The NHL Conference semifinals (aka, “the second round”) are underway. Here’s a look at the performances of some notable players over the past two weeks.
– Entering the 2012 Playoffs, NY Rangers right wing Marian Gaborik was his team’s leading scorer – both in goals (41) and points (76) – but so far this post-season, his production has seemingly dried up.
In his first eight games (seven against the Ottawa Senators in round one), Gaborik had a grand total of four points, three of them assists. For the most part, he’s been a non-factor for the Blueshirts this spring.
Undoubtedly, the Senators and now the Washington Capitals have keyed on Gaborik to shut down his scoring, but for someone considered among the league’s elite scorers, he’s shown a puzzling inability to rise to the occasion in the post-season.
Conversely, Rangers center Brad Richards was at times maligned this season – his first with the Blueshirts – for his 66-point performance (the second-lowest total of his NHL career), but in this year’s playoffs, the pride of PEI leads the Rangers with 3 goals and 6 points in his first 8 games.
Richards, of course, has a Conn Smythe Trophy and a Stanley Cup on his resume, and knows what it takes to win in the post-season.
Unless Gaborik is nursing an injury, he’d be wise to follow Richards’ example. They need their best sniper to start cashing in more often if they hope to march to the Stanley Cup.
– Most of the focus on the Washington Capitals this spring tends to be upon stars like the two Alexanders (Ovechkin and Semin), Nicklas Backstrom, defenseman Mike Green or rookie goalie Braden Holtby.
Overlooked has been the contributions of gritty center Brooks Laich and winger Jason Chimera.
Through 8 playoff games, Laich was tied for the team lead in points with Ovechkin (5 points), while Chimera has three points in as many games.
As the Capitals adjust to a more grinding defensive style under head coach Dale Hunter, Laich and Chimera have emerged as valuable foot-soldiers, not just on the scoreboard, but also with their physical play.
Pessimists could suggest the fact Laich and Chimera have stood out is more indicative of the lack of consistent production by Washington’s scorers, and they could have a point, but if their scorers are having difficulty finding the back of the net, it’s important for others -like Laich and Chimera – to step up.
It remains to be seen how the Capitals will fare in their second round series against the Rangers, but if they fall short, Laich and Chimera won’t be among those facing criticism for failing to elevate their play.
– Prior to this year’s playoffs, Phoenix Coyotes winger Mikkel Boedker was considered a poster child against rushing a promising young player into the bigs before his time.
Boedker made his NHL debut four years ago as a wide-eyed 18-year-old, playing a full season and netting 28 points, showing glimpses of his offensive promise, but too often struggling to adjust to the NHL.
When Don Maloney and Dave Tippett took over as GM and head coach respectively, they saw Boedker’s promise, but knew he wasn’t ready yet for prime time, and for the next two seasons, had him spend most of his time getting professional seasoning with their AHL farm club.
This season, Boedker returned and stuck with the Coyotes for the entire season, but his numbers (11 goals, 24 points) still didn’t indicate much in terms of a promising scorer.
Cue the 2012 NHL playoffs, and Boedker has been one of the Coyotes most dangerous scorers, with six points in eight games. Those included two overtime goals against the Chicago Blackhawks, and a lovely goal in Game One against Nashville when he used a linemate as a decoy on a two-on-one break, waited until he was almost on top of the Predators crease, and snapped a wrister past Pekka Rinne.
This could, of course, be an instance where a marginal player rides a playoff hot streak, but one shouldn’t dismiss the possibility Boedker is gaining more confidence as he sees more NHL playoff action, which in turn could signal his long-awaited emergence as a scorer.
– Throughout this season, Nashville Predators winger Jordin Tootoo earned positive reviews for seeking treatment for alcohol abuse, and the positive impact the treatment had upon his performance.
Tootoo, 29, had a career-best 30 points this season, playing a career-high 77 games. It was expected his physical style would make him a valuable part of their lineup entering the playoffs.
Instead, he’s been a healthy scratch for all but one of the Coyotes six playoffs games thus far, and while Tootoo hasn’t kicked up much of a fuss about it, he nevertheless admitted in a recent interview his unhappiness with the situation.
Tootoo will be eligible for UFA status this season. The Predators supported him through his treatment period and praised his improved performance during the regular season, but one has to wonder if the lack of post-season action might spur Tootoo to consider testing this summer free agent market.
– This season was considered an important one for St. Louis Blues winger T.J. Oshie.
Re-signed last summer to a one-year contract and considered by his critics a underachiever, Oshie responded with his best season to date, potting 54 points helping the Blues reach the playoffs for the first time in three years.
His performance this season suggested the 25-year-old winger had silenced his critics, but in the Blues first round series against the San Jose Sharks, and in the opening game of their second round series against the LA Kings, Oshie had only three points (all assists) in six games.
While ageing, banged-up 34-year-old Andy McDonald and often-maligned Patrik Berglund have emerged as the Blues offensive leaders this spring, Oshie’s performance has paled by comparison.
He’s not the only one who hasn’t played up to offensive expectations. Captain David Backes only has two goals. Offensive blueliner Kevin Shattenkirk has one assist. Chris Stewart continues to be an offensive bust.
But Oshie, once considered among the Blues most promising stars, has more to prove than the others. Yes, he can be praised for his defensive play, but that’s ultimately not what he’s being paid for.
If the Blues hope to advance beyond the second round, they need more from slumping scorers like Oshie.
-This regular season was not one Los Angeles Kings winger Dustin Penner will look back on with any real fondness.
Acquired by the Kings at the February 2011 trade deadline in hopes he’d fill their need for a power forward, Penner was a bust down the stretch last season, with only 6 points in 19 games, and 2 points in six playoff games.
This season, the final one under his current contract, Penner was expected to make his case for remaining with the Kings, or at the very least, improve his free agent value.
Instead, it was a disaster.
An unflattering photo taken of him early in training camp fuelled accusations he was out of shape. Injuries limited him to only 65 games.
Sidelined at one point by back spasms, his half-joking claim the ailment was the result of sitting down to a breakfast of pancakes made him the butts of jokes among NHL fans and bloggers. To his credit, Penner played along, which included hosting a pancake breakfast for charity.
His performance on the ice, however, was no joke to Kings fans, as he managed only 7 goals and 17 points, the worst numbers of his NHL career.
To cap it all, his actress-wife filed for divorce midway through the season.
So it would be natural to expect Penner to have a lousy post-season, but so far, that hasn’t been the case.
Placed on the same line as Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, he’s been among the Kings leading scorers, with four points in six games (five against the Vancouver Canucks, one agains the St. Louis Blues).
It remains to be seen how long Penner will remain on that line, but if there’s a guy in this year’s playoffs deserving of a turn of fortune, it’s him.
– Claude Giroux is considered by many the early favorite to win the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP, and deservedly so.
Everything Giroux knows about rising to the occasion in the post-season, he likely learned from teammate and housemate Daniel Briere, who is what one pundit recently described as one of the greatest playoff performers of this era.
In the post-lockout era, Briere leads all players in post-season points with 106. Only Henrik Zetterberg has more goals (51) than Briere (49) over this period, and with Zetterberg’s Red Wings now out of this year’s playoffs, the diminutive Flyer should overtake him, probably in this series against the Devils, in which he potted two of those 49 goals in the opening game.
Briere’s offensive consistency, experience and leadership makes him not only the most consistent post-season scorer since 2006, but also a big reason the Flyers could march to this year’s Stanley Cup Final.
-For all but fifteen games in the regular season, the New Jersey Devils had to make due without center Travis Zajac, who was sidelined by a torn left achilles tendon.
Though overshadowed by star wingers Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise , as well as the emergence of rookie center Adam Henrique, Zajac’s presence on their offensive lines was missed this season.
His value to the Devils has been on display in this spring’s playoffs. In eight games (seven against the Panthers, one against the Flyers), Zajac has been their leading scorer with seven points, and one of their most consistent offensive threats.
If Parise ends up departing via free agency, it could push Zajac more into the Devils spotlight, earning him more appreciation for his efforts than what he’s previously received in his NHL career.