April 27, 2014

by Dobber Sports on April 27, 2014 | (0 Comments)

When it's the dead of August and, rather than enjoying time with family and loved ones, you're complaining about another slow hockey news day ("oh wow, a European player said something not all that tactful to the foregin press" "how much did x-player post himself dead lifting on Instagram, crazy!"); remember April 26th. 

 

Four playoff games, all of them dramatic and rivetting, and a wholesale change of a management team? The hockey gods; they do spoil us on occasion. 

 

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Let's start with the Capitals news - Adam Oates is fired, George McPhee will not have his contract extension.

 

I really enjoyed Greg Wysnski's take on the Capitals' "identity crisis" even if, in my view, he muddles some details on his way to nailing the big picture (stripping Ovechkin of the captaincy sounds like a good way  to start divorce proceedings, and I take John Carlson and Karl Alzner over anyone on the B's second pairing). I for one think the demise of this team as a contender has its roots in a spot of random variance (just ran into a hot goalie in Jaroslav Halak), and a really bad coaching decision (firing Bruce Boudreau who just wins); and P.Diddy nails it like a bardown slapshot. 

 

Also good reading on the Capitals: Dimitri Filipovic's bit over at The Sporting News on the stunning demise of what was once hockey's version of "7 seconds or less."

 

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To the hockey. The Boston Bruins powered through the Detroit Red Wings in the Saturday matinee, and clinched their opening round Stanley Cup playoff series in five games. It was a special teams contest as the two clubs combined for 13 power-play opportunities in Game 5; and Boston outscored the Red Wings with the man-advantage 2-1 (and 4-2 overall).

 

In the recent past if the Bruins had allowed a game against Detroit to devolve into a special teams contest, they'd have been playing into their opponent's hand. That's not the case for Boston this year though, and it's a major reason why this iteration of the Bruins is very probably the best we've seen (yes, even including 2011).  

 

The Bruins scored five power-play goals against the Red Wings in the five game series, and generated shots with the man-advantage seemingly at will. Their power-play is extraordinarily potent, and it gives them a new wrinkle (both in terms of generating offense and from a mental warfare perspective). Now Boston can come out and play a disciplined game and punish opponents on the power-play, adding that card to the standard "we can push you around because we employ Lucic and Chara" Bruins deck is just unfair. 

 

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And an elegy for the vanquished. The Detroit Red Wings were two different teams this season. They were the old, sad, over-paid, injury-plagued team we saw at the start of the year; and then they were this fast, young, exciting, up-and-coming group in the second half. It was a pretty amazing transformation to watch Stephen Weiss, Mikael Samuelsson, Dan Cleary and Jordin Tootoo struggle (and struggle to stay into the lineup); and then watch a dynamic group led by Gustav Nyquist, Riley Sheahan and Tomas Tatar get hot and streak into the postseason to keep the storied organization's generation-long playoff streak alive.

 

Overall a good season of growth for the organization, I'd think, and probably Mike Babcock's best work as an NHL bench boss (I'd give him the Jack Adams nod, personally). Now the key is for Ken Holland to figure out how to build around that core while doing what he can to surgically remove some of the onerous cap-hits the Wings are committed to carrying next season (Johan Franznen, Weiss, and Tootoo chief among them). Would be cool if Darren Helm, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg could stay healthy next season too.

 

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In the other Eastern Conference playoff game the Pittsburgh Penguins have taken the Columbus Blue Jackets to the brink of elimination by soundly defeating them 3-1 at home in Game 5. The Penguins managed 50+ shots in the contest, and out-shot the Blue Jackets by a dominant margin at even-strength. Perhaps most importantly, they got a good performance out of Marc-Andre Fleury - who wasn't great, but didn't have to be, and looked calm and collected late - which should calm some of the fraying nerves in the city that taxi's forgot.

 

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Penguins defenseman (and soon to be free-agent mistake) Brooks Orpik didn't play on Saturday, and was replaced in the lineup by Robert Bortuzzo. The Penguins had a different look up front as well, with Evgeni Malkin playing on the wing with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz. Think that's a line that could do some damage?

 

Actually they didn't do much damage on Saturday despite playing together for 11+ minutes at even-strength (roughly 76% of Crosby's EV TOI). In nearly 100 minutes together this season, actually, Crosby and Malkin were rather widely outscored, and controlled fewer than 40% of the goal events when they were on the ice at the same time at even-strength. On the other hand they controlled possession like crazy, and have generally Corsi'd at a ~57% rate when skating together over the past five years. Personally, I'd like to see them roll with it for a bit; and it's pretty cool that they specifically requested it of Bylsma.

 

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Another reason why I like the concept of Malkin with Crosby: it frees up Brandon Sutter to play with reasonably good players. Since arriving in Pittsburgh as part of the bounty for Jordan Staal, Sutter has been underwhelming-to-brutal on most nights. Of course, he's also been buried in his own end and given Craig Adams and Tanner Glass to play with.

 

On Saturday, skating with Jussi Jokinen and James Neal, Sutter played like a bonafide two-way ace. He managed four shots on goal, he was in seemingly every passing lane, he notched two assists, and when he was on the ice at even-strength the Penguins outshot Columbus 12-2. And that was all accomplished while matched up primarily with Ryan Johansen's line at even-strength.

 

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The secret key to Pittsburgh's new-look top-six? The return of Marcel Goc. Now all of a sudden the Penguins bottom-six sink-hole features a pretty intriguing Beau Bennet, Marcel Goc, Lee Stempniak trio that really could be passable. Though I should note that Vitale, Sutter and Malkin took a few spins in Goc's place and he doesn't really look right yet (he only just returned from injury). 

 

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I don't see an easy answer for how Columbus can adjust in Game 6 to matchup with a Penguins forward formation that looks like it could really help disguise Pittsburgh's long-standing depth issues. It'll help that Crosby won't get nearly seven even-strength minutes away from Brandon Dubinsky when the series moves back to Ohio, but that's probably not enough, at least not based on what happened in Game 5.

 

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Colorado versus Minnesota was great drama, but for all the wrong reasons. Put it this way: when Gabriel Landeskog getting called for the single worst unsportsmanlike conduct penalty I've ever seen (late in a playoff game for giving Darcy Kuemper a snowshower? Come on!) and pushing the ref while arguing his point isn't the worst officiating incident - hoo boy. 

 

On the sequence that led up to PA Parenteau's game-tying goal the Avalanche got away with an extraordinarily blatant hold by Andre Benoit on Charlie Coyle (who very probably would've beaten Benoit to the puck and iced the game). Then as they turned the puck up ice, they got away with an uncalled offside while entering the Avalanche zone. Just NBA quality officiating sadly.

 

It's too bad because Game 5 between the Wild and the Avalanche was rivetting drama, and there were so many great plot-lines (chief among which was Nathan MacKinnon's three-points, Dany Heatley's amazing two point game, Patrick Roy's empty-net aggressiveness paying off once more); all of them overshadowed by dubious calls.

 

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I still have the Wild coming away with this series, though it does sort of look like Matt Duchene might be back for Game 6 (and I'll bet anything that he's back for Game 7 if it occurs). That would be big for a Colorado team that was completely shutdown once Mike Yeo was able to glue Ryan Suter to MacKinnon in the friendly confines of the Xcel Energy Center.

 

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I'm so curious to see what the Avalanche offseason looks like. Even after a huge season like the one they've had, there are just so many unknowns. Like how Patrick Roy will be calling the shots on personnel matters. Roy's proven himself an innovative, gutsy tactician and a skilled motivator as a head coach; but getting the notoriously frugal Kroenke ownership group in Denver to invest in talent, and wheeling and dealing in the NHL is a whole different ball game. 

 

There's also a lot of work to be done on a flawed roster. The Avalanche are likely to regress naturally next season anyway unless they can significant upgrade their D-corps. And they have a decision to make on pending unrestricted free-agent Paul Stastny - a massively under-rated two-way centerman who has tremendous chemistry with Landeskog; and also a very interesting situation brewing with restricted free-agent to be Ryan O'Reilly. 

 

Remember: because O'Reilly signed that "toxic" Flames offer-sheet, he's owed a $6.5 million+ qualifying offer. That'll give O'Reilly a lot more leverage over his contract situation than a typical RFA.

 

Between Colorado's enviable center depth (I mean, a Duchene/MacKinnon one-two punch for a decade or more is pretty cool), O'Reilly unique contract situation, and the Avalanche ownership group's reputation for nickel and diming; this is a situation that seems worth monitoring closely. Even though it'll probably be resolved by O'Reilly just signing a long-term extension with the Avalanche. They'd be crazy not to lock him up, right? 

 

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Finally the Los Angeles Kings defeated the Sharks handily again, chasing Antti Niemi on their way to a 3-0 victory. The Kings have now forced a sixth game, back in Los Angeles, and injuries are mounting for the Sharks. In particular, M-E Vlasic left Saturday's game with an upper body injury after being roughed up by Jarret Stoll; and his loss could change the entire complexion of this series.

 

I don't think Vlasic is as under-rated after the Olympics as he was before them, but his ability to key the breakout, get the puck moving in the right direction, and log major minutes without taking penalties is straight up uncanny. If he misses Game 6, and I'd describe him as "questionable" at this point since that's basically what Todd McLellan did, the Sharks could be in trouble - especially because their defense begins to look awfully slow (Justin Braun isn't exactly a burner, and Dan Boyle's wheels ain't what they used to be). 

 

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Of course, because it's the Sharks we're talking about, they have a couple of Black Aces who could help immediately. Matt Irwin is a major one, but Matt Tennyson could fit the bill too if the Sharks want to take a chance on a younger guy who can add some puck-moving ability to their back-end. I'd argue that they very much should do just that.

 

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Tyler Toffoli picking his spot on Antti Niemi blew me away. What a smart shot, and perfectly executed. 

 

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Finally just a quick reminder: a couple of matinees on Sunday as the Rangers and Flyers go at 12 p.m. EST and the Blues and Blackhawks play Game 6 at 3 p.m. EST.

 

Thomas Drance is a news editor at theScore.

 

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