- Can the Bruins repeat in 2011-12?
- Will the hunger be there during the regular season?
- Will the makeup of the team be the same?
|Is that styrofoam cup biodegradable, Jason?|
|“No, like I said, Woo peed on my rug.”|
All three home teams had different opportunities heading into last night’s games. All three failed to seize said opportunity.
The Los Angeles Kings, as expected, were unable to inflate their bursted bubble, and now find themselves heading back to San Jose on the brink of elimination after Thursday night’s 6-3 loss. San Jose took a 3-0 lead in the second period before LA kinda, sorta tried to come back, scoring twice before allowing another three to reopen the floodgates. This series doesn’t look like an instant classic, and I think it’s safe to say the Red Wings are watching tape of the Sharks.
Of course, there is still that matter of whether the Red Wings will even play the Sharks, given that top seed Vancouver doesn’t seem to want to place themselves into the conference semifinals too early. Chicago dominated the Canucks for the second game in a row, winning again by a five goal margin. The game was over early, as 20 minutes into the game the Hawks led 3-0 and Vancouver had already spent its timeout. It got to 5-0 by the second intermission, and that was the final score as Corey Crawford turned away all 36 shots he faced. Chicago did what Detroit could not do last year in its attempt to keep the Game 4 momentum rolling against the Sharks. At this moment, the Hawks trail the series 3-2, but lead in goal differential by 7.
The Blackhawks set the tone very early by taking a cross checking penalty when two players lit up an unsuspecting Daniel Sedin, who had his back turned but was within a stick’s swipe of Crawford. Sedin stayed down for a moment and winced in pain, but the Canucks were unable to convert on the power play and never again had any momentum in the game. The series now is starting to smell a lot more like an 0-3 comeback, but there are still two legs to go for the defending champs. One thing Vancouver will need to do at the United Center in Game 6 is assert themselves as the more physical team. If they allow their MVP candidate to be blasted from behind without any physical or scoreboard retaliation, they risk not only another loss and a tied series, but they also send the message that they are not willing to push back. This realization would only fuel Chicago’s fire, and allow the Hawks to feel free to blast away on the twins, knowing that there’s no risk of a power play goal and little risk of getting beat up.
Another thing the Canucks should think about, but won’t, is starting Cory Schneider in net for Game 6. Many people will call me an idiot for this, but let me explain why it’s worth a shot. First, if you win, it’s over. All is good. If you lose, there’s another game to play. It would be at home, and for all the marbles. There’s no way the Canucks would roll Luongo every game only to bench him for the final game. Additionally, Luongo is bad in the playoffs against Chicago, sporting a 7-10 record with a 3.56 GAA. He’s absolutely starting a Game 7, without question. His 12 year contract demands it. But the same isn’t true of Game 6. There can be a number of explanations, from “he needed rest” to “we wanted to try to ignite the team” to “Robbie’s day-to-day with a Chara mystery disease.” The truth can be that Vignault thought it was possible that Schneider gave the team a better chance to win on that night, but he doesn’t have to say that. Of course, there’s no way this will happen because if it doesn’t work and Luongo loses Game 7, Coach V faces criticism and Luongo feels slighted. It’s not hard to pick up on Luongo’s insecurity. It shows every time he whips his head around and does his mannerisms that scream “I know a camera is on me right now.” It also showed during the Olympics, when he won a gold medal despite playing with a blocker on each hand. We all know that when a front office signs a player to a 12 year deal, the coach has no choice but to roll the player out. So there’s really nothing more to say on the matter — Luongo will be in net for Game 6, and he better be good or he’ll put the franchise in a position to take five steps back.
The other game last night was of course the Boston / Montreal Game 4 at the Bell Centre. Boston fell behind three times only to send it to overtime and win it early in the extra frame, 5-4. The series seems extremely competitive and exciting, but I think Montreal blew their best chance and will find it hard to continue the trend of road victories in Game 5. There’s certainly no reason to think Montreal can’t win two of three from here on out, but Boston just looks to me like the more playoff-ready team, despite the results of both teams last year. If nothing else though, the pressure has shifted back to Boston, or at least is shared now, and that may prove to be liberating for the Habs. I don’t think that’s the case though, as Montreal looked pretty liberated last night right up until the goal that tied it at 4 late in the game. Hard to imagine they feel better going into Game 5 than they did last night when they outshot the B’s 15-8 in the opening period.
Three impressive road victories, to go with three missed opportunities for teams that may have needed wins.
Tonight’s NHL playoff schedule sees three games, and two of them are being played on the west coast. The only early game of the night is the pivotal Game 4 between Boston and Montreal. The home team has yet to win a game in this series, and the Bruins will be desperately trying to continue that trend as they look to even the series, take back home ice advantage, and talk their fans down from the ledge. Coming into the playoffs, the Bruins were a hot pick to win the eastern conference. This wasn’t really surprising to me, as most people won’t believe it from the #1 Caps until they see it, and the #2 Flyers were coming into the playoffs playing like someone told them the Stanley Cup was radioactive. While I didn’t take Boston as my favorite to win the east, I did pick them to lose the conference finals to Washington, so an opening round loss to Montreal would have to be classified as something I did not see coming. But in order for that to happen, I think Montreal needs this game tonight. If Boston is able to even it up and head home for two out of three, I don’t think Montreal has the depth and strength to swing the results back in their favor. From the start many people figured Boston was just too physical for Montreal’s undersized forwards, and perhaps it just took some time for this wearing down to show itself. Additionally, losing these two games at home would have to do a number on Montreal’s confidence and excitement. It would be tough for them to win Game 5 if they lose tonight, so expect the Habs to pull out all the stops. I view this series as dead even right now, which means whoever wins tonight should have the odds in their favor with regard to winning the series.
After the fourth game of that blood rivalry, we’ll get to see two late night (if you live in the eastern time zone like I do) games that should keep the intensity level going well into the morning. First, the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks will fight for their playoff lives again, this time in the unfriendly confines of Rogers Arena in Vancouver. A couple nights ago Chicago took Game 4 by a whopping score of 7-2, and the mood has drastically changed surrounding the series. Going into the game, even the Chicago supporters and media were saying there wasn’t much of a reason to hold out hope, but now trailing the series 3-1 you would think tonight was Game 7. And in many ways it might be more like Game 6.5 in fact. The consensus opinion is always that 3-0 series are over. But when it’s broken down to home games and momentum, once a 3-0 series becomes 3-1, most people figure that the team coming back only has to win the one road game to win the series. I’ve heard it said so many times that if a team comes from 3-0 to tie a series at 3-3, then they would be heavy favorites to win Game 7 based on momentum. Most people also figure that the team with its back against the wall won’t be eliminated at home (even though it happens all the time), and so it really comes down to that one needed road win.
I’ve got to say that while I understand the logic, and I’ve made it as recently as last season, I don’t think that tonight’s game is do or die for Vancouver. I liked their depth and superior two-way play coming into the series, and I’m not going to freak out and back off the pick now. This series reminds me a lot of one that we saw last year, and one that I frequently reference: Detroit at San Jose. We had the higher seed take a 3-0 series lead by winning each game by one goal. Then we had the lower seed score a ferocious five goal victory in Game 4, and cue the overreaction. I was guilty of claiming that Game 5 last year was essentially Game 7, but I have two rebuttals. First, I am a Red Wings fan, so I was feeling the electricity. Second, I wasn’t wrong. Sure, there’s no way of knowing that Detroit would have finished the deal in Games 6 and 7 had they gotten there, but in fact the winner of Game 5 did win the series. I think the winner of Game 5 tonight will be the Vancouver Canucks, but even if it isn’t, I still think that in the end the depth and overall quality of the Canucks will win out, especially given that they would still only need one win in two games. This Chicago team is still very talented at the top, it just isn’t nearly as deep, and that’s why they won’t be able to complete a 3-0 comeback on the Presidents’ Trophy holders.
The last game to start tonight is Game 4 between the visiting Sharks and the LA Kings. The most interesting part of this game will be to see how LA responds to losing a 4-0 lead at home in Game 3. If they are able to move on, I really don’t think there’s any reason to think that they are completely incapable of winning this series. I picked the Sharks in five games, but if I could have changed my pick after two games I would have. LA won Game 2 by a score of 4-0, then had a 4-0 lead in Game 3. It could have been argued, and probably was, that LA was the better team. And now here we are, wondering if a team playing against the Sharks can stay mentally sharp and get over a bad loss. Who would have ever thought?
There are very rarely goalie controversies within teams that hold series leads, but some people seem to have thought that Antti Niemi was on the chopping block after being pulled in Game 3’s win. It doesn’t appear to be so, as it has been widely reported today that Niemi will start Game 4, which should come as no surprise to anyone. He was pulled in Game 3 because they were down 4-0 and needed to do something. He’s back in net because without him the Sharks wouldn’t have won the Pacific Division, and you dance with the one you brought. Unless the one you brought gets consistently ugly. I think Niemi would have to have two more stinkers in a row before the Sharks would consider starting Antero Niittymaki. Happy Hockey everyone.
Last night the Boston Bruins showed some mettle and snapped a six game playoff losing streak by grabbing a 3-0 lead and holding on for a 4-2 victory in Game 3 at Montreal. The Bruins looked determined and got a good effort out of pretty much every player, and for once were able to solve Carey Price and play with a lead. However, at this point Game 4 is no less important for the Bruins, as they don’t want to head back to Boston down 3-1 given that they sit today down 2-1. They survived the first night locked in a room with the acid bath murderer, now they have a couple days to kill elsewhere in the asylum while they wait to go back into the room for Game 4. It will be interesting to see which team plays as if it shoulders all the pressure in Game 4, or if they both come out free and uninhibited by their own minds. On one hand, Boston could feel the pressure because they need the win to avoid the 3-1 hole, but on the other hand, Montreal could be devastated by letting this 2-0 lead slip away at home, and would be within their rights as humans to be worried about losing this boon that they earned. Either way, the scene should be a great one, and both coaches should do their best to move their guys past any “pressure” surrounding the game.
It’s now time for me to eat some crap. Prior to the regular season finale I suggested that the Red Wings shouldn’t worry about the 82nd game at Chicago because winning that game would force an undesirable matchup with the Phoenix Coyotes. ** Pause for laughter.** I’m sorry puckheads; I was way off. Being a fan of the Wings may have distorted my view of the matchup, but I don’t really think it did because I’ve improved my objectivity every year and I just thought this would be a progression from last year’s first round matchup. This whiff of mine wasn’t based so much on underestimating Detroit as it was totally overestimating Phoenix. The two reasons I liked the Coyotes were their physical forwards and their exceptional goaltending. Three games of allowing four goals a piece later and I look like an idiot, and Ilya Bryzgalov looks like a guy losing a lot of money come July 1. James Mirtle wrote a terrific piece on this topic in today’s Globe and Mail. Bryzgalov appears to be in with Tomas Vokoun as the only two big name goaltenders who can hit the UFA market this summer, and Bryzgalov has done himself no financial favors with this playoff showing. Before the trade deadline the talk seemed to be that Vokoun was the rental goalie that a contender could add to make a run at the Stanley Cup. But I never understood this thinking, as there were no teams other than possibly Philadelphia who could add Vokoun and make you say, “I’m pretty certain they are a better team now with Vokoun starting than the guy he’s replacing.” There was not one team. Look at the starting goalies on the playoff teams and even most of their backups. And if anyone seriously thought the Washington Capitals were even considering a move to bring Vokoun in, they weren’t thinking. Semyon Varlamov has pretty much the same playoff resume that Vokoun has, and Michal Neuvirth has done everything asked of him for the last three years. You can only ask a guy to chase Calder Cups for so long. And by the way, I’m not entirely sure that Tomas Vokoun is better than Washington’s third goalie, Braden Holtby, who has been outstanding when called upon this season in the absences of Varlamov and Neuvirth.
That situation aside, both Vokoun and Bryzgalov are now looking at a lot of closed doors and fewer suitors than they might have expected heading into this season. To make matters worse, they play for probably the worst NHL franchise and one that’s moving back to where they came from in 1996. Winnipeg’s final game was a home playoff loss to Detroit back then, and it looks like Game 4 might yield the exact same result in Phoenix’s last game in the NHL, as it has been widely reported that the franchise will be moving back to Winnipeg. Coincidentally, 1996 was also the year the Florida Panthers (Vokoun’s team, and “probably the worst NHL franchise”) made their surprising run through the eastern conference en route to getting swept in the Stanley Cup Finals by Colorado. That was 15 years ago, and neither franchise has done anything of note since. Those are the options for these two big name goalies to resign with. The other options are… Toronto, maybe? Tampa Bay if Roloson retires or Mike Smith doesn’t earn the Lightning’s trust for the fourth time? Detroit could have been an option, as many experts criticize the play of Jimmy Howard, but the Wings gave Howard a 2 year extension in February, so that option’s out. Even most of the bad teams either have big money goalies or young guys that they want to see about. So all of this adds up to the basic fact surrounding both Bryzgalov and Vokoun this summer: There are almost no opportunities to get away.
Tonight’s schedule is meager, but both games should be worth watching for different reasons. First, Vancouver looks to close out the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks. After the undercard, the Staples Center will be the 16th and final building to open its NHL playoff schedule this year when the Kings host the Sharks in a deadlocked series. I’ve already dedicated an entire entry to the Vancouver – Chicago series, and nothing that has happened so far has warranted any amendments (damn you again, Phoenix). Going into the playoffs I thought San Jose would make quick work of Los Angeles, and they still might, but it should be pretty tough going for the Sharks tonight as they leave the Shark Tank and go into a place that should be brimming with excitement at this big opportunity for the Kings. Traditionally I really like home teams in Game 3s, and don’t like the Sharks, but something has been telling me for a few months that this is a different Sharks team. They haven’t looked any different so far, as they barely escaped with Game 1 in overtime, and were throttled 4-0 in Game 2 at home. Tonight I’m going to go with history and logic over my irrational feeling that San Jose has somehow transcended their history and reputation. Besides, San Jose might not be able to conjure up desperation in a 1-1 series. Let’s wait and see if they fall behind 2-1, and then we can expect the talented and now arguably gritty Sharks to lock down and grab a road victory. I expect this series to be 2-2 heading back to the Shark Tank, but we’ll go with LA tonight.
Enjoy the closest thing to a day off in the NHL playoffs folks, because we’ve got 5 games on Wednesday’s schedule, and none of them are small (except Phoenix, thanks again…). Cheers!