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: Jets take off early
It’s one game. The first game doesn’t necessarily tell us much about how a series will play out — remember the Bruins thumping the Lighting in their second-round opener? — and there’s a good chance that this one still has a long way to go, with plenty of twists and turns baked in.
But even with all the obvious caveats in place, things couldn’t have gone much better for the Jets on Saturday night. They won the game, which is obviously the important part. But not all wins are created equal. Sometimes you steal a game, or barely hang on, or win even though you didn’t put together a 60-minute effort. Sometimes you win games you probably deserved to lose.
And sometimes, you show up and are clearly the better team from start to finish. That’s the sort of game the Jets put together on Saturday, scoring on their first shot and pumping three goals past Marc-Andre Fleury before the game was eight minutes old. The Golden Knights regained their footing from there to keep the game respectable, but that’s all they did, as the Jets largely shut them down the rest of the way. Despite playing from well behind for almost the entire game, the high-flying Knights managed just 21 shots and never seemed to be taking the game to their opponents.
Again, it’s one game, and maybe we got the result we should have expected – with the Jets coming off the high of a Game 7 win in Nashville and the Knights seeing their first action in nearly a week, some early Vegas rust may have been inevitable. If the series goes long, that discrepancy in time off may yet come back to hurt the Jets.
But that’s if the series does go long; it didn’t look like it would on Saturday. And while Fleury was brilliant against the Kings and still leads the league in post-season save percentage and goals-against average, it’s fair to point out that he’s now given up three goals or more in five of his last six games. With Connor Hellebuyck looking sharp lately, that’s not a good sign for the Knights.
We’re still in uncharted territory with this Vegas team, which now trails a series for the first time. Maybe they rebound with a better effort tonight and take the series back home tied at one. But the early returns are in, and they’re clear: The Jets were the better team through one game. Now we find out how many more they need.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a Stanley Cup.
5. Your team: That’s right. With only four teams left in the playoffs and a suddenly unwieldy five-team power ranking format to work with, we can confirm that your personal favourite team is holding down the fifth spot. Congratulations, and never let it be said that we don’t give credit where it’s deserved.
4. Tampa Bay Lightning: Nikita Kucherov hasn’t done much in the conference finals so far. But he did find a creative way to make last night’s highlight reel: by kicking Brett Connolly.
3. Vegas Golden Knights: We knew their success was already getting attention from outside of the hockey world. But here’s a new audience we may not have counted on: professional gamblers.
2. Washington Capitals: Last night’s win was the Caps’ seventh in eight playoff road games.
1. Winnipeg Jets: Opponents agree: Dustin Byfuglien is very strong. But apparently not the strongest.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals are looking unstoppable on their way towards the Stanley Cup final.
[Literally nobody stops me.]
Oh, right. This is kind of a new thing for Washington. And it’s confusing people.
Still, the Capitals rolled over the Lighting to take a pair of road wins, and now head home with a 2-0 lead. They opened the series by storming out to a four-goal lead on Friday night before closing out a 4–2 win. They had a tougher time through the first half of last night’s game, before stunning the Tampa crowd with a pair of late goals in the second. Ovechkin and Brett Connolly added insurance goals in the third on the way to a 6–2 final.
The Lightning aren’t done yet; they’re way too good to write off after two games. And yes, a two-game lead never feels all that secure when we’re talking about the Capitals. But at the risk of sounding ridiculous within a few days, it really does feel different this time in Washington. Maybe beating the Penguins was the sort of franchise-transforming moment that vaporizes all the old narratives. Or maybe this team was always a bounce or two away, and now they’re finally getting them.
Either way, the Caps are dominating in a way that virtually nobody saw coming. Even those of us who picked the Capitals to win the series weren’t expecting it to look this easy. The Lightning have pushed back as best they could, and last night’s game took on a nasty edge as it went on. But none of this has been about compete levels or heart or wanting it more. The Capitals just look better.
Washington fans will no doubt remember the first round, when the Blue Jackets took a 2-0 lead only to cough it up. But even that counter-example seems to strengthen the Caps’ case, since the team made the questionable decision to start that series with 2016 Vezina winner Brayden Holtby on the bench. Since switching back to their actual starter, they’ve won 10 of 12.
Maybe they should go back to Philipp Grubauer against the Lightning, just to make things interesting. It’s fair to say that’s unlikely. If anything, the next lineup change the Capitals make could be the return of Nicklas Backstrom, who remains out with a hand injury but could be back at some point. If so, it would be yet another thing going right for the Washington Capitals during a playoff run. As strange as that still sounds.
The bottom five
Five stories from around the league that aren’t going so well.
5. Kyle Dubas: The new Leafs’ GM has been on the job for 72 hours now and still hasn’t traded for a single Norris Trophy winner. Hey, you millennial punk — less avocado toast, more Drew Doughty.
OK, that’s probably harsh. Dubas hasn’t done anything wrong since he was introduced on Friday. But this is the Bottom Five section, so we have to come up with ways to be negative even when it isn’t warranted. Luckily for Dubas, nobody else in the media ever does that so he should be fine.
What we don’t know yet is who he’ll be working with. There are reports that Lou Lamoriello is talking to the Islanders, and it’s sounding increasingly unlikely that Mark Hunter will stick around. Elliotte Friedman reported that Ron Francis could be added to the Leafs’ front office, depending on how things play out.
So we’ve got a situation that’s in flux, and a new GM who’ll be met with the sort of skepticism you tend to get in Toronto when you don’t have 25 years of experience and multiple Cup rings. Win or lose, the Leafs have been an entertaining team to watch on the ice in recent years. This off-season might be shaping up to be more of the same in the front office.
4. Celebrity fan loyalty: The NHL doesn’t typically attract a ton of interest from A-list celebrities, as evidenced by the slim pickings available to the league at their annual awards show. But every now and then, a familiar face pledges their undying love to a team.
But as every checkout-aisle tabloid reminds us, love is fleeting in the celebrity world. That applies to hockey, too, as the weekend saw a pair of stars openly swapping bandwagons. That included actor Wil Wheaton, a diehard Kings fan who’s been vocal about his support for the team through a pair of Stanley Cup wins. But today, he’s apparently a Jets fan — albeit one who wears a Nordiques jersey for reasons we’re not quite clear on.
That seems weird, but you can cut Wheaton some slack. The Jets are playing the Knights, who knocked out his Kings in the first round, and no true hockey fan is every above a little post-season grudge-holding. Besides, he only roots for the Kings — it’s not like he’s married to them.
Which brings us to Carrie Underwood. She’s been a loyal Predators fan for years, some of which probably has to do with husband Mike Fisher playing for them. But with both Fisher and the Preds now done, Underwood is also hopping bandwagons. She’s a Golden Knights fan now.
I swear, if Jon Hamm shows up at the awards wearing a Dave Manson Blackhawks jersey, I’m going to start wondering about these folks.
3. The Rangers’ coaching search: After we came within hours of making it all the way through the season without a single coaching change, the Rangers were the first team to find themselves with a vacancy after firing Alain Vigneault on April 7. They were quickly joined by the Stars, Hurricanes and Flames. But one month later, those teams have all found new coaches while the Rangers are back to being the only team without one.
It sure sounds like they had their guy in University of Denver coach Jim Montgomery. But he chose to take the Dallas job instead, and his explanation as to why has raised a few eyebrows among Rangers fans.
The team is now reportedly waiting on assistants who are still active in the playoffs, although it sounds like Boston University’s David Quinn is still in the running despite some question as to whether he wants the job. The good news for the Rangers is that they can afford to be patient – with no more competition for candidates out there, they’re back to being the only game in town.
2. Andrei Vasilevskiy: We’re concerned, right? It feels like we should be concerned. We just saw one Vezina finalist melt down, with Pekka Rinne‘s Game 7 disaster spelling the end of the Predators’ season. Now Vasilevskiy seems to be following suit, coughing up 10 goals in five periods against the Capitals.
Not all of those goals have been his fault, with the Capitals making some fantastic cross-ice plays to leave him with little chance. But still, a guy who spent much of the season making highlight-reel miracle saves suddenly seems to have sprung a leak. We won’t rule him out yet, because goaltending is voodoo and he’ll probably have a 45-save shutout next game. But if he can’t manage that sort of instant turnaround, the Lightning may be done.
1. Careful what you wish for: It didn’t end up deciding the game, but one of last night’s key moments came in the first period, when T.J. Oshie was whistled for a high-stick on Victor Hedman. The Lightning scored on the ensuing power play to take their first lead of the game.
One problem: Oshie’s stick didn’t actually catch Hedman — it was the puck.
It’s always frustrating to see a blown call in a key game, especially if it results in a power-play goal. But the puck had barely been fished out of the Capitals’ net before you could hear hockey fans mumbling in unison: Hey, shouldn’t we have replay review for high sticks?
No. No, we should not. If the last few seasons has taught us anything, it’s that whatever problem you think the league has, more replay review is not the answer.
Would some sort of challenge system or other review have prevented the blown Oshie call? Maybe. But it would also introduce more delays, nitpicking and who knows how many other unintended consequences. Sure, it seems like reviews for plays like Oshie’s would be rare and wouldn’t take long. We thought the same for goalie interference and offside reviews, and look where that got us.
Sometimes calls get missed. It happens. But at some point, you can’t stop and review everything. “Just get it right” is a nice concept, but we’ve been down this road enough over the last few years.
Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league
• The hockey world lost a legend over the weekend, as Hockey Hall of Fame coach Clare Drake died at the age of 89. Drake was inducted to the HHOF as a builder as part of last year’s class.
• Loved this quote from Kucherov on the value of playing entertaining hockey. But condolences to him on the demise of his future coaching career.
• Team Canada had a rough weekend at the World Championships, taking a 5–1 loss against Finland. Aaron Ekblad accused the Finns of being “cowardly” for what he saw as frequent diving.
• More tough World Championships news for Canadian fans, or at least those in Vancouver. Blue chip prospect Elias Pettersson is out of the tournament with a broken thumb.
• Tobias Enstrom took a big hit on Saturday and left the game, sparking fears of another concussion. He did return.
• Mike Fisher made it official on Saturday, announcing his retirement for a second time after his late-season comeback with the Predators.
• The 2018 Memorial Cup is set, with the Swift Current Broncos, Hamilton Bulldogs and Acadie-Bathurst Titan punching their tickets over the weekend. They’ll join the host Regina Pats in the four-team tournament, which begins on Friday.
• Things got a little silly before an ECHL playoff game last night:
• Mark Scheifele may not possess Buff-strength, but he has joined some impressive company with his post-season so far:
• Finally, here’s a long read on young Capitals center (and Penguin-slayer) Evgeni Kuznetsov’s rise to stardom.