It’s half way through the playoffs and I went 4 for 4 in my second round predictions, including an Ottawa upset of the New York Rangers. My overall record is now 10-2, the only serious blot being the Chicago debacle. Like every other playoff round, some teams and players won and lost big, meaning that there is more significance for them than for others who won or lost. As usual I’ll start with giving my view about the significance of the second round before concluding with my two third round predictions. In no particular order…
Biggest Winners – Players
Rinne was always a good goaltender but his team never had the talent until now to do much in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Predators have finally done something they have not been able to do before. First they eliminated the Chicago Blackhawks and now the have reached the Western Conference Final for the first time. How good a goaltender is Rinne? We are about to find out.
P. K. Subban
There has to be some inner satisfaction for Subban who was singled out by Montreal general manager, Marc Bergevin as the main reason for Montreal missing the playoffs the previous season when goaltender Carey Price was hurt. For a while this season, Montreal was on top of the Eastern Conference, Nsahville was out of the playoffs and seemed likely to miss the post season. Subban was playing with a bag over his head. But now Subban is going farther in the playoffs with the Predators than he ever did in Montreal which can only sit, wring their hands and watch him play after being eliminated in the first round.
The Ranger Destroyer. Sometimes an unknown, unexpected player emerges during times of crisis. Such is the case in this round of Pageau who at least in the Ranger series, gave Ottawa something they haven’t had for a long time, a real threat on the forward line, someone the opposition has to stop. You also like a player who comes through when they need him the most. He only had 33 points during the regular season but significantly an excellent plus/minus statistic. The question is can he continue this excellent play against a tougher opponent in the third round for over-achieving Ottawa.
Marc Andre Fleury
If Pittsburgh had lost, he would have made the Biggest Losers list. But thanks in large part to coach Mike Sullivan’s ability to get the entire team to commit to playing good defense, starting with last year’s Stanley Cup victory, Fleury who has looked horrible many times in the playoffs since the first victory in 2009 has been able to hang in. That he posted a shut out in game 7 when he needed to do it the most speaks volumes.
Biggest Winners – Teams
They are going places and doing things they never did before. First they humiliatingly eliminated the Western Conference Stanley Cup favorite, the Chicago Blackhawks, a team they had never been able to beat in the playoffs before in only 4 games. Now they got over a second hump and are on their way to their first Western Conference Final. Suddenly Nashville is a hockey town. Everybody is talking about the Predators. Regardless about what happens in the next round, Nashville has taken some significant steps forward.
If Nashville is the over-the-humpers, Ottawa is the over-achievers. They caught a break in the first round when they played probably the only team they might be favored against, the Boston Bruins. But eliminating the Rangers was a significant upset. The two players who they needed the most came through big for them, goaltender Craig Anderson, and defenseman Erik Karlsson. And unexpectedly they got a significant contribution on the forward line from emerging hometown hero Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Like Nashville, no matter what happens in the third round, they have taken a significant step forward.
Biggest Losers – Players (And Coaches)
The Jekyll and Hyde of NHL goalies became Hyde again at the wrong time. He eliminates tougher Montreal in the first round and then gets beaten by upstart Ottawa in the second round. He let in wrong goals at the wrong time just like he did against Europe and North America in the World Cup. His time to win the Stanley Cup as a starting goaltender is starting to run out. He joins the goaltender, he eliminated in the first round, Carey Price, as a net minder with a real question mark over his head about whether he really is a good Stanley Cup playoff goaltender.
Alexander Ovechkin, Brooks Orpik, Braden Holtby, Kevin Shattenkirk, Nicklas Backstrom
The gang at Washington failed again, hopefully for the last time. This team needs to be torn apart and built again. It simply is not good enough. What has to happen before people realize this? I’ll break this down even further.
1a & 1b Brooks Orpik and Nicklas Backstrom
These two can be easily disposed of. They, along with Ovechkin have been around the longest and like him have never had a playoff series where they were the difference makers. All you have to do is compare them to unknown Jean-Gabriel Pageau (see above) who without hype came through when his team needed him the most. Did Washington beat Pittsburgh because of them? Has there ever been a playoff series where Washington won because of them? The ugly truth is that they are not good enough and have to go.
1c Kevin Shattenkirk
He was supposed to be the prized acquisition of the trade deadline from St. Louis, the desperate trade that General Manager, Brian MacLellan made mostly at the request of Alexander Ovechkin to put Washington finally over the top. Like Ovechkin, Orpik, and Backstrom, he failed to distinguish himself. The difference maker, the player who got Washington over the hump never occurred. What is even more galling is that his old team in St. Louis dumped him and his huge salary to get cap space, and the Blues instead of folding, rallied and did almost as well as Washington without him and other significant talent losses during last year’s off season. St. Louis now has a chance for the future while Washington is now a team with large salaries for players who do not win.
1d Braden Holtby
He cannot beat the highly questionable playoff goaltender, Marc Andre Fleury, never mind Pittsburgh’s top goaltender, Matt Murray. When I made my predictions for the second round, I said that Washington had to get Fleury to be his usual horrid playoff self and be pulled from some the games. Pitted against the real thing, Holtby out-Fleuryed Fleury, and gave performances of 3 goals on 19 shots, and 3 goals on 14 shots (He was pulled in that game). This series should prove once and for all that Washington cannot be a champion with Holtby as its goaltender. Incredibly he is somehow a contender for the Vezina Trophy.
1e Alexander Ovechkin
I have listed this group from least worst to worst of the worst, and this series instead of enhancing him is probably the series in which Ovechkin’s over-rated status has most clearly been brought into focus. When drafted by Washington, he was billed as the equal of Sidney Crosby. He has lots of pretty individual statistics but horrid team records both in the NHL with Washington and internationally with Russia. Almost every playoff year, he ends up with a horrible plus/minus record, meaning in spite of all his offense, he is actually a liability for Washington in the playoffs. Like the others listed above he is no difference maker, the player who comes up big when the pressure is on, when his team needs him the most. By his own admission, he was playing poorly in this series, and coach Barry Trotz, finally dropping his belief in the myth of Ovechkin, in desperation demoted him to the third line where could do the least damage. The ugly truth is that it should be over in Washington for Ovechkin, he should be traded, and a new era begin.
Ever notice that Todd McLellan’s playoff record is very similar to that of the undistinguished Bruce Boudreau of Minnesota? Like Boudreau, his teams never do much in the playoffs. They beat weak playoff teams and nobody else. Right now everybody in Edmonton is rejoicing because they are back in the playoffs after a decade and won a playoff round against declining San Jose. But I, at least am going to file this defeat in the back of my mind with an eye to the future. McLellan’s team came up short again against a true contender. His playoff record should be closely noted next year.
Biggest Losers – Teams
There is only one big team loser in this round and we all know who it is. Washington has yet to make it to the Eastern Conference Final, never mind challenging for the Stanley Cup during the Ovechkin era. And don’t say, “Oh they played tough Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh.” There were many years during the Ovechkin era when they did not play Pittsburgh and were upset by other underdog teams. The Pittsburgh-Washington “rivalry” is itself a dud, a myth. Washington is actually Pittsburgh’s home away from home. (3 of Pittsburgh’s victories were in Washington.) Pittsburgh has had more trouble in the past in the playoffs during this era with Tampa Bay, New York Rangers, Ottawa, Boston, Philadelphia, and Montreal. Pittsburgh played without its best defenseman, its best goaltender, and Sidney Crosby for one game and they still won. The Crosby-Ovechkin comparison is a mismatch. I’ve broken down a lot of reasons for Washington’s continued defeat above. The bottom line is that this team has never been good enough and now needs to be completely torn apart and rebuilt with players who can come through in the playoffs when they are needed the most.
Teams That Can Go Home Happy
The St. Louis Blues lost significant talent during the off-season, fired Stanley Cup winning coach Ken Hitchcock, traded top defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and still won a playoff round and put up a good struggle against Nashville. They did not go as far as they did in the playoffs last season, but considering all the negative changes, their season has to be considered a success and now they have cap space and a new coach with potential to build a good future.
And of course Edmonton, after being exiled from the playoffs for a decade can celebrate a triumphant return and a first round playoff victory.
The New York Rangers improved from last year, advancing to the second round of the playoffs. And on the very day they were eliminated by the Ottawa Senators, they were awarded next year’s Winter Classic outdoor game against the Buffalo Sabres. But I think they would rather trade that game for an opportunity to keep playing in this year’s playoffs…
Still No Answers…
The NHL playoffs are now half way over and the NHL has made a significant decision about the Olympics, announced they would play regular season games in Europe again, and have now set up next year’s Winter Classic outdoor game between the New York Rangers and the Buffalo Sabres. But the three most important issues remain unresolved. Will the New York Islanders get a new arena? Will Quebec get an NHL team? And where will the Arizona Coyotes play?
The End Of Agony/The Humiliation Continues
Two teams, the Montreal Canadiens and the Minnesota Wild were suffering this second round because of the St. Louis-Nashville series. Minnesota refused to significantly upgrade its team during Mike Yeo’s period of coaching which led to his inevitable firing. Minnesota’s punishment was to be humiliatingly eliminated by the St. Louis Blues in the first round in only 5 games, coached by none other than Yeo.
In Montreal during the off season last year, General Manager Marc Bergevin was looking for culprits who failed to respond during the previous season when goaltender Carey Price got injured and caused the Canadiens to miss the playoffs. He zeroed in on P. K. Subban and traded him to Nashville for Shea Weber. For a while he triumphed. During the early part of the season, Montreal was on top of the Eastern Conference while Nashville was out of a playoff position with Subban and the team playing badly. But Subban got the last laugh. His Predators are now going to their first Western Conference Final while Montreal sits on the sidelines, eliminated with home ice advantage in the first round by the New York Rangers. Bergevin, who was taking bows for his shrewd trade earlier now has to grit his teeth and smile and try to explain things.
For both Minnesota and Montreal, the humiliation will be remembered after this season is over. For Minnesota, at least, they do not have to watch Yeo still coaching the Blues in further playoff rounds. But for Montreal the anguish and frustration will continue…
The Start Of A Beautiful Rivalry?
Edmonton with Connor McDavid is the team of the future. But right now, their best playoff rival is the Anaheim Ducks. They had a thrilling 7 game series this time. Is this the start of an era where we will see many intense Duck-Oiler playoff series in the immediate future?
Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions
Pittsburgh Penguins Vs. Ottawa Senators
When Sidney Crosby made his playoff debut, it was against Ottawa who at the time, iced the best team they ever had since their reincarnation, led by Daniel Alfredsson which defeated Pittsburgh and made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final where they lost to Anaheim. Since then it has been all Pittsburgh in future playoff meetings. It should be the same again. Pittsburgh simply has more talent than Ottawa, particularly at forward where Ottawa has nobody to compare with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. On the other hand, Ottawa has the best defenceman, Erik Karlsson and Craig Anderson is a better goaltender than Marc Andre Fleury. Will we see Pittsburgh’s top goaltender, Matt Murray in this series? And mysteriously, Ottawa again has a winning record against Pittsburgh this year, just like they did against Boston and the New York Rangers. One of their victories was when Fleury was in the nets for Pittsburgh. Again, the only chance for Ottawa is to do what Columbus and Washington failed to do and make Fleury revert to his erratic playoff self. Craig Anderson has to significantly outplay him. That will be tougher to do because since last year, Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan got the team to commit to playing good defense which was probably the main reason Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup. This series may be closer than I think it is and I’d love to predict an upset, just like I did for Ottawa against the New York Rangers. But I am too much of a realist this time. It is the end of the line for the over-achieving Senators. Pittsburgh in 5 or 6 games.
Anaheim Ducks Vs. Nashville Predators
This is a rematch of last year’s first round playoff series which the Predators barely won in 7 games. This is going to be a really tough series to predict. There have been significant changes since last year. Nashville, playing in its first Western Conference Final, has added P. K. Subban and Ryan Johansen. For Anaheim, the most significant change was the dumping of mediocre playoff coach Bruce Boudreau, and the rehiring of their Stanley Cup winning coach, Randy Carlyle. So who has made the most improvements? The coaching is even. Both Carlyle and Nashville coach Peter Laviolette have won the Stanley Cup. How does the unknown John Gibson of Anaheim, who has responded extremely well so far match up with Nashville’s goaltender, Pekka Rinne? Nashville has a psychological edge because they beat Anaheim last year. But Anaheim did not have Carlyle who steadied the team down the home stretch in the regular season, overtook San Jose and beat off Edmonton’s challenge. And then in the playoffs, the Ducks eliminated Calgary with authority in a hard played 4 game series, and then beat off Edmonton in a 7th game at home where they had been choking under previous coaches. Anaheim has home ice this time but that has meant nothing to the 8th seeded Predators. Nashville is the new kid on the block who have been doing things in these playoffs that they could not do before. Anaheim has lots of experienced pros who have been corrected from their choking habit by Carlyle. What do I do? Flip a coin? It won’t be an upset if either wins. But I’ll continue to believe Carlyle’s coaching and Anaheim will win in a series that goes the full 7 games.