Random Thoughts on The 2014 NHL Conference Finals.

 

One thing I despise is conspiracy theories, so I’m certainly not enamored by the one claiming New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider deliberately injured Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price.

Footage of the incident has been examined by proponents of this theory as though it were the Zapruder film to prove how Kreider, racing in on the Canadiens net, “accidentally on purpose” left his feet and slammed skates-first in Price’s pads, driving the goalie back into his net, giving him a series-ending knee injury.

An unfortunate accident? Or a deliberate attempt to injure?

An unfortunate accident, or a deliberate attempt to injure?

Anyone watching without bias can clearly see Kreider simply lost his balance on the play, leading to the collision. These things sometimes happen, even to elite players, because, the game is played on skates on a sheet of ice. Despite how skilled NHL players are, it’s not uncommon for them to sometimes lose their balance, especially when moving at high speed.

Folks who believe Kreider set out with malice aforethought to take Price out of the series are as delusional as Ottawa Senators’ owner Eugene Melnyk, who to this day still hasn’t revealed the results from the forensic experts he supposedly hired to prove Matt Cooke deliberately injured Erik Karlsson over a year ago.

Accidents happen, even in hockey. Price’s injury was an accident.

 

Speaking of the Canadiens, I had to chuckle watching Hockey Night in Canada analysts Elliotte Friedman, P.J. Stock and Kelly Hrudey debate how much Habs coach Michel Therrien screwed up by starting unproven Dustin Tokarski over veteran backup Peter Budaj.

Now, I’m not dissing the HNiC crew, but I think their extended and animated debate was much ado about nothing.

Tokarski is a proven winner at every level he’s played at. Memorial Cup, World Juniors, AHL,  he’s won it. While he was undoubtedly a bit skittish being thrust into the role of starter in Game Two, he didn’t play that badly, giving up three goals on 30 shots. If anything, the only reason the Habs didn’t win Game Two, which they dominated for large stretches, was Henrik Lundqvist’s 40-save performance for the Rangers.

Therrien, however, was criticized for the move, with the HNiC panel suggesting this creates a difficult situation for Budaj, watching an untested youngster getting the start. Perhaps Budaj was disappointed, we don’t know, but he’s also a professional. He’s not going to sulk or complain. He’ll make sure he’s ready in case Tokarski, who’s getting the start in Game 3, fails to get the job done.

The only complaint I’d make about how Therrien handled the situation is he should have let Tokarski know sooner he was starting Game 2 to allow the kid more time to mentally prepare himself. To Therrien’s credit, he didn’t repeat that mistake leading up to Game 3.

Can Tokarski backstop the Habs to a rally over the Rangers? Time will tell, but it’s a gamble worth taking by Therrien.

 

Since the NY Rangers lost Game 4 of their division final against the Pittsburgh Penguins they’ve been on a terrific role. They battled back to win three straight to take that series, then won the opening two games of the Conference Final against Montreal.

A major factor was their rallying behind Martin St. Louis, whose mother died midway through the series. The other factor, which in my opinion was overlooked until recently, was the play of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

The proof is in the save percentage. In only one of those five games was Lundqvist’s save percentage below .969, and that was Game One against the Canadiens (.909). He faced 168 shots in those five games, stopping all but six of them. In four of those games he gave up only one goal. As of May 21 he led all active playoff goaltenders in save percentage .934 and is second in goals-against average (1.93).

When the 2014 playoffs began much was made over Lundqvist having a losing postseason record (30-37). That wasn’t a reflection of his play, but rather the team in front of him. Since then Lundqvist has gone 10-6 to push that record to 40-43. He’s narrowing the gap between his won-loss. If he backstops the Rangers into the Stanley Cup Final, he’ll have a chance to end up on the happy side of that record.

 

Without peeking, guess which active playoff goalie was the leader in goals-against average (1.90) and second in save percentage (.933) as of May 20? No, not Lundqvist. Not Price. Not Jonathan Quick. It was Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford, the most under-appreciated of this year’s postseason goalies.

It doesn’t matter that Crawford backstopped the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup last season. That his teammates believed he should’ve won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, including Patrick Kane, who won the award. It’s overlooked that he was 10th in wins this season (32) and  ninth in goals-against (2.26) To Crawford’s critics, he doesn’t deserve to be ranked among the NHL’s best goalies.

Those critics instead point to his regular season  .917 save percentage and the fact he only tallied two shutouts. They believe the Blackhawks won the 2013 Stanley Cup in spite of Crawford, downplaying his playoff-leading 1.84 GAA by pointing out his save percentage (a solid .932) was behind playoff leader Tuukka Rask, the goalie of the team Crawford and his Blackhawks defeated to win the Cup.

Granted, Crawford’s style is a bit unconventional, he sometimes struggles with saves to the glove hand and he can have a bad game now and again, which was certainly evident in the third period of Game 2 of this year’s Conference Final against the Kings . Every goalie has their quirks or weaknesses. Crawford’s are magnified because of the team he plays for.

The Blackhawks are one of the NHL’s deepest clubs, winners of two championships in four seasons, and perhaps poised to win back-to-back championships for the first time since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. Because of their depth in talent, Crawford often doesn’t get the credit he deserves.

It’s unfortunate, but if there’s any consolation for Crawford, he’s not the only goaltender to suffer that fate. Ken Dryden (Montreal Canadiens), Billy Smith (New York Islanders) and Grant Fuhr (Edmonton Oilers) faced it in their heydays. Martin Brodeur is considered the greatest goalie in modern NHL history, but his critics to this day insist he was never as good as his achievements suggest. Chris Osgood helped the Red Wings win the Cup in 1998 and 2008 but never fully got the credit he deserved.

A bigger consolation is Crawford’s teammates know just how valuable he is to their success and appreciate what he’s brought them. They trust him and believe in him. If the Blackhawks do win the Cup again, perhaps that’ll finally provide Crawford with his fair measure of praise.

 

Last, but by no means least, this year’s playoffs is providing NHL fans in the Eastern and Atlantic time zones of North America an opportunity to discover the greatness of Kings center Anze Kopitar.

Like teammates Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick, most hockey fans who reside in the Eastern half of North America tend to miss out on the Kings’ great players. Doughty rose to prominence among Eastern Canadian hockey fans largely because of his performance for Team Canada’s Olympic teams in 2010 and 2014. The 2012 Stanley Cup Final further highlighted Doughty’s outstanding play plus provided  a showcase for Quick, the playoff MVP.

Lost in it all was the play of Kopitar, who since 2007-08 is the Kings’ regular season leading scorer. That’s right, he’s been their leading scorer seven straight years. During their 2012 Stanley Cup run he was tied with captain Dustin Brown for the team playoff scoring lead. This year, he’s not only leading the Kings in playoff points (19) but also leading all playoff scorers.

Kopitar has also helped Marian Gaborik resurrect his career. Considered damaged goods and past his prime when the Kings picked him up from Columbus at the trade deadline, Gaborik had 16 points in 19 regular season games and leads all playoff goalscorers this season with nine. The big reason for Gaboriks’s resurgence was placing him on Kopitar’s right wing. The pair have clicked, providing the Kings with a lethal one-two playoff scoring punch.

It’s not just offensively where Kopitar’s a shining star. His defensive game has earned raves, including a nomination for the Selke award. At 26, Kopitar’s entering his prime, meaning we’ve only just begun to see Slovenia’s greatest player at his best.