The funnest thing about this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs for me has been the amount, and magnitude, of fresh star power on display. Look at the goals and points leaders through nearly two rounds of games so far, and you’ll see predominantly names of players 25 years or younger — guys who are good now, and just emerging before your eyes and becoming great: Alexander Ovechkin (10 goals, 10 assists, 20 points), age 23; Sidney Crosby (10-8–18), 21; Evgeni Malkin (6-11–17), 22; Nicklas Backstrom (3-12–15), 21; Alexander Semin (6-8–14), 25; Jonathan Toews (4-6–10), 21; Patrick Kane (8-5–13), 20; Phil Kessel (6-4–10), 21; Eric Staal (9-3–12), 25; Ryan Getzlaf (3-13–16), turned 24 Sunday; Corey Perry (6-4–10), turns 24 this Saturday.
There’s a fresh, new elite pool of players in the NHL, and for many the 2008-09 playoffs have represented a coming-out party.
Capitals vs. Penguins: Losing your best defenseman at this critical point of the season is obviously not ideal for any team, and the Penguins certainly miss Sergei Gonchar. He’s the anchor of their power play and their best offensive blueliner. During the regular season, Pittsburgh’s resurgence coincided with, among other factors, his return to the lineup.
But the Penguins are perhaps better equipped than most teams to absorb a loss such as that, at least for short periods of time. They dressed two defensemen to fill Gonchar’s roster spot — Alex Goligoski and Phillipe Boucher — and used 11 forwards. Coach Dan Bylsma reasoned those two give the team something different that no one D-man can. Goligoski has picked up a lot of Gonchar’s minutes on the power play, while Boucher adds some physicality and grit. Goligoski is a proven playoff performer, evidenced by his 28 points during the AHL Calder Cup Playoffs last fall, a record for points by a defensman, in just his first season as a pro.
The Penguins’ best defenseman in this series, however, has been Rob Scuderi. The former Boston College standout had two assists during Pittsburgh’s Game 4 win Friday, and is a plus-5 over the past three games played mostly in Gonchar’s absence. He has also played rock solid defense, including a sequence in Game 4 when he blocked two point-blank shots with the shaft of his stick flush on the ice in a span of about 3 seconds, with only about 10 ticks left in the first period that preserved a 3-1 Pens lead. They went on to win 5-3.
• Speaking of Goligoski, he showed up to join the Penguins with a full playoff beard already in play, as his Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins were still involved in this year’s AHL postseason. In fact, the “Baby Penguins” will play the Hershey Bears — the Capitals’ AHL affiliate — in Game 7 of the East Division Final series tonight in Hershey, Pa. The winner takes on either the Worcester Sharks or the Providence Bruins, who hold a 3-2 series lead in the Atlantic Division Finals. On the other side of the bracket, the Manitoba Moose (mostly the Canucks’ affiliate) swept the Grand Rapids Griffins (Red Wings) in the North Division Finals, and the Milwaukee Admirals (Predators) and Houston Aeros (Wild) will meet in a Game 7 of the West Division Finals on Wednesday.
• The Penguins have been pretty tight-lipped about how extensive Gonchar’s injury is and when he might be back. For whatever it’s worth, the Russian skated with the Pens for the team’s optional practice this morning, and his status for Game 7 will be evaluated after seeing how his body responds to the session.
• Mike Green has been better, slightly, since being pretty much a non-factor in the first three games of the series, but the Capitals still need more from him. He still has just one goal in the playoffs after scoring 31 in the regular season, the most among all NHL defensemen. He hasn’t had more than three shots on goal in any game of this series, and his high for the postseason is four (Game 3 vs. the Rangers). He isn’t alone though, as Semin hadn’t scored a goal in the series before Monday night’s 5-4 overtime win for the Capitals, and Viktor Kozlov weighed in with his first two tallies of the series in Game 6 as well.
• The 38-year old Bill Guerin, practically given up for dead with the lowly Islanders this season, was a big part of the Penguins revitalization down the stretch, but he’s been an even more reliable contributor in the playoffs. He’s playing on Pittsburgh’s top line with Crosby and Chris Kunitz, another trade-deadline acquisition, and he has four goals and eight points in 12 games.
• This series is going to a seventh game courtesy of David Steckel’s overtime game-winner Monday night. I think the Capitals are going to win Wednesday, mostly because I just don’t quite trust Marc-Andre Fleury. He can be brilliant sometimes, like when he stopped 55 shots in Pittsburgh’s 4-3 triple-overtime win at Detroit in Game 5 of last year’s Stanley Cup Finals. But among all the goaltenders left in the playoffs, I simply believe he’s the most likely to let in a soft one at the wrong time to cost his team a game. Just a gut feeling.
• Fearless prediction: Capitals prevail in Game 7, 3-2 — probably in overtime, seeing as three of the last four games of this series have needed more than 60 minutes.
Bruins vs. Hurricanes: A lot of the attention in the upcoming Eastern Conference Finals will be focused on whichever team emerges from the Caps-Pens series, but don’t sleep on the Carolina Hurricanes, whom I believe will win Game 6 at home tonight and advance. The ‘Canes’ two best players are Eric Staal and Cam Ward, and they are playing at the height of their capabilities right now, and both have been there before.
Staal led all players with 19 assists and 28 points during the 2006 playoffs, when the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup, and his nine goals this year are one fewer than Ovechkin and Crosby atop the leaders board. He now has 18 career playoff goals, the most in Hurricanes/Whalers franchise history. Ward won the Conn Smythe Trophy in ’06 after grabbing the starting job in the first round and running with it.
• Jussi Jokinen had another big goal for Carolina in Game 4, scoring his third game-winner of the playoffs early in the third period, and his second in as many games. Hard to believe he was placed on waivers twice by the lowly Lightning before Carolina worked out a trade to acquire his services.
On the flip side, Jokinen will likely be a marked man for this incident in Game 5 on Sunday, after his slash felled Slovak giant Zdeno Chara with about half a minute left in the second period. I watched this clip several times, and it looked like a pretty light tap on the skate to me. Chara still led all Bruins with 24:34 of ice time, and didn’t miss a shift.
• Heading into tonight’s Game 6 in Raleigh, much of the talk of this series revolves around Scott Walker’s alleged sucker-punch of B’s blueliner Aaron Ward. Walker claims he was simply coming to the defense of a teammate, Matt Cullen, a key Carolina forward with a history of concussions, though he told the Raleigh News-Observer he “wasn’t proud” of the hit and seemed somewhat remorseful. Ward saw things differently of course, and called the punch a joke after this morning’s skate. Walker was fined $2,500 for the punch, but not suspended. Ward will apparently play in Game 6 tonight.
• The Bruins looked like the team that finished with the top record in the Eastern Conference in Game 5 in Boston on Sunday night, and if they can put together another effort like that tonight, they’ll have a good shot to force Game 7. But Game 6 will not be played in the friendly environs of TD Banknorth Garden, but at the RBC Center in Raleigh, where the fans have been rabid during the postseason again. The Hurricanes are 5-0 at home in the playoffs thus far, and I think their home crowd lifts them to a victory tonight. I have to give the Carolina fans credit, I’ve never been to that area of the country, and I somehow doubt there are mass legions of hockey fans walking the streets of Raleigh, but the ones who show up at the games — the ones you see and hear on TV — seem to be very knowledgeable, and they’re passionate about their team. They cheer at the appropriate moments, like after sustained periods of offensive pressure or after an effective penalty kill, not simply when their team scores a goal or the goalie makes a big save
• Fearless prediction: ‘Canes prevail tonight in Game 6, 4-2.
Canucks vs. Blackhawks: The Blackhawks are the first team to clinch a spot in the conference finals following their electrifying 7-5 win at home against Vancouver on Monday night — their deepest playoff run since battling the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Finals in 1995.
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane aren’t much for growing playoff beards yet — Toews’ month’s-worth of scruff looks more like sideburns that haven’t been trimmed in awhile, and Kane … well he’s still only 20, so for now it’s cool if he’s still rocking the peach fuzz. But the two combined to score five goals in Monday’s decisive tilt, and suddenly the kids are playing like seasoned veterans.
Kane apparently took exception to some comments from Canucks defenseman Willie Mitchell, who said Kane “is not a guy who is really going to hurt us even strength” after Kane scored two goals in Game 1:
“Anytime you get a wake-up call from old Willie Mitchell over there …” Kane said in the Hawks’ jubilant dressing room.
“I don’t know if you want to fire up a player like that throughout the series, but he decided to make some comments and kind of fired me up a bit. He said I couldn’t play 5-on-5. I think I had three goals 5-on-5 tonight.”
Why, oh why, would you want to say something like that?
• Nikolai Khabibulin doesn’t have the most overwhelming stats among goalies remaining in the postseason, but he’s been a rock in goal for the ‘Hawks and already has a Stanley Cup ring from his days with Tampa Bay in 2004. He stopped 33 shots Monday and yielded five goals, but had one of the best saves you’ll ever see in the second period. Moving side to side, he faces a shot that first deflects off a stick, then appears to skip like a stone off the ice, dramatically altering both the shot’s speed and trajectory (twice). He drops low to stop the shot, but suddenly it’s fluttering like a changeup toward the top right corner, until Khabibulin lunges, doing the splits, and with full extension flicks the wrist of his blocker hand and just barely gets enough of the puck to swat it away. I really wish I could have found video of this save, it was amazing and I’m sure my writing can’t nearly do it justice.
• The third period Monday was wildly entertaining, with six goals total being scored — including Kane’s seventh and eighth scores of the playoffs to secure the hat trick. His last tally was a true goal-scorer’s goal, as he dipped past Shane O’Brien, slipped the puck between the defenseman’s skate and stick, then fired a backhand laser across his body past Luongo on the blocker side for the final dagger.
• The United Center was apparently so loud Monday, Blackhawks players had difficulty hearing coach Joel Quenneville shout instructions during a break in play in the third period, and had to relay messages down the bench.
• Goaltender Roberto Luongo reportedly took the abrupt end to the Canucks’ promising season pretty hard.
• At the Chicago Tribune, the smack talk leading up to an anticipated renewal of an old Norris Division rivalry in the Western Conference Finals has already begun.
Red Wings vs. Ducks: The Red Wings are looking to finalize that conference finals meeting with a win over Anaheim tonight at the Honda Center. It sounds like they’ll get a boost with defenseman Brian Rafalski returning to the lineup, as well as Jonathan Ericsson.
This series seemed to take a turn early in Game 4, when Wings coach Mike Babcock juggled his lines a bit, putting Marian Hossa, Johan Franzen and Valtteri Filppula together on a unit, and Pavel Datsyuk, Tomas Holmstrom and Henrik Zetterberg together on what must be considered Detroit’s top line. The Wings have scored 10 goals in two games since.
• It’s hard to imagine a team only about 24 months removed from winning the Stanley Cup being referred to as “inexperienced,” but with five first-timers taking regular shifts — perhaps unaccustomed to the grind of playing in such a high-intensity game every other night — the Ducks have looked kind of tired. Coach Randy Carlyle told his players not to bother showing up for this morning’s optional skate unless they specifically wanted to. Nobody expected to play tonight did, according to the Orange County Register.
• With the Angels playing a home game against the Red Sox tonight, traffic in the Anaheim area is expected to be not fun.
• Fearless prediction: Ducks force game 7 with 4-3 win tonight, but the Red Wings advance with 4-1 win Thursday in Detroit.
Around the hockey world: Russia repeated as gold medalists at the IIHF World Championships in Switzerland this past weekend. Ilya Kovalchuk, who scored the game-winner in overtime of last year’s gold medal game, scored five goals, finished with 14 points and was named the tournament MVP. Sweden beat the U.S. 4-2 to claim the bronze medal.
• James Neal, the Dallas Stars’ promising rookie who led all first-year NHL players with 24 goals, had a very, very close call playing for Canada at the tournament, getting clipped in the eye by a follow-through of a Ladislav Nagy shot. He needed stitches on both his upper and lower eye lids, but it sounds like a contact lens might have prevented damage to his actual eyeball. Yikes!
• The Windsor Spitfires, ranked as one of the top teams in all of Canadian junior hockey all season, beat the Brampton Battalion in five games to claim the J. Ross Robertson Cup as Ontario Hockey League playoff champions. That series featured a number of future top-end NHL talent, including the Spits’ Taylor Hall (2010 draft eligible), Ryan Ellis (2009 eligible), Andrei Loktionov and Dale Mitchell (Maple Leafs), and the Battalion’s Matt Duchene, who may go as high as No. 4 this summer, Cody Hodgson (Canucks) and goaltender Thomas McCollum (Red Wings).
• The Calgary Hitmen had the best record in the Western Hockey League in the regular season, finishing with 122 points, but they ran into a buzzsaw in the WHL finals, as the Kelowna Rockets won the Ed Chynoweth Cup as playoff champs in six games. The Rockets, seeded third in the Western Conference entering the postseason, had four of the top five points men in the playoffs. Dallas Stars draft pick Jamie Benn led all players with 33 points, Cody Almond had 27, Flames prospect Mikael Backlund was fourth with 23 points and Tyler Myers (Sabres) tied with Hitmen center Kyle Bortis with 20. Joel Broda (Capitals) had 24 points for Calgary.
• The Drummondville Voltigeurs, the top team in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in the regular season (112 points) will play the Shawinigan Cataractes in Game 7 of that league’s championship series tonight. All seven of the top points scorers for the postseason belong to one of those two teams, led by Bruins prospect Yannick Riendeau’s 27 goals and 49 points in 18 games for Drummondville. Dany Masse and Chris DiDomenico (Maple Leafs) of the Voltiguers both have 35 points.
• The field for the Memorial Cup, Canada’s national championship, is nearly set. Windsor (OHL) and Kelowna (WHL) earned berths with their league titles. The winner of tonight’s Drummondville-Shawinigan matchup will advance and join the QMJHL’s Rimouski Oceanic, the tournament hosts. The tournament rotates between the three Canadian leagues every three years, and if the host team wins their respective league title, the runner up advances to the Memorial Cup.