Six thoughts on the Stanley Cup Playoffs halfway through Round 1

Gene Principe and Iain MacIntyre break down the Vancouver Canucks' loss to the St. Louis Blues in Game 4 and where the Canucks need to improve if they want to win the series.

Every NHL season I keep a notebook in which I jot down not just thoughts from particular games, but also overarching thoughts about the NHL and the year as a whole. When something becomes a theme, it usually becomes an article. That means lots of stuff gets left by the wayside, too long for a tweet but not long enough for a column.

Sometimes it’s fun just to pull together all those strands into a “notebook”-style post, which gives us the randomness you’re going to get here today. Without further ado, let’s start big picture then dial it in.

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1. The most important place to start at this point of the totally unique 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs is kudos, congrats, and way to go to the NHL’s bubble and product in general right now. I know there’s intermittent discussions about how the absence of fans hurts the game’s energy, and we’ve had the odd outlier moment (like Tuukka Rask making a widely-respected and accepted family-first choice), but by and large it’s easy to forget this NHL post-season is that different from any other, particularly if you’re not someone who generally went to games. For couch viewers, comparable levels of drama remain.

I imagine there were a million decisions to be made in the process of putting this on. How much crowd noise is too little or too much? How should the arenas be presented? How would the commentators call the games? But, when missteps would’ve been easy to make, all of it came together really well. Most importantly, the players and those inside the bubble have been protected and remain healthy after significant time inside. Whatever you think of their motivations, the league did an amazing job getting hockey back to the fans.

2. A big picture thought that’s less positive: at the level the NHL has established it, parity is a scourge. I get the perks of “anybody can win any night”, namely that even if your team isn’t good, you may stay invested. But really, should anybody be able to win any night? Do we want the team that wins the Cup every year to unequivocally be one of the best few teams in hockey, or one of the dozen or so best that also happens to have health and bounces fall their way?

This leads to far bigger conversation about the salary cap, and the league’s resistance to allow top teams to go beyond it and pay a luxury tax. That would keep teams like the Blackhawks from having to blow-up their roster when they finally get where they want to be. It would keep must-see teams together (which allows elite talent to stay with elite talent and shine as bright as it can), and the extra luxury money would benefit the league as a whole.

Upsets are great. I’m less sold that the best teams having something like a 60 per cent chance of winning their playoff series’ is good for the league. (Though I should note that re-seeding rather than bracketing is a major win if the league sticks with it, as it rewards teams that succeed over the 82-game regular season).

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3. On to more on-ice hockey stuff that’s caught my eye this post season…

Victor Hedman’s stick has gone from good to Nick Lidstrom-like, which is the highest praise I can muster. I don’t even mean it’s traditionally good (in good lanes, or at poking pucks off sticks). I mean more in a hand-eye sense. It’s really tough to even dump the puck past him. I can’t believe how often a puck is unsettled in the air around him and in a flash it’s either calmed down and in his care or smacked out of harm’s way. Put him on the list of elite hand-eye guys around the game with Sidney Crosby and Joe Pavelski.

4. Mark Stone makes these little tiny decisions all over the ice that show his hockey IQ, my favourite of which happened on an incomplete pass in a loss to Chicago on Sunday.

In this short GIF the Chicago defender is gapped up tight to him. Stone doesn’t have enough speed to get by, and he’s on his backhand, so he’s obviously just going to dump it in:

The D is totally unfazed about going outside the dots because he’s got Stone dead to rights, and Stone just … hannngggs on to it, shows that backhand dump/chip, then curls his wrists over and pulls the puck to the middle for his teammate who very nearly corrals it in a dangerous spot in a big moment of the game. So, so, good.

5. This was the first year Anthony Cirelli got Selke Trophy buzz, and justifiably so – the eye test and the numbers line up nicely. I’ve been watching him closely to see if he does anything noticeably special to that end, and my takeaway is bad news for GIF culture: he’s just so good at making the millions of choices per shift that centres have to make. He reads the game like a children’s book.

Here’s a bunch of screen shots of a totally random shift he takes where nothing happens. (I know, I really sold that as exciting.) The point I’m aiming to make here is how many decisions a centre has to make each shift, and how Cirelli is just always on the right side of them. Here’s the full 45-second shift starting in the defensive end, but a quick perusal of the pics should give you the idea:

He wins/ties up the draw, and makes sure not to leave the defensive side of the opposing centre before seeing which team establishes possession:

The battle goes on, so again, he doesn’t get way above the pile as it sorts out.

If you watched and remember this shift you know he got jammed up on a loose puck in the neutral zone, but he advances it forward, his team picks it up and throws it in deep. Cirelli then gets on the forecheck, and sees his teammate is F1 on the puck.

He recognizes that leaves him as F2, and so he smartly closes down on the other Columbus defender before the puck ever goes there while keeping an eye on the play.

When the Columbus D cuts back and eludes F1, Cirelli immediately abandons the forecheck and curls to get back above Columbus’ centre.

Cirelli goes from being up on the forecheck to back in good defensive position with just one read. You saw how deep he committed, but now he’s the forward in best defensive position. He sees Columbus’s 3-on-3 rush…

And seeks to influence it by getting his stick in on the middle forward, basically saying “if you want to try the harder cross-ice pass behind me at the red line in a neutral zone situation, go for it.” Even if the Blue Jackets did pull that off, he’d still be in a fine spot. He’s forcing a dump.

They dump it in and Cirelli goes back with his D, looking to give them an outlet. He also shoulder-checks to take stock of where the forecheck is going to be before things get congested.

When Tampa’s D reverses the puck, he abandons going to the far post as an option. He’s in a safe spot to read whether it’s a breakout or time to defend.

He gets in defensive position to make a read from the near post.

When the puck goes low into a 1-on-1 battle, Cirelli jumps into it to help as the centre low.

He gets to the loose puck in a spot where most players would just bang it up the wall (into what would essentially be the perfect play for Columbus). But because his head’s up and he’s a thinker, he knows he’s best to just eat it rather than put it somewhere advantageous for Columbus.

The puck stays in the corner, but Columbus never gets an O-zone possession out of it. Cirelli backs off the pile within a stick’s length, never giving up defensive position.

As the battle gets sorted out, he recedes back to a D-first spot to take stock of what’s coming next. That’s home base.

Even as Tampa Bay wins the puck and lugs it up the ice, he doesn’t just change. He stays on as an option until the puck goes deep.

Much ado about nothing? Absolutely. He’d say as much himself. But if you’re a team with offensive-minded centres, you can appreciate that diligence given all the little opportunities they have to make little cheats, and how responsible that looks compared to many around the league. There’s no situation that Tampa Bay isn’t comfortable with a guy like that going over the boards.

6. So Joe Pavelski gets a hat trick in what’s pretty close to a must-win situation for the Dallas stars in Game 4, including tying the game in the dying seconds. That looked familiar to me. He scored one of the nicest goals I’ve ever seen in college to wrest his team from the jaws of disappointment at the hands of my college team, the University of Alaska Anchorage. Guys like him are wired that way from a young age.

Very quick background is that, in 2004, I was a freshman playing in the top-six of a team that upset a waaaaay better University of Wisconsin team in a three-game playoff series. That Badgers team was loaded, and so when we drew them again in the 2004-05 playoffs – after they added Pavelski – they saw us coming. They had Brian Elliott in net, Tom Gilbert on defence, Adam Burish, Pavelski, and one of the best college players going in Robbie Earl to round it all out. I tied for our team lead in goals that year … with 12.

Still, they narrowly got us in the series opener and we won Game 2 on the back of a 44-save goaltending performance. We inexplicably held a lead in Game 3, which was when Pavelski flipped the switch.

It wasn’t fair. He could’ve scored a dozen times, but it finally happened on one of the cheekiest, most-skilled “Nah we’re not going out like that” goals I’ve ever seen. Skating out of the corner with his skates below the goal line, while skating towards the back of the net, he pulled the puck across his body to his backhand just above the goal line, and tucked it up under the bar, grazing the back of our goaltender’s helmet. For two periods there, as the game got real, our lesser talented team couldn’t manage his top gear, and it was the difference for Wisconsin in the end, and they took the 2-1 victory.

Pavelski has played in over 1,000 NHL games, scoring at a rate of 0.77 points per game. Keep in mind, in the regular season, half the time you’re playing the bottom of the league, and many point-getters feast against the bottom five or 10 teams. Pavelski has scored 0.74 points per post-season, nearly the same rate over 140-plus playoff games when the opposition is all top-half teams and his lines would’ve almost always been keyed on. He’s a big-game player, always has been, and if Dallas is able to have a good post-season drive here, he’s going to be a big part of their engine.

Dallas is a weird team. They’ve got experienced guys like Pavelski and Corey Perry. Should-be stars like Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alex Radulov. Superb support players in Roope Hintz, Denis Gurianov and Radek Faksa. A number of underrated defencemen in Miro Heiskanen and Esa Lindell. Great goaltending. It’s not impossible to see them making another deep run, just like last year. But they don’t quite have the elite top-end of some of the other great teams, so they need everyone contributing to win. When even a few of those guys are off, they can look awfully average.

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