Faceoff: Things change fast
Heading into Friday night's opening game between the Lighting and Penguins, here are a few of the things we were pretty sure we knew. Pittsburgh were the favorites, not just to win the series but, according to oddsmakers, to win the Stanley Cup. Matt Murray was firmly established as the starter. With Anton Stralman and Steven Stamkos reportedly nearing returns, the two teams were remarkably healthy for a third-round series. And with little history to draw on, there wasn't much in the way of bad blood.
By the time the final horn sounded, all of that was out of the window, thanks to a bizarre Game 1 that was punctuated by several questionable hits and apparent injuries. That included Ryan Callahan's dangerous hit from behind on Kris Letang, one that drove the Penguin defenseman's head into the glass and left him lying on the ice.
Callahan was given five minutes (but oddly, not ejected), and Letang eventually returned. Later in the game, Chris Kunitz went knee-on-knee with Tyler Johnson, and Ondrej Palat hit Brian Dumoulin from behind.
Despite all that, the game's most serious injury appeared to come on a harmless looking play. Lightning goalie Ben Bishop twisted his knee on his way back to the crease and went down in agony; he was eventually stretchered off of the ice.
By the time we went to sleep on Friday night, we figured that Bishop would be out for a while and Callahan would be suspended. By Saturday, we found out the Bishop was merely day-to-day and Callahan had been given the all-clear by the department of player safety. It was as if even the writers decided they'd gone a bit overboard on the pilot episode, and retconned a few of the weirder plot points out of existence in hopes we wouldn't notice.
(Oh, and the Lightning won the game, 3-1. It was easy to forget that detail with everything else that was going on, but it's possible that it turns out to be important.)
Thankfully, last night's Blues/Sharks opener was polite enough to mostly follow expectations. The two teams played a close game, one that was ultimately won by the Blues by a 2-1 final but could have gone either way, with the Sharks coming close to tying the game in the dying minutes.
It was a classic playoff contest between two relatively evenly matched teams. And more importantly, after Friday's chaos, it didn't feature anything especially weird, beyond an unfortunate early whistle that could have cost the Sharks the tying goal. Sure, Ken Hitchcock's awful decision to challenge an obvious goalie interference call early in the first was a little odd, but it didn't end up mattering. If that had happened during the Penguins/Lightning game, it would have guaranteed at least three disputed offside goals in the third period, and somebody would have speared the referee in the groin during the review.
So thank you, Blues and Sharks, for sticking to the script. We look forward to seeing what madness you're no doubt saving up for later in the series.
Celebrating those who've had the best week.
5. Colin Wilson—He's out now, eliminated along with the rest of the Predators in Game 7. But let's take a moment to recognize Wilson's 13 points in 14 games, a total that made him this year's official "Guy who gets picked in the last round of the office playoff pool and screws up the standings for everyone." Way to go, Colin!
4. The schedule—Typically, this is the time of year when the schedule goes off the rails. With just four teams left, the combined pressures of TV partners, arena availability and the league's weird insistence on just taking a few random days off every now and then means we get a schedule with lots of gaps and inconsistency.
But somehow, they got it right this year. Not perfect—the lack of a Saturday game over the weekend was disappointing. But from here on out, the schedule is pretty much ideal. There's a game every night, with the two conferences alternating days the rest of the way. No weird gaps, and no back-to-back games that everyone will complain about. Just a game every second night in both series, the way the hockey gods intended. And the NHL didn't even make us wait around for things to get started, with the Eastern final kicking off the day after the second round wrapped up.
The NHL has finally figured out how to schedule the playoffs. Either that, or its getting ready to really screw things up during the Stanley Cup final and is just getting us to let our guard down. Either way, we should enjoy it while we can.
3. Beard-tugging—You don't see as much of this in the playoffs as you might expect. It feels like David Backes may be ground zero for a trend here.
2. Alex Killorn—The "Lightning player who's currently dominating" has become a weekly feature in this space over the course of the playoffs, so this week let's go with Killorn. (Let's also hope it works out better for him than last week's pick, Bishop.)
The 26-year-old has never topped 41 points in four NHL regular seasons. But he stepped up during last year's run, posting 18 points in 26 games, and is doing it against this year, with 10 points in 11 contests. That includes the first goal in Friday's opener on a nifty breakaway move late in the first period.
Killorn has spent much of the postseason playing on a line with Johnson and Nikita Kucherov. If Johnson's injury sees him missing any time, the Lightning will end up leaning on Killorn even harder.
Then again, it sure sounds like there will be other reinforcements on the way.
1. The Steven Stamkos comeback—Is this actually happening? It feels like this is happening.
When Stamkos was shut down in early March due to a blood clot, the door was left open for a return late in the playoffs. But early reports weren't encouraging, and we were told that there was a very good chance that we'd seen the last of Stamkos in Tampa this year (and with free agency looming, maybe beyond). But according to reports, Stamkos is now practicing without a non-contact jersey, and has switched to new blood-thinners that would make it easier for him to return to the lineup. That sure sounds like a guy who's going to play soon.
A Stamkos comeback would be an inspiring story, one that could shift the balance of power in the East final and even boost Tampa into Cup favorite status. It would make for one of the feel-good stories of the year… at least right up until the Lightning lost his first game back and we started seeing takes about how Stamkos's return has thrown off their mojo or some nonsense.
(Seriously, let's not even pretend that's not a lock to happen.)
A look at the week's underachievers.
5. Alexander Ovechkin—So I guess we're really doing this.
After the top-seeded Capitals were eliminated by the Penguins last week, we've had a solid five days of finger-pointing. And much of it was been aimed squarely at Ovechkin, because of course it has.
He badly outplayed Sidney Crosby in the series. Doesn't matter. He dominated Game 5, delivering the kind of human wrecking-ball performance that we're supposed to love from our stars in must-win games. Didn't matter. He was visibly crushed by the loss. Didn't matter. He's so competitive that he immediately went to the world championships to play more hockey. Not only did that not matter, but it was used against him. We're really going to blame this Caps loss on Alexander Ovechkin.
For a lot of fans, the word "narrative" has joined the ranks of "hot takes" and "clickbait" to mean "a label I slap on anything that I don't like." But this really is the bad kind of narrative, one that feels unfair and predetermined. If the Capitals didn't win the Stanley Cup, Ovechkin was going to be blamed no matter how well he played. Any inconvenient facts would just be retrofitted into the prepackaged storyline. And so here we are, doing exactly what we always intended to do no matter how things played out. Sorry, Alex. It's just how the playoffs work.
4. Sidney Crosby—Speaking of Crosby, he's now gone eight games without a goal and has only one even-strength point since the first round. The slump hasn't drawn much attention because a) the Penguins have been winning and b) this is still Sidney Crosby we're talking about. But it's worth keeping an eye on, especially if the Lightning can win Game 2 and head back to Tampa with a 2-0 lead. Stay away from those world championships, Sid.
3. The Florida Panthers—Coming off the best regular season in franchise history, you could forgive the Panthers for resting on their laurels. Instead, the team announced a series of changes, the most notable being general manager Dale Tallon moving out of the role into one as president of hockey operations and Mike Rowe becoming GM.
That move raised a few eyebrows when it was first reported last week. But it was spun as a promotion for Tallon, a veteran hockey man moving up the corporate chain and allowing younger blood to take over in the kind of succession plan that smart teams tend to have in place. But in the days since, that picture has started to get fuzzy. One of Rowe's first moves was to fire assistant coach John Madden and director of hockey operations Mike Dixon. And Tallon's new role now sounds less like a promotion and more like someone being pushed aside, which is why we're already seeing rumors of him landing elsewhere.
None of this is necessarily a bad move for the team. The Panthers haven't won a playoff round in 20 years, so it's not like they've been a model of success under Tallon. And the front office shuffle will reportedly come with an increased emphasis on analytics, which has worked out well for other teams (although there's some question over how much Lowe actually fits that description). You never like to see anyone lose their jobs, but this is the NHL and it happens, and it could work out for the best for the Panthers.
But given the timing, the new regime had better hope it can continue to build on last year's success. A step back under new management is going to be a tough sell to fans in South Florida.
2. Ken Hitchcock's goal review—Seriously, what was this?
This postseason has seen plenty of borderline replay reviews. This was not one of them. In fact, it may have been the most obvious interference call we've seen all season. There was zero chance of it being overturned, and yet Hitchcock still burned his timeout and right to future challenges because… well, who knows?
If the NFL has taught us anything, it's that some otherwise smart coaches will turn out to be really bad at challenges. Maybe Hitchcock's not that guy—he could have received bad information from upstairs, or from one of his players. But Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos called it the worst challenge he'd ever seen, and he may have been being kind.
1. The Department of Player Safety—If it's the playoffs, we all must be mad at the DOPS.
When its not revealing its clear and obvious bias by ruling against your favorite team, the DOPS can usually be found declining to suspend a player for delivering a borderline hit. Playoff suspensions aren't unheard of—three players missed time due to dirty hits in the opening two rounds—but they've become increasingly rare over recent years.
The latest controversy is that Callahan hit on Letang, one that didn't even earn the Lightning forward a hearing. It was a decision that was widely criticized, if not outright cited as evidence that the department can't do its job effectively. As always, at least some of the criticism overlooks the key factor that the DOPS can only work within the guidelines that the league gives it. If the NHL and its clubs don't want leniency in the playoffs, they'll get it.
But the DOPS didn't do itself any favors on the Callahan hit, by essentially letting the incident pass without comment. One of Brendan Shanahan's biggest moves when he took over the department in 2011 was increasing the visibility into how decisions were made. Instead of one-line announcements, now we got detailed video breakdowns of decisions. That continued after Shanahan left, supplemented by additional videos outlining the difference between clean and dirty hits.
Those are all good things. But the DOPS should go a step further in cases like Callahan's, and release detailed reasoning behind the decision not to suspend (or even hold a hearing). Its done that occasionally in the past, but it's rare, and it would have helped enormously with the Callahan case. Clearly, the DOPS thinks it saw something in the hit that the rest of us missed. It would help if it told us what that was.
Maybe it would change a few minds, and take some of the heat off. At the very least, it would make life harder for the conspiracy theorists. The DOPS deserves credit for realizing years ago that "just trust us" doesn't work for suspensions; now it should learn the same lesson for the not guilty rulings.