By Stu Hackel
In the dressing room at our regular Tuesday night skate, the guys were talking about the playoffs and which teams might do what, and it seemed to me that a case could be made for each of the 16 clubs winning their opening round series. That’s how even things looked going into the tournament. Judging from the first seven games, it sure does look that even, with five of the seven being one-goal decisions, another a de facto one-goal game with an empty-netter. Four of the seven went to overtime.
It’s ridiculously early to be thinking about this but, just as a point of reference, the record for most one-goal Stanley Cup playoff games in year was set in 2007, when 51 of 81 games were decided by a single goal. That’s followed by the 48 one-goal games out of 89 games last spring, the 46 out of 86 in 2001 and the 46 out of 83 in 2006.
Scores aside, in three of the games, the losing team didn’t always seem to play as if it was in the playoffs, didn’t ramp up its game when it needed to, which is what the postseason requires. The Canucks played a poor Game 1. The young Senators didn’t respond when the Rangers raised their level of play after John Tortorella’s time-out chat. (SI.com’s Sarah Kwak had these observations from Madison Square Garden, and the NHL on TSN gang had some thoughts on the Sens’ play in this video.) And in the latter part of the remarkable Penguins-Flyers opening game, Pittsburgh just stopped playing after an overwhelming first period — one of the most dominant 20 minutes of hockey imaginable — while the Flyers exhibited nothing at all until the puck dropped for the second period. Then they took over (and SI.com’s Michael Farber offered his observations on that Game 1).
In each case, the teams acted at times as if they weren’t focused on the fact that hockey is different at this time of year, that it wasn’t just another game in February. It’s something to keep an eye on for all these teams’ respective Game 2′s and beyond because once the second season begins, the pace quickens, the decisions must be faster, the physical intensity heightens, and more discipline is needed in all areas of play. Letting up for even a shift can be a team’s undoing. That’s what makes playoff hockey the best competition in pro sports.
The Presidents’ Trophy-winning Canucks didn’t just let up for a shift, they seemed to take the whole match off. They played as if they were unprepared for the Kings’ very basic, very simple approach to the game. There were long stretches when the Kings were able to dictate the terms of the action by getting the puck out of their zone without any fancy breakouts, shooting it into the Canucks’ zone, winning races and the one-on-one battles along the wall and behind the goal line, getting possession, and then getting the puck and bodies to the net. The Canucks took way too many penalties, and didn’t seem to compete with intelligence or purpose. As Jason Botchford of The Vancouver Province put it, “They were undisciplined, distracted, complaining, and consumed with verbally jousting with the Kings.”
When the legion of Canucks-bashers goes into its act, it cites those sins among the characteristics that the Vancouver club exhibits far too often. They are not an adored team beyond their fans. Someone in the Kings’ organization latched on to that and said via the club’s official Twitter account, “To everyone in Canada outside of BC, you’re welcome.” As Lisa Dillman reported in The Los Angles Times, the Kings later apologized. Hey, it’s the playoffs. If that’s the accepted rationale for Shea Weber thrusting Henrik Zetterberg’s head into the glass, it certainly extends to unsportsmanlike tweets.
Back to hockey, Roberto Luongo, who many forecast would be the Canucks’ weak link, played like anything but, keeping them in that game. But he did surrender a stoppable goal that put the Kings on the board, albeit on a 5-on-3.
Whether it was Luongo guessing wrong, as Kings analyst Jim Fox says in that video, or the goalie’s ongoing problem with pucks shot at his feet, is uncertain. Regardless, he bounced back and kept his outplayed team in the game with saves like this…
These two clubs usually play a compelling playoff series and this season they offer a real contrast between Vancouver’s powerful offense and a squad that coach Darryl Sutter has playing an even more defensive style than his predecessor, Terry Murray. ( This is unlike, say, the Blues-Sharks series in which the teams play pretty much the same style of big-bodied skaters pressuring the puck all over the ice with a reliance on the cycle game.) Game One went to L.A. — and that’s in large part because of the performances by the old Flyers duo of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, who really stood out. The fierce Richards played like the Bobby Clarke clone he’s always been when at his best, both with the puck and without. He started the play on the game-winner by Dustin Penner, grabbing the turnover, waiting a beat for his teammates to move in, then finding Carter, who made a terrific redirection pass off his skate.
Without the puck, Richards made a big hit late in the game on Alex Burrows.
As good as that hit was, perhaps the best in all of the first games was Dennis Seidenberg’s terrific check on Alex Ovechkin on Thursday night in Boston.
(That’s how it was televised back to Ovie’s home country, and it’s the clearest video on YouTube.)
Shifting to that series, the defending Cup champion Bruins got the only tally early in overtime on Thursday in a hard-hitting game that they dominated territorially. The Caps didn’t play poorly, they just seemed content to rely on their defensive posture and hope for an opportunistic goal, something they’re not getting from their struggling power play, which was 2-for-24 down the stretch and 0-2 in Game 1. The Bruins may not be a good opponent for that style. As has been the Caps’ tendency in far too many games, it means they were outshot by their foe, this time by a wide margin, 30-17, and not pushing the play against the Bruins, who have four good, aggressive lines. That’s a recipe for pinning yourself in your own end. Fortunately for Washington, rookie goalie Braden Holtby was quite good in keeping the game scoreless
A good part of the B’s game plan when they don’t have the puck is to focus on Ovie. Coach Claude Julien got his excellent shutdown fivesome on the ice against Ovechkin – Patrice Bergeron between Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin with Zdeno Chara and Seidenberg on defense. Ovie only managed one shot on goal during a late game power play (necessitating a great save by Tim Thomas, video here) and had another blocked. Coach Dale Hunter’s strategy was to team Ovechkin with more physical linemates, Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer, rather than his usual creative partners Nick Backstrom and Alexander Semin. That didn’t work too well, as his usual linemates would, theoretically at least, have the puck more and get it to him more, creating more chances.
Chris Kelly’s game-winner was a rocket shot that blew by Holtby.
The celebration of that goal got a bit out of control at the Gahden.
David Krejci is, reportedly, OK. Hey, it’s the playoffs.
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