Thoughts on the First Round . . .and Kate
Often as have been our bows to the hockey gods – still can’t straighten up in fact, after last spring’s run by the Golden Knights–we still wouldn’t call just 19 Cup winners out of the 51 teams that finished first overall since the 1967-68 expansion as manifestation of any President’s Cup Jinx.
Stanley Cup winning goals by Bob Kelly and Mike Rupp? Now those are fate interventions. Nevertheless, those guys played on the best teams in those years, putting them in the right positions for their 15 minutes of fame, as predicted for everyone by Andy Warhol but, alas, never realized by David Warsofsky.
We have seen repeatedly how regular seasons tell more lies than even general managers. Such is the supreme test of four grinding rounds that the best team does win in the end almost every time. Maybe even this time, when the 2018-19 NHL standings proved to have a longer nose than even Tim Hunter.
Tampa Bay is gone faster than you can say Bjorkstrand. Western Conference champ Calgary bit the dust, too, in an almost-as-fast five games. Nashville went home to an uncertain offseason. Pittsburgh, whose perennial contender window is almost closed, got swept. Winnipeg is out, and has a cap mess to figure out.
As you likely have been informed by now, this is the first time since 1995–when the No. One seed began to play the No. 8–that both conference champs went out in the first round. You may not realize, however, that this was only the third occasion since the 1967-68 expansion–when the playoffs first went to three rounds on the way to four–that the first-place overall team lost in the initial round.
Shall Columbus prove to be the same wolf–insidiously disguised as a last-to-get-into the-playoffs sheep–as the 1970-71 Canadiens, who called up rookie goalie Ken Dryden to stone the Bruins, champions in 1970 and 1972? Will the Blue Jackets spring all the way from the weeds to the parade stand like the 2012 Kings, who beat the Canucks and thereafter rolled to the Cup?
Generally we don’t get all gaga over first-round upsets. In this league they are a dime-a-dozen and, besides, they can diminish the quality of the later rounds, what with stars you want to see on the biggest stage being gone. But maybe not so routine is what happens when the presumed heaviest of the heavyweights fall. If the Blue Jackets don’t win it all this spring they actually will become the first team in 52 years to pull off a first-round upset of an overall points leader and not eventually wind up with the ring.
So with poor, little, small market Columbus, nary a series win in its history until now, having loaded up as it did at the deadline, we would caution you to save your shock at this first-round shocker until the Blue Jackets go out. If they go out. But that said, certainly what they did in applying the broom to Tampa Bay was stunning maybe even one of the few things ever described by Pierre Maguire as “phenomenal” that actually was.
The Lightning had the second largest margin of points over the second place team–27 to 21 to the 1995-96 Cup champion Red Wings–since an official President’s Trophy was first awarded in 1985-86. Beyond their fourth-most-ever 132 points, Tampa Bay had passed every eye test as bulletproof: Dominant in goal, a nice mix of talent and experience on defense with one past Norris Trophy winner (Victor Hedman) a potential future one (Mikhail Sergachev) on defense, a scoring champion (Nikita Kucherov by 12 points) playing on the first of four name-your-poison lines.
Offensive dominance (36 goals more than any other team) always diminishes in the playoffs, when defenses tighten and it becomes more about when you score than about how many. After the Lightning rallied from two goals down to tie Game Four–who didn’t still think at that point this team was equipped to be the fifth in history to come back from 3-0? –the referee’s arm was up within seconds on a delayed Tampa Bay penalty. Bjorkstrand scored and Columbus impressively held for a period until the parade to the empty net was on.
Smart people always had expected Columbus to put up a good fight. Having traded away every No. 1 draft choice until 2089, the Jackets are more loaded than even the Department of Player Safety docket this round. With Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin having refused to sign extensions, there has to be a clear sense of now or never for a Blue Jackets nucleus that has gone out in the first round in successive years, for a town that never has seen a second round before in 18 years of existence. Now that’s hunger.
The Jackets were streaky all season. They were mad at Bobrovsky for some of it. There were games they stunk worse than John Tortorella insists does a press interview room. Builds character. Losing streaks we mean, not body odor.
“One of the greatest things that happened is going through a lot as a team,” said Torts. “Some off-ice stuff as far as our locker room was well chronicled.
“It kind of galvanized us.”
In the series, Bobrovsky outplayed Andrei Vasilevskiy by a little, not a lot. This was no goaltending breakdown by Tampa Bay, but an utter and shocking team collapse.
The Lightning got sloppy and blew Game One, and then, realizing the error of their ways, decided to get conservative, which was a big mistake for a team that lived off the rush and its creativity. “I thought much of the series we were kind of almost keeping it too simple,” said Tyler Johnson in one of the more insightful quotes you will read from a player during a playoff. “We have a lot of skill on our team; we just have to use it.
“As the (third) game wore on, we started to create some stuff. Just wish we could have done it a little sooner.”
It gets late early when a wonderful regular season is in sudden jeopardy. Big-time scorers no longer playing against a different club every night, but facing one team with a consistent seven-game strategy, struggle to keep their composure and, in Kucherov’s case, do something stupid, unconscionably leaving himself unavailable for Game Three when his team needed him the most.
The Lightning didn’t have Hedman for the final two games. The glue blueline veteran acquired at great cost in prospects, Ryan McDonagh, didn’t play very well, who knows why? Dan Girardi is just another guy now, and suddenly the defense with a hobbled Hedman and then no Hedman at all was a house of cards.
We are reading how these guys never had the game for playoff hockey: how all that free-wheeling they do is doomed against a disciplined opponent with a strategy. As often now as this Lightning nucleus ahs failed, we’re not so sure their style is necessarily dooming. The Oilers, the greatest offensive team ever, learned to buckle down when necessary.
Besides, with so many more players able to pick a top corner these days that ever before, the best defense has become the best offense. As the Lightning goes back to the drawing board, a little more grind in the form of another Cup tested forward and a defenseman needs to be in the recipe, but as the space on the ice shrinks for everyone in the spring—well, maybe not so far for Nathan MacKinnon–it’s not just about stopping the other guy but countering at the right times.
Calgary, in its first year as a favorite, is forgiven. Repeatedly we’ve seen failure as a rite-of-passage. Good for the soul. Back to the drawing board. And all that. Johnny Gaudreau, his doe-eyes caught in the headlights, will be wiser the next time and so are GMs who learn, the hard way, their teams are not quite as deep as they believed. Even a club with Sidney Crosby becomes easy pickings when Evgeni Malkin doesn’t show and there is so little else to support them.
Exposure comes in every round, not just the first one. Next we will see whether the highly organized Islanders, who for a round had every answer, possess the horses and the goaltending to keep going. A lot of goalies can get hot for a round; fewer can win four
A big line carried Colorado, but in a never-ending playoff tale, went dry for Winnipeg, Pittsburgh, and Nashville, not that highest-paid players deserve all the blame they inevitably receive. To go all the way, you need both your stars to star and your support to support.
As much as we here at Hockey Buzz like to give you the breakdowns on all the breakdowns, sometimes even the best of them¬–or the seeming best of them–just run into a buzz saw.
AND ABOUT KATE SMITH. . .
Starting with the fact that the writer of the Declaration of Independence was a slaveholder, there needs to be an understanding of the context of ignorance in its times and an acknowledgment of the importance of history in teaching us how to move forward to enlightenment and tolerance.
But not being black and therefore only able to guess how much racism hurts, I am not qualified to engage in that discussion. White persons shouldn’t get to say the Flyers’ decision to excommunicate Kate Smith is an overreaction. The organization doesn’t need an association with ugly stereotyping, even if it is 80 years old. The right thing was done.