winner, fifteen losers.
But not all losses are created equal. So which of the teams that doesn’t win the Cup is the biggest loser?
There are a few ways to approach the question. You could point to the first team to be eliminated. Or maybe you go with whichever first-round loser had the worst regular season record. Or whichever team underperforms expectations the most.
But I’ve always preferred a different approach. The biggest playoff loser is the team that lost to the team that lost to the team that lost to the team that lost to the team that lost to the eventual champions.
That’s a lot of team-that-losts to work through, but it adds up. You’re basically looking for the team that started a chain of losing that continued all the way through the end of the playoffs.
For example, last year’s ultimate loser was San Jose. They lost to the Oilers, who lost to the Ducks, who lost to the Predators, who lost to the Penguins. The year before that, it was Minnesota. The year before that, the Islanders.
It may feel like a random honour to earn, but in some sense it’s not. When you’re the playoffs’ ultimate loser, there’s no pretending you were anything more than an also-ran. After all, you can lose in the first round. But if the team that goes on to beat you wins the Stanley Cup, who’s to say you weren’t actually the second-best team in the playoffs? Maybe you were just a victim of bad timing and/or seeding. The only team that beat you also beat everyone else, so maybe you’re not as far away as you think.
But when you lose to the team that lost to the team that lost to the team that lost to the team that lost to the champions, there’s no maybe about it. You weren’t even close. As far as the playoff teams go, you literally missed out on a Cup by as much as you possibly could.
So let’s get to the fun part: Who’s still in the running for ultimate loser honors this year?
We’ve got three teams still alive in the playoffs, which means we’ve got three candidates still in play – the Jets’ loss lets the Ducks off the hook. If the Golden Knights lose in the final, then this year’s loser will be Colorado. If it’s the Lightning, then the honours go to Philadelphia.
And if the Capitals can pull off a comeback against Tampa, make it to the final and then lose to Vegas, then this year’s ultimate loser will be the Toronto Maple Leafs. They’d have lost to the Bruins, who lost to the Lightning, who lost to the Capitals, who lost to the Knights.
And they say the Leafs never win it all in the playoffs. Turns out you just have to change the definition of what “it all” is.
1. The whole “not touching the Conference trophy’ thing – It was a cute superstition, and you could respect the whole “This isn’t the trophy we really want” ethos behind it. But once it went from superstition to Ironclad Law Of Hockey, one that everyone felt the need to obsessively monitor (and occasionally scold each other over), any fun was lost. These days, not touching the trophy is just yet another example of people pretending that hockey being some sort of joyless grind is somehow a good thing.
So kudos to Deryk Engelland and the Golden Knights for touching the trophy. And he didn’t just brush up against it – Engelland grabbed it away from Bill Daly and took it for a skate. The Knights are already teaching us that just about everything we thought about the NHL was wrong. If they can get us to stop pretending that touching a trophy you just won is bad, they’ll have made the league a better place.
Quick shifts: Ten more notable moments from around the league
* It appears that the Minnesota Wild have settled on a new GM, with reports that Nashville assistant Paul Fenton will get the job.
* The World Championships wrapped up over the weekend, with Canada coming home without a medal after dropping the bronze medal game against Team USA by a 4-1 final. They’d previously been knocked out of the running for gold by Saturday’s stunning semi-final loss to Team Switzerland.
* Sweden took gold, beating Switzerland in a shootout.
* This was a weird one: Ryan Callahan appears to bat the puck into the net with his glove, but the goal was allowed to stand after a lengthy review. Hey NHL, maybe have the ref explain what he’s reviewing so we don’t have to guess?
* Yesterday’s 2-1 Knights win broke a pattern; until then, all nine conference final games had seen the winning team score three or more while the losing team managed two or less. Most nights, it really is a 3-2 league.
* If you’re trying to figure out how the Jets lost four straight to end their season, this tells you pretty much all you need to know:
* With apologies to Fleury, save of the weekend honors go to Andrei Vasilevskiy’s last-second effort to rob John Carlson.
* Actually, that move looked kind of familiar. Maybe Fleury and Vasilevskiy will get a chance to discuss it next week.
* They’re getting a little cheeky out in Las Vegas. Hard to blame them.
* Finally, a fascinating long read for history buffs, or fans who just like riots, live chickens and events that turn into “an embarrassment for hockey”: The story of the 1980 Memorial Cup.