The Pens have it: Back to back Cups for Crosby and Co.

Back to back champs. It’s a rare occurrence in the NHL these days. Indeed, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Cup victory this week makes them the first club to accomplish the two-peat since Detroit in ’97 and ’98. Sidney Crosby led the Penguins to a six-game victory over the Nashville Predators in a series that was full of momentum swings, strange calls, impressive goaltending and sheer gutsiness.

Home ice played a major role in this final, with the home team holding serve every game until the deciding game 6, when Pittsburgh won a 2-0 nailbiter in the last 90 seconds to silence a roaring Smashville crowd. The first two games in the Steel City were largely dominated by the Preds everywhere but on the scoreboard, as the Penguins were able to solve the previously dominant Pekka Rinne by 5-3 and 4-1 scores. Back in Nashville, the Predators won games 3 and 4 by resounding 5-1 and 4-1 scores as Rinne bounced back and the offense stepped up. But Matt Murray responded with two straight shutouts as the Pens outscored Nashville 8-0 in games 5 and 6.

The Pens were also able to overcome a decimated defense corps and its own struggles in the faceoff circle. One big reason was the sheer depth of its forwards: Crosby and rookie Jake Guentzel (who led the playoffs in goal scoring with 13) on the top line, playing scoring leader Evgeni Malkin (29 points) and sniper Phil Kessel on the second, veterans Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen on the third. Ultimately, it was the fourth line that did the damage in game 6: ex-Pred Patric Hornqvist scored the game-winner and Carl Hagelin potted the empty netter to seal it away.

Nashville had injury issues of its own to deal with: Ryan Ellis of the vaunted top 4 defense group was battling through undisclosed injuries and top scorer Ryan Johansen was out for the final. Meanwhile, goals were hard to come by for the Preds in games other than the two wins at home. Sniper Filip Forsberg was largely silenced (except for an empty netter in game 4) and fourth-liner Frederick Gaudreau was the team’s leading goal scorer in the finals with three (also his first three goals in the NHL).

Preds fans, who were loud and proud the whole playoff run, had to wonder what would have been if the team hadn’t had two big goals overturned by questionable calls. In game 1, PK Subban scored what looked to be the series’ first goal, but it was wiped out by a coach’s challenge because replay officials ruled that Forsberg’s right skate was in the air as he received the pass to enter the zone. And then in game 6, in a tight scoreless game, Colton Sissons’ goal was wiped out because referee Kevin Pollock blew the play dead when he lost sight of the puck; it had trickled through Murray’s legs and right to Sissons, who tapped it in. That was a tough pill to swallow for Nashville, but the Preds had plenty of chances to score in that game, including a couple of foiled breakaways and a couple of shots that hit posts.

Crosby and Subban kept things interesting throughout the series with their battles, but it was the Penguins captain who prevailed, finishing with a Cup final high seven points on the way to his second consecutive Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP. He consistently came up with big plays when his team needed it, whether it was a goal, an assist, a faceoff win or a defensive play. Love him or hate him, you can’t deny the man’s ridiculously impressive resume: three Cups, two Olympic gold medals, a World Cup championship, a world junior title, and multiple regular season and playoff MVP awards. He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer before the age of 30.

The Penguins also were able to ride both their goalies to this Cup, with longtime vet Marc-Andre Fleury stepping in after Murray’s injury left him unable to start the playoffs. Fleury won 9 games for the Pens before stumbling in the semifinals against Ottawa, and then Murray was able to take over and win the final seven games. Murray passed the Cup to Fleury, who likely made his last appearance with the Pens (after 14 years in Pittsburgh) with the impending Vegas expansion draft next week. He waived his non-movement clause and is expected to be picked by the Golden Knights.

So now we look towards an interesting offseason, which kicks off next Wednesday with the expansion draft. Many teams will have to make big decisions, but the Penguins will have their core group returning. Too soon to think about a three-peat? Probably, but don’t rule it out.

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Finally, the Cup Final: Preds vs. Penguins

Getting to the Stanley Cup Final is as much as an endurance test as it is a measure of skill. Sure, you’ve got to have an impressive collection of skill and perseverance to prevail over three opponents in seven-game series, but you also have to hope that you can get through the playoffs without losing too many of your key players. And when you do lose important parts of your club, you need others to step up and carry the load.

And for both teams in the Final, each part has come into play. The Predators have lost their top two centers to injury: leading scorer Ryan Johansen is out for the playoffs and Mike Fisher missed much of the third-round series vs. Anaheim, but should be back. The Penguins lost number one goalie Matt Murray and top defenseman Kris Letang to injury before the playoffs began, but Marc-Andre Fleury stepped in and did a great job until Murray returned against Ottawa in the conference final. Pittsburgh has also overcome injuries to Sid Crosby and Trevor Daley, among others, both of whom are healthy enough to play in the final. Nashville is rested and ready, having knocked off Anaheim in 6 games, while it took a full 7 games and two overtimes for Pittsburgh to take down the pesky Senators.

Ultimately, it’s going to be a classic battle of offense against defense. Pittsburgh has the top three scorers in the playoffs—Evgeni Malkin, Crosby and Phil Kessel—but Nashville has a powerful defense corps (featuring PK Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm) that is not only excellent defensively but contributes to the Preds’ offense in a big way. Pittsburgh struggled at times against Ottawa’s smothering trap defense, but their challenge will be much different against the Preds, who send their defensemen into the rush to join the offense. Nashville can play a bruising game as well, having battled the Ducks and their big forwards in the last series. Their offense, which is led by the dangerous Filip Forsberg, also has received contributions from Viktor Arvidsson and minor-league callups Colton Sissons, Austin Watson and Pontus Aberg.

In the net, Pittsburgh has received good goaltending from Murray and Fleury, but Nashville’s Pekka Rinne has been the best goalie of the playoffs so far. After many years of postseason disappointment, Rinne seems locked in. He will be tested by the Pens’ big three and other threats like Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust.

Both teams have steady, smart coaches who have each won a Cup. Pittsburgh’s Mike Sullivan obviously won last year with the Pens and has more experience in the NHL as an assistant than a head coach, but don’t underestimate what he’s done mixing and matching his pieces throughout tough Eastern Conference battles against Columbus, Washington and Ottawa. Peter Laviolette won the Cup with Carolina in 2006 and has been the Cup final with Philadelphia as well. He’s also done well to incorporate younger players in key roles when regulars have gone down.

It’s going to be a fun, interesting series between two of the best teams in the NHL throughout the season, which is what you hope for. In the end, the Predators are too deep and strong and will bring Smashville its first Stanley Cup.

Nashville in 6.

Four left standing: Welcome to the conference finals

The NHL’s long playoff slog rolls on, with four teams left in the running for Lord Stanley’s Cup. The second round was hotly contested, with two series going six games and two going the full seven. Washington fell down 3-1 early against Pittsburgh, and even though they were able to rally to extend the series, the Caps were unable to beat the resurgent Marc-Andre Fleury in game 7 and fell 2-0. Meanwhile, the underdog Senators rode the dominant play of Erik Karlsson and the timely goaltending of Craig Anderson to knock off the Rangers in six. The Predators continued to pick up steam and eliminated St. Louis in six, while Anaheim held off the upstart Oilers in a seesaw series that went the distance.

So where does that leave us in the Conference Finals, which begin tonight?

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Ducks (1) vs. Predators (WC2)

I actually called the Western winners correctly in the last round, but I had the Ducks winning in six and Nashville in seven. Unlike the Capitals, the Ducks were able to get a major playoff monkey off their back by finally winning a game 7 at home after losing seventh-game showdowns in each of the last four seasons. It didn’t look like it would happen after the Oilers blew them out in game six, 7-1, but Anaheim was able to focus and get the job done. However, the Preds are playing lights out hockey right now with Pekka Rinne continuing his outstanding work in net, a terrific defense corps and clutch offense. Nashville’s going to the finals this year.

Nashville in 6.

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Senators (2) vs. Penguins (2)

Nobody, except probably the Sens themselves, thought Ottawa would get this far. But their defense-first style is built for the playoffs and they’ve had a knack for squeaking out victories: seven of their eight playoff wins have been by one goal. Karlsson has been immense for the Sens, putting himself in the early Conn Smythe considerations as he leads Ottawa at both ends of the ice while playing with two hairline fractures in his left heel. Pittsburgh overcame the concussion(s) suffered by Sidney Crosby (who returned) and injuries to Kris Letang (out for the postseason) and last year’s Cup-winning goalie Matt Murray to play just well enough to beat a stacked Capitals squad. Evgeni Malkin has stepped up and is leading the playoffs with 18 points, but there are plenty of weapons including Jake Guentzel and Phil Kessel to provide offense. And Fleury has been terrific, looking like the goalie who played so well for several years before settling into the backup role last year. Ottawa has battled hard, but they can’t match the Penguins.

Pittsburgh in 6.

Over and overtime: A grueling first round wraps up

Even though none of the first-round NHL playoff series went the distance, fans got their money’s worth and then some. There were a record 18 games that went to overtime, with both the Caps-Leafs and Sens-Bruins series wrapping up Round 1 fittingly on Sunday with OT decisions.

In the end, there were shocking upsets, shocking near-upsets and even a few expected results. In the East, #8 Toronto gave top-seeded Washington all it could handle and something more in a series that featured six one-goal games (five of them going to OT). The Bruins and Senators similarly waged a dogged battle, but in the end, the injury-ravaged Boston was too depleted to send the series to a seventh game. The Rangers defeated Montreal in another tight six-game series, with Henrik Lundqvist outdueling Carey Price in a contest between two of the best goalies of our time. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, made short work of Columbus in five.

The West featured more decisive results, the most surprising of which was Nashville’s sweep of the Blackhawks. Anaheim also swept their series, taking out Calgary in four close contests, while St. Louis and a red-hot Jake Allen took out Minnesota in five. The Edmonton-San Jose series was the closest, at one point tied 2-2 after a 7-0 Sharks victory in game 4. But the Oilers bounced and took the next two to advance to the second round.

Round 2 kicks off Wednesday night with the Western conference action. Here are my picks for the second round (I went 4-4 in the first round, correctly picking Washington, Pittsburgh, Anaheim and Edmonton):

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Blues (3) vs. Predators (WC2)

This will be a battle of hot goalies, with Allen and Pekka Rinne coming off dominating performances in the first round. Both teams are playing extremely well, having dispatched teams in the previous round that many pundits thought would take them out. The Preds, who underperformed during the regular season, are heating up at the right time and will outlast the Blues.

Predators in 7.

 

Ducks (1) vs. Oilers (2)

This should be a fun series, with the veteran Ducks taking on the high-flying Oilers. Edmonton’s got speed to burn and will make things difficult for Anaheim, but the Ducks’ overall depth (bolstered by a returning Cam Fowler) will give them the edge.

Ducks in 6.

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Senators (2) vs. Rangers (WC1)

May be the one dud of a series as the defense-minded Sens try to lull the speedy Rangers to sleep. With home ice advantage, Ottawa hopes to keep games close and win some squeakers. But King Henrik and a balanced attack will leave the Sens overmatched despite having the best player on the ice in Erik Karlsson, who was dominant against the Bruins.

Rangers in 6.

 

Capitals (1) vs. Penguins (2)

Here’s the series everyone’s excited for: Ovie vs. Sid, 1 vs. 2, and two teams that don’t like each other and have battled often over the last several years. Pittsburgh has come out on top in eight of their nine playoff meetings, but this year will be different. The defending Cup champ Penguins have the same offense they had last spring, but they’re missing their number one goalie Matt Murray and top d-man Kris Letang. The Caps have four good lines, a solid defense corps and Vezina finalist Braden Holtby, who struggled a bit against Toronto but played well by the end of the series. Their scare against the Leafs will serve as a wakeup call for Washington. It’s just a shame this series is taking place in the second round instead of the conference finals.

Capitals in 7.

 

Here’s Cold As Ice contributor Phil Stacey’s round 2 picks:

Washington over Pittsburgh in 6: Capitals ride momentum of first round triumph over Leafs to get past defending champs.

 

New York over Ottawa in 5: Karlsson and Anderson might combine to steal a game, but this series should be a formality for the Broadway Boys.

 

Anaheim over Edmonton in 7: Should be the best of the four semifinal series’; fast, frantic and a fight to the finish. Game 7 could go OT.

 

Nashville over St. Louis in 6: Preds may have more confidence than any other team right now and use that to fight off the Blues.

 

Of Easter Eve and multiple overtimes

Watching last night’s epic Leafs-Caps double OT classic took me back 30 years to April 18-19, 1987, when the Capitals and Islanders engaged in what became known as the Easter Epic.

I was home from college for the weekend and preparing to make one of my semi-annual appearances in church the following morning. My dad, my brother and I settled in to watch game 7 of the Patrick Division semifinals (aka the first round of the playoffs) at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. The Isles were a few years past their early ’80s run of Stanley Cup dominance, but they still had some of their stars from those teams, including Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy, who were the top two scorers that season. The Caps were a team on the rise after several years of bottom-dwelling, and they had taken a 3-1 lead in the series. The Isles bounced back to tie the series and send it to a decisive seventh game.

The game was broadcast on ESPN with Mike Emrick and Bill Clement handling the announcing duties; all the other series had already been decided. The Capitals were winning 2-1 until Trottier tied it up with five minutes left in regulation and it went to OT. Goalies Bob Mason for the Caps and Kelly Hrudey were outstanding throughout, but especially as the OT periods wore on. The Capitals had a sizable edge in shots, but weren’t able to dent the twine after regulation.

The game started at 7:30 p.m. and rolled on into Easter Sunday. I realized that I needed to get up at 6 a.m., but I wasn’t about to go to bed without seeing how the game ended. Pretty sure my brother bailed at some point, but my dad and I stuck it out. Things were getting loopy as the game moved into the 4th overtime period, as Emrick and Clement were letting their freak flag fly.

Finally at 1:58 a.m., about eight minutes into the 4th OT, Pat Lafontaine spun at the Caps blueline and fired a slapper at the net that somehow found its way past a bunch of players and Mason to win the game and series for the Islanders. I had been rooting for the Capitals, partly because they hadn’t won anything yet and also because a guy from my dorm at UNH, Steve Leach, was now on the team.  But I was also kind of relieved the game was over and I could go to bed. In the end, Hrudey had stopped 73 of 75 shots and Mason made 54 saves. The Islanders moved on to face the Philadelphia Flyers in the next round; the Flyers won the series in seven games and made it all the way to the finals, where they would lose to Wayne Gretzky and Edmonton. I don’t really remember much about going to church later that morning, but I’m sure there was plenty of yawning involved.

The Caps, meanwhile, still haven’t won a Cup, but they played in an even longer game in 1996 vs. the Penguins, when game 4 of the conference finals went to the final minute of the 4th OT before Pittsburgh’s Petr Nedved fired in the winner. I watched that one, too, but by that point, I was living by myself and was able to sleep in the next day.

Thirty years after the Easter Epic, the Leafs and Caps battled in game 2 of their opening round series. It was again a family-centered evening as we went out to dinner with my mother and my brother and his wife, who were in town from Northern Ireland for the holiday. We missed the first period, saw the second and then missed most of the third on the drive home. It was a white-knuckle ride through the OT periods, finally ending in the second OT when Kasperi Kapanen of the Leafs fired home his second of the game for the winner. The game was over not long after 11:30 p.m., so it wasn’t quite an Easter Epic, but it was pretty damn close.

Cold As Ice Playoff Preview: Here We Go!

We’re back on the cusp of the greatest postseason tournament in sports: the NHL playoffs. Everything takes on an air of desperation in the playoffs, making just about every game full of excitement and drama. And it’s a grueling death march to the Stanley Cup, with four best-of-seven rounds required to get to the top of the mountain. Rarely do things play out the way I think they will, but just for chuckles, here are my first-round picks.

Eastern Conference

Washington (1) vs. Toronto (WC2)

The Capitals are a team loaded with weapons that should have won a Cup by now but hasn’t, despite several years of regular season excellence. Led by the great Alex Ovechkin, the Caps boast a potent offense, a solid defense and one of the best goalies in the game in Braden Holtby. After years of early playoff exits, anything short of a Cup is failure for this crew. Meanwhile, you’ve got the upstart Leafs, who featured six rookies in prominent roles including the power trio of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner. Already not the strongest club defensively, the Leafs saw two of their regular d-men (Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak) suffer injuries in the last game of the season and number 1 goalie Frederik Andersen fall victim to a head shot by Pens goon Tom Sestito in the game before. They’re going to need all three to make any headway against Washington, but more than likely, it won’t be enough.

Capitals in 5.

 

Pittsburgh (2) vs. Columbus (3)

These teams don’t like each other. The defending Cup champ Penguins got some bad news last week when their top defenseman Kris Letang was ruled out for the playoffs after undergoing neck surgery. But they’ve still got Crosby, Kessel and a deep selection of offensive weapons, not the least of which is Evgeni Malkin, who is expected to return to the lineup after almost a month. Trade deadline pickups Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit will pick up some of the slack for Letang, but it will take some strong goaltending from Matt Murray to help the Pens go deep into the playoffs. The Blue Jackets had their best season ever, finishing with 108 points, but they stumbled through to the end at a 1-6 clip. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has been a beast, but the Jackets will need big contributions from the likes of Cam Atkinson, Alexander Wennberg, Brandon Saad and Nick Foligno to stand a chance at knocking off the Penguins. Look for John Tortorella’s squad to play a gritty, hard-hitting series to throw the Pens off their game. Pittsburgh has too much weaponry to be stopped, though.

Penguins in 6.

 

Montreal (1) vs. New York Rangers (WC1)

This is going to be a fun series. A true battle of great goalies: Henrik Lundqvist vs. Carey Price. There’s no love lost between the clubs, especially since NY’s Chris Kreider took out Price in the Eastern Conference finals three years ago. Neither team has much of an offensive attack, so look for a lot of low-scoring games and stud d-men Ryan McDonagh and Shea Weber to play major roles in the outcome. Ultimately, Price will come out on top again.

Canadiens in 7.

 

Ottawa (2) vs. Boston (3)

After canning Claude Julien in February, the Bruins turned their season around under assistant Bruce Cassidy. The new coach freed up his offense and the club was re-energized, led by pest-turned-elite-scorer Brad Marchand. The B’s will be put to the test by the trap-happy Senators, who can effectively put both opponents and fans to sleep with their defense-first style. Breaking out of the Ottawa malaise will be crucial if Boston hopes to advance. It won’t be easy, but they’ll do it.

Bruins in 7.

 

Western Conference

Chicago (1) vs. Nashville (WC2)

The Blackhawks are stacked with talent as always and even though they stumbled down the stretch, they still have to be considered one of the favorites to win the Cup. Kane, Toews, Keith and co. will do battle with a dangerous Predators team that’s built to succeed in the postseason. PK Subban had an underwhelming regular season, but all that will be forgotten if he can lead the Preds past the Hawks. It will be tough, but the Hawks will move on.

Blackhawks in 6.

 

Minnesota (2) vs. St. Louis (3)

The focus in this series will be on the coaches as much as the players. First-year Wild coach Bruce Boudreau has famously had strong teams in Washington and Anaheim that flamed out early. Meanwhile, Mike Yeo of St. Louis, who took over midseason from Ken Hitchcock, will be facing his old team. The Wild have a strong all-around team that took a big leap forward this year; the Blues are solid as always, but they won’t have enough to advance.

Wild in 6.

Anaheim (1) vs. Calgary (WC1)

There’s some bad blood between these teams after Calgary captain Mark Giordano took out Ducks d-man Cam Fowler with a knee-on-knee hit last week. The Flames have some strong young talent led by Johnny Gaudreau, but even without Fowler, the Ducks are too much to handle.

Ducks in 5.

 

Edmonton (2) vs. San Jose (3)

This series will essentially be the Young Guns vs. the Old Farts. In his second year, Connor McDavid took his place as the most electrifying player in the NHL, leading the league in scoring and taking over games with his blazing speed and ability. Cam Talbot solidified the Oilers with a 42-win season in goal and veteran pickups like Milan Lucic provided the jam the team had lacked. Meanwhile, the Sharks are ailing, with Joe Thornton and Logan Couture both missing time at the end of the season with injuries. Brent Burns had a monster year and the team still has offensive support from Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau, but it’s time for Edmonton’s kids to shine.

Oilers in 6.

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL: Washington over Montreal in 6.

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL: Chicago over Anaheim in 6.

STANLEY CUP: Washington over Chicago in 7.

CONN SMYTHE WINNER: Ovechkin

 

And while we’re at it, here are Cold As Ice contributor Phil Stacey’s picks to click in the postseason:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Bruins over Senators in 7: Pastrnak and Marchand come up with key goals as B’s win three games in OT for series win.

Capitals over Maple Leafs in 5: It’s now or never for the best team Alexander Ovechkin has ever played with in the NHL.

Rangers over Canadiens in 5: Henrik Lundqvist outplays Carey Price; Rangers’ physicality is a difference maker, too.

Penguins over Blue Jackets in 5: Injuries aside, the Penguins are built for playoff hockey and will prove it in this round.

EAST FINALCapitals over Rangers in 6

 

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Blackhawks over Predators in 6: I can see Nashville splitting the first four games before the Hawks take charge for good.

Wild over Blues in 4: Minnesota heads into the posteason with a head full of steam…and St. Louis doesn’t have the teeth to respond.

Sharks over Oilers in 7: Jumbo Joe, Patty Marleau & Co. have one last run in them, enough to hold off these young whippersnappers.

Ducks over Flames in 6: Anaheim will not only be battling Calgary, but the stigma that they too often fall flat in the playoffs.

WEST FINALWild over Ducks in 6

STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS: Wild over Capitals in 6

Conn Smythe Trophy winner: Zach Parise, Wild

The future is now: Leafs are back in the playoffs

When the Toronto Maple Leafs hired Mike Babcock as their high-priced, high-profile head coach in 2015, he warned that there was going to be some pain before the Leafs worked their way back to respectability.

And indeed, his first season behind the bench resulted in a last-place finish as the team unloaded veterans and contracts and loaded up on draft picks, ultimately landing the top pick in the draft courtesy of the lottery. The Leafs drafted much-touted Auston Matthews last June and while he was expected to make the team, not many expected the club to do much this season. Leaf fans were prepared for another year without a postseason appearance; after all, the team had missed the playoffs 10 out of the previous 11 seasons. The one playoff series was in 2013, a heartbreaking seven-game loss to the Bruins.

But Matthews and his merry gang of rookies (including William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Nikita Zaitsev) confounded all expectations and led the Leafs to the second wild card spot in the East. For his part, Matthews appears to have sealed up the Calder Trophy with his strong finish, ending up with 40 goals and 69 points. But he wasn’t the only weapon: Toronto had five players with at least 20 goals and five with 60 points or more. The special teams were strong and Frederik Andersen provided excellent goaltending.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. The defense can be sloppy at times and the Leafs had a tendency to cough up leads, although that seemed to have been remedied in the last few weeks of the season (until game 82, anyway). That last blown lead was painful, because the Leafs were up 2-0 vs. Columbus in their final game of the season and one point would have secured a higher seed and a first-round playoff series with Ottawa instead of powerhouse Washington.

So now the Leafs head to DC Thursday night to take on Alex Ovechkin and the Caps, who rolled to a league-leading 118 points and are looking to finally get that Stanley Cup that keeps eluding them. The Leafs, who finished with 95 points, are considered major underdogs against one of the best defensive teams in the league. Babcock noted Sunday night that all the pressure is on Washington, and he’s right. Toronto’s expected to lose, but don’t tell the Leafs that. Matthews and the kids are just having a blast and the few veterans (James Van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, Brian Boyle, Leo Komarov, Tyler Bozak) are gearing up for a battle. They’re young, but it would be foolish to look past the Leafs. Because someday soon, it’ll be their time.

Rendez-vous ’87 was hockey at its highest level

International hockey is the focus of some interesting hockey discussions right now. The NHL is still mulling over whether to send players to the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, while last fall’s World Cup of Hockey tournament is having a major impact on the current NHL season because of the resulting compressed schedule. But 30 years ago this month, the two-game all-star series known as Rendez-vous ’87 was all anyone was talking about.

At a time when amateurs still played in the Olympics, Rendez-vous was the successor to 1979’s Challenge Cup series, in which a team of NHL all-stars played a squad from the Soviet Union. This time around, there were games on Feb. 11 and 13 in Quebec City, replacing the 1986-87 NHL All-Star Game. To top it off, the games were held in the middle of Quebec’s annual Winter Carnival celebration, which organizer (and Quebec Nordiques president) Marcel Aubut hoped would turn the series into hockey’s version of the Super Bowl. TV coverage on CBC and ESPN brought the games into homes worldwide.

The NHL All-Stars were led by Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, while the Soviet National Team featured plenty of future NHLers (we were still two years away from the first Russian player signing with an NHL squad, Sergei Priakhin) including Slava Fetisov, Igor Larionov and Valeri Kamensky.

A fan vote determined the Team NHL starters, which was somewhat controversial because Lemieux got the starting center over Gretzky, despite the Great One having a better statistical season to that point. The team was led by a slew of Edmonton Oilers, who were in the midst of their dynastic ’80s run of five Cups in seven years. In addition to Gretzky and Lemieux in their primes, the team had Mark Messier, Ray Bourque, Jari Kurri, Dale Hawerchuk,  Grant Fuhr and Michel Goulet. The team was coached by Jean Perron, who coached the Montreal Canadiens to the 1985-86 Cup, with assistants Michel Bergeron of Quebec and Bob Johnson of Calgary. The Soviet squad was helmed by the legendary Viktor Tikhonov.

Game 1 went to the NHL All-Stars by a 4-3 score, with Dave Poulin scoring the game-winner late in the third. The Soviets took the second game 5-3, led by Kamensky’s two goals and an assist. Gretzky and Kamensky were named their team’s respective MVPs. But this was no exhibition series. There was hard hitting, spectacular offensive playmaking and stellar goaltending. The series also set the stage for the next Canada Cup tournament, which was held in the fall of 1987 before the NHL season started. The round-robin saw Canada play the Soviet Union in the three-game final series. Each game finished with a 6-5 score: The Soviets won Game 1 in OT, Canada won the second game in double OT (with Lemieux netting a hat trick and Gretzky finishing with five assists) and the clincher was won by Canada thanks to a Gretzky-to-Lemieux play with 1:26 left in regulation.

There have been memorable international series before (1972 Summit Series, 1980 Winter Olympics, 1976 Canada Cup) and after (1987 Canada  Cup, 1996 World Cup, 2002 and 2010 Winter Olympics), but Rendez-vous definitely upped the ante.

Never a dull moment in Bruins-Habs rivalry

There are plenty of great things about hockey, but one of the greatest is the rivalry between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens. Which is why it was so entertaining this week when the Habs suddenly announced that head coach Michel Therrien was fired and being replaced by Claude Julien, who had been fired by the Bruins last week.

At first, it might seem strange that the first-place Canadiens fired their coach with less than two months left in the regular season, but on closer inspection, it makes sense. For the second straight year, Montreal started the season strong, but has struggled mightily. Last year after reeling off nine straight wins to begin the season, goalie Carey Price strained a knee ligament and the team went off the rails, missing the playoffs. This season, Price is healthy, but Montreal has the worst record in the NHL since January, so GM Marc Bergevin undoubtedly decided not to wait for disaster to strike twice.

Meanwhile, the Bruins were also in the midst of a disappointing season when team brass announced that Julien, the winningest coach in team history, was fired and assistant Bruce Cassidy was taking over. Of course, GM Don Sweeney chose to make the announcement when the Boston area was sky high after the New England Patriots’ amazing Super Bowl win, scheduling the press conference right smack dab in the middle of the Pats’ victory parade. If Sweeney was hoping nobody would notice, he was sorely mistaken; Bruins fans already bummed out by the team’s performance the last few years (the Bruins were blown out in their final game of last season to miss the playoffs) lashed out against the move to depose the well-liked Julien.

If this all sounds like history repeating itself, it is: Julien’s first NHL coaching gig came in 2003, when he was hired to coach Montreal, replacing the fired Therrien. He spent parts of three seasons with Montreal, coached most of the 2006-07 season in New Jersey (where, ironically, he was presiding over another first-place team before being unceremoniously jettisoned with a week left in the season) and then was Boston’s bench boss for the past nine-plus seasons. In addition to winning the most games in Bruins history, Julien also led the team to the Stanley Cup in 2011, breaking a 39-year drought.

It’s a bold move: Montreal management definitely chose to go with a known entity in Julien, but he was the best coach available and will undoubtedly be hungry to turn an underachieving Habs team around. His defense-first style could rankle fans at times, but you can’t argue with the results. And mid-season coaching changes can have big benefits, as we saw with Pittsburgh last season and more recently with the Bruins, who have won three straight since Cassidy stepped in, including an emphatic 4-0 trouncing of Montreal that sealed Therrien’s fate. Still, Bruins fans can’t be thrilled to see their longtime coach get hired by their hated nemesis.

Sadly, the Bruins and Canadiens don’t have any regular season games left against each other, but wouldn’t it be great if they met in the playoffs? Revenge can be quite the motivator.

Which NHLers will ultimately hear the Hall’s call?

Editor’s note: Cold As Ice contributor Phil Stacey takes a hard look at which current NHL players should make the Hockey Hall of Fame someday, and which ones won’t quite make the final cut.

In the NHL right now, there are seven no-doubt-about-it Hall of Famers: Sidney Crosby, Jaromir Jagr, Jarome Iginla, Joe Thornton, Zdeno Chara, Alex Ovechkin and Henrik Lundqvist. Their credentials are impeccable and can’t be questioned.

But what about all of other terrific talents in the league? How do we separate the wheat from the chaff and decide who ultimately gets a call from the Hall?

It’s a precarious proposition trying to sift through a number of variables. How do you properly measure star players still in the embryonic stages of their careers? Can we count on guys in their playing peak right now to stay at a similar level of excellence? How much of a factor should longevity play into making potential Hall selections?

So the best way to do it is probably break it down by age. Let’s break it down into four sections—35 and Over, plus players ages 30-to-34, 25-to-29 and 24-and-under—and see who deserves to have a weekend where they’re honored on Yonge Street in Toronto.

SHOULD GET IN: 35 AND OVER

Daniel Sedin: Just became the newest member of the league’s 1,000 Point Club and can still dish the biscuit with the very best. Hart Trophy and Art Ross winner as well as Vancouver’s all-time leading scorer.

Henrik Sedin: The lethal scorer/beneficiary of his twin brother’s passing proclivities, he’ll soon be joining his sibling in the 1K Club and also has an Art Ross Trophy on his mantle at home.

Marian Hossa: Has reinvented himself several times with various organizations, but has always brought the goods when comes to getting on the scoresheet (500+ goals, 1,100+ points).

 

NOT GOING TO CUT IT: 35 AND OVER

Roberto Luongo: Quirky and self deprecating while fantastic between the pipes for the bulk of his career. But he never brought home a Cup, so … sorry, Bobby Lou.

Patrick Marleau: He’s been nothing if not consistently … solid. That works well over a span of almost 20 years, but the Hall? Not in this instance.

Shane Doan: Tip o’ the bucket for his legacy in Winnipeg/Arizona, but simply not worthy of being in this conversation.

Henrik Zetterberg: Has never been the best forward on his own team.

Ryan Miller: Having 340+ career wins is nice, but not enough to earn him a spot.

 

SHOULD GET IN: 30-TO-34 YEARS OLD

Duncan Keith: Still a minute munching machine at age 33; those three Cups in Chicago only help his argument.

Patrice Bergeron: Beloved in Boston but also universally recognized for skill, savvy and ability to come through in the clutch.

Brent Burns: Third in the league in scoring at the All-Star break, what he’s doing on the back line as a converted forward has been nothing short of remarkable.

Evgeni Malkin: Repeated time on the sidelines could hurt his candidacy, but there’s no denying his ability or what he’s done with a Hart Trophy, a Conn Smythe and two Cups to his name.

 

SKILLED, BUT ULTIMATELY NOT HALL-WORTHY: 30-TO-34 YEARS OLD

Jonathan Quick: Toughest choice for me was to leave him off. Two otherworldly Cup winning performances, but will injuries ultimately take their toll on the 31-year-old?

Ryan Getzlaf: He makes the Hall of Really, Really Good Players, not the Hall of Fame.

Corey Perry: Like his Anaheim running mate, see above.

Ryan Suter: Great stamina and leadership both in NHL and international hockey, but a tick or two below what it means to reside in the Hall.

Shea Weber: Besides Al MacInnis, what other HOF defender is best known for his booming shot? That alone won’t cut it for Weber.

Joe Pavelski: Captain America moniker fits him perfectly, but resume is lacking for Hall induction.

Rick Nash: Never quite pushed through to the ultra greatness threshold that he should have reached by now.

Thomas Vanek: Could look like the league’s best 1-on-1 player in certain games, but also has disappeared for stretches of his career.

 

LOOKING GOOD TO GET IN: 25-TO-29 YEARS OLD

Patrick Kane: May very well retire as the greatest American-born player of all time.

Jonathan Toews: Outstanding three-zone player and immense leader who captained three Cup winners in six seasons.

Erik Karlsson: Generational talent buried on a bad Ottawa team, but anyone who follows the league knows he’s the best all-around defenseman and offensive pioneer.

 

UPWARD TRAJECTORY GIVES THEM A CHANCE: 25-TO-29 YEARS OLD

Steven Stamkos: Only injury can prevent him from continuing his run of scoring greatness.

Carey Price: He’s not Ken Dryden (who is?), but he’s Montreal’s most important player the best thing between the pipes there since Patrick Roy.

Jamie Benn: Talented playmaker and scorer, effective leader and grittier than you’d expect.

Anze Kopitar: In the Bergeron/Toews mold in that his stats might not jump off the page, but his valuable exceeds mere numbers.

Victor Hedman: Has matured into a beast of a blueliner with size, strength and skill.

John Tavares: Great player in a terrible organization needs a chance to flourish elsewhere while he’s still young.

Vladimir Tarasenko: Might be a reach, but early indications are promising for this rocket-shot scoring star in the Midwest.

 

SKILLED, BUT PROBABLY NOT HALL-WORTHY: 25-TO-29 YEARS OLD

Phil Kessel: Too streaky, and his days as an elite scorer are nearing the end.

P.K. Subban: Fun, flashy and owner of a cannon shot—but will he ever fulfill his true potential?

Claude Giroux: Better version of a former Flyers captain (Mike Richards) with resolve for days on end, but often a healthy scratch for Team Canada in big games.

Nicklas Backstrom: Skilled passer has obviously benefited from playing with Ovechkin, but are his accomplishments on their own Hall-worthy? No.

 

EARLY FAVORITES FROM THE 24-AND-UNDER CROWD

Connor McDavid: Runs neck-and-neck with Ovechkin for title of NHL’s Most Exciting Player. Talent up the wazoo.

Tyler Seguin: More than living up to the expectations of a No. 2 overall pick; talented marksman will continue to get better.

Jack Eichel: Sky is the limit for this 20-year-old wunderkind; if he can ever bring a Cup to Buffalo, he’ll be a shoo-in.

Johnny Gaudreau: A human shot of adrenaline who can fly and fire the puck in a blur of amazement.

Auston Matthews: How many other Hall of Famers began their NHL careers with a 4-goal game? He’s just scratching at the surface of his immense potential.