Everything Else

We’re getting to the business end of the 1st round, and thankfully most of the bullshit and cock-holding has started to fade a bit. Some things will get decided this weekend, so it’s time to focus on what really matters. Here’s where we stand.

Toronto vs. Boston (2-2)

You hear less moaning and whining from Toronto now that Tampa won’t be waiting in the second round after spending a week filing their nails, as we all thought would happen. Still, you can easily see a scenario where the Leafs finally vanquish the Bruins, are overjoyed with their first series win since the Model-T was in fashion, and then get atom-smashed by the Jackets in four or five games. I’m almost kind of hoping this happens.

Anyway, this series has been as close as 2-2 would suggest and neither really finding anything to exploit on the other. The Bs really kicked around the Leafs in Game 2, and the Leafs kind of did in Game 4 without getting the result. Sometimes the other guys makes 38 saves.

For the most part, whether home or road, Patrice Bergeron has been matched up with John Tavares, and has gotten just this side the better. You wouldn’t expect that to change tonight in Boston. And much the same, the Matthews-Krejci matchup has been a standstill, though if you had to bet Matthews is the slightly better bet to pop off. But where this might get decided is the Bruins bottom-six has been getting devoured possession and chance-wise by Toronto’s, and if Nazem Kadri weren’t a galactic moron he’d be odds-on to make that count instead of his replacements. Still, that’s what I’d watch for the next two or three.

Avalanche vs. Flames (Avs 3-1)

This one doesn’t take much science. The Flames don’t have an answer for Nathan MacKinnon, even though by some miracle the goaltending has essentially been equal. It’s just that Mike Smith has faced 108 shots the past two games. Giordano and Brodie are getting blistered, and I can’t talk about what’s happening to Hamonic and Hanifin without asking any children in the room to leave.

On the other side, Sean Monahan hasn’t come close to answering what MacKinnon’s line is doing, and if that continues the Flames here are toast. Bill Peters, or Pill Beters if you prefer, at home tonight has to get Backlund out against MacK every chance he gets. Yes, Backlund had a nightmare end to Game 4, but he’s still one of the best checking centers in the league and there doesn’t seem to be much option. Still, no one on the Flames is carrying an xGF% over 45% except Tkachuk. That’s a big one, that’s a bad one.

Stars vs. Predators (tied 2-2)

If you haven’t watched this one, good for you. It’s been like watching the DMV. The Stars have turned into Trotz Ultra, and the Predators don’t really have the firepower to easily get through it. They play just enough defense to usually be ok, except when they don’t bother to show up as they did in Game 4. With Bishop and Rinne, and the way the Stars play this, the margins are awfully thin and this one could easily be decided by something hitting someone’s ass and going in. Just don’t cut time out for it, you’ve got better things to do.

Blues vs. Jets (Blues lead 3-2)

It’s rare you see a team try and out-Blues the Blues, but we live in strange times. The Jets, who I’m convinced have been trying to get Paul Maurice fired since November, had it in their hands last night. Up two goals at home and the Blues really doing nothing. But because they stopped playing defense long ago in that attempt to get their coach canned, they let them back into it. Also having an aging and even more-uncaring Byfuglien out there will lead to messes on the rug, evidenced by Oskar Sundqvist walking around him like he was roped off by caution tape for the equalizer last night. Jacob Trouba seems intent on costing himself money by the day, and the Jets are a mess.

This is still the Blues though, who also had the series in their hands and then kept tossing Colton Parayko at Mark Scheifele. This has truly been the debate of Mooseylvania, where each keeps pushing the the win back toward each other.

Hurricanes vs. Capitals (2-2)

It’s funny, but basically the Canes have kicked the crap out of the Capitals for most of this series and can’t seem to solve Holtby. only Game 4 was close in terms of possession or expected goals, and the Canes carried a 57% share in that one anyway. Again, as we’ve said with the Canes for years now, as fun as they are and as much right as they do, the lack of premier firepower is costing them. With it, and this one might already be over.

Still, it’s the former champs and you’d trust Braden Holtby more than Petr Mrazek, even though Mrazek has been good for months now. The Canes have to continue to dominate possession to make up for the snipers they don’t have, stay out of the box, and they can pull the upset. Oshie is going to be a big miss here, because his kind of finishing is the difference between these teams. Without him, that difference becomes smaller. And you know Aho is going to go off in one of these games.

Sharks vs. Knights (Vegas leads 3-2)

This one’s simple enough. When the Sharks get any saves whatsoever, they win. When they don’t, they don’t. They haven’t been outclassed or dominated for any stretch here other than maybe Game 3, but in the middle three games whatever chances the Knights got went in and the Sharks were always chasing. Jones played well last night, the Sharks won relatively easily, but that was also the case in Game 1 and then he went to the zoo for three games. There’s no margin for error now. Fleury has only been ok in this series, but he’s only had to be ok. Vlasic’s return also clearly makes a difference.

You’ll know by the 1st period on Sunday if this one’s over or not. If Jones hasn’t crapped out a chicken, the Sharks have every chance to get it back to Cali for a Game 7. If he has, pack up the cats.

Everything Else

These could be the most NHL playoff-iest of the NHL playoffs. One division winner, THE division winner, was kneecapped in four games. One is trailing 3-1. The Predators laid an egg big enough last night to feed a few villages. Even the Caps are somewhat lucky to be up 2-1 on the Canes, and were just trucked to the tune of managing all of two shots in the final 40 minutes. If you love an underdog, this is for you. Even the Islanders, though the higher-seed, were probably not the bookies’ favorite heading into that series. That’s what some people love about the NHL Playoffs, though it doesn’t happen as often as you’d think. Last year, the chalk pretty much won every first round series, and arguably every second round series. Even if the Caps getting by the Penguins was a surprise simply because of history and the connotations of the two in our heads, they were the higher seed.

But still, while we can debate whether the actual results are good or prove anything at all or if they render the regular season even more meaningless than we thought, the undercurrent here is that the two results in the books and one or two others on the cards have been a result of negative, boring-ass hockey. Barry Trotz teams are successful, they are not entertaining. The Nassau Coliseum (where they come to see ’em) might make it seem like they are, but you sat through enough Predators games in the day to know. I don’t expect or want Isles fans to care. The rest of us can, though.

The Jackets aren’t quite the same bore, as they at least turned their trap up to 11 and moved it up the ice, but it was still a trap. The results were stunning and enough to convince you the process was actually lively, but believe me it wasn’t. The Stars, giving the Preds everything they want and more, are possibly playing the most boring and conservative style still left, and will happily tell you so.

It’s sports, not television, and no team is under any obligation to do anything other than what’s best for their team. That’s all their fans care. But I can care, and I do, because I’m not invested thanks to whatever it is they do on Madison St. these days.

Which is why the best series to watch, and despite all the scary undertones for Hawks fans, has been the Avalanche’s utter destruction of the Flames the past two games. Oh sure, last night’s game went to OT, and if not for Phillip Grubauer’s spot-on Cristobal Huet ’09 impression, the Flames walk out of Denver with a tied series and home-ice back. They also gave up 52 shots, 45 at even-strength. That’s betting your ass kicked. More so when it’s the second straight game they’ve surrendered 50+ shots.

And the Avs have gone the opposite way of the Isles or Jackets. They’ve just turned everyone loose, seeing a kind of slow Calgary defense beyond the top pair. And they don’t have to worry about the top pair, because Nathan MacKinnon has ground their bones to make his bread all series. Whereas the Jackets didn’t bust over 25 shots at evens until Game 4, the Avs have done it the past three games and by some distance. They have a goalie playing well, so they’re not too concerned about needing him from time to time, and have bet that if they turn up the heat on every game, the Flames can’t hang. And they haven’t been able to.

They even took their defenseman out of college, Cale Makar, and figured by replacing Samuel Girard with him they could even play faster. He played 20 minutes last night. They don’t care about his age or experience, he just helps them do what they want to do.

After a season of a jump in offense, goals, and overall fun, it stood to reason there would be a group of coaches looking to snuff that out when things got important. It’s how this always goes, and that’s not exclusive to hockey. Look at the last Super Bowl for evidence of that.

Sure, it portends to a future of the Avs pounding on whatever process the Hawks come up with in the next few years, but that’s life. Perhaps the reputations that Trotz and Tortorella have to uphold play a part, whereas Jared Bednar doesn’t have one yet. But rare is the coach who shows up in the playoffs and says, “We can go faster.” Rare is the NHL coach who has no compunction about tossing a 20-year-old into the playoffs when he was in college last week, no matter how special the prospect he is.

Mostly, Bednar has not coached out of fear of what might happen to them, but out of expectation what could happen for them. That is refreshing, and the kind of thing that should be rewarded. I may hate Vegas, and I do, but that’s a speed of series we should probably all want to catch.

Until they run into Trotz, of course.

Everything Else

“How did it come to this?” Jon Cooper asked, as he removed his chaps and put on a robe, a little alarmed at the amount of scented massage oils on his hands and elsewhere. He looked out the window of his yacht, and no it wasn’t him wondering how he ended up with this curious yet staid housewife of Tampa, who not only wouldn’t leash him but didn’t even know what it was, but why he wasn’t working at the moment.

And that’s how most of Tampa will spend the next month or two, because God knows there’s nothing else to do there. How did the best team of the recent era go poof! before we even had time to get drunk? Move over, Leftovers, HBO is going to have a new show about a mysterious happening that no one can explain. Except the fallout will still be everyone living in Tampa or St. Pete, wondering how they got there and yet never figuring out a way to leave. Vibrant, this show will not be.

Let’s dispel the myths that will hound the Lightning through all of next year. That somehow dominating the league left them unprepared for games that meant anything. Hmmm…seems to me when you’re chasing a points and wins record, every game means something. You’re not just going through the motions. And seeing as how the last two relevant Hawks teams and the two Penguin champions basically took March off, this doesn’t hold much water (or in Cooper’s case, water-based lube). You’re professionals, almost everyone on that team was in last year’s conference final and a few before that, so to act as if they were unprepared for the playoffs is a stretch at best, an absolute falsehood at worst. It’s a foothold for the stupid.

They aren’t tough enough, that’s what every breathing-too-hard-after-three-stairs media person in Canada and in hockey will say. They lack grit. They lack heart. And Columbus doesn’t because Brandon Dubinsky yells a lot or something. Again, this is a Lightning team that’s been within no more than five wins of a Cup three times in the last five years. It must know something about advancing in the spring. Perhaps it forgot, as most residents of the area tend to with a lot of things. Or wish they could. Perhaps it’s contagious.

No, eventually, between planning his next swingers’ club outings to Tampa’s one cocktail lounge, Cooper will come to realize he just got out-coached, and his goalie barfed up a poltergeist or two. The Bolts still wanted to weave their pretty passing patterns through an amped-up and moved-up trap of Columbus. They wanted to Quenneville, when Quenneville hockey was shown to not work anymore three years ago. And it was especially silly with a battered and then absent Victor Hedman, and Mikhail Sergachev’s legs more and more covered by his own urine. Out and up was the order of the day, which is also what they tell you to be aware of when walking into Cooper’s office.

Even that doesn’t explain it all, not as much as Vasilevskiy’s .855 SV% for the series does. Whatever plan you have or the opponent has doesn’t matter much when your goalie looks like Gumby in the freezer. Pair that with Game 7 last year against the Caps, and suddenly there’s a lot of baggage in the young man’s head. Baggage he can’t do much about until next spring. Makes for a fun follow-up season, with no questions at every stop or anything.

In the end, it might be nothing more than the perfect storm of a bad week, a goalie slump, an injury or two, and every opponent getting hot. The thing with hockey is that it defies explanation a lot of the time, and trying to stab the smoke of reason it has is what lands organizations in bigger trouble than it already was.

The questions now of course will be do the Lightning panic and change things in search of the more and more nebulous “grit and heart and fire and passion and FAARRRRRTTTT?” Are players who are considered to have snuffed it on the big stage this past week all contenders to be moved along? Could there be something wrong with a group that put up the best regular season in recent memory? That’s a pretty tidy list, consisting only of Stamkos, Kucherov, Palat, Vasilevskiy, Sergachev, Point, Johnson, and Hedman. Should be easy to move all of them along, no?

Luckily the GM who was hailed a genius for trying to reconstruct the 2014 Rangers blue line isn’t around anymore, so he can’t be hurled overboard. Then again, it was his replacement who actively sought Jan Rutta, so there must be some kind of gas leak in the GM office at Amalie Arena that causes one to see a blue line as a place for surrealism. Seriously, Braydon Coburn, Rutta, and Ryan Callahan played playoff games in 2019. When you have to absolutely play at high speed, the first or second call probably shouldn’t go out to Dan Girardi or Ryan McDonagh. Maybe it’s not all that mysterious?

You know how this goes. Tampa could easily hold everything together, win next year at a canter, and then this flop will be cited as their rallying cry and inspiration among the champagne and confetti. It can be the chip on the shoulder everyone seems convinced you have to have to succeed in April and May. Hockey is nothing if not filled with people angry at figments, or their struggle to cope in the every day world.

But that will be just another Cup win. What the Lighting have done here is truly unique. Never happened before, in fact. A Cup win next spring just adds you to the list. Here you stand alone. It’s all yours. Everyone will remember this one. Which is just about the only thing memorable to happen to Tampa, ever. They say the Bucs won a Super Bowl once, after they got to play a team too stupid to change its signals to avoid detection from their old coach who just happened to be on the other sideline. All that got us were Hooters ads and some of the most awkward exchanges on Sportscenter ever seen with confused and impatient college kids. And that’s saying something. Still, I don’t believe it actually happened. I know it didn’t matter if it did.

No, this should go on all the signs. Next to Magic Mike and the reasons for not going to Rays games which consist only of, “Well, it’s over there.” (which would have made Tampa the perfect landing spot for the White Sox, come to think of it)

“Welcome to Tampa, the site of the only Presidents’ Trophy Winner to belch themselves inside-out in less than a week.” Now that’s something. They’ll come from miles to see that…or to avoid whichever machete-wielding neighbor escaped his basement dungeon that day in some podunk Florida town. Either or.

Goodnight, Tampa Bay Lightning. You are history. No, literally, you are. An accomplishment, a touchstone, a benchmark. No one else can say that this spring. Just make you take extra care to knock on Cooper’s door this summer. He’s got a lot to work out.

 

 

Everything Else

And now the Penguins have their own 2017 Predators series. We’re not alone.

Two years after their third Cup. Swept out. Looking out of ideas, out of energy, out of speed. Those who had been pillars of historic success simply nowhere to be found. A GM floundering and picking up slow, past-it d-men, holding onto methods that no longer apply. A former playoff chew-toy rising up and vanquishing those that hadn’t even considered them an adversary before. A raucous crowd behind them, swinging wildly between euphoria and disbelief that it’s finally happening (though let’s thank Isles fans for finally stealing European soccer songs instead of just college chants, a la Music City). A sense of of it truly being over.

Sound at all familiar? The difference here of course is where the Predators simply sped past the Hawks at every turn, the Islanders boa constrictor’d the Penguins from the off, and there wasn’t any air anywhere for them. You can’t really blame the Pens. After the past three years, it would take an utter miracle to find the energy to get through a Barry Trotz team. Especially when you’ve run into a Barry Trotz team the previous three seasons. At some point, everyone just says, “Fuck this, I’ve had enough.” Victory has defeated you, as they say.

It seems every defining team goes through this. The Hawks in ’17. The Kings missing the playoffs altogether after their second Cup and then being utterly destroyed by the Sharks a year later. The Wings being flattened by the same Predators in 2012. The endings are never clean or graceful. As Sick Boy put it, “At one point you’ve got it, and then you lose it and it’s gone forever.” In the NHL now, that moment where it switches doesn’t let you down gently. It goes upside your head with a mace.

Oh, I’m sure Penguins fans will scream until they wretch up an Iron City that as long as Crosby and Malkin are around they’re never out of it. We said the same thing around these parts, and look where it got us. If Sidney dyes his hair purple and tells the assembled press in September he’s really gotten into writing his own poetry, you’ll truly know where you’re headed. They’ll pout and stamp their feet about how Jim Rutherford will figure it out. The same Rutherford who signed Jack Johnson and traded for Erik Gudbranson and then wondered why they couldn’t bust a Trotz trap. And remember, that was all for a still useful Carl Hagelin, who just happens to still be playing. I’m sure Rutherford has a real master plan here. After all, he wasn’t responsible for all of the Canes playoffs-less decade. Just most of it.

Oh, they’ll tell themselves that Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad will put it together at The Confluence. That they just need to be in a winning atmosphere and suddenly they’ll blossom. Sure thing, that’s why the Panthers are so good. Maybe they can bring back Matt Cullen again, assuming they can find enough virgin’s blood between now and training camp to keep him upright. Signing centers over 40 is always such a keen strategy.

Next year will be the 54th straight that Olli Maatta is going to have a breakthrough. Or maybe next year is finally the one Justin Schultz can make it through without catching legionnaires  or having half of a construction site fall on him. Stranger things have happened, I suppose. Maybe if you try hard enough, Pens fans, you can close your eyes and focus and suddenly Marcus Pettersson will just become Elias.

Matt Murray is still young, they’ll tell themselves. Really had a surge in the second half of the year. All that’s true, except he just put up his second subpar playoff performance to go with his two good ones. Are they ready for another Marc-Andre Fleury roller coaster? They didn’t like the first one much. There are no answers here either.

No, realizations like Patric Hornqvist proving that if you’re an asshole power forward and you take the power forward away, you’re just an asshole, aren’t going to get any better and brighter when he’s 33. Come December the Pens will have their very own Milan Lucic! They must be so excited.

And there’s little salvation to be found. The only big contract coming off the books soon is Schultz’s, and that will mostly be insurance after he’s eaten by werewolves. This is entrenched. This is what you are. It was good enough not so long ago. It’s not now, and it  won’t be again. There are glories past to be celebrated, and you’ll have to hang on tight, because what comes next isn’t very fun. Ask us. We know. Keep the DVDs close.

So fare the well, Pittsburgh Penguins. Don’t worry, the NHL will keep shoving you in outdoor games and on national television. The name recognition doesn’t fade. But that only shines a brighter light on what isn’t there any longer. Believe us, we got here first. When all you want is to remain in the shadows so no one will notice you trying to white-knuckle through another Gudbranson shift, the masses will keep coming back to scoff and mock, and try to remember what it was like before, while decrying that they still have to watch and pay attention to you. And you’ll tell them you don’t want them to either, but NBC keeps bringing you back. Everyone is going to know your pain when all you want is to be left alone.

It’s a dark ride from here.

Everything Else

I know when the lights are brightest in the NHL that most analysts and media and players and coaches want to make it clear what makes their sport special. Or what they think makes this time of year special, even though no one has any idea. Or if they do they don’t want to tell anyone, for fear of…well, I haven’t any idea what they’re afraid of, but here we are. So the NARRATIVES flow like an open sewer downhill at this time. This spring, it seems that the amount of horseshit in every series has been especially amped up. Let’s keep it to this: the first night of the playoffs, during the first intermission of the Isles-Pens game, Liam McHugh set up professional hairpiece with a highlight of Brock Nelson’s power play goal and asked Eddie, “How did the Islanders score on the power play.” Eddie’s answer, “Confidence.” Jesus fucking christ.

So let’s start with the biggest story of the first round, the Lightning’s capitulation to Columbus. Last year, the story that everyone wanted to push was that the Caps intimidated the Lightning. That the Bolts were soft. They weren’t up for this kind of time of year, even though a great majority of this team has been to a couple conference finals and a Stanley Cup Final. Perhaps the main reason was that Braden Holtby was putting up a back-t0-back shutouts in Game 6 and 7 and John Cooper only used one puck-mover to bust through a Trotz trap. So those whispers and headlines were always bubbling underneath the surface waiting to be cracked open by anyone who didn’t want to bother to explain what was happening to Tampa should they not roll to victory.

Which apparently spread to the Lightning themselves, because there’s no logical reason that after just one loss, Nikita Kucherov and others should be running around doing a Tom Wilson impression instead of doing what they did all year, which is just score all the time. Now the Lightning are playing the wrong game.

And even then, really the only thing you need to know about this series are two numbers: .866 and .940. That’s Vasilevskiy’s and Bobrovsky’s save-percentages this series. Everything else is pretty much even, if not tilted to to the Bolts a bit. Vas is letting everything in. There you go. It doesn’t have to mean more than that. It doesn’t have to be more than that. One goalie is making stops.

Meanwhile, every series save the Flames and Avalanche and the Caps and Hurricanes has descended into a cesspool. The hockey has been pretty horrific to watch, and every goddamn whistle becomes a dick-measuring contest. We like our playoff hockey with passion and a bit of bile but this has gone beyond even a level of stupidity. Which is how you end up with Nazem Kadri, already a shithead, trying to be an axe-murderer. Or analysts trying to tell you how important Ryan Reaves is.

It’s been accented because there haven’t been that many close games. And when playoff games have obvious winners in the 3rd period, there seems to be some tenet of hockey written by someone who struggled to breathe that you have to act like a petulant child. That you have to “send a message,” which doesn’t amount more than to losing like an asshole. Every other sport, if you were to clobber guys in the lane in the NBA in the 4th quarter or start throwing at guys heads in the 8th inning of a loss, you’d be mocked endlessly and probably suspended. In hockey it’s the thing to do. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, as hockey is filled with a bunch of rich white kids who tend not to react well when things don’t go their way. Taking it on the chin isn’t in the vocabulary.

This kind of thing tends to dry up as we get to the business end of series and moving on or going home gets awfully clear in the viewfinder. We can only hope. I already watch Monday Night Raw for my fill of bad booking.

 

Everything Else

vs.

Schedule

Game 1 in DC tonight, 6:3o

Game 2 in DC Saturday, 2pm

Game 3 in Carolina Monday, 6pm

Game 4 in Carolina Thursday, 6pm

There’s a chance that being everyone’s bandwagon team, the Carolina Hurricanes could get kind of annoying pretty soon. I’ll never find them that way, because of Our Dear Sweet Boy, but you can see where plenty will. And rarely, outside of Vegas last year, does the hot new thing that everyone likes with all the fun stuff ever go very far. And the Caps are just the the kind of tried and trusted yet boring-ass team that snuffs this kind of thing out with no mirth whatsoever. The Authority always wins Let’s see if we can find a way to an upset.

Goalies: The only longer shot to leading a revival than Jordan Binnington had to be Curtis McElhinney, who is 35 and already proven to be an NHL journeyman. Then he and Petr Mrazek put up a ridiculous February, the Canes got hot, and here we are. But McElhinney has only been so-so since, and was actually pretty bad in March as the Canes made the playoff chase harder than it needed to be. So another unlikely revival came to save the day, as Mrazek has been on fire for the whole of the spring, and he has taken the job and will start tonight. But it’s still Petr Mrazek, who was basically woeful for three years before this. The Canes certainly limit what their goalies have to do, which is good, because other than recency you’d be awfully afraid of Mrazek having to do that much.

Meanwhile, Braden Holtby basically did what he did last year, which is kind of just be ok. His numbers are pretty much on-line with what he did last season, and then of course he turned it on in the playoffs, took his job back after a game and a half, and ended covered in beer. That’s probably been his plan all along. So while he might not looked all that good in the season, his playoff record is what it is. He’ll take some beating, because history says he’s going to turn back to Vezina-level now.

Defense: You won’t find a better defense than Carolina’s, and it’s getting Calvin de Haan back. It includes the best d-man who’s never considered among the top tier but the metrics say he is in Dougie Hamilton. It’s got another premier puck-mover in Justin Faulk. It’s got two guys who dominated the dungeon shifts before Dougie’s arrival in Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin.

And then there’s Maude (TVR).

It can do anything, it does everything, and is the main reason why the Canes remain one of the more dominant even-strength possession teams around. When it comes to possession and expected-goals, the Canes are the best.

The Caps will be hamstrung by Michal Kempny being injured, which is a sentence that also hurts to write. Still. He provided a platform for John Carlson to pull something of a cowboy act, and now that appears to fall to Nick Jensen, who was a Red Wing d-man so you know he sucks. Orlov and Niskanen still do the mine-sweeping here, and if they don’t get the pop they got from Carlson this spring as they did last (and all season) then they lack a little punch from the back. Or if they’re getting buried because Kempny isn’t around to spring Carlson. And there’s still a belief that Brooks Orpik will cause damage at some point. Against a team loaded with fast, nippy forwards would seem the prime time for that.

Forwards: Once again, you’ve got a classic tale of Star Power vs. The Collective. Which is what last year’s Final was supposedly. How’d that go?

It’s something of a disservice to Sebastien Aho, who is a genuine star or will be one day very soon. But he is not Nicklas Backstrom, at least not yet even though he outscored him this year. And there’s our Darling Finnish Prince, but of course he is not Alex Ovechkin. Justin Williams is a fine leader and gritty gutty guy, but the Caps answer with TJ Oshie.

The Canes do have some depth, as Nino Neiderreiter showed up, was nearly a point-per-game, and was the perfect Cane which everyone except for Minnesota predicted. McGinn, Foegle, Martinook have chipped in with big goals as the Canes locked down a playoff spot. Still, Jordan Staal is a #3 center miscast as a #2 here, and you can see where this could be a problem.

Because not only do the Caps have stars, not only do they have pedigree, but they also have depth. And where the Canes are trying to convince you Staal can score, the Caps have Kuznetsov who does. The Caps boast seven 20-goal scorers. The Canes have four. Eller and Burakovsky are always lurking down at the bottom of the lineup, along with Brett Connolly. Carl Hagelin has been a playoff hero before. and he’s down there too.

Prediction: This is something of a classic matchup, where one team’s strength goes right up against another’s. The Canes have the deepest defense in the East, possibly in the entire playoffs. The Caps have forwards for days. So it would be easy to think this is where the series is decided.

Except the Caps aren’t weak defensively. Or more to the point, they have good players on defense. But this year, they’ve given up more chances than before, and have one of the worst expected-goals against in the league. They were seriously only a little better than the Hawks in that category. But the Caps do what they always do, which is outshoot their problems, with a league-leading 10.0 SH% at evens. Do the Canes have enough scoring to make that weaker defensive play hurt against Washington while surviving the firing squad at the other end? With Petr Mrazek? You can almost make the case. Just not quite.

Caps in seven. 

Everything Else

Last year, we attempted to sum up every playoff night with like, real analysis. But let’s be real, you can’t watch five games at once. It’s hard enough to watch three games in a night. So this year, we’re just going to give you the quickest possible thoughts on the previous night’s happenings. 

Blue Jackets vs. Lightning Game 1: What the fuck?

Penguins vs. Islanders Game 1: What the fuck ever.

Blues vs. Jets Game 1: Fuck, but also fuck the Jets.

Dallas vs. Nashville Game 1: Fuckin’ Stars!

Knights vs. Sharks Game 1: Fuckin’ Sharks!

That’s all.

Everything Else

In the end, what everyone hated or loved about the Vegas Golden Knights is that they were a mirror. When you watched them, you saw everything that this league is, good and bad.

On the bad side, the Knights exhibited for all that basically, no one knows shit and that it can be totally random. While those in the media were so quick to dub George “Tiger Punch” McPhee a genius–this being the same guy who hired Dale Hunter and Adam Oates in Washington, thus ruining a good three to four years of Alex Ovechkin’s prime–all he did was take advantage of a system that wouldn’t allow GMs to keep all the talent they’d drafted. And that system was in place because too many teams were too dumb to acquire a lot of talent. Sure, he was able to grift a couple GMs who had gone to cottage to huff white-out a bit early (hi Dale! Hi Bob! Say, why did all these guys used to work for the Hawks?), but it wasn’t he who conjured a .928 season out of Marc-Andre Fleury or a 25 SH% out of Wild Bill Karlsson (and we here eagerly await Karlsson’s 22-goal season next year with only 648 articles entitled “What’s Wrong With William Karlsson,” which of course no one will say the answer is “He’s William Karlsson, for fuck’s sake).

No, when you watched the Knights it became clear just how random the sport is. Find a goalie or two that spasm a .925+ SV% for no reason other than the gods enjoy a good chuckle now and then and a couple guys to shoot the lights out and you’re halfway there. Throw in some spice of being in a division where every goddamn team is built to be “tough to play against” (i.e. dumb and slow) and just skate by them and then anything can happen. A few bounces, a few one-goal wins, and suddenly you’re the most magical team this side of…. well, any MLS expansion team.

And if you can garnish it all with the fact that apparently no NHL player had ever heard of Las Vegas before, and every opponent showed up to your arena looking like Mia Wallace after she got into Vincent’s coat pocket and well, the sky’s the goddamn limit, isn’t it?

Watch the Knights long enough, and unless you were a fan of a certain few teams, you could see just how stupid your team was run. The Knights ran over the Kings, who are on their fourth consecutive season of trying to ice a rec rugby team, and then they could tell everyone they play rugby within the first three minutes of any conversation because that’s apparently what rugby players do in this country (and if you ever meet a rugby playing vegan, run for the hills, friendo). They got to show the Sharks just how old they are, as Pete DeBoer replaced their only young d-man with whatever wasn’t falling off of Paul Martin, and whatever was.

Then came the Jets, who actually rolled them for a fair amount but Fleury snorted an infinity stone or something and everyone chalked it up to “magic.” Of course, a series later and everything looked exactly as it did against the Jets except Fleury was doing a reasonable impression of muppet running an Iron Man (i.e. being Marc-Andre Fleury circa 2010-2016) and suddenly they’re getting their magical, Cinderella ass paddled (insert your Cinderella pansexual fanfic here).

And yes, even the architect of all this, Gerard Gallant, had his brain drip out his ear in the final round. Anyone who’s surprised by this must’ve never watched him play for the Red Wings, where during his 11-year career he actually touched the puck 12 times. But hey, this is the NHL, if you’ve got a leathered up face, were a grinder once upon a time, and have some sort of weird nickname, the press will slather you in their saliva. So there’s Jack Adams winner-elect putting out Ryan Reaves, not once but twice, as the extra-attacker when down a goal. Why? Because he had managed to rhino-hump his way into two goals into two games. I’m sure James Neal didn’t consider Marty McSorley-ing his coach at all during this stretch. He scratched David Perron, who granted really does suck but did manage to put up 66 points this year in a series where no one but the top line could do anything other than stare at the lights. And this is the best coach during the season. #EndHockey.

All of it led the hockey world declaring Vegas as the best new hockey market, and you’re not really a hockey town until Pierre McGuire declares “I haven’t heard a building this loud all spring…” and then NBC edits out the part where he concludes that sentence with, “…except for Mississauga last week when they were playing Sudbury!” Give the ash-white Canadian media three days anywhere where it’s warm and has running water, because wherever they’re from assuredly doesn’t, and suddenly you’re Hockey Mecca.

While the pregame antics were cute, much like every other Vegas act it’s going to feel camp real soon. Especially when this team has 92 points next year at best and Fleury’s SV% is .907. Sure, Vegas is going to be a free agent destination given it’s lack of state income tax and the climate. How’s that working out for the Panthers? Your glorious pre-game Knight stabbing some dude waving a flag (how tough!) is going to look a little different when it’s in front of 9,000 Flames fans and that’s it.

So thank you, Knights, for showing everyone what we all knew about the league and hockey all along. It doesn’t make sense, there is no system to it, and just about anything can happen. And it’s going to happen to you soon, like trading Karlsson for a 2nd round pick at best in two years.

Everything Else

 vs. 

SCHEDULE: Game 1 Tonight, Game 2 Wednesday, Game 3 Saturday, Game 4 Monday

When it’s been 90 degrees for a few days you’re probably not thinking about hockey. You’re even less likely to be thinking about hockey between these two teams. This was not the Final predicted, and in the NHL’s supreme marketing strategy it’s going to put it’s showpiece curtain-raiser up the night after LeBron had THAT Game 7 and Game 7 between the two best teams in that league tonight. Good thinking. Anyway, this series has a chance to be good, and it also has a chance to be bad, because predicting anything with these two the past two rounds has been folly. Let’s get through it and then get about our holiday.

Goalies: He’ll be the least talked about goalie in this series, but Braden Holtby certainly has nothing to apologize for. He’s carrying a .928 throughout the playoffs since he came in on his white horse against the Jackets. While the Caps certainly played it back at times against Pittsburgh especially and the Lightning at times, he didn’t give the Bolts much at even-strength at all. Other than last year’s minor slip against the Penguins, Holtby has been a playoff stud for pretty much his whole career. Sure, it’s his first trip here, but it was his first trip to the thrid round and that didn’t seem to phase him much.

Then again, it might not matter. Nothing the Caps do might matter if Marc-Andre Fleury is going to continue to look like something from North Of The Wall in net. The numbers at this point are stupid, and while a five-game win looks like a pounding, in point of fact the only reason the Knights got out of that series was Fleury and the top line. Fleury isn’t being shielded in any form like Holtby has, and it hasn’t mattered. Ok, sure, Fleury will be seeing an inspired Ovechkin, but he just turned away the Jets who have at least three lines of scoring. If Fleury keeps this up, you really don’t have to dig much farther than that. If Holtby continues his form, you might see a lot of 2-1s in this series.

Defense: On paper, this is a pretty big advantage for the Caps. And they’ve seen what the Knights are modeled after in the Penguins and found a method for keeping them bottled, which was keep them in the neutral zone. The top four has more mobility than any of the teams Vegas has seen so far, and more discipline to go with it. Sure, Brooks Orpik is going to need an oxygen tank on the bench, but he’s been well-spotted and it hasn’t cost the Caps much and it’s unlikely to now. Carlson and Orlov are a threat to help get play the other way when the Knights get stretched as well. The stage might jar them, the script won’t.

I’ve written it four times but they got here with this blue line so I guess I have to stop. Still, I’d only want Nate Schmidt on my team but again, the Caps don’t have the firepower the Jets do and they just beat them. That said, the Jets carried a lot of that series and even though the Knights do their best to take their defensemen out of the equation by just asking them to get the puck out, the Caps won’t be as caught off-guard by it. The Caps do have enough speed to expose McNabb and Engelland and whatever other goofus is back there. But then so did Winnipeg. It doesn’t have to make sense because it’s hockey. That’s what “Hockey Is For Everyone” actually means, that every player will get his day because the sport is basically random.

Forwards: I’m sure if Ovechkin doesn’t get a goal in every game the stories will be about how he froze in his first Final, but he and his line have been excellent. Fleury kept Scheifele and Wheeler on a leash in the last round, but one thinks if Ovie sees some of the same chances He might score a couple more. Backstrom and Oshie on the second line and Eller on the third actually give the Caps slightly more depth, based on what’s been going on lately. But with the way Fleury is going, if Kuznetsov and Ovie don’t score and probably score a fair amount, they’re going to be up against it. And sadly, if this series is going to get national attention away from the Warriors third title in four years, it’ll probably be because Tom Wilson did something assholic.

While the going story about the Knights is how they’re “All For One” and all that, really they’ve been the top line and grunts for two rounds now. Marchessault, Reilly, and Karlsson have kicked everyone’s skull to dust to the tune of a near 60% attempts-share, and everyone else has kind of been backing up. Sure, Tuch, Haula, and Neal have chipped in goals here and there, but the process has been in efficient. Sure, the fourth line has been good as well, but the Caps have one as well and I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Ryan Reaves is going to be a difference maker in this series without renouncing everything I am as a human being. If the Knights’ main trio doesn’t remain dominant, Fleury might not even save them. The Caps top pairing has more mobility and smarts than they’ve seen in the playoffs, as Trouba and Byfuglein (in his own end) were both awful in the last round. Chances are Niskanen and Orlov won’t be, and Carlson and Kempny aren’t likely to be either.

Prediction: You’d feel pretty stupid going against Fleury now. Continuing his .947 means they win, plain and simple. Holtby has been really good too, and the Caps have kept pulling rabbits out of their hats. The Lightning were a better team than the Knights. The Penguins certainly had more pedigree. Feels like this one goes the route but again….947. Knights in 7. 

Everything Else

Saying goodbye to the Tampa Bay Lightning is a lot like saying goodbye to bread. Sure, they were necessary. Sure, they had flashes of being really good and noticeable. And yet it felt like everything went on around them. It’s like they were the dining room table at one of their coach’s key parties/12-hour orgies. It’s going to be used as a prop at times, it’s going to have important tools placed on it, but it’s not really where the focus is going to be.

Before the season, it was generally agreed the Lightning were the best team in the league. And really, they were. Somehow they were able to overcome the fact that Dan Girardi turned into amassed lizards like five years ago, Anton Stralman has looked like confused villain #3 in any Bond film since last season, and Braydon Coburn still has windburn from the 2010 Final. They blended kids and rookies into their already stacked lineup seamlessly, the way Jon Cooper blends peanut butter and candle wax seamlessly into his Thursday nights.

And yet pretty much from the first month on, everyone tried to find a different team to claim the favorite. We all wavered from Boston (hilarious) to Nashville to Winnipeg to Vegas to even saying fuck it the Penguins are just going to win again BECAUSE. The Lightning remained as steadfast as ever, they just couldn’t get anyone to care other than the retirees who populate the place and the extras from Magic Mike who no one told filming was over. They were the reserve prom date who had to wait for everyone else’s delusions of grandeur to pass.

As good as this team is, did it ever have any swagger? Or was that sucked up all by Cooper as he sauntered into a USF bar on a Tuesday? Did they ever look like they believed they could beat anyone and everyone? Was there ever an assuredness? It sure never seemed like it. There was no style or panache to it. It was just results. It was basically hockey Pearl Jam.

It looked like they might have captured it getting out of their division in the playoffs. But that should have been the first clue. That division. 17-5-2 against everyone who wasn’t the Bruins, which contained five teams that looked like something an untrained puppy left to its own devices for hours had gone through. Still, it should have been more.

And then the Caps showed up and said, “Hey wait a fucking minute, why is everyone out-thinking themselves here? Girardi and Coburn suck and we’re going to show everyone.” And they did. By Game 7 both looked like David Cross’ burn victim from Mr. Show. Sometimes it is as simple as it looks.

You know what might have helped? If Steven Stamkos could have managed an even-strength goal at any point in the last series, or more than one in the whole playoffs. Still, you have to say it goes nicely with his no goals in the ’15 Final at all. Quite the set. Hell of a Rick Nash impression you’ve got there, Stammer. Guess you weren’t alone. Nikita Kucherov couldn’t manage any either. So nice how you’re keeping each other company. #LinematesTilWeDie

They weren’t alone in Chateau Where The Fuck Were You? Victor Hedman spent all but one game against the Caps making love to a lawn mower, which didn’t exactly counteract the performance art for the blind that Girardi, Stralman, and Coburn were putting forth. The only d-man who looked like he wanted it was Mikhail Sergachev, and he could barely find 10 minutes per night while his coach was scrolling through Early2BedShop.com on his phone. I guess if you’re traded for Jonathan Drouin you can’t be surprised if they still treat you like Jonathan Drouin out of habit. You can’t expect a hockey coach to notice you’re a different guy.

But it’s ok, Steve Yzerman is a genius because he’s the first GM to figure out that Florida’s lack of an income tax could be like, an advantage? We’ll ignore he’s the reason that his blue line that was half-comprised by Tweedle Dumb, Tweedle Slow, and Tweedle Old was all his doing. And hey, they’re all back next year! Only J.T. Miller needs to be re-upped, just as soon as they can locate him with his other linemates after the conference final. They’re all up after that, which is good because Kucherov, Point, and Gourde are going to suck up the rest. Dance that dance, Stevie Y. Everyone will still love you. (And frankly, the fact that he could see taking the Detroit job was an utterly hopeless task alone makes him smarter than 80% of the GMs out there).

So so long, Tampa. No one has made being this good this meh since…well who knows, because all those teams are forgotten now. Much like the whole area. Miami at least has nightlife. Orlando has Disney. Jacksonville has crack. Tampa has…hang on I’ll get this. Probably not a good sign when the only movie that takes place there, the aforementioned Magic Mike, is all about how everyone wants to get the fuck out of there, huh?