By Mike Ivcic
Six of the eight series have gone through the first four games, with the Capitals-Rangers and Bruins-Maple Leafs set to play their respective game fours tonight. One series wrapped up well into the early morning hours on the east coast today, as the Sharks eliminated the Pacific Division champion Canucks with an overtime victory to complete the sweep. With 26 games now played in the 2013 NHL Playoffs, it’s time to take a look at the top five facts that have emerged thus far in the postseason.
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1) It’s not that the Vancouver Canucks have a goaltending controversy; it’s that they don’t have a goaltender.
To be fair, this series wasn’t lost because of the play of Corey Schneider or Roberto Luongo, but any rational Canucks fan should probably be wary if either of these two goaltenders ever plays a postseason series again for this franchise. Top-shelf, Stanley Cup-caliber goaltenders aren’t exactly easy to find – just ask folks in Washington, Philadelphia, and Montreal – but after getting dispatched from the postseason in four short games, Vancouver’s upper management has to think long and hard about committing to either of these two for the long term. That was a fairly obvious statement to make about Luongo before the postseason began, but it’s that Schneider’s joined him on the list that has to worry a team just two years removed from playing game seven in the finals.
2) The Pittsburgh Penguins still haven’t figured out the meaning of “playoff defense” – or Marc-Andre Fleury just isn’t that good.
I wrote about this in the playoff preview, but it should be obvious to even the most diehard Penguins fan after watching game four that there’s a fundamental flaw in the Pittsburgh style of play in the postseason. This is virtually the same team that scored 10 goals in one playoff game last year and still got eliminated in six games! Perhaps Ray Shero thinks he’s playing fantasy hockey, but maybe instead of trading for Jerome Iginla at the deadline to add to an already loaded offense, he should have been instead trying to find someone that will actually throw a body check in the defensive zone. This is a team that hits absolutely no one inside their own blueline. Combine that with a goalie that has had more bad goals scored against him than every other playoff goaltender combined, and there’s simply no way that this team Pittsburgh wins a Cup this year without some sort of dramatic shift.
3) Alexander Ovechkin is, in fact, back to his “old self” this season.
It’s not even a debate – Ovie has been the best player on the ice for either team in the Caps’ first round series with the Rangers. Even with Tortorella often getting his desired matchup of Ryan McDonaugh and Dan Girardi out against the Capitals captain, Ovechkin has still had a ton of great scoring chances and has opened up more ice for his teammates in the process. The biggest question mark heading into this series was whether or not Washington would be able to score on Lundqvist after the New York netminder stonewalled them in last year’s second round. Losing is never good, but losing game three 4-3 instead of 1-0 means a great deal to the Caps. Until the Rangers either get a shutout from King Henrik or win a game at the Verizon Center, this is a series that belongs to Ovechkin and the Caps.
4) Referees thinking that they aren’t influencing the game by not calling penalties are, in fact, influencing the game – and helping the more talented team.
I’ve been making this point for years, watching over and over as referees treat playoff hockey like the WWE. Unless there’s blood or an automatic call (too many men, puck over the boards, etc) they simply keep their arm down, shake their head side to side at every player that looks for a penalty, and somehow believes that they aren’t influencing the game. Then, when an official does make a call – i.e. Penguins-Islanders game three, Sharks-Canucks game four – they wind up being almost dead wrong, and costing a team a game in the process. Still, the methodology for refereeing a Stanley Cup playoff game is quite simple: from the drop of the first puck in the first period, call everything! I don’t really know how much more clearly I can state my point. The minute a goalie makes a save, an offensive player takes a whack, and the defensive player gives a face rub, send them both to the box. Immediately. Don’t give warnings, don’t scold, and don’t treat a bunch of grown men like kindergarteners that didn’t know it wasn’t ok to take cookies from the kid next to them. They players and coaches all know the rules, and since no one wants to be in the penalty box, guess what will happen? That’s right, say it with me… they’ll stop taking penalties! Then the officials won’t have to put the whistle away in the third period and worry about not making penalty calls, because there won’t be any penalties to call. And with that, I depart my soapbox.
5) The NHL postseason is still the greatest postseason of any professional sport anywhere.
Those in the literary world would probably call this the perfect example of “exaggeration,” but it’s not. Watch guys take a stick to the mouth and lose a tooth – in the process of scoring a goal. Watch goaltenders go diving from one side of the net to the other just to nick the puck enough that it skitters just wide. Watch the benches erupt when an overtime game-winner enters the net. Watch two teams physically abuse each other for four, five, six, or seven games, and at the end shake hands in mutual respect as they perform a tradition that no other sport holds. It’s true that not every game is a one-and-done like football, and it’s true that hockey doesn’t showcase the individual superstars like basketball, and it’s true that hockey doesn’t have the suspenseful build to that one critical pitch like baseball, but it’s precisely those reasons that make this postseason the best on the planet. These teams get seven brutally rigorous games to battle for supremacy and can’t rely on one great or fluky performance to advance. These are teams in the purest sense of the word, with all 20 players on the roster (and sometimes more) contributing to the success or failure in a given series. And these are teams playing the fastest, most skilled sport on the planet, doing things at speeds that would make LeBron James, Justin Verlander, and Tom Brady look like snails. Yes, my friends, we are well into the single greatest postseason of any professional sport anywhere – and that is no exaggeration.
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