Two Minutes With P.K. Subban

P.K. Subban is having a heckuva playoffs so far for the Montreal Canadiens and he didn’t slow down in Game Three against the Boston Bruins. Doubtless a polarizing player, Pernell Karl’s full personality was on display all night, especially during a roughly two minute stretch in the first period that begin with a missed hit on Reilly Smith.

Subban tried to stop Smith by introducing the Bruins winger to his backside when Smith was coming through the neutral zone. At the last moment Smith noticed Subban and was able to cut away from the full wrath of the defenceman’s attempted bodycheck – Thomas Vanek was not so lucky as he took the brunt of the hit that Smith dodged – but Subban got his elbow up enough that the referee sent Subban to the box for two minutes, max. Subban went to the box, expressly located the provided refreshments for guests of the bin and harshly deposited them to the ground. If he had debated with the referee more eloquently he would not have had any more luck so why not take out his frustration with the call on the water bottle.

Montreal killed off the penalty, and when Subban reentered play on the far side of the neutral zone Lars Eller was heading up ice and drawing the Bruins defenders toward him just enough that he was able to hit a wide open and streaking Subban with a pass at the Bruins blueline. The Bell Centre crowd was already buzzing from the successful penalty kill, and when Subban seamlessly received the Eller pass the volume went up a notch. Racing toward Rask – whom is the front runner for the Vezina trophy as this year’s best goaltender – Subban excellently faked a wrist shot, or maybe more accurately he started a wrist shot but halfway through decided to refrain from completing it when he saw Rask go down anticipating the follow through. Subban then took a step to his right and deposited the puck behind the outstretched Rask, not quite lanky or flexible enough to make up for the amount of net he gave up to Subban after buying the wrister he thought Subban was selling. The cameraman did his best to keep a stable feed for the viewers amidst the Bell Centre faithful’s elation. Subban scurried to his right, and punctuated a celebratory slide across the ice on one knee with a fist pump before being congratulated by his teammates. He’s often chided for such exuberance, but I defy anyone who would tell me they would control their emotions any better than the Canadiens defenceman did in such a palpable environment.

The goal would be a thing of beauty if it had been scored against the Phoenix Coyotes in September. But the sequence of events leading up to it – a sequence that showed us every part of the personality of the most polarizing Canadien – and that it was scored against the archrival Bruins in May made it an instant classic.

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First Round Playoff Preview!

The NHL playoffs are upon us. 2014 is the first year of the new playoff format that was introduced along with the realignment of divisions. Teams will not be reseeded after each round and instead there is a bracket that will give divisional rounds, the conference finals, and the Stanley Cup Final. The first round of the playoffs is one of my favourite parts of the season, and this year’s first round is poised to be great!

East:

Atlantic:

Boston v. Detroit

The Red Wings have the potential to upset the heavily seeded Bruins the way the early 2000’s-era Montreal Canadiens did. The main reason that won’t happen is the Finnish Wall the Bruins set up in front of their net before the start of each hockey game that goes by the name of Tuukka Rask. Aside from starring for the bronze medal-winning Finnish team earlier this year in Sochi, he is the Vezina Trophy front runner and a safety net should the Bruins have trouble getting the puck past Jimmy Howard. This Bruins team is simply too deep to lose four games to a Detroit team that is not what it used to be.

Prediction: Bruins in five.

Tampa Bay v. Montreal

Steven Stamkos scored at a 55 goal pace when he wasn’t sidelined due to wrapping his leg around a goal post in November. If he can continue that pace he will take some pressure off of Ben Bishop, a major Vezina contender, to match the play of the unflappable Carey Price. Montreal has an interesting mix of players and Tomas Vanek, while in no way Stamkos’s equal in the goal scoring department, is the true game-breaker that the Canadiens have lacked in recent years. The Habs have are never an easy draw, and Vanek and Price will outduel Stamkos and Bishop.

Prediction: Habs in six

Metropolitan:

Pittsburgh v. Columbus

The Columbus Blue Jackets are in the playoffs again for the first time since the 2008-09 season, the only other year they have qualified for the playoffs. They will be aiming for their first playoff win in franchise history on the strength of Ryan Johansen’s 33 goal, breakout season. While Sergei Bobrovsky likely won’t take home the Vezina trophy for a second straight year, he has shown that last year’s Vezina win was no fluke, and he has the ability to outduel Marc-Andre Fleury. While the Penguins are obviously an offensive powerhouse they lack depth, and Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and James Neal are amongst the least robust players in the game. It’s not the first round of the NHL playoffs without a major upset; Columbus takes this series in seven for the surprise of the playoffs.

Prediction: Blue Jackets in seven.

NYR v. Philadelphia

This is as exciting a first round matchup as one can hope for, but maybe that’s just because I never know what to expect from the Philadelphia Flyers. Claude Giroux made up for his slow start to finish third in league scoring, and Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek are rugged players that can score. The Martin St. Louis era in New York has gone puzzlingly poorly so far, and even though Henrik Lundqvist is one of the league’s best goalies, the Flyers will do whatever they can to get him off his game. The Flyers are a team built for the playoffs and love to drive other teams crazy. They’ll take it in six.
Prediction: Flyers in six.

West:

Central:

Colorado v. Minnesota

The Colorado Avalanche were the surprise team of the year in Patrick Roy’s first season behind an NHL bench. Semyon Varlamov led the league with 41 wins, and the Avalanche boast an impressive top six forwards led by hard-nosed Gabriel Landeskog. Expect Landeskog to have an impressive playoffs. While a move to Minnesota has worked out well thus far for Ilya Bryzgalov, he’s not exactly the model of consistency. It will be easy for the Avalanche to get to Bryzgalov and take this series.

Prediction: Avalanche in five.

St. Louis v. Chicago

The Blues have been decimated by injuries recently with leaders David Backes, T.J. Oshie, and Alex Pietrangelo out with various ailments. Backes and Oshie should be available for the first round matchup, but they might not be 100%. Despite their depth, the Blues won’t be able to replace players of this caliber to match the Blackhawks, who will have Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews back from their own injuries just in time for the playoffs. This will be a long series and the winner likely won’t make it past the second round. Assuming their stars can dress I think the Blues will be able to take it, but regardless of who wins, I’ll be surprised if this series takes less than seven games to decide a winner.

Prediction: Blues in seven.

Pacific:

Anaheim v. Dallas

The Dallas Stars had the least amount of points of any playoff team, and while they had big years offensively from Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, those players will draw the Ducks best shutdown line every time they’re on the ice. It won’t be a fun first round for Seguin and Benn, but at least it will be short. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry put up excellent years offensively and Teemu Selanne will be looking to go out on a high note.

Prediction: Ducks in four.

San Jose v. Los Angeles

The Sharks are going to be in tough to shake their reputation as perennial playoff underachievers when they take on the Kings, the stingiest team in the regular season. But the Kings have appeared in the last two Western Conference finals, and they sent a bevy of stars to Sochi, most of whom played major roles for their respective countries – fatigue has to be setting in for this team. The Sharks’ desire to lose the playoff failure tag will ultimately make them too strong for a tired Kings team that will be worn down quickly.

Prediction: Sharks in six.

Bruins Versus Blues Would be Dream Finals Matchup

The Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues seem to be separating themselves from the rest of the NHL recently, so much so that I’m betting on them meeting to square off for the 2014 Stanley Cup. The Bruins have won 12 in a row while St. Louis is 7-2-1 in their last ten games, with a shutout over Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday. With about ten games remaining in the season Boston and St. Louis are poised to finish the regular season strongly, and while it may not seem like a bold prediction to bet on the top team from each conference meeting in the Stanley Cup Finals, such a scenario has not happened since New Jersey and Colorado met in the Finals in 2001. What makes me think this year will be different from most others and the Bruins and Blues will carry their regular season success through the end of the season and into the playoffs? The answer is that both teams are amongst the deepest and most balanced teams the league has seen in some time.

The Blues were considered a favourite to contend heading into this season and have lived up to expectations. The young team has been on the cusp of entering the league’s perennially elite for a couple of years, and a deep playoff run will cinch their status in that regard. While the goaltending tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott was certainly more than adequate throughout the year – Elliott was in net today to shutout the Penguins – upgrading Halak to Ryan Miller just before the trade deadline has assured that the team has no cracks. On defense, head coach Ken Hitchcock has an arsenal of talent for any situation at his disposal. Recent gold medal winners Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester are supremely skilled and log a lot of minutes, and Barrett Jackman is a proven leader who is difficult to play against. In fact, the Blues don’t have any easy defensemen to play against – Kevin Shattenkirk is the smallest of the lot, but at 5’11” and 207 lbs he is no pushover.

Up front, the Blues epitomize the new NHL – a team that lacks a designated offensive dynamo and instead relies on an offense by committee. Ken Hitchcock is known for getting players to buy into a system that relies on responsible forwards that worry about keeping the puck out of their net before putting in the opposition’s. A surprise 30-goal season from Alex Steen and a sophomore jump from Jaden Schwartz has made this an offense that could afford the departures of Chris Stewart via trade and Vladimir Tarasenko due to injury. But when the playoffs roll around the experience of veteran agitators Brenden Morrow, Steve Ott, and Max Lapierre will make a big difference for this team. Morrow and Lapierre have each reached the Finals in their careers, and Morrow was part of the gold medal winning Team Canada at the 2010 Olympics. Playing against these guys for four to seven games will definitely take its toll on opposing forwards. And in case things get rough, Ryan Reaves is the team enforcer in charge of keeping opposing forwards in line, but he’s a modern NHL enforcer, one that doesn’t hurt his team if he steps on the ice and doesn’t drop his gloves.

While the Bruins are similarly strong from the net to the fourth line, they are a much more experienced team than the Blues, having reached the Stanley Cup Finals two of the last three years. In fact, the biggest obstacle between the Bruins and the Stanley Cup Finals may be the fatigue resulting from their recent success. In addition to last year’s Finals visit, many of the Bruins’ star players didn’t get a break during the Olympics this year – Patrice Bergeron, Loui Eriksson, and Tuukka Rask all medaled at the Games, while Zdeno Chara and David Krejci played major roles for Slovakia and the Czech Republic, respectively.

But only time will tell how much of a role fatigue will play against the B’s. Right now they are rolling along comfortably. Only two of the wins during their twelve game streak have been decided by less than two goals. Jarome Iginla is using this year to postpone an offensive decline, while Carl Soderberg has emerged as an underrated third liner that the league will likely take greater note of if the B’s go on an extended run this post season. While the importance of fisticuffs is greatly diminished in the playoffs, the Bruins have more grit than any team in the league, and it doesn’t hurt that they have three legitimate heavyweights – Chara, Milan Lucic, and Shawn Thornton – that draw regular shifts.

The teams played twice already this season, and both games required extra time, the Blues winning 3-2 in each case. Ultimately, the Bruins and Blues are successful because they have rosters of smart players that minimize mistakes, and play the type of risk averse hockey that wins games. When opposing forwards do break free they have the unenviable challenge of putting the puck behind two of the best goalies in the league in Miller and Rask. They have the luxury of rolling four strong lines, and that is the only way teams can make deep runs in the playoffs in the NHL these days. If the Bruins and Blues do face off in June it will be the first meeting between the two teams since 1970 when Bobby Orr scored the Stanley Cup winning goal in overtime before flying through the air in celebration in one of the NHL’s most famous photos. While a meeting this time around would likely be much tighter than the four game sweep in 1970, it would likely be every bit as classic.