Faceoff: The Penguins get it done
In the end, the better team won.
After the disappointment of dropping Game 5 at home on Thursday, the Penguins went into San Jose last night and took care of business with a 3-1 win. That wraps up the fourth Stanley Cup in franchise history, and the second of the Sidney Crosby era.
And while the Sharks have nothing to hang their heads over after a deep playoff run that rewrote many of the narratives about the franchise's ability to win the big one, the Penguins left little questions about whether their win was deserved. They dominated long stretches of the series, showing off their impressive team speed while containing the Sharks' biggest weapons. In the third period last night, with a one-goal lead and the title on the line, the Penguins held a desperate Sharks team to just two shots on goal.
Sidney Crosby took home the Conn Smythe, a solid choice even if Phil Kessel might have been a slightly better one. Trevor Daley got the honor of receiving the first Cup handoff, in recognition of his first career championship and his mother's cancer battle. And San Jose fans buried Gary Bettman under a loud chorus of boos, passing the annual test and cementing their status as tried and true hockey fans.
It was an uneven series, one that was criticized early for being boring before picking up speed as it went on. Despite the presence of some of the game's biggest offensive stars, the two teams combined to average just 4.5 goals a game, further evidence of the Dead Puck Era's ongoing existence that the league will no doubt continue to ignore. But the games were close, with all six coming down to the final minutes, and even when the ice seemed titled it never felt like the Sharks were out of it.
But the Penguins deserved it, and in the end they got it done. We'll spend the next few days talking about legacies, Crosby's in particular—his trophy case is now edging into some very exclusive territory. Attention will also turn to both teams' windows, and whether either can expect to be back here next year and beyond. And then, after a few days to catch our breath, it's full speed into the offseason, with the buyout period starting on Wednesday.
It's possible that the Penguins will have sobered up by then, but here's hoping the party is still going strong. The best team won, and earned it.
Celebrating those who've had the best week.
5. Martin Jones—The heroic losing goalie is one of the Cup final's most enduring tropes, so much so that they occasionally win the Conn Smythe. Jones didn't quite get to that level, but he was spectacular over the last two games with the Sharks facing elimination. That was especially true in Game 5, when he made 44 saves to almost single-handedly prolong the season.
He kept it up last night, including a ridiculous save off of Phil Kessel with five minutes left to keep the Sharks' hopes alive. His play was so strong that it apparently even caused some sort of mind wipe on a pair of Penguins forwards that we'll get to in a bit. His overall numbers weren't great, but fans tend to remember the most recent highlights, and Jones provided plenty of them.
In the end, it wasn't enough. But it was a strong run from a guy who went into the season facing questions about whether he was a full-time starter or simply a product of the Kings' system. He won't be hearing those again for a while.
4. The Lake Erie Monsters—The Penguins weren't the only team to win a title over the weekend. The Blue Jackets' AHL affiliate completed a sweep of the Hershey Bears on Saturday to capture the Calder Cup. That completed a dominant playoff run in which the Monsters went 15-2.
Minor league championships can be tricky—sometimes the best AHL team is the one stacked with veteran and fringe pros, not necessarily prospects with NHL futures. But the Monsters are a reasonably young group, one that includes top prospects like Zach Werenski and Oliver Bjorkstrand (who was named playoff MVP). Their success is good news for a Blue Jackets organization that could certainly use some after another tough year at the NHL level.
3. Kris Letang—Everything he did in the shift leading up to the Penguins' winning goal was just silly.
As far as Cup-winning goals go, that one's not too bad at all.
2. Logan Couture—Calling Couture the breakout star of these playoffs seems like a surefire way to earn eye rolls from Sharks fans, who'll mutter about East Coast bias while pointing out that Couture has already been a star in this league for years, at least to anyone paying attention.
But there are different stops along the star spectrum, and it really does seem like Couture has moved up a notch or two over the course of four rounds. He finished as the leading postseason scorer with 30 points, one of the most productive postseasons in decades. He stepped up in big games, including a three-point night in Game 5 and notched the Sharks' only goal last night. And all of it came on the heels of a season in which he battled back from significant injuries.
Couture can at times be overshadowed in San Jose by Joe Pavelski's goal-scoring, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau's legacies, and Brent Burns' outsized personality. But there's a good case to be made that he's the team's best all-around player. His two-way game has improved over the years, and at some point you wonder if he's going to finally earn a spot on Team Canada.
None of that will be much consolation after coming so close to a Cup and falling short. But it's the kind of performance that can offer up some hope for Sharks fans already thinking ahead to a return trip to the final.
1. Mr. Hockey—It would take a big story to knock the Stanley Cup final off of hockey's front pages. That story arrived Friday morning, when word spread that Gordie Howe had passed away at the age of 88.
It was a moment that we'd all had time to prepare for, as Howe's declining health had been well known for years. That didn't make Fridays news any easier, and it did little to dull the feeling that the sport had just lost a big piece of its history, if not its soul. Gordie Howe was the personification of hockey, the archetype who personified the skill and brutality that come together to form the game we love. There's a reason that other superstar players got to be Great or Magnificent or Rockets or Golden Jets, but only one was ever Mr. Hockey.
The tributes rolled in all weekend, far too many to mention from all around the world, not just from fans and media but celebrities to musicians to Presidents. Howe was one of the few NHL stars who truly transcended the sport; you didn't have to have ever watched a game to know the name Gordie Howe. What other NHL players could you really say that for? Wayne Gretzky. Maybe Bobby Orr. That's probably about it. And both of those men have made their views clear: Howe was the best of all time.
Many of those stories focused on Howe's record-shattering career, one that saw him play into his 50s. But at least as many focused on the man off the ice, where the game's toughest warrior was known for his decency and kindness. It was a trait that never left him, even in his later years; it seems like everyone had a story of Howe patiently making time for fans at public appearances, signing autographs and shaking hands for as long as his health would allow him.
The hockey world will get its chance to say goodbye Tuesday, with a public visitation held at Joe Louis Arena.
A look at the week's underachievers.
5. Jacques Martin—The Penguins' assistant has been coaching in the NHL for 30 years, and finally got his hands on the Stanley Cup for the first time last night. And in that moment, he learned an important truth: That thing really is a lot heavier than it looks.
4. The Panthers are up to something—We got another trade over the weekend, as the Panthers traded a second-round pick and the rights to Marc Savard to the Devils for two spare parts. And while any trade is welcome news in the era of the ultra-timid GM, this one lands in our bottom five for no reason other than it confuses me.
On the surface, it seems like a pretty straightforward deal—Savard will never play again but still has a contract, so the Panthers are giving the Devils a draft pick in exchange for eating his $4 million cap hit. We don't see these type of deals very often, but they're slowly becoming more common, and we'll likely get another when the Red Wings find a taker for Pavel Datsyuk's hit.
So pretty standard stuff, right? Except that the Panthers don't really need cap room. They already had a ton of room to work with, so much so that the Savard deal actually drops them below the cap floor. Right now they have $21 million in space, which seems like a lot for a team that only needs to add a couple of forwards, a defenseman or two and a backup goalie.
Add it all up, and it's hard not to look at the Savard deal and wonder if this team is planning on being a much bigger offseason player than we might expect. We're used to the Panthers being a budget team that stays relatively quiet (when they're not making horrible mistakes). But with a shift in ownership and some curious front office changes in place, they're suddenly sending signals that they may be gearing up for a busy summer.
3. Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz—OK, maybe Malkin doesn't deserve a spot here, but Kunitz is family so I'm trying to soften the blow. But this was just terrible.
It didn't end up mattering, and both guys will be thankful for that for the rest of their careers. But yeah, shoot the puck when you have an empty net, kids.
2. Expansion rules—We're getting more and more clarity around expansion, thanks to the league's apparent policy of never actually announcing anything and just letting everything leak out one piece at a time. The latest details cover the rules for an expansion draft; James Mirtle has a good roundup here. And it's fair to say that the rules are… fine. They'll do. The league has fleshed out some details, closed a few loopholes, and confirmed that players with no-movement clauses must be protected but will have the right to waive. The end result will be a Las Vegas team that will have a few recognizable names and decent goaltending but otherwise won't be very good.
It's all about what we expected. Which in a way is a letdown, since there were so many fun ways the NHL could have gone with this. Then again, this is the NHL—creativity isn't exactly a strong suit. And no matter how vanilla the rules are, these things are always fun. Next summer's expansion draft will probably be the highlight of the offseason. (Assuming the NHL manages to get around to announcing it by then.)
1. Hockey being over—It's the same every year. The season drags on forever, the playoffs go even longer, the league starts dropping in random days off to pad things out even more, and by the time the Stanley Cup is ready to make an appearance it's summertime and everyone would rather be outside working on their tan. Then the season ends, the lights come back on, and hockey fans are left looking at each other, thinking "Is it over so soon?"
We'll shift into offseason mode now—let's be honest, some fans have already been there for a while—but it won't be the same. Board rooms and conference calls may be where most of the NHL's important work happens these days, but they're not the rink. Despite all its flaws, there's nothing quite like hockey when something is on the line, and now we have to sit patiently until the next meaningful game.
Luckily, we'll have an even shorter wait this year than usual, thanks to September's World Cup. In the meantime, enjoy one last look back at the 2016 playoffs. Then go reacquaint yourself with friends and family. They're probably outside.