by Ryan Wagman
Among the things I think about when lying in bed awake before the alarm goes off is the concept of clutch performances in sports. In baseball Sabermetric circles, it is often repeated that there is no such thing as “Clutch”; that in typical clutch situations, such as “Late and Close”, or “2 Outs and runners in scoring position”, the ability to perform well is not repeatable beyond a player’s innate ability to perform at all. And lying in bed, I think to myself that maybe the issue is our bias of what constitutes clutch. Seasons are long and what a player can bring himself to do in a ‘late-and-close’ situation early in the season is probably not the same as later on, when extending the season seems in doubt. Anyone who watched the Flyers and the Rangers go to the shootout knows that Brian Boucher was facing a very clutch situation and responded with two of the biggest saves of his life in stoning Erik Christensen and “Chokin” Olli Jokinen. He knew what was on the line – look how high he jumped, in full gear, after winning. A given player may not respond to a typical “clutch” situation early in the season simply because that extra drive cannot come through. The player may not be able to suspend his disbelief (however deeply hidden) that there will be many more opportunities for that sort of heroics later on. Can there really be any doubt that, as hockey fans, we are privy to an extra level of desperation of play when the season becomes more played out and each point takes on that much more immediately understandable significance?
With that preamble out of the way, it is now time for clutch hockey, and by extension, clutch hockey writing. Yesterday, Bill Duke, our Campbell’s coverer, gave his take on each series in the first round. Having not yet seen his predictions, I will offer up my own, Wales-ian point of view.
Campbell (Western) Conference Quarterfinals
San Jose Sharks vs Colorado Avalanche
In sports, the reverse of clutch, is the propensity to choke, a phenomenon known only too well by the San Jose Sharks and their fans. A short look at their recent playoff history will provide ample evidence to that sad state. When Joe Thornton dropped his gloves against Ryan Getzlaf shortly before the 8th-seeded Ducks knocked out the Presidents’ Trophy winning Sharks in last year’s first round, some may have seen that as an act of bravado geared to try to spark his team. I saw that as an act of desperation and frustration borne out by the sense of impending failure. But I’m a writer, not a psychologist.
But not this year. At 27-6-8, the Sharks are second only to the Capitals in home ice record, while the Avalanche are among the worst road teams to make the playoffs with a record of 19-16-6 (not bad, but nothing special either). Momentum plays into the Sharks’ hands as well. From March 1 through the end of the season, the Avalanche stumbled into the playoffs at 8-10-3, including three losses to end the season, contributing to a drop from a likely 6th seed in mid-March to their final place in standings less than a month later. By contrast, the Sharks ended with a run of 11-7-2, including a season-ending three game winning streak (ominously having followed an overtime loss to the Avalanche on April 4th).
Also, according to my soon-to-be-released final special teams numbers, the Sharks ranked as the most efficient combined special teams unit in the NHL this year, far outperforming the Avalanche, who placed 21st. Health also favours the favoured. The Sharks enter the series with a healthy roster. The Avalanche should have Matt Duchene back from his recent torso injury, but Peter Mueller, who was excellent upon coming over in a trade from Phoenix near the deadline will miss at least the first few games of the series. Craig Anderson, so important to the Avalanche’s success early in the year, visibly tired and struggled down the stretch. For Sharks’ netminder Evgeni Nabokov, heavy minutes are a way of life. Outside of a short slump in mid-March, Nabokov performed steadily down the stretch. This year, the Sharks will make it out of the first round.
Prediction: Sharks in 5.
Chicago Blackhawks vs Nashville Predators
The Predators confuse me. They were among the consistently worst special teams performers – at both ends – in the NHL. Yet at 5-on-5, they seem to do alright. What does that say about Barry Trotz? The Predators went a blistering 14-6-1 down the stretch. Amazingly, they did not have a single player register more than the 51 points that both Patric Hornqvist and Steve Sullivan generated. The Blackhawks had four players surpassing that total, led by Patrick (Cabbie) Kane’s 88. A fifth player, Marian Hossa, also put up 51 points, but remember that he missed over 20 games to start the season. The discrepancy in each team’s special teams play is also vast. The Blackhawks’ success when up or down a man mirrors the struggles of the Predators in similar game-play situations.
After a rough patch wherein the Hawks won only two of nine from March 13-30, they closed the regular season winning six of their last seven by a combined score of 28-14. They should take their elevated play into their first round matchup against the Predators, and Antti Niemi will claim his first playoff scalp.
Prediction: Blackhawks in 5.
Vancouver Canucks vs Los Angeles Kings
Now things get really interesting. You might not have realized (and I might not be the first to point this out either), but these two teams were only separated by two points over the course of the season. Their special teams play was likewise similar; both teams had very effective power play units and both were more-or-less adequate when killing penalties. The Kings are completely healthy, while the Canucks are a little banged up – although their most significant injury, the concussion to shutdown defender Willie Mitchell, has already kept him out of action for nearly three months, so that doesn’t change what we’ve seen from them recently.
The separation in this series will be between the pipes. Jonathan Quick has struggled of late, going winless in his last eight starts, including twice being pulled. Like Craig Anderson of the Avalanche, this young American netminder has never had to play so much in a single season before. Luongo has also had a few stuttersteps in net since leading Team Canada to an Olympic Gold, including a horrific performance against these Kings less than two weeks ago, surrendering 8 goals on 29 shots. So what’s a pundit to do? I think this will be a phenomenal series, the most exciting in the Western Conference. But the higher seed will prevail.
Prediction: Canucks in 7.
Phoenix Coyotes vs Detroit Red Wings
Kind of strange to think that the Coyotes are the home team, isn’t it? I still don’t quite understand how they did it. Maybe it is true that in hockey, more than in other sports, coaching can be the difference between winning the draft lottery and home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Phoenix had the better record and the slightly better goal differential, but skater-to-skater, the Red Wings have the better team. The Red Wings have five players who tallied double digits in Goals-versus-Threshold (GVT) in rookie goaltender Jimmy Howard, Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg and Brian Rafalski. Tomas Holmstrom and Niklas Kronwall also likely would have reached that milestone if they hadn’t both missed substantial portions of the season to injury. The Coyotes had three such players; Star goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, emerging defenseman Keith Yandle and the underrated Radim Vrbata. I suppose you could also say that their backup goalie, Jason LaBarbera, would have also achieved double digit GVT if he played a few more games. Ed Jovanovski, and Scottie Upshall may have also lost out on that mark due to injury, although Upshall still is injured. The Red Wings are now healthy.
The Coyotes biggest strength seems to be their coaching, with Dave Tippett seen by many as the odds-on favourite to win the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s top coach. Then again, the Red Wings have Mike Babcock, generally viewed as one of the best over the last few seasons. Both teams are very efficient killing penalties, while the Red Wings have an upper echelon power play whereas the Coyotes have the worst power play among all teams in the playoffs, with over 1 minute more between power play markers than the runners-up, Nashville Predators. Going back to my earlier pre-amble on clutch play, we are all well aware of how the Red Wings have stepped up in the playoffs for several years in a row. No one can say that about the Coyotes, who have not been to the playoffs since before the lockout. We do not yet know if they have that “clutch” ability. Being wrong wouldn’t surprise me, but I think the Red Wings will advance.
Prediction: Red Wings in 6.
Wales (Eastern) Conference Quarterfinals
Washington Capitals vs Montreal Canadiens
I bet Habs fans rue the fact that their boys couldn’t beat the Maple Leafs in the last game of the season. One more point (they lost in overtime) would have seen a first round matchup against the Devils instead. C’est la vie, non? The Washington Capitals are the strongest team, up and down the roster, in the NHL this year. The Canadiens are….not. They have nice goaltending, with Jaroslav Halak showing well in his first extended run as a number one goalie and Carey Price a more than capable backup. Other than Halak, the only player from the Canadiens to amass over 10 GVT was forward Tomas Plekanec. Barring injuries, Brian Gionta and Andrei Markov would also have reach double digits. Lucky for Habs fans, they may have one advantage in this series; their power play. The Canadiens had the league’s 3rd most efficient power play unit and it may have finished even higher had Andrei Markov not missed nearly the entire first half with lacerated ankle tendons. The Capitals have one of the worst penalty killing outfits that is still active. The Habs will need to coax more than their share of penalties from the Capitals to have a good chance at a monumental upset.
Unfortunately for them, the Capitals can say the same. We said the Canadiens had the 3rd most efficient power play in the game. Well, the Capitals had the most efficient one. And no one was particularly close. The Capitals had six skaters with more than 10 GVT – four of them were over 20! (Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green and Semin). If either Theodore or Varlamov had played true #1 goalie minutes, he might have also got to 10. As is, Theodore was named the starter for the playoffs by Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau. Theodore has performed very well since the Olympic break, which should be cause for optimism for Capitals fans and players. Assuming he gets a longer leash than he did last Spring, this should be a short series.
Prediction: Capitals in 4.
New Jersey Devils vs Philadelphia Flyers
I don’t care what anybody says, I like Brian Boucher. I had him in my hockey pool one year as my third goalie, and he ended up my top goalie. Needless to say, I did not win that year, but at least that pick worked out well. Jacques Lemaire is still Jacques Lemaire. Teams under his thumb will score around 225-230 goals if they are winners and closer to 200 if they are not. And he hasn’t won a playoff round since 2002-03. Then again, this may be the most talented he’s had. Brodeur has earned another shot at a long playoff run. That whole Olympic thing didn’t work out so well for him on a personal performance level, but he has played very well since the break was over. If anything the time away from the ice may have given him fresher legs than he normally has come playoff time. I don’t think this will be his last chance to win another Cup, but this may be his last best chance. Ilya Kovalchuk will not likely be back for another run with the Devils. The dual scoring lines featuring the big Russian and Zach Parise make the Devils more dynamic than Lemaire knows what to do with.
The Flyers were thought (in some circles) to be leading candidates to win it all before the season began. With the caveat being that they get good goaltending from the mercurial Ray Emery. And he was pretty decent. Until he got hurt. Then, from out of the wild red yonder (Carolina) Michael Leighton arrived. And Leighton was even better. Until he, too, got hurt. And then Brian Boucher got the job. There was simply no one else – his backup going into the playoffs, Johan Backlund, has 40 minutes of NHL backstopping experience on his resume. Boucher had some stinkers, which he lost. He had some good performances which were not helped by a complete lack of scoring by his skating mates. So he lost those games, too. And he won a handful, including three of his last four to get the Flyers over the hump and into the playoffs, at the expense of the New York Rangers (and maybe the employment of Glen Sather). Boucher will need the series of his life for the Flyers to go forward. With two healthy rosters (notwithstanding the aforementioned goalie woes in Philly – Jeff Carter returns for the Flyers and Paul Martin is back for the Devils) this series could be a lot of fun. I think the team with the better playing goalie will win it. I have to go with the Hall of Famer.
Prediction: Devils in 6.
Buffalo Sabres vs Boston Bruins
There have been some rumours that Marc Savard may return in time to play in the playoffs. If the Bruins can hold the fort for him. It doesn’t look like he can be back for this round. Likewise, trade deadline acquisition Dennis Seidenberg is hurt and will not play. On the other hand, the Sabres’ injured forward, Tim Connolly, looks good to go by the third game at least. Both teams are among the lower scoring organizations competing in the playoffs, and among the best when it comes to preventing the opposition from scoring. As such, I proclaim this series to be the one most likely to have multiple 1-0 games as well as most likely to go multiple overtimes. The Sabres have five forwards (Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, Tim Connolly, Thomas Vanek and Jochen Hecht) with more production (as defined by GVT) than the Bruins top forward contributor, David Krejci.
A great sub-plot to this series is the matchup between the two towering defensemen; Tyler Myers (Buf) vs Zdeno Chara (Bos). Each has five letters each for both first and last names. Each compiled 14.6 GVT this season, although Myers was much more weighted towards the offensive side of the ledger. Another interesting sub-plot is the Bruins goaltending situation. Rask will be the starter, but last season’s Vezina winner, Tim Thomas was pretty good this season as well. How does he react if the Bruins are losing and he doesn’t get the call? And with that, my prediction – the Bruins will lose.
Prediction: Sabres in 6.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs Ottawa Senators
Like in the Western Conference, this matchup of 4-5 seeds, which usually gives us the two most evenly matched teams, seems like a complete mis-match. One the one hand, we have the defending champion Penguins, with their superstars three centres deep (Crosby, Malkin and J. Staal). The Senators combat with Alfredsson, Fisher and Spezza. While Afredsson had a better year than Malkin according to GVT (14.8-13.7), and both missed over ten games (12 for Alfie and 15 for Geno), Malkin may be rounding into form in time for the Second Season, with four points in his last game and eight in his last five. And Sidney Crosby topped 50 goals for the first time in his career.
Surprisingly for a team with so much vaunted offensive talent, the Penguins were rather mediocre on the power play this year, finishing 17th in the league in power play efficiency. But the Senators were worse. And now the Sens will be without talented forward Alex Kovalev and most likely defenseman Filip Kuba as well, two of their most important power play performers. The Penguins are more or less healthy. In net, Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pens has much more press and history than the Sens’ relatively untried Brian Elliott, but based on this season alone, they go into the playoffs as near equals. Finally, I should point out how weird the Senators have been this year. Before New Years, they never had a streak longer than four games. Since then, they’ve lost five in a row, won 11 straight, lost five again, won six in a row to cement their place in the playoffs and then lost three of four prior to the series. I think another losing streak is coming.
Prediction: Penguins in 5.