These conference finals have been great for hockey fans, but bad for my blood pressure. If you’ve still got a team in the running, how’s your hypertension?
While four fanbases are preparing to celebrate or fall into despair, a couple of teams have added new coaches. The “New Coach Sweepstakes” is like the playoffs, but for teams that didn’t do so well. San Jose has given the reigns of their unhappy roster to Peter DeBoer, which… is a decision. The Buffalo Sabres, meanwhile, have brought in BGSU alumnus and snappy dresser Dan Bylsma to coach Jack Eichel and Evander Kane. It’s no Crosby and Malkin, but it seems like a good challenge for the former Penguins coach.
But we’re not here for coach news. We’re here for playoff hockey, which leaves us hyperventilating and lacking in sleep.
Anaheim Ducks | 3 – 3 | Chicago Blackhawks
There’s nothing I can say here that will accurately describe this series. If you’ve missed any of the games this week, then I am truly sorry for your loss. Make sure you’re there for Game 7. In the meantime, I ramble about some of the stories within the series:
Can a Duck Get a Little Respect?: Anaheim has been a polarizing team for analysts and writers. You have a lot of folks (including the NHL Network) who picked them to win the Western Conference in their brackets. You have a lot of us who looked at past performance and the Ducks’ path to the Finals, and thought it was a bit premature to crown them as conference champs. They caught so much snark, they could’ve had Rodney Dangerfield as their mascot.
I still think the Ducks are somewhere in between those extremes. They’ve taken the Blackhawks — a team that’s made the conference finals three years straight, and that has two Stanley Cups in five seasons — to the brink. They have home ice for Game 7, and in a series this tight that may be the tipping point. Yet this is still a team that was gifted a fluff path to the conference finals by the NHL’s bracket system. This is a team that benefits from the refs easing up on penalty calls in the postseason. This is a team that, if Coach Q hadn’t shot himself in the foot in Game 3, might still have lost in six games.
But they’re still here, and Game 7 is in Anaheim. So I guess some respect is due. Maybe.
Duncan Keith Is
Tired Good: How tired does Keith look on this play? I mean, he’s got to be so tired with all the minutes he’s played. Like, tired enough to only get three assists in Game 6 and be named the game’s first star:
Watch Duncan Keith on the keep in and between the legs pass before Toews' goal in Game 5. He's unbelievable. https://t.co/PszAewxh32
— Jen LC (@RegressedPDO) May 28, 2015
The Real Story About Defense: Have we heard enough about how tired Chicago’s top-four defensemen must be? Is there a permutation of this story that hasn’t been trotted out and analyzed? Has anyone recognized that the horse has been dead for a while?
The real story should be about Kimmo Timonen, and the realization that the trade for him is a bust. Timonen will retire with a career to be proud of, but unless the ‘Hawks win the Cup, he’ll probably want to gloss over this season. Timonen has not been good. He looks every bit a player who spent most of the season injured, and is on the wrong side of 40. This is compounded by Anaheim’s aggressive style that targets defensemen. In Timonen, they’ve found the weakest link on the blue line.
A lot of voices started wondering why Timonen was still in the lineup. We know that Coach Q has a reputation for distrusting young players. We know that the only two blue-liners after Timonen were unseasoned. Both of them had a bad game against Anaheim this series — Rundblad in Game 1, Cumiskey in Game 2 — but they still seemed to at least be replacement-level players. Timonen was arguably below replacement-level.
Then it happened. When Game 6 started, Timonen was a healthy scratch. Neither Cumiskey nor Rundblad looked terrible, but neither did either of them get more than 8:00 of ice time. Which means we’ll probably hear more stories about tired defensemen. While we’re on the topic of Coach Q’s lineup decisions…
Let’s Talk About Game 3’s Lineup: I’ve already outlined the success the ‘Hawks have had in the postseason this decade, and all of that has come under the watchful mustache of Coach Q. The guy gets the benefit of the doubt, and things usually seem to work out in the end. But then he goes and does things like scratching Vermette and Teuvo for Game 3.
Coach Q already has a reputation for not giving new players a fair shake. Whether it’s a fair assessment or not, that’s his rep (hello, Kevin Hayes). He feeds that rep by doing things like benching: (a) the two-way center his GM traded for at the deadline, and (b) the Finnish Flash who only got his chance after Coach Q exhausted every other option. His reasoning is that he wanted “fresh legs,” a justification that rings more hollow than a rusty bell. His “fresh legs” were Versteeg and Nordstrom, two guys who’ve performed at replacement level of late — when they’ve played.
How did that work out?
After the ‘Hawks lost Game 3, everyone jumped on that bizarre lineup change, and rightly so. As the series has progressed, we’ve seen that both teams can roll four lines, and can cancel each other out pretty effectively. The line of Vermette-Sharp-Teuvo has been one of the most dangerous combinations in two ways: it lets Coach Q roll Kruger-Shaw-Desjardens as a fourth line, which can take heavy minutes against any opponent and annoy the piss out of them (and score game-winning goals, too). And Anaheim has no real answer for the blooming chemistry of the Vermette-Sharp-Teuvo line. They have to treat it like a first or second line. If they don’t, Vermette & Co. wreak havoc. If they do, that frees up either the Toews or the Kane line — neither of which is a good option.
Without Vermette and Teuvo, Chicago lost that offensive advantage. Shaw centering a line with Versteeg can be shut down by another bottom-six line, and Nordstrom is basically a warm body on the ice. In Game 3, he was the warm body out of position when Anaheim scored the game-winner. Coach Q gave the Ducks a one-game handicap, and Anaheim took it.
Prediction Tracker: I had the ‘Hawks in 6, which could’ve been true if Coach Q hadn’t defeated his own team in Game 3. I still think Chicago can win, but I’m also biased. It’s a crapshoot at this point. Flip a coin.
New York Rangers| 3 – 3 | Tampa Bay Lightning
I have no idea who either of these teams are any more. Tampa won a game through control, and the Rangers went goal-crazy to win two games. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if up is actually down.
Columbus East: In the past, I’ve joked about the New York Rangers being the eastern branch of the Columbus Blue Jackets, on account of how many key Rangers have been acquired from Columbus. The big acquisition may have been Rick Nash, but hindsight may say that the integral acquisition was actually Derick Brassard.
Brassard has generally shown up for the playoffs, but this series has been on another level. His hat trick in Game 6 gives him eight points in this series (four goals, four assists). He has sixteen points (nine goals, seven assists) in eighteen games these playoffs. For a team with the shutdown capabilities of the Rangers, and an opponent with the capabilities of the Lightning, Brassard’s scoring spree comes at a perfect time. If it continues, the Rangers will be difficult to beat.
What’s Wrong With [Insert Goalie Here]?: Last week we wondered what was wrong with Lundqvist. Now we want to know what’s wrong with Ben Bishop. We could realize that the nature of the playoffs means that you play the same team repeatedly, and you’re both in an arms race against each other. When a goalie has a bad night (or two), he adjusts. The defense in front of him adjusts. The coach adjusts the style of play. Likewise, teams adjust to a goalie that seems to have their number, and suddenly said goalie lets in a barrage of goals.
Both of these netminders can carry a team, so whoever can adjust at the right time will give his team the advantage (however slight that might be). Lundqvist has much more experience with this back-and-forth, so perhaps he has an edge. The way this series is going, however, I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of them score. Bishop did notch an assist in the Game 6 loss, so who knows?
Can I Get a Jack Adams?: If Alain Vigneault loses the Jack Adams Award this year, I’m calling bullshit. He’s faced three different teams with very different schemes, and three of the top-scoring forwards of this generation (Crosby, Ovechkin, Stamkos). He’s adjusted each time, and has his team on the brink of a second straight Stanley Cup appearance. If Bob Hartley wins it, the NHL Broadcasters Association needs a proctology exam to see if someone can find their heads.
Prediction Tracker: I picked the Lightning in seven. It’s now Game 7. I have no idea if I’ll be right. Flip a coin, and you’ll get just an accurate guess as mine.
Tonight is an off-night, followed by two Game 7s. If you’re a fan of any of the four remaining teams, make sure to take your blood pressure medication.