Yesterday’s blog post was entitled “Red Wings, Flyers, Capitals Look to Get on the Board.” Well, none of them did, and thus we have the least interesting second round in hockey history. At this point, all we have is the Vancouver / Nashville series to provide us with any drama whatsoever from the NHL’s conference semifinals. Game 4 in that series is tonight at 8:30 p.m. ET, and is being televised live from Nashville on Versus in the U.S. The Canucks lead 2-1 of course, and will be looking for a knockdown blow tonight. All three games in the series have been decided by one goal, and two of those have gone to overtime. But instead of looking at this from a “half glass full” perspective and break down tonight’s game, I’d rather bitch about how empty our glasses are now that three of the four series have splattered to the pavement.
First, Washington getting swept is problematic. I hate to play the blame game or use words like “choke,” but losing all four games to a team that has been inferior for the last four years goes beyond just bad luck or a tough matchup. For the Capitals to not be able to grind out a single game shows that all their supporters’ remarks about the team growing into a playoff-type team were wrong. I’m as guilty as anyone, as I thought this was the year that the Capitals would walk through that wide open doorway that is the 2011 eastern conference. But alas, another year, another shocking exit. It’s not that the Caps lost the series to the Lightning; I think many people thought that was possible after seeing what Tampa Bay did to Pittsburgh in Games 5 through 7 in the first round. It’s that the Caps got swept. And maybe I saw it wrong, but it didn’t look like the fighting spirit was there in the last 8 minutes of last night’s eliminator. I understand frustration, and I understand trying to remain calm in the face of elimination, but maybe gripping a little too tight would have at least quieted today’s critics, who point to the Caps’ lack of effort as part of the problem. I think the Caps try as hard as most teams, but it can no longer be denied that they lack some components needed to even threaten for the Prince of Wales Trophy. I’ve killed Mike Green lately, just as I did all of last season, and it’s starting to feel old. But his position is one that needs upgrading badly. Washington clearly lacks that big time defenseman that we see progress every year in the playoffs, whether it be Chris Pronger, Nicklas Lidstrom, now Dan Boyle, Zdeno Chara, or any of the Blackhawks’ big three of Keith, Seabrook and Campbell. The Caps may have that guy in the making with John Carlson, but it’s too early to tell, and they need their best defenseman to be a bit older if they want to win at the present time. Which is of course to say, if they want to win a year from now.
While the Flyers do have that guy in Pronger, he’s been injured and was scratched for Game 3’s loss in Boston. Some people will point to the fact that Philly made this same 0-3 comeback on this same Boston team last year, but that had a different feel to it. First off, Philly was a road seed, and nobody expected anything from them. Second, they had Pronger. The guy’s playoff record is unmistakable, and his departure from a team doesn’t usually yield good results for that team. Since teaming up with Tampa Bay goaltender Dwayne Roloson to take the Oilers to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006, Edmonton has been in the toilet. Since leaving Anaheim, Cup winners in 2007, the Ducks can’t keep any opponent off the scoreboard. And now, his pseudo-departure from the Flyers has left the team without that aggressive, steadying force that almost led them to the Cup last season. I don’t see any reason to believe that a similar comeback is in the works in this series, but I also know that hockey, above all other sports, is to be taken one game at a time. Philly can’t come back from a 3-0 series deficit, but any team can come back from a 3-2 series, and it’s certainly possible that Philly can get it to 3-2. So while it’s not “over,” it certainly looks bad for the Flyers. It looks great for the Bruins, conversely, who can exorcise 2010’s demons and actually host the eastern conference finals against Tampa Bay.
And now, it seems we’ve come to it. The third team to make sure this was the worst second round in hockey history is none other than my Detroit Red Wings. Since I pointed out my mistake in picking Washington to win the east, I’m going to toot my horn here to try to get the score even close to even. I posted that this series would be a great one to watch, but that people would soon come to the realization that San Jose is just a little bit better of a hockey team than Detroit is. I also wrote prior to Game 3 that this series was unfolding exactly like last year’s, and that saw San Jose take a 3-0 series lead on the back of three one-goal victories. Well, here we are. It’s 3-0 San Jose, and all of the games have been one-goal wins — two of them in overtime. But oftentimes that’s the difference between good and great teams — the ability to collect wins via the extra session. San Jose has been remarkable thus far in the sudden death frames. They are 7-2 in these playoffs, but five of those seven wins have come in overtime. Also, they have not lost in overtime yet. So that’s 2-2-5 in 60 minute hockey games, and 5-0 in overtimes. Some may call this lucky, but we know from watching playoff hockey for years that it’s much more than luck. The Sharks have made their own breaks, and deserve to be back in the western conference finals for the second year in a row.
Detroit, on the other hand, has failed to retool with young impact players outside of Jimmy Howard, who has been fantastic in net against the Sharks. But the only young players up front for the Wings play extremely limited minutes, and that is based on their extremely limited talent. Drew Miller and Justin Abdelkader, both Michigan State Spartan alums, don’t seem to have developed any scoring threat that needs to be taken seriously. Darren Helm’s speed is appalling, but the Red Wings don’t seem to want to use him enough, despite his record of timely goals and his ceaseless checking. And Valtteri Filppula acts like a child from Barcelona who thinks he can just develop his idol’s brilliance through sheer osmosis. While the Messi reference may have gone over some heads, what I’m talking about are these ridiculous stick handling attempts that so clearly are meant to mimic the great Pavel Datsyuk, but Filppula possesses neither the softness nor quickness in his hands to beat a defender while still actually possessing the puck. It is laughable how much Filppula has changed his game in an effort to appear more like the Russian wizard, and it doesn’t help the team in any way. And as far as the back end goes, Detroit is still completely reliant on Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski to carry the bulk of the weight, as Jonathan Ericsson continues to lose track of opposing forwards and make the wrong passes that fail to clear the defensive zone. I’m not saying the Red Wings are a bad team, just that they have not developed much young talent recently, and it has shown for the past two seasons. This reliance on older players is juxtaposed with San Jose’s young players taking on huge roles in the team’s success. Joe Pavelski has been a Red Wing killer over the last two years, and last night Devin Setoguchi scored a hat trick in the 4-3 overtime win. Rookie Logan Couture has played a big part in San Jose’s success this year as well. The Red Wings young players have not been able to come close to matching their Shark counterparts, and that is mostly due to the fact that they cannot.
And so we’re left with one series to even remotely worry about. After tonight’s Game 4 in Nashville, the Bruins and Sharks will see if they can’t wrap up their sweeps tomorrow night. Here’s hoping tonight’s game is good, and the series is interesting, because it ain’t coming from anywhere else. The conference finals cannot be worse than this round, and therefore, we should look forward to them. Happy hockey everyone.