"That's playoff hockey."
—Sidney Crosby, Claude Giroux, Peter Laviolette, Ryan Callahan, Jason Spezza, Dale Hunter, Jimmy Howard, David Backes, et al., all within the last week.
Those three words can be an excuse or an explanation, a mantra or mocking. For the next couple of months in the NHL, they stand for pretty much everything — which in turn means that they stand for nothing at all. We think we know "playoff hockey": the hot goalies, the hard checking, the sudden-death tension, the high stakes. But this year has featured one "playoff hockey" oddity after another. In the first four days of the first round, seven games went into overtime. Home ice advantage meant little, as home teams have won just 8 of 22 first-round games. As for fighting, which is traditionally thought to decrease in the postseason that hasn't exactly happened, either. On Friday, I wrote about what seemed like the lawlessness of the playoffs' first two nights. Now that blog post, aged only a few days, seems almost pearl-clutchingly quaint: Aw, how adorable of me, to have been shaking my finger at a mere missed too-many-men.
Since then, we've had situations including, but not even remotely limited to, dangerous elbows to the head (some pricier than others); a behind-the-net collision between a goaltender and a forward that was either Oscar- or suspension-worthy, depending on whom you ask; a cross-check to the Adam's apple; a pushed glove; pulled hair; repeated punches; overturned Gatorade jugs; speedy recoveries; captain-on-captain violence; more captain-on-captain violence; and a fight between two of the league's superstars, both of whom have been recently concussed.
Got all that? Here, to help keep the storylines straight and also to assist you in budgeting your hockey-watching time most efficiently, are the first-round series power rankings, sorted from worst to first using a vague but deeply felt set of metrics that takes into account the quality of the games themselves but also the wonderful ridiculousness of the people and the plots that surround them. Simply put, which series is the most "that's playoff hockey"? Let's find out.
Note: These first two series occupy the lowest spots on these rankings not because they haven't been good or closely fought — but because unlike all the other first-round matchups, they won't play their pivotal Games 3 until tonight, so it's hard to have a handle on where the contests may be headed.
Florida Panthers (3) vs. New Jersey Devils (6)
Series is tied at 1-1
Martin Brodeur looked like his old self in Game 1, notching an assist and earning his 100th playoff win. On the other side, longtime Floridian Stephen Weiss put in a pair of power play goals in Game 2 to bring the franchise its first playoff victory since 1996. Fans reacted by throwing fake rats on the ice in homage to the 1996 run, which is a nice touch. I wasn't sure whether to be charmed or saddened by the Panthers players who scooped up a fauxdent or three and tucked them away for later. Imagine telling a squirming child: "And this is the plastic rat from Daddy's first playoff win!"
Maybe it's on account of all the hard-to-kill creatures raining down, but I could see Florida–New Jersey going on for ages, the two teams battling to and through overtime of a seventh game long after everyone else has won or lost in four or five. (If only New Jersey had home ice: We could have seen some scenario in which Cory Booker himself pulled the plug on the arena mid-game, delaying it in perpetuity.) Oh, one other thing about Florida–New Jersey so far: Its broadcast included the words "succulent little saucer pass," which I'm going to assume was courtesy of Razor Reaugh, who has used the phrase before.
Phoenix Coyotes (3) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (6)
Series is tied at 1-1
For the Coyotes and the Blackhawks, the most talked-about sequence in Game 2 was the collision between Chicago's Andrew Shaw and Phoenix goalie Mike Smith. (Shaw will find out today whether he'll be suspended.) But in both games, there was another big story: Chicago scoring with less than 15 seconds left in regulation to send things into overtime in back-to-back games. (Brent Seabrook was involved in both plays, scoring outright in Game 1 and assisting Patrick Sharp in Game 2.) The OT hero in Game 1, Phoenix defenseman Adrian Aucoin, was the goat a few days later, though, when he sent an attempted clear directly to the stick of the Blackhawks' Viktor Stalberg, who fed Bryan Bickell for the score.1
It's hard to know for whom this is more frustrating: the Coyotes, who were just six seconds away from a 2-0 series lead, or the inconsistent Blackhawks. As Barry Melrose put it: "[T]he problem for me is I don't know if I love their character because they've played so hard and so smart in the last minute, or if I hate their character because they didn't for the first 59 minutes."
Side note: We can only hope that Columbus GM Scott Howson spent the past weekend on some sort of hedonist club cruise ship far, far, away. Less than a week after his Columbus Blue Jackets — a team whose season was so brutal that it led to the practically-at-gunpoint trade of Jeff Carter and most likely will bring forth the demise of the Rick Nash era — lost the no. 1 pick to the Edmonton Oilers at the draft lottery, Howson has had to watch several former Columbus players excel in the postseason. Carter has two assists for the L.A. Kings, while the two guys Columbus had initially traded to get him, Jakub Voracek and The Draft Pick That Was To Become Sean Couturier, have had even bigger roles for another team. Voracek scored an overtime game-winner for Philly in Game 1 and has added three assists since, and Couturier had a hat trick and a helper in Game 2.
Oh, and here's why I brought it up in this section: Former Blue Jacket Antoine Vermette's three goals in two games for the Phoenix Coyotes are just gravy. Honestly, poor Howson. He's like the NHL's version of a wife fluffer.
Boston Bruins (2) vs. Washington Capitals (7)
Boston leads 2-1
The first two battles of this series felt like a couple of fighters just circling one another, or like dogs sniffing butts. Game 1 was listless and scoreless until Boston's Chris Kelly scored in overtime for the win, while Game 2 was a legit goalie battle between Tim Thomas and the Capitals' Braden Holtby. Nicklas Backstrom's double-OT goal gave Washington the 2-1 win. (I loved Jay Beagle's description of the sudden-death 2OT on his blog for the Washington Post: "When Backy scored that goal to win Game 2, it was just a great feeling. Really exciting, and also a big relief. When it's sudden death like that, you're excited but it's also like, 'Thank goodness.'")
Holtby, essentially the team's third-option goalie behind the injured Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth, has been one of the series' fun stories: He stopped 72 of 74 shots in the first two games before giving up a few tough ones on Monday night in the Capitals' 4-3 loss to the Bruins in Game 3.
This series has been, in many ways, the yin to Philly-Pittsburgh's yang. It has featured relatively little scoring, flown mostly under the radar, and remained surprisingly docile. But don't expect that last one to last long. Game 3 included some speared balls belonging to Brad Marchand, a cross-check that will mean an automatic one-game suspension to Nicklas Backstrom unless otherwise waived, and Karl Alzner pantomiming Milan Lucic crying.2 Fans in Washington showed up with giant Obama heads to bother Tim Thomas. "The more we play each other, the more we hate each other," Brad Marchand said of the Capitals.
I fully expect that by the bitter end of this series, these two teams will lead the Power Rankings forever.
New York Rangers (1) vs. Ottawa Senators (8)
New York leads 2-1
If it weren't for Game 2, this series would barely be registering at this point: The Rangers' 4-2 win in Game 1 was more decisive than the final score sounded, and Game 3 was a tight 1-0 goalie duel between Henrik Lundqvist and Craig Anderson, with Lundqvist recording the shutout. Game 2, though, was broadly memorable in its way: It led to the ejection of, and Gatorade-overturning by, Brandon Dubinsky; the one-game suspension of Ottawa's Matt Carkner; and the three-game sidelining of Carl Hagelin for his elbow to Daniel Alfredsson's head. (That last part in turn led to the debut of 20-year-old Rangers prospect Chris Kreider, who came to the team just last week fresh off winning a collegiate national championship with Boston College.)
Did Hagelin — who was so mortified to have concussed Alfredsson, one of his Swedish idols, that he "sent him a text and said 'I'm sorry and very regretful for what happened'" — deserve such a hefty sentence? Sure, though as it always goes with these things, it's easy to find similar plays that were penalized less (or not at all). The Rangers put out a press release describing the organization as "thoroughly perplexed" by the inconsistencies in punishment — incidentally, someone needs to make a blog of Tortorella GIFs and call it Thoroughly Perplexed; you could do a spinoff for the New York Giants as well — and VP of player safety Brendan Shanahan added fuel to the fire when he appeared on WFAN and said, among other things, that the severity of an injury is a big factor in determining punishment. (You can imagine, then, the collective freakout when it appeared that Alfredsson might be ready to return for Game 3, although he ultimately did not.)
In lighter news, the best prediction I made all weekend came on Saturday, when TV cameras zoomed in on an extra puck lodged in the back of the New York Rangers' net and I said out loud: "I hope high jinks ensue." Sure enough, high jinks did. (Kind of wish I knew how to overlay the video with some clunkily pounded-out "Maple Leaf Rag.")
It was one of three bits of America's Funniest Home Videos–style hilarity that stood out among all the dark comedy and profane humor dominating the weekend. The other two would have fit right into the show's occasional home-improvement-gone-wrong category.3
St. Louis Blues (2) vs. San Jose Sharks (7)
St. Louis leads 2-1
First of all, this series has my favorite quote of the playoffs so far, courtesy of Ken Hitchcock: "Boys will be boys," he said, according to ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun. "You found out, don't open the Roman Polak door. Don't ever open that door. Whoa." I don't want to give out the annual "most xenophobic-old-world-grandmotherly quote from a head coach in the playoffs" award prematurely, as more contenders could easily crop up, but this is the current front-runner.
That quote came after the two teams had battled into double overtime in Game 1 (a 3-2 win by the San Jose Sharks) and then met for a feisty Game 2 that descended into chaos.
I enjoyed LeBrun's dispassionate rendering of the goings-on, which reads like a court report: the he said/she said bullet points up front ("The Blues were angry with T.J. Galiardi's hit on Andy McDonald. The Sharks were angry with what they felt was a slew-foot by McDonald on Logan Couture"), the cataloguing of evidence (a cracked helmet), and even descriptions of a rattled witness (Sharks coach Todd McLellan "tried to compose himself in his postgame address"). It's a testament to how wild the rest of the weekend was that this game was barely even the big story. Also, T.J. Oshie is ridiculous.
With the series heading back to San Jose for Game 3 tied at 1-1, it seemed like the Sharks could gain the upper hand against the Blues. But San Jose's penalty kill — the 29th-worst in the league — reared its head once again, and St. Louis connected on three of its four power play chances to jump out to a 4-1 lead that the Sharks would try in vain to erase. (They got as far as 4-3 and a good look in the final seconds, but that was it.) Antti Niemi stopped 23 shots, while Brian Elliott picked up the win with 26 saves.
You know, speaking of Elliott: I'm mostly immune to the ongoing low-level conspiracy theories that buzz around the NHL at all times. Like, I just don't think the league fixes games or manipulates goal clocks or orchestrates (many) trades. But this St. Louis goaltender situation is getting ridiculous at this point. I smell a fix. Isn't it just a little bit too convenient that a team with the strongest goaltending tandem in the league — one so good that the Blues' backup netminder was the one who got tapped for the All-Star Game — suddenly gets to take advantage of that depth without controversy when a teammate collides with Halak? Seriously, we get it, St. Louis: YOU HAVE TWO REALLY GOOD GOALIES. You're Lloyd Christmas, and you have an extra set of gloves, and your hands are getting sweaty, and hey, what do you know, your pair of goaltenders combined for a shutout in the playoffs. I'm not buying it, no siree. It's just way too feel-good to be true. Either Gary Bettman is behind this, or Brian Elliott just pulled off the marble trick from Showgirls.
Vancouver Canucks (1) vs. Los Angeles Kings (8)
Los Angeles leads 3-0
I wish I had some sort of footage of myself from last Wednesday night when, after falling asleep on the couch during the third period of the Kings-Canucks' first game and waking up sometime around 3 a.m., I groggily scrolled backward through Twitter to see who had won. My reverse realization that it was, of all people, Dustin Penner who netted the game-winner was a blend of Simmons's daughter, Monty Burns, and the Cheshire Cat. A grin has never spread quite so slowly across my face. The best part was the transition from "ha ha, oh look, another Penner joke, how creative" to the "wait, he couldn't possibly have " portion of the evening. Oh yes, he possibly could, and he did.
That's been the vibe of this whole series so far: bemused disbelief.4 The Kings are — what now? Up 3-0 on Vancouver? ("Got these guys right where we want them," the Canucks' Kevin Bieksa tweeted, and I'm not even joking.) Here's something crazy: If L.A. can win one of its next two games, it'll be the first time a Presidents' Trophy–winning team has been eliminated in the first round in fewer than six games. Much of this is thanks to the absence of Daniel Sedin, but it's also due in large part to the presence of the Kings' captain Dustin Brown, who has scored four goals in three games for L.A. (including two shorthanded scores in the Game 2 win on Friday night) and thrown his body all over the ice, and goalie Jonathan Quick, who has allowed only four goals throughout the series. On the other end, it took only two games for Roberto Luongo to get the boot, even if he wasn't the one to blame.
As I mentioned on the B.S. Report, the only joke easier than one at the expense of Dustin Penner is one that pokes fun at Mike Richards's alleged party proclivities. And with the Canucks trailing three games to zip, any and all chirping out of Vancouver is about as meaningful as Zach Braff screaming into a landfill. (You can have that one for free, official Kings Twitter account, which just has to be run by the same person who slipped this into the official gamer "NOTES" section: "After Vancouver's Ryan Kesler appeared to embellish a cross-checking penalty against Willie Mitchell in the second period, the Staples Center scoreboard showed the replay, followed by several clips of springboard divers. Kesler and a few Vancouver teammates have been accused of diving by numerous opponents.")
Anyway, despite all those things, if the shadowy rumors are really true that Alex Burrows imitated the sampling of some Bolivian marching powder off his glove as he skated by Richards and that he continued to hammer the point home by then scooping up a small pile of snow on his stick well, that is, as the kids might say, some pretty good stuff.
Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (5)
Philadelphia leads 3-0
In the words of Dave Matthews, "so much to say so much to say so much to say so much to say." If I had written this on Saturday, this series still would have been one of the top two in the rankings: Let's take a moment to remember that Game 1 had the Penguins get out to a first-period 3-0 lead that made them seem more "inevitable" than Hillary Clinton in late 2007. Of course, we know how things turned out for her. I'm pretty big on the coaching job by Peter Laviolette at that juncture, by the way: Rather than panicking, changing lines, or benching players, he basically just said to his team: "Hey, there's 40 minutes left. Plenty of time." In an in-game interview, he said he hadn't even considered pulling Ilya Bryzgalov. At any rate, it all worked: His young team came back to tie the game and eventually win it in overtime.
That's not even to mention Game 2, in which Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier each netted a hat trick (Giroux also added three assists) en route to an 8-5 victory that again left the Penguins stunned, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury reeling, and Jaromir Jagr doing some mental math.
"8+5=13 goals in one game," he tweeted. "Friday the 13th. #notsurprised #crazystuffhappensonthatday"
"@28CGiroux 3+3=6 points in one playoff game. beginning of the year i called u little Mario- now i can scratch out the little."5
(Here's some of my own math: 24 + 19 = 43, the combined ages of Giroux and Couturier — just three years older than Jagr, who still has some moves of his own.)
And then there was Sunday's game, which was less a game of hockey than it was a prison-yard game of 500, and which will be used as argument fodder and also Used As An Example for quite some time. We're in uncharted territory here, folks — and no, I don't mean Crosby fighting Giroux. I mean the Philadelphia Flyers being cast as a quasi-lovable bunch all of a sudden, the kid chilling amiably next to the one having the temper tantrum. I know it was long ago, but this is an organization that prided itself on being such pains in the asses to play that they caught the attention of Dan Rather.
Penguins-Flyers Game 3 was plain old weird — it inspired Melrose to use the phrase "totally bonkers" not once but twice — but it also plainly showed the tensions in hockey. It was so brutal! All that fighting! And yet it was also a ratings bonanza,6 and Game 4 surely will be as well. Critics deplored it, the Philly crowds loved it. Hell, I loved it. I can't lie and say that I didn't. There's funny ha-ha, funny yikes, and sometimes there's funny Sidney Crosby petulantly pushing Jakub Voracek's glove away with his stick. (For his next trick, he offered his hand to help Voracek out of the pool, and then let go at the last second.) That last one was childish and probably not befitting an NHL captain, but boy oh boy did I heartily laugh the first time I caught it on replay. Really, the only thing I didn't like about it was that it didn't happen during, say, a vibrant Game 5 with the series tied at two games apiece. Instead it was a last gasp, an eyebrows-down flail of frustration, by the captain of a team down 3-0.
On Sunday night, out of morbid curiosity, I tuned in to a Pittsburgh sports radio station. A caller identified as "TURF MONSTA" (I visualized it spelled in all-caps) explained that he, a big Steelers fan, only watches the Penguins in the playoffs each year. This time around he was disgusted by what he was seeing. "They're about to get swept," he yelled into the phone line. "They should be ashamed."
Just what the world needs: another "I'll hang up and listen"er who only watches the Pens in the playoffs. But that's the thing: When you get swept in the first round of the playoffs, it's a language everyone speaks, including and especially TURF MONSTA. And it renders you almost entirely vulnerable. Other callers weighed in with opinions ranging from "trade Malkin" to "I always knew Fleury wasn't really that good" to "I hate to even ask, but what do you think we could get for the kid?"
It's amazing how quickly it happens. Even Dan Bylsma, who has been almost universally regarded as beyond reproach, was not immune to the hot seat as his team sat on the brink of elimination-via-meltdown — though he sold me pretty well on his press conference parting shot Sunday: "I know Marc-Andre Fleury will be the guy in the net in our next four games," he said.
3 + 4 = 7 games. Yes, please.
Nashville Predators (4) vs. Detroit Red Wings (5)
Nashville leads 2-1
This series rocks for a multitude of reasons:
- The atmosphere at Bridgestone Arena, which, at least on TV, seems pretty awesome, what with the bright golden T-shirts distributed to fans and the college-hockey-style coordinated taunts and chants. Much of the spirit is thanks to a section that calls itself "Cell Block 303" and even has an overly helpful online reference guide:
After Predators goal during "Rock"n"Roll Part Two," also known as "The HEY Song":
HEY! YOU SUCK!
- Pavel Datsyuk, just in general
- Mike Babcock's in-game interviews
- "Maybe I drag him out on the ice and sit on him, I don't know." —Johan Franzen, on David Legwand
- Nashville defenseman Kevin Klein, for his goal and his goal-saving block in Game 3 and also for his Mohawk. "I told him, you saved my butt enough times I can chip in for one," Klein said he told goalie Pekka Rinne over a fist pound. (Rinne, by the way, has had 35, 14, and 41 saves against the Red Wings this past week.)
- Most of all, because Nashville-Detroit has managed not to spiral out of control despite being the series that features Shea Weber — who kind of turned out to be the Patient Zero of the "epidemic of craziness," as Mike Milbury called it, that has infected the league. If anything, it was a picture-perfect model of what people envision when they talk about the importance of settling scores on the ice. At the start of Game 2, it took less than two minutes for Detroit's Todd Bertuzzi (Ping-Pong policeman) to challenge Weber to a fight, which the Nashville defenseman gamely accepted.7 And pretty much everyone then nodded gruffly, and that was that.
"I think sometimes when things don't get looked after, you have to look after it yourself," said Detroit head coach Mike Babcock. "And I don't think things were looked after at all."
Regarding the Weber-Bertuzzi fight, Nicklas Lidstrom added: "He took care of it, showing we're not going to accept that. It didn't become a distraction to our team. I thought, '[L]et's handle it early on' and then we moved on to play the game."