The Stanley Cup Playoffs Make Heroes

The Stanley Cup Playoffs always seem to create a hero out of someone. It becomes that special time of year where someone steps up from the third or fourth line because the first or the second line gets shut down thanks to the opposition’s coaching choices.  Unless you follow everything the team does, you may not even have heard of the guy.
It’s during this “crunch time” if you want to call it that, that diamonds are made. Sometimes these diamonds may never have their number called again. Sometimes these diamonds go on to be legends. Think back to all the Conn Smythe winners in the past, can you name them? Think back to the Stanley Cup Champions in recent years, can you name them?
Even if you can’t, what is amazing about the Conn Smythe award is that unlike most trophies it is based upon the play of an individual throughout the entire playoffs. If you lead your team to the Finals and put up a goose egg there – more than likely you are going to have a hard time winning the trophy. If you play magnificently throughout the playoffs you are probably going to be in line to be the Conn Smythe award winner. It doesn’t always go to the winning team either, five times since the trophy was introduced in 1964 it has gone to the losing team most recently to Jean-Sebastien Giguere of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim who played tremendously in net. He finished with a 15-6 record, a .945 Save % and 1.62 Goals Against Average.
What makes the Conn Smythe award so amazing though is the list of names that have won the trophy. Guys from our decade and guys from decades before us that we can only imagine seeing play in their prime. Hall of Fame players and guys who scored in places like the Maple Leaf Gardens. Guys who made key saves in the Montreal Forum. Guys who were a part of the Oilers Dynasty of the 80’s. Guys who played a part in making the Islanders the talk of the Nassau Coliseum. Guys who were a part of the Broad Street Bullies. Guys would initiate a line brawl and bring the goalies into it. Guys who would see your head down and hit you in the middle of the ice without thinking twice. Drop ’em? Hell yes, this is the rock ’em sock ’em NHL – Don Cherry style. The days of Northern NHL teams winning the Cup with some of the greatest goaltenders you may ever see backstopping them.
Of course as time has past we have seen the new generation, the new buildings with the expansions and the new equipment. The game has been influenced by an international group of players that witnessed the “Miracle on Ice.” No longer is it won by teams in the northern half of North America but Southern states are hoisting the Cup now along with those on the sunny West Coast. Playoff dates in May and June test the ability of maintenance workers to keep the ice frozen in the summer heat. The next generation of player is faster, stronger and better conditioned than those we remember. They wear lighter pads, scientifically engineered skates and use high-tech sticks. There is no more fighting. This is the new NHL. No more Montreal Forum or Maple Leaf Gardens. These are giant arenas built for bringing in the crowd and getting them to spend, spend and spend some more.
I’ve often wondered whether I grew up in the golden age of hockey with Lemieux, Gretzky, Roy, Brodeur and all. I want to say yes, there will never ever be guys like this. I know there will never be guys that stopped shots like that and there will probably never be another guy that scored like Gretz. But at the same time, what about those that grew up during Gordie Howe’s reign? They probably said the same. Can you imagine the talent that has come along since? Patrick Roy won three Conn Smythe awards, does that mean no one else ever will? Wayne Gretzky holds or shares 61 records, does that mean that no one will ever pass any of them? Mario Lemieux won the Conn Smythe award in consecutive years and is the last person to do it, will anybody else do it? Martin Brodeur holds 25 records, will anyone break them?
I can’t help but wonder while watching these Stanley Cup Finals – who will be that Conn Smythe guy? I wonder if there will be a guy that will break a record? Is there someone on the ice that will make it to the Hockey Hall of Fame? Sure there are some names that pop to mind – Thornton, Pavelski and Crosby. But we don’t know where these careers will end. We don’t know how it’s all going to play out. Hockey takes such a wild ride sometimes. It’s such a tough sport to play day in and day out. It takes such a toll on your mind and your body. I can’t imagine what these guys go through just to make it through these playoff marathons. Whoever wins the Cup and wins the Conn Smythe no doubt they’ll deserve but I’ve got my eye on a couple of guys and I’m not going to jinx them by saying their names – just know, they’ll be someone’s hero.

Looking Forward To The NHL’s Awards

I know it’s early and we are still 12 days away from the end of the regular season but it’s just about the time to look at who should win the NHL’s regular season awards.  There are a few we may not truly be able to know until the end but that’s part of the fun!  We will start with one of the ones I think is pretty much wrapped up.

*stats as of 3/29/16

Vezina Trophy

Braden Holtby      (2.17 Goals Against Average, .923 Save %, 46 wins)
Henrik Lundqvist (2.41 GAA, .922 SV %, 33 wins)
Ben Bishop             (2.02 GAA, .928 SV%, 33 wins)
Honorable mention: Corey Crawford, Cory Schneider

For me, no one has been more impressive between the pipes than Holtby because he has backstopped a team that has ratcheted up the pressure on the rest of the NHL to the tune of an NHL leading 54 wins and a guaranteed President’s Trophy.  Holtby has won 46 of those 54 games and proven to be a workhorse for the Capitals on their run to what they hope is a Cup winning season.  While they are a well built team, I think they are built from the goalie position on.  Last year’s playoff performance by Holtby was his coming out party and I think he is showing what he is made of.  He played in 13 games last year posting a 1.71 GAA and .944 SV%, winning 6 of the 13 games before the Caps bowed out to the New York Rangers in the 7th game.

As for the Rangers, Lundqvist has held them in the playoff race on his back alone. Once again they’ve built a team designed to win around Hank.  The Rangers leading scorer Derek Brassard has 57 points (27 goals -30 assists) and isn’t even in the 20 in points or the top 20 in goals (26).  If the Rangers expect to beat the Capitals in the Eastern Conference they’ll have to rely on defense and Lundqvist.
Quietly Ben Bishop has powered the Tampa Bay Lightning to 93 points and a tie with Florida atop the Atlantic division.  While we’ve heard about Florida’s resurgence, the Lightning have quietly come on thanks in large part to Bishop’s play in net.  As long as he continues to play strong he’ll have a chance to take that top spot in the Atlantic.

The Corey-Cory tandem both have played well and it was hard to keep them off the board but the top three candidates couldn’t be overlooked.  Crawford has kept the Hawks in many games but the offense in front of him has overshadowed his work many times.  I don’t believe he’s the top tier goal like the other three.  Schneider is a top tier goaltender but he’s been hurt by New Jersey’s lack of depth.  Once the Devils get the pieces in place, they have a great goalkeeper in place to get them where they want to be.

Calder Trophy

Artemi Panarin
Jack Eichel
Shayne Gostisbehere
Honorable mention: Max Domi

Some may question the fact that Panarin is 24 and played for 6 years in the Russian KHL before coming over to the NHL.  By the NHL standards however, Panarin is a rookie and stands to win the Calder hands down with 64 points, which is good for 17th in the league, the best by a rookie.  

Eichel is at 50 and Gostisbehere, the Flyers’ D-man, has 42 points for a team that is gunning for the playoffs as best they can.  Eichel has looked good for the Sabres, a good runner-up prize for the team that missed out on “can’t miss” prospect Connor McDavid that Edmonton took with the first overall pick.

Meanwhile Max Domi has shown flashes of brilliance in his time in a Coyotes sweater, even scoring on his father, Tie’s old team Toronto this year as he has amassed 48 points.

Norris Trophy

Erik Karlsson
Erik Karlsson
Erik Karlsson….

no seriously…..

Erik Karlsson
Drew Doughty
Brent Burns
Honorable mention: P.K. Subban

Erik Karlsson has been a revelation once again in Ottawa.  A defenseman leading the league in assists?  Yup that’s him.  The gold standard of offensive defenseman.  But he’s always on the ice for his team, 30 minutes plus 30 or more times this year.  Karlsson has 62 assists and it is the most by a defenseman since Nicklas Lidstrom in the 2007-2008 season when he had 60.  He won the Norris that year.

Doughty has played well on the blueline for the Kings.  He’s been one of the reasons that the Kings have performed so well and are contenders for the Cup.  Burns has been a point producer as well.  But both can’t really come close to what is Karlsson’s best and arguably magical season even though the Sens won’t make the playoffs it is an individual award and he has played the best season for a D-man.

P.K. has had some missed games due to injuries although he has brought his offensive game to the Canadiens this year.  When he’s come to the rink he’s been explosive.  He’s been physical and solid.  The team has struggled because of lack of depth and that has affected his numbers but I still see that Norris trophy D-man on the ice.  Not as good as the other three but he’s up there.

Hart Trophy

Patrick Kane
Sidney Crosby
Johnny Gaudreau
Honorable mention: Erik Karlsson, Henrik Lundqvist

Patrick Kane is the guy that checks all the boxes here, leader in points, second in goals, second in assists and plays on one of the NHL’s best teams.  But I’m struggling with this decision.  This is the one that I have a hard time with.  Do I think the Blackhawks would win without him?  No.  But do I think the Penguins win without Crosby?  No way.

In fact the Penguins have been a way different team in 2016 then in 2015.  On January 2, 2016 before facing the New York Islanders, the Penguins sat on 40 points – good for 10th in the Eastern Conference and 5th in the Metropolitan Division.  Now they are at 92 points, 3rd in the Metropolitan and 5th in the Conference, a hell of a swing in three months.

As for Gaudreau, the Flames would have struggled without his 28 goals and 45 assists. Johnny Hockey put the Calgary team on his back this year and even though they won’t make the playoffs, there is no doubt in my mind, this young lad is going to make this team a contender as long they continue to put complementary pieces around him.

As for my honorable mentions, I believe Karlsson will win the Norris and that speaks for itself, as well as Lundqvist’s play in net for the Rangers.

Selke Trophy

Patrice Bergeron

I can’t really throw anyone else in the mix because as long as he’s playing this is pretty much Bergeron’s trophy to lose.  Bergeron does everything you want a forward to do.  He wins faceoffs, kills penalties, back checks and is one of the best all around forwards.  His play is so good he makes everyone around him look good.

But if you are inclined, I’ll give you two names that could be included in the runner up spot:

Anze Kopitar
Sidney Crosby

You happy?  It still should be renamed the Bergeron trophy.  For as long as he’s playing, it will be his.

Adams Trophy

Mike Sullivan
Mike Babcock
Barry Trotz

This one should be a lot easier than it was.  But Mike Sullivan was gifted a talented team, the same that former Penguins coach Mike Johnston couldn’t get to produce.  On December 12, 2015 the Penguins introduced Mike Sullivan as coach and begin to see results.  As I stated above they are now knocking on the upper echelons of the Eastern Conference and this is thanks to Mike Sullivan who produced in Wilkes-Barre Scranton with the “Baby Pens.”  Many of his players there were brought up and have continued to produce in his system.  It’s worked well for him and I think it’s shown what a good coach can do with hard work and players that believe in a system.  You don’t always have to have the Kanes and the Karlssons to win.

Speaking of not having talent, Mike Babcock has done wonders with a Toronto Maple Leafs team that has stripped down the organization’s foundation to the core.  Babcock has worked well with the younger players brought up from the AHL’s Toronto Marlies and the Leafs have seen a resurgence not only on the ice but with the fan base as well.  It has given a once proud team reason to look to the future again.

Barry Trotz was given the keys to a Ferrari this year.  He was expected to drive the Ferrari as fast and as far as he could.  He has done that.  But he has also exceeded expectations.  Trotz has been able to guide the team through the ups and downs of the regular season without too much drama and changed the culture of the organization in two seasons.  He should have been nominated for this award last season.  Unfortunately I don’t see him winning it this year either.

Who do you think will win?

 

 

 

Skating On Thin Ice

The Montreal Canadiens were 19-4-3 through the first 26 games three days earlier star goaltender Carey Price went down injured with what was supposed to be a “week or two” lower body injury.  Since then the Canadiens have gone 8-23-1, Price hasn’t come back, the team traded for All-Star Game MVP John Scott just days prior to his coming out party only to bury him in minor league affiliate St. John’s and now Coach Michel Therrien is openly flaming star defenseman P.K. Subban in the press.

Is there something going on with the bleu blanc et rouge?

From first glance it looks to me like the Canadiens are reeling with the loss of Price.  If the New York Rangers lost Henrik Lundqvist I believe they’d struggle just like the Canadiens.  You can throw in NHL quality backups and hope for the best, but there’s too much parity in the NHL these days that once you lose an elite goaltender that you rely on to push your team over the edge you might as well pack it in.  Especially if you don’t have goal scorers that teams like the Chicago Blackhawks do.

Let’s also keep in mind the fish bowl that this team plays in.  Ask Jocelyn Thibault.  Don’t know Jocelyn Thibault?  Thibault was part of the Patrick Roy trade between the Colorado Avalanche and the Canadiens that sent Roy and Mike Keane to the Avalance for Thibault, Martin Rucinsky and Andrei Kovalenko.  Thibault was a young 20 year old when he was thrust into the shadow of Saint Patrick on the Montreal Forum stage. He was put in net to try to replicate what a man 10 years his senior had done for this hockey loving community.

Oh, did I mention Thibault was also French Canadian?  Thibault grew up in Montreal and played in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and was called by Canadiens General Manager Rejean Houle “one of the most brilliant young goaltenders in the league?”

Gee.  Pressure?  A 20 year old kid going home to one of the most storied franchises of all time, most Stanley Cups in NHL history (22), one of the oldest North American professional sports franchises in history, over 50 people associated with the club were in the Hockey Hall of Fame, it’s his hometown club, and now the General Manager of this club says that he is the key to this deal and one of the most brilliant young goaltenders in the league.  That’s not much presure

Then there’s the list of goaltenders that’s played at the club, let’s see: Patrick Roy, Tony Esposito, Ken Dryden, Gump Worsley, Jacques Plante, Roy Worters, Bill Durnan, George Hainsworth and Georges Vezina!  That’s just the Hall of Fame goaltenders.

But hell, Thibault came over to the Canadiens and through 40 games after being traded he posted a 23-13-3 record with a 2.83 Goals Allowed Average and a .913 Save Percentage.  For a 20 year old playing in the shadow of ghosts, that’s not too bad.

But it was never enough.  Even playing on crappy teams, Thibault always did his best but he got the blame.  Eventually getting traded to the Chicago Blackhawks in 1998, Thibault would move on.  I can only imagine his growth as a goaltender was scared by his experiences in Montreal.  Unfortunately the ghosts were the same ones that Ken Dryden spoke of in his book “The Game.”  Dryden experienced the pain too.  The must win now mentality.  The mentality that if you don’t win you are going to get shipped out.  There’s no room for any sort of growth.

I hate to see something like that happen.  I think the Canadiens could do well bringing up John Scott and playing him to bring some excitement to the club.  Or even trading him to let him play somewhere in the NHL.  He deserves a shot somewhere.

But the way that they are treating P.K. Subban is the way they treated Thibault.  A solid club servant, who did what was asked of him, gave to the club and hell Subban is there for the community, but now he’s being questioned for his decisions on the ice?  This man gives everything that he has on the ice.

I have to wonder if the long line of Cups are getting in the way of what a franchise should truly be about.  It’s not always about winning.  It should be about people too.  It should be about understanding that you are going to have crap years.  But the players are giving what they have.  I’ve written about coaching changes before, but with Montreal losing an elite goaltender and now you want to criticize your star defenseman?  Someone should fire the coach.  Obviously he has some issues.  Sure he’s feeling the heat too.  But that’s unacceptable.

I feel bad for Subban and Scott and hope that neither of them has their careers ruined like Thibault did.  Here’s hoping.

Lightning Never Strikes Twice?

Game Three of the Eastern Conference Final gave me hope that the Rangers would have learned from the Game Two blistering that they suffered in New York. Now in Tampa Bay they have to compete not only with the Lightning but with the crowd and I wonder if at times they let the crowd and the moment get to them.

It does need to be said that the Rangers did manage to come back and tie the game when they were down and out. But overtime sucked the life right out of it all.

With that in mind I present these thoughts of what I’d do to battle back:

1. Get Marty St. Louis away from the power play and maybe the ice until he can show me where the net is. I’m not sure he has that covered yet. Yes he’s a hall of fame player and a great guy but at some point the skill set runs out and we may be seeing it.
2. Tell Chris Kreider to stop running around with his hair on fire. Did he have to run over Dan Girardi? Calm down son, I know that you took a hit moments before but focus your aggression. I mean, come on, you should know that by now.
3. Can someone please stop letting the Lightning come full steam through the middle of the zone? I know I’m old and all but the defense or even a couple of forwards can backcheck these guys right on their butts. The winning goal, zoom right through the middle. Keep giving up ground and you’ll lose the fight.
4. Speaking of losing the fight, the Rangers got away with being clumsy and sloppy in the last two rounds because of their speed but Tampa’s quickness is making them pay. The Rangers are going to have to commit to leaving someone back at all times to combat that or else it will be a third straight six goal night.
5. If you don’t want a six goal night, there are these guys, and back in my day they used to bring the, out to change the momentum. You never see them anymore and I don’t know why, but when you don’t want someone to push you around, AHEM New York are you listening.? Call on one of your guys to push and shove and make it ugly. Obviously Tampa wants to push the tempo even faster so make them play even slower, but bring in a big boy or two, why not? Coaching is all about changing things up when you have to, old time hockey, Eddie Shore!
6. Please tell Rick Nash to park himself in front of Bishop. Again back in my day they got the biggest guy to stand in front of the goalie on the power play or during the game and screen him. Do they still screen goalies anymore? Damn I feel old. Take a big shot from the point and have Nash waive his arms or something in front of Bishop, have him sing a song or read him a book whatever it takes to distract but Nash is such a big body, he’s one of the few big bodies the Rangers have. Again they are going up against a basketball team and Nash is one of the few who can compete.
7. Someone please please give Lundqvist a little help on the back end. Some of these goals, an easy pass across the crease or a break away because of a crappy turnover, a guy alone because no one picked him up on D. The breakdown of the defense is a killer. I thought this defense was supposed to be the best? And where the hell is the captain? He should be screaming at guys! Hell I’m screaming at them here.
8. It’s time for Coach to shake it up. Enough is enough. Tampa right now is the better team. I believe if they win the next game they’ll take the series. I think New York was on the brink of stealing this game until Lundqvist had a breakdown himself and let in that goal. It seems like everyone is out of sorts. I think it’s time to give them a day away from the rink. When they come back there will be line changes. There will be a mentality change. No more pushed around. No more Stamkos bulldozing Hayes. Right away it ends. That is the way we change it. You can’t play it their way anymore.

Lightning did strike twice for six goals in two games no that is unacceptable plain and simple. It has to be changed and quickly. Sticking to the plain will only get New York run out of the building in Game Four. I think it’s time to make some drastic changes, bring a little Reggie Dunlop, a little Eric Lindros, a little Mark Messier and a little Mike Keenan to the team. Smart, tough-nosed, brutal and at times fight if you have to but no more intimidation. Give it right back. They ran over the Rangers in the Garden it’s time to bloody their noses on their turf.

Blowout On Broadway

I thought maybe after seeing the Rangers come back from a 3-1 deficit to hand the Caps a loss in Game 7 of their series that they would be rest for the Finals. Maybe they were ready for Game 1 of the Finals but not Game 2. I wasn’t ready for a 6-2 defeat and neither were they, my cable provider wasn’t either, they cut out the game mid-way through the third so I did not have the privilege of seeing the sixth goal get scored, I’m sure it was dandy.

Tampa is quite an interesting study. Their team is built on height. It all starts in the back with 6’7″ Ben Bishop in goal, defenseman Andrej Sustr (6’7″), Victor Hedman (6’6″), Braydon Coyle (6’5″) and there’s forward Brian Boyle 6’7″. There are quite a few defenseman over six feet as well, it’s like Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman decided to find all the tall guys and put them on the ice. It’s an interesting strategy if that’s really what it’s all about.

I will say that if you play Tampa Bay with the Rangers on NHL 15 on Xbox One, they seem to be the Blueshirts’ kryptonite. It’s amazing how such an offense and defensive powered team can be shut down by Tampa but can run over just about every other team in the game. I’m not saying this is scientific by any means, it just seems coincidental considering I played Tampa a few times earlier in the day and found them difficult to beat.

There’s an interesting Henrik Lundqvist stat that needs to be addressed as well: in his playoff career he is 5-12 in Game 2 of he Ranger’s playoff series. Let’s break that down further:
Game 1 11-8
Game 2 5-12
Game 3 9-9
Game 4 10-8
Game 5 6-9
Game 6 5-5
Game 7 6-1

It looks like the King comes out of the box strong and then takes the foot off the gas. The third game could go either way, the fourth he mostly bounces back and wins, Game 5 is probably not so good followed by him losing out the series. You are going to have to get to him early. If Tampa is to win this series they can’t take it to seven games and John Cooper is going to have to know that. Side note on John Cooper, he coached the Norfolk Admirals to an American Hockey League championship and won the Calder Cup during the 2011-2012 season.

Obviously the Rangers were dominated in every aspect of the game on Monday night. They had no answer for how to shut down Tyler Johnson, no answer for how to beat Ben Bishop on the power play, no answer for how to kill penalties and the score showed it. I questioned the Rangers after their series with the Penguins and after the comeback series victory against the Caps I thought maybe they had figured it out but they are going to have to rediscover themselves. If they can’t get goals from guys like Nash or St Louis or more power play goals it’s going to be a really long series and a long summer waiting for the next season. I hate to say this but I think the Lightning have left the Rangers bloody. I’m hoping they can fight their way back from it but it’s going to take a huge effort to get past such large opponents.

*Results May Vary

*Results May Vary

I wonder after Game 7 between the Rangers and the Caps, when Ovechkin guaranteed that Washington would “come back and win the series,” if he was trying to motivate his team or he really felt like they were going to win.  Game 7 was set to be his prophetic stage to show the world that “Hey look I’m right!”  Game 7 was set to be his leadership moment, the time when he finally breaks out and steps up to the plate and leads his team out of the second round of the playoffs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve learned to appreciate Ovi and respect his talents this year.  Seeing him in the Islander series I thought he finally found his way and came around to being a better team player.  It felt like he was finally living up to the “C” that is stitched into his jersey.  When he first came into the league, I struggled to see his leadership qualities because it always seemed like he was a “me first” player whether that was unfair justification or not I’m not sure.

Unfortunately for Ovi and the Caps it wasn’t meant to be, however for the Rangers and Ranger fans, Lundqvist continues to own Game 7s in the Garden and he continues to play well between the pipes.  That’s not to say that Ovi didn’t play well, plus Braden Holtby played a whale of a game and Barry Trotz coached a hell of a game, but the Rangers weathered everything that the Caps threw at them and took every punch until they caught the Caps sleeping in overtime.

I have a hard time with some sports breaking down plays.  Normally in football I can watch it and see where someone is running and understand where the coverage went and I can break it down pretty quickly as it is going on even as it is live.  You kinda see it unfold.  You kinda get it.  Maybe it’s just me from watching it so quickly as a kid.  Maybe it’s from growing up watching it.  I ate, slept and pretty much did everything football as a kid, so it’s in my blood.  But when it comes to hockey and I watch it, I don’t see the plays.  I heard the announcers last night talk about the Rangers having plays off the face-off and kinda scratched my head, and in full disclosure here, I missed quite a few of them.  But that’s what makes them pros and me a dumb writer on a blog.

Watching the faceoff to the scoring of Derek Stepan’s goal in the OT of Game 7, I slowed it down and broke it down in my head trying to put it together to figure out how difficult it must be to script these things.  But you know it’s probably just like football when you never really know if the play is gonna work until you try it.  Seeing Jasper Fast pass the puck back to Yandle who throws it to Girardi with a quick shot on Holtby and the rebounds comes out to Stepan and in watching the replay it seems like he’s so wide open but yet he has so much time on his own to find the open net.  I can’t imagine being in that situation, a wide open net like that with so much time, the nerves going in Game 7.  It feels like I’d probably shoot it at Holtby.  But Stepan didn’t and the Rangers made the Caps pay.

That’s what this game is about, making the other team pay when they make a mistake.  The Caps didn’t cover Stepan on the rebound and he made them pay.  The Rangers made some mistakes, they let Ovi skate with the puck across the zone in the first period to beat Lundqvist on his glove side, they committed some bad penalties and turned the puck over too many times, but Washington couldn’t make them pay enough times.  The good teams will time in and time out make you pay.  Washington couldn’t finish out the series because they just couldn’t make the Rangers pay enough times.  The last three games the Rangers kept hammering away at Holtby and they kept making the Caps at crucial times.  This Rangers team still has that core that went to the Stanley Cup Finals last year and you can see that in the way that they play.

The one thing I think that Ovi is going to learn from all this is that guarantees are great, but it takes the whole team to buy in.  Sports is such a hit and miss thing.  You can have a great team and that team can be felled at any time.  The puck can bounce the wrong way or someone can do something dumb and the whole thing can fall apart.  It’s great to be confident, but it’s another thing to be over confident and when you become over confident you can run your mouth and inspire the other team.  Maybe if he gets into this situation next year he can keep his guarantees to himself.

Guarantees*

Side effects may include: Over confidence, inflated ego, self-importance, lack of focus.

Use as directed.

*Results may vary.

The Weight Of Expectation

Game Four of the New York Rangers’ series with the Washington Capitals promised to be something better than the previous, if only because you figured the blueshirts would come out with more push.  

It seemed in the first period of the game that the Rangers were ready to play, they were aggressive and flying all over the ice.  The only thing that I noticed however was that Washington was that they were putting good shots on net and making Lundqvist work, I didn’t think the Rangers made Holtby work as much.  Sure he made saves but they didn’t seem to be big saves in the first period.  

After the Rangers took the lead in the second, they let themselves go completely.  A mental breakdown that caused two turnovers leading to two Caps goals.  After the light switch flipped off they suddenly had to turn it back on and it almost happened but Holtby made a great save on Hagelin’s penalty shot attempt.  

The Rangers tried to dump shots on net but they were what I’ve termed typical Ranger playoff shots: wide, blocked, high or weak.  Or they just try to be so cute that the passes get intercepted so easily and turned away.  

I don’t know if it’s over yet, I’m on the fence, yes I know they are down 3-1. Coach Vigneault wouldn’t come out and say he was surprised that they were down 3-1 which surprised me.  In the press conference he kinda looked like a beaten man, who knows that he can only do so much to get goals out of a team.  Only one defenseman has a point in the series, so much for that Keith Yandle trade but again I guess that comes back to the expectations that this team is living under.  Not only are they sitting under the 3-1 rock but there’s a giant stone that says “hey you were the Presidents’ Trophy winners.  Oh and we expect you to win the East.  Plus there’s all these fans in New York.  The New York media.” 

 Look at all that expectation.  But I guess that’s what professional athletes deal with only its amped up even more for any team in New York, cause it’s the bright lights of Broadway baby and the city carries with it its own weight of expectation.

Capital Punishment

I seriously am getting tired of being the one to say it but Alex Ovechkin is turning into that guy that can lead his team to a Stanley Cup.  I’m certain that you know he’s won a multitude of personal awards when it comes to scoring and points but it’s that giant silver Cup that has always eluded him.  After watching him and the Washington Caps in Game Three of their series against the NY Rangers I have to believe that they have a chance to make some major advances toward that chalice.  

To be completely fair I am a Rangers fan, so I’m a bit biased but it’s hard not to give credit to Washington after their 1-0 win.  They pounded the Rangers on the boards.  Yes the Rangers are a faster team but if you can’t use your speed and are forced to play someone else’s game you will struggle, and struggle the Rangers did.

It’s said that to win in the playoffs you need to score goals, have good goaltending and get the lucky bounce, right now the Rangers are only getting one of three.  Lundqvist is giving them a chance and bailing them out of as many situations as he can but they got to stop making terrible turnovers.  Keith Yandle was supposed to help the power play, it doesn’t seem like he’s done that in the playoffs, this power play was terrible tonight.  In fact Yandle made a terrible turnover behind the Rangers’ net that almost led to a Caps goal if not for the work of Lundqvist to keep out the shot.

Dan Boyle has played well this year but in Game One of the series he gave the puck away in the dying moments of the game that led to Joel Ward’s game winning goal to suck the air out of the Garden.  He has been less than stellar for sure in this series.  Rick Nash’s magnificent season seems to be overshadowed by the fact that I can’t find him on the ice.  Inconsistency is killing this team, turnovers are killing this team, being unable to convert on the power play is killing the team, hell its so bad that Jasper Fast started on the wing in Game Three.  What is a coach to do?  

My guess is to shake things up as best as you can.  Push things back somewhat to basics however the Rangers are kinda against it right now because Ovechkin has his team flying and they’ve bought in to what Barry Trotz is selling.  Not only that but Holtby is keeping his net clean along with the fact that the Rangers aren’t making him work.  They are doing it to themselves.  For a team that is a season removed from the Stanley Cup finals it’s time to wake up and smell the Sabrett water.  I can’t stress it enough, overlook Ovechkin now at your peril, he’s bought in, he’s bringing capital punishment.

The Garden Of Nightmares?

On a night when questions about the futures of some of the best athletes in college football were answer in the NFL first round draft, the Rangers opened the door to some questions of their own.

Did the layoff hurt them?  Did it help the Caps?  Is Lundqvist struggling to regain his focus?  Where is the offense?  What happened to the Rangers who won the President’s trophy?

It could be possible that the time off hurt the Rangers coming into this game.  Maybe because they had more time to relax they lost an edge compared to Washington who is still in the game rhythm.  Sometimes that time off tends to back fire because you get out of that typical pattern and there is an adjustment phase.  Plus the Caps are coming off an extremely emotional win in D.C. over the Islanders in a Game Seven that they played extremely well in.  Ovechkin seems to have found himself in the latter stages of that series and Holtby came on after starting slowly.

After Lundqvist spent most of the past couple of months getting back on the ice you have to wonder if he’s still trying to find that playoff form.  Granted he’s rested but that sharpness may not be there at times, although the Rangers seemed to have left him out to dry a couple of times and he bailed them out.  The game winning goal at the end of the third period though probably should have been stopped and you have to wonder if it was a matter of focus?  

Speaking of focus, the focus should be on the power play, a power play that was supposed to have improved at the trade deadline with the addition of Keith Yandle but has yet to really make anyone pay the price here in the playoffs.  Even Rick Nash seems to be missing the net, setting that seemed difficult for him to do during the regular season.  With Zucc out now it’s going to be even more important for the power play and the top line to come through, someone is going to have to step up and make a huge contribution.  Holtby is beatable, in the Game Seven he let through a crappy shot that should have never scored, there’s no reason the Rangers should not be driving the net and putting pucks on net and scoring.  This isn’t the team that won the President’s trophy, we all saw that in the Penguins series.  I know playoff hockey gets tight but these aren’t the same Rangers, they look like they are the Jr Rangers.  Maybe Coach can shake them after the loss, someone has to because if Washington gets on a roll they are going to be tough to stop.  

I know it’s only Game One but there are some alarms going off and they need to be going off.  Issues need to be addressed and the Rangers better get to them now or else they are going to find themselves 2-0 headed to Washington in a hurry.

Are We Really Happy To Make The Playoffs?

Sirius Xm’s NHL Network Radio was on in my car the day after the Rangers defeated the Pens 2-1 to move 2-1 in the series and Mike Ross was talking on Hockey This Morning from Ottawa.  I had never heard the show (bad me! No donut) but I caught a bit where Ross was talking about the San Jose Sharks and how they talk about a winning culture but they are one of the few teams who have never made the Stanley Cup Finals.  It’s an interesting thought.  In fact there are only 6 teams, SJ, Arizona, Nashville, Minnesota, Winnipeg and Columbus.  One could argue it’s because they are mostly expansion teams (Minnesota and Columbus entered in 2000, Winnipeg 1999, Nashville 1998) but San Jose and Arizona (the original Winnipeg Jets) have been in the league for over 20 years.  I don’t always believe it comes down to when the team was founded; Florida made the Cup Finals in 1995-1996, two years after joining the league.

Maybe it comes down to the mentality of not only the coaching staff but the players as well?  Ross said something about that as well, some teams are happy to make the playoffs.  We’ve gotten to the point where that is everything and winning the Cup is “gravy.”  I think this applies to other sports as well.

I get the sense that sports franchises look at fans and think that they just want to pull them along to get whatever they can out of them.  “Hey we’ll squeeze just enough out of this team to make the playoffs even though we know we won’t be able to get anywhere near a championship but we’ll make tv revenue and ticket sales and merchandise.”  Meanwhile they’ll string fans along thinking that the team MIGHT just have a chance to do something.  They’ll make just enough waves to think of next year they could sign someone to get over a hump and maybe get to a second round or even a third but there’s no development.  It’s just whatever to sustain that business model.

It’s a business model isn’t it?  I mean I’ve talked about this before but no one buys a sports franchise to lose money.  No one buys a team to dump money in and not get anything back.  Yeah teams have loyal fanbases that come to games and buy jerseys and watch on tv and collect stuff and tweet stuff but they want winners.  Or do they?  I guess it depends on the market.  For as many years as Toronto has gone without a Cup and a Stanley Cup Finals appearance you would think the entire organization would have been run out-of-town on the rails.  I still can’t believe it’s been 46 years since they’ve been in the Finals.  How does that work?  One of the most storied franchises in the history of the game.  46 years.  Does it just get to the point where people just don’t expect it anymore?

I can remember in the 90’s when the team had Doug Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk and Felix Potvin but ran into a Los Angeles Kings team headed to a date with destiny.  Of course, Gretzky clipped Gilmour with a high stick that Kerry Fraser missed in Game 6, but I’m not bitter or anything?  Can someone please tell Kerry Fraser that was a high stick?  I know I know, it’s The Great One.  That might have been the greatest Leaf team to never make the Finals.

But is it a winning culture or is it winning players?  Players that want to win one Cup or win many?  Players that want to win one championship or many?  I think you have to fill a team with players that have that mentality that they are going to do anything to win a Cup.  Then after they get that Cup they want another and it also has to be the same for the coach as well.  He can’t rest with one either.  He’s going to have to trade a guy even if he’s the face of the franchise if it means improving the team.  I think that’s what the winners realize and some of the midlevel teams miss.  Some of the others teams hang on too long to a guy who the fans love and try to squeeze something out of him, but end up wasting resources and losing out on winning because of it.  It’s a delicate line.  But that’s the difference between a Cup and Cups.  The salary cap has changed the face of the game, it used to be you never left a team, the days of Mario Lemieux and Jagr on the Pens for years is no more or those Canadiens teams that used to rule the NHL team aren’t going to happen anymore.  Free agency and salary caps have changed pro sports.

The guys in the locker room won’t be the same guys you had two years ago most of the time and many won’t be the same you had last year.  Gone from this year’s President’s Trophy winning New York Rangers who made the Stanley Cup Finals are Brian Boyle, Raphael Diaz, Derek Dorsett, David LeNeveu, John Moore, Benoit Pouliot, Brad Richards and Anton Stralman.  It’s amazing when you think about it.  That’s quite a bit of turnover from a team that went to Finals and is expected to push for another Cup.  But when you have a solid core, you can do things like that.  Plus you have great goaltending and a good coaching staff.  You keep it all together and back to the Cup you start heading.  It’s a mix of everything that you need, and maybe one day these six teams will put it together.