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: Leafs blown away
The Maple Leafs went into Game 2 against the Bruins on Saturday night looking to remind us that they belonged in the series. They left Boston looking like a team that won’t be back.
The Bruins did away with any suspense early in this one, jumping out to a 3–0 lead and chasing Frederik Andersen midway through the first period. They were up by four by the intermission, then cruised the rest of the way for a 7–3 win. Now the series heads back to Toronto for tonight’s Game 3, with the Bruins up 2-0 and looking to all but end it.
The big story so far has been the Bruins’ top line. Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak have dominated the series, racking up a combined five goals and 20 points while largely shutting down whoever the Maple Leafs threw at them. Pastrnak’s six-point Saturday night was the sort of breakout game that boosts a player into the top tier of the league’s young stars. Toronto has no answer for the trio, and Mike Babcock’s attempts to match lines on the road didn’t yield much beyond a pair of too-many-men penalties.
If you’re a Maple Leafs fan looking for good news, well, there isn’t a whole lot to be found. You could make the case that the team actually looked better on Saturday than they had in the opener, when they spent long stretches trapped in their own zone; the play wasn’t quite as tilted in Game 2, even if the scoreboard didn’t reflect it. That’s true enough, but hardly comforting – if you can up your game and still get your doors blown off with relative ease, you’re probably not long for a series.
So for now, the positive view is basically this: The series isn’t over, at least not yet, and we shouldn’t be closing the book on the Maple Leafs season until we’ve at least seen what they can do against the Bruins with home-ice advantage and the last line change.
And as many Leafs fans have pointed out, there’s at least some precedent for hope here. The team’s longest playoff run of the last half-century started off under similar circumstances, with the 1993 team getting blown out two straight in Detroit before returning home with a pair of close wins to get back in it. That team won the series in seven and played for another month, and to this day ranks as the most beloved Leafs team of the post-expansion era.
But while we’re the last to deny anyone a good dose of 1993 nostalgia, the Leafs’ current situation feels even more desperate than it did back then. That Leafs team had an edge in goaltending, while the current version is facing a former Vezina winner in Tuukka Rask. And those old Leafs weren’t missing one of their most important players to suspension, while Nazem Kadri will sit out both of the games in Toronto.
So yes, the odds are steep. They’re not quite zero yet, so we’ll hold off on the autopsy for now. But tonight is a must-win for the Maple Leafs, and if they get blown out again, expect things to get ugly in Toronto. We’ve got a gap in the schedule coming up, with Game 4 not going until Thursday, and an extra day of mulling over a 3–0 series deficit won’t play well in a town where negativity used to be the default setting. It’s been almost two years since this team has faced any significant criticism, so there’s plenty of ammo stored up. How high can the panic level get if it becomes clear that one of the best teams in the franchise’s modern history still isn’t anywhere near good enough?
From a Toronto perspective, it would be better not to find out. Other fan bases may already be reaching for the popcorn. Either way, a win in Game 3 switches up the narrative, and might set us up for the long series most of us were expecting. But that won’t happen unless the Maple Leafs can elevate their game enough to look like they belong on the same ice as the Bruins. As the first two games have shown us, they’ve got a long way to go.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a Stanley Cup.
5. Vegas Golden Knights: They just keep finding a way, and became the first team to reach the three-win mark last night.
4. Winnipeg Jets: So was last night a wobble, or something else? More on them down below.
3. Tampa Bay Lightning: The Devils are making them work for it, but so far the Lightning have held serve.
2. Nashville Predators: Much like the Lightning, they haven’t looked scary but are staying on track to get through the first round as quickly as possible.
1. Boston Bruins: Pastrnak’s six points made him the youngest player in league history to hit the mark. He also tied Phil Esposito’s record for most points through the first two games of a series; that one also came in a Leafs/Bruins matchup.
Now that we’ve depressed a good chunk of Canada by talking about the Maple Leafs, let’s turn to the nation’s other team. You know, the one that’s won a game.
Two, actually, as the Jets still hold a 2–1 series lead despite letting the Wild up off the mat in last night’s 6–2 loss. That result shouldn’t come as a shock — the Wild are a good team, and finishing them off in four straight was always going to be a big ask.
Still, you could have been forgiven for thinking a sweep seemed likely through two. The Jets hadn’t just won the first two games of the series. They’d dominated them, owning the territorial battle to an almost historical extent. The scoreboard had probably flattered the Wild, who did little to indicate that they could make this into a series. Even the Jets’ celebration game was on point.
s a v a g epic.twitter.com/ZS7wykJlw1
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) April 14, 2018
But last night’s game flipped the script, with the Wild pouring it on with four second-period goals to turn a close game into a laugher and chase Connor Hellebuyck. The news got worse for the Jets, who lost Tyler Myers after an awkward hit from Marcus Foligno. We don’t know yet if the injury is serious, and this being the playoffs the Jets may not bother to tell us. But given Myers’s recent history, fans are probably fearing the worst.
The Jets are still in control, holding home-ice advantage against a team they’ve shown they can beat. But with the Predators looking like they could finish the Avalanche off quickly, the Jets won’t want to spend any more time than necessary in a series that’s already had its share of bad blood. A second-round matchup between the Jets and Predators might be the best series of the entire playoffs, and both teams will want to be as rested as possible.
Of course, that’s getting ahead of ourselves – we’re one more Wild win away from this turning into a best-of-three where the underdog has all the momentum. That felt unlikely this time yesterday, but things can change quickly in the playoffs. That might be good news if you’re still rooting for that other Canadian playoff team, but the Jets will be looking to put a stop to any inspiring comeback storylines tomorrow night.
The Bottom Five
During the regular season, this is the space where we’d present the “Road to the Lottery” power rankings of the league’s very worst teams. But with those teams already having cleared out their lockers, there’s no need to pick on them any further. You’re finally off the hook, Sabres fans. But we still need our weekly dose of negativity, so we’ll turn our attention to some of the other stories around the league of things not going well.
5. The Ken Hitchcock era: We had our second coaching casualty of the season over the weekend, although this one didn’t fall into the firings category. Hitchcock announced his retirement from coaching on Friday, stepping down from his post in Dallas. It’s not the first time we’ve heard this from Hitchcock, who’d previously announced his intention to step aside after one more season back in 2016. But that was an odd situation from the start, one that ended with him being fired before he could finish the season. This one feels like it’s really it.
If so, the next question will be whether Hitchcock ends up in the Hall of Fame. That seems like a no-brainer for a guy who ranks third all-time in wins. But the HHOF has been odd about coaches for a while now, making shoe-ins like Pat Burns and Pat Quinn wait while candidates like Mike Keenan and Bryan Murray remain on the outside. So we’ll wait and see.
Meanwhile, the Stars now need a new coach for the second straight year. The lack of movement so far this year means there’s a backlog of candidates to choose from; we’ll see if Jim Nill decided on another veteran pick or goes looking for a new voice.
4. Tomas Plekanec: The list of Maple Leafs who’ve struggled through the two games in Boston is basically “all of them,” and picking on a fourth-liner might seem like an odd choice. If we’re looking for scapegoats, we could also go after guys like Nikita Zaitsev or James van Riemsdyk, among (many) others.
But Plekanec was the Leafs’ big trade-deadline pickup, and he didn’t exactly come cheap. He didn’t do much in the regular season – just two assists in 17 games – and he’s continued that into the playoffs.
At some point, you wonder if the Leafs go back to Dominic Moore; he’s been in Babcock’s doghouse just about all season long, but at least he might be a guy with something to prove. For now, it’s starting to look like the Leafs’ may have done their deadline spending on a dud.
3. Sami Vatenen: Unlike Plekanec, here’s a mid-season trade pickup who’s actually scoring in the playoffs. Um, sort of.
2. The Department of Player Safety: We could probably slot these guys into a permanent spot on the negative list. After all, nobody’s ever happy with the DoPS rulings. They’re always too weak on the league’s many offenders, right up until they suspend one of your team’s guys, and then they’re out of control.
The DoPS has already handed out two suspensions, which is one more than they gave out during all of last year’s post-season. Kadri’s three games tied Brooks Orpik‘s 2016 ban for the longest playoff suspension the department has handed out since Matt Cooke‘s seven games in 2014. And Drew Doughty‘s one-game ban for a check to the head of William Carrier was a rare case of a superstar having to sit out. If you’re on the side that wants tougher sentences, that’s progress.
But other hits have gone unpunished, notably Tom Wilson‘s blindside of Alexander Wennberg, Ryan Johansen’s high hit on Tyson Barrie, and Claude Giroux‘s collision with Kris Letang. Not all of those necessarily should have been suspensions – Giroux’s looked accidental – but there was enough grey area for fans of the Leafs and Kings to play a round of “But what about that other guy?”
For his part, Doughty was furious about missing a game, and watching his team lose a double-overtime thriller without him wouldn’t have helped. As for the rest of us, remember to pace yourself. There are going to be plenty more of these sorts of tough calls to come, and you wouldn’t want to wear out all your DoPS complaints in round one.
1. The Capitals: Good lord.
I mean, you almost have to hand it to them, right? In a sick, twisted, demented way, the Capitals’ ability to come up with new ways to suffer crushing post-season losses is almost oddly admirable. Just when you think they’ve hit rock bottom, they start digging. Then they eat a handful of the dirt and hit themselves in the face with the shovel.
This time around, it was yet another blown lead leading to yet another overtime loss. But this one came with a twist — an offside review that offered up a burst of hope for redemption before the goal was allowed to stand. Sudden death? Not for Caps fans. That would be too easy. They get to die twice on the same overtime winner.
The series isn’t over, and if any franchise knows that two-game leads aren’t sure things, it’s this one. But we won’t bother trying to convince Washington fans that it will be OK. Any comeback in this series will just lead to something unfathomably worse in the next. That’s just the Capitals way. We already know where the story is going, even as we cringe at the new ways it finds to get there.
Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league
• Add another potential case for the DoPS docket, as Vegas’s Erik Haula appeared to get away with a butt-end on Anze Kopitar last night.
• The story of that series has been goaltending, with Jonathan Quick posting a .945 save percentage through three games. Normally that would be enough to steal a series, but in this one he’s getting outplayed by Marc-Andre Fleury, who’s sitting at a ridiculous .970.
• The Penguins are up 2–1 on the Flyers after yesterday’s 5–1 win. It’s been a tough series to get a read on, with the teams alternating blowouts through the first three. We have an extra day to figure it out, as Game 4 doesn’t go until Wednesday.
• The Sharks are heading home up 2-0 on the Ducks, and may be about to get more good news: Joe Thornton appears to be nearing a return. He hasn’t played since January, but took the warmup before each of the first two games before being scratched. That suggests that he’s close, although the Sharks can afford some patience given how the series has gone so far.
• As is often the case in the playoffs, special teams have been a big story. The Bruins, Blue Jackets and Lightning are all sitting at 50 percent or better on the power play, which helps explain why they’re a combined 6-0.
• If you missed it, enjoy the only good thing that’s happened for the Capitals during the playoffs. Maybe ever.
• More good news for the Blue Jackets:
• A reminder that we’ve got four games tonight, and all four have different start times. Rest up; it could be a long night.
• Finally, because a few of you have asked, here’s what the draft order would look like if it was determined by the way-more-fun Gold Plan instead of a random lottery.