A look at some of the notable news which caught my eye over the past week as the NHL playoffs march on.
To the surprise of many, the Nashville Predators – considered a legitimate contender this year for the Stanley Cup – find themselves on the verge of elimination in their Conference semifinal series against the Phoenix Coyotes.
Some observers have tried to tie it to Predators forwards Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn being suspended by the club for Game Three for breaking curfew, followed by coach Barry Trotz’s decision to make the pair healthy scratches in Game Four.
Had the Predators lost Games Three and Four, this theory might hold up, but it doesn’t. The Preds beat the Coyotes (2-0) in Game Three without Radulov and Kostitsyn in the lineup, spurring Trotz’s decision to make them healthy scratches for Game Four, which the Predators narrowly lost (1-0).
Blaming the pair for the loss in Game Four is engaging in a hunt for a convenient scapegoat upon which to pin blame for the hole the Predators find themselves in. If it were the fault of two players, then the Predators are in worse shape as a team than we’ve been led to believe. Bottom line is the Predators are losing as a team.
The real reason for the Predators struggles is simply their inability to beat Coyotes goalie Mike Smith.
Smith hasn’t been great in this series as he was in the Predators opening round elimination of the Chicago Blackhawks, but he’s been good enough to frustrate Nashville’s best scorers.
That frustration was apparent in Game Four, when the Predators missed several opportunities to score into wide-open nets, only to shoot wide, high or off the posts.
As one analyst noted, Smith has gotten inside the heads of the Predators scorers.
If the Predators hope to counter that, one solution could be to force Smith to handle the puck more often.
Too often in this year’s playoffs, Smith has struggled with his puck-handling, resulting in turnovers and quality scoring chances.
Of course, the Nashville coaching staff have thought of that and are obviously attempting to use that tactic, but at this stage, it might be best to ramp up that option further, since crashing Smith’s crease hasn’t proven that effective.
The Philadelphia Flyers falling behind 2-1 in their series with the New Jersey Devils has led to some analysis over why they’re struggling with the traditionally low-scoring Devils after lighting up the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round.
Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov is being singled out again, as his stats in those three games once again raise questions over his ability to perform well in the playoffs.
As shaky as Bryzgalov was against the Penguins, he’s actually performed better against the Devils, with most of the goals scored against him the result of defensive breakdowns, which have been a continuing problem for the Flyers since the Pittsburgh series.
If the Flyers hope to overcome the Devils advantage and win this series, they must do a better job within their own zone.
The Devils, meanwhile, gained a lift in Game Three with the return of Ilya Kovalchuk, who labored with a herniated disc in his lower back since the mid-point of their seven-game series against the Florida Panthers.
Kovalchuk was forced to miss Game Two getting treatment, and was stellar in his return in Game Three with a goal and two assists, one of which set up the game-winner by Alexei Ponikarovsky in overtime.
Russian players have been unfairly getting a bad rap in this year’s playoffs, with xenophobic observers suggesting they’re lazy and don’t appreciate the Stanley Cup playoffs as much as North American players do.
Kovalchuk’s performance, despite playing with pain, is one example among many that this simply isn’t true. To a man, the Devils have sung Kovalchuk’s praises all season and continue doing so in this year’s playoffs.
As the St. Louis Blues faced the daunting prospect of overcoming an 0-3 series deficit and the prospect of being swept from the playoffs, it’s clear they’ve been dominated by the Los Angeles Kings.
To paraphrase a famous phrase from a Cold War era cartoon strip: They have met the enemy, and he’s a better version of them.
In other words, the Kings have beaten the Blues at their own game.
Entering this series, it appeared the Blues might have the advantage with their goaltending depth and defensive system, but the Kings have shredded them, not only by beating the Blues at their own game, but by having the benefit of playoff experience.
This is the third straight playoff season for most of this Kings roster, and they’ve benefited from the often painful experience of their previous two early post-season exits.
Kings stars Jonathan Quick, Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown were all part of those earlier defeats, learned from the experience, and matured together.
The Blues, by contrast, are in their first post-season since 2009, and lack the team experience of the Kings, especially among most of their best young players.
They’ll get better over time, of course, just as the Kings did. For now, they’re having to learn a painful lesson on their road to maturity.
Regardless of how the NY Rangers -Washington Capitals series turns out, two things are apparent: the blueline foursome of Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Michael Del Zotto could be arguably the best in the league right now, while Bradon Holtby continues to make the case for the full time starter’s role for the Capitals next season.
In the Rangers 11 playoff games thus far, Girardi is third on the team in playoff points with 6, Del Zotto has five points, while McDonagh, Girardi and Staal lead the club in icetime.
All logged significant minutes during the Blueshirts 2-1 marathon victory over the Capitals in triple overtime, and throughout the post-season have demonstrated poise and consistency beyond their years.
It’s easy to forget McDonagh is only in his second NHL season, Del Zotto has three,while Girardi and Staal are the graybeards with six and five seasons respectively.
Holtby, meanwhile, continues to shine, with a 1.94 GAA and .933 SP in his 11 games, while facing the second-most shots of all goaltenders thus far this spring. He’s the main reason the Capitals have gotten this far.
It remains to be seen, of course, how Holtby will fare over the course of an entire NHL season, and it wouldn’t be the first time a hotshot playoff rookie goalie struggled to play up to his impressive debut, but history is also replete with goalies who’ve gone on to build significant NHL careers after debuting in the post-season.
Regardless of what happens for the Capitals this spring, it’s clear Holtby has not only earned himself a roster spot next season, but the starter’s job is his to lose.