Christmas in July for Leafs fans: Tavares goes home to Toronto

July 1 is a big day north of the border. Yeah, it’s Canada Day, so there’s already a lot of celebrating going on. But it’s also when the NHL’s free agent season begins, so there’s plenty of hype and excitement around that every year. This year, however, featured the John Tavares Sweepstakes, so the hype was in overdrive. And the fact that Tavares signed a 7-year, $77 million deal with Toronto today just amped that up exponentially.

I just spent a week up in Toronto and speculation was at a fever pitch, especially given that the Leafs were one of the teams in the hunt for the 27-year-old center. Six teams (Toronto, San Jose, Boston, Dallas, Tampa Bay and the Islanders) had all flown delegations to Los Angeles to meet with Tavares and his agent and make their pitch for his services. The Canadian media was there in force, stationing reporters on the sidewalk outside for hours to hunt for scraps of information that didn’t come.

There was definitely a feeling of restraint among Leafs fans (myself included), given the disappointments of past free agent seasons—most recently in 2016, when the Leafs tried to woo Steven Stamkos but ultimately saw him re-sign with the Lightning. By yesterday, there were reports that the Leafs and Sharks were the finalists along with the Isles; Tavares could have gotten an eighth year if he signed with the Islanders before midnight, but he didn’t, so it appeared they were out of the hunt. Twitter was full of anxiety-ridden hockey fans waiting for a decision all weekend and finally around 1 p.m. Sunday, it came. The native of Mississauga, Ontario (a Toronto suburb) chose his hometown team.

For Leafs fans, it was the team’s biggest free agent signing ever. Toronto has signed big names in the past (Eric Lindros, Ed Belfour, Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts, Alex Mogilny), but they’ve usually been in the twilight of their careers. Arguably ,the best Leafs’ free agent acquisition was Curtis Joseph in 1998, who backstopped the team to some decent playoff runs over the next four years. There have been some major busts, like David Clarkson (signed in 2013 to seven years and $36 million), Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin and the immortal Jeff Finger (Who? Exactly).

This isn’t that. In Tavares, Toronto gets a franchise center in his prime who’s been overshadowed by the likes of Crosby, Ovechkin and Kane over his nine seasons in the NHL. He’s also been stuck on an Islanders team that has gone through some serious turmoil during that time, with unstable ownership, bad management and an uncertain arena situation.

Now he’s going to a Leafs team that is already stacked with young talent: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander lead a speedy, skilled squad that has made the playoffs the last two years but is looking to take the next step. The Leafs lost some players from last year’s squad to free agency: James Van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov (who current Isles/former Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello inexplicably signed to a four-year contract today) and Roman Polak. One glaring weakness was the right side of the defense, which in this past spring’s playoffs featured Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev and Polak and was victimized repeatedly by the Bruins in Boston’s seven-game victory. New GM Kyle Dubas still has moves to make, so we’ll reserve judgment just yet.

But right now, it’s a matter of gleefully thinking about top three forward line combinations, like this:

Zach Hyman-Matthews-Nylander

Patrick Marleau -Tavares-Marner

Andreas Johnsson-Nazem Kadri-Kasperi Kapanen

The fourth line is still a work in progress, since Tomas Plekanec has re-signed with Montreal. Connor Brown will slot in, but beyond that could be solved by additional free agent signings or promotions from the Leafs’ AHL champion farm team, the Toronto Marlies.

Are the Leafs now a Cup contender? I’d say they’re getting closer. Remember, the Penguins won two straight Cups and the Golden Knights made it to the final this year with defensive squads that were not ranked at the top of the league. There are some more pieces to the puzzle for Toronto, but getting a top player like Tavares is a major step.

The signing also means Dubas will have to get creative over the next few years as Matthews, Marner and Nylander all will be restricted free agents coming off their rookie contracts. Does Dubas move Nylander for a top d-man, or does he keep his stacked offense intact and look for a less expensive defense answer? The Leafs have some decent young d-men in their farm system, including last year’s top pick Timothy Liljegren. Goalie Frederik Andersen has proven he’s a #1, but he could use a little rest in the regular season; he played 66 games in 2017-18 and looked fatigued at times in the playoffs, especially given how much he had to do. Dubas may want to promote Garret Sparks, who had a spectacular year for the Marlies (31-9-1, 1.79 GAA and another 14 years on the way to the Calder Cup) and could provide Andersen with 25-30 games of quality relief.

These are good problems to have, and as a long-suffering Leafs fan, things look a damn sight better than they did 10, five or even two years ago. Leafs Nation remains the butt of jokes from many fanbases across the league (especially here in Boston), but Dubas, Tavares and co. have a good chance of ending that in the next few years. It’s a good time to be a Maple Leafs fan, for once.

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The Caps take the Cup: Ovi finally triumphs

Things don’t always go as planned. Nobody expected the Washington Capitals to win the Stanley Cup this year. Plenty of other teams seemed primed to run the table: Tampa, Nashville, Boston, Winnipeg, Pittsburgh. And then came Vegas, which looked like a team of destiny all the way through game 1 of the Cup final, which they won 6-4. But then the Caps took over and won the next four games, taking the Cup in five games.

Throughout the playoffs, there were moments in each round where the Capitals seemed on the verge of getting bounced. Down 2-0 in the first round vs. Columbus before winning four straight. In the second round against hated rivals Pittsburgh—who seemingly had beaten them every year of the last decade (not really) to prevent Washington from advancing to the conference finals—the Caps dropped the first game and went back and forth with the Pens before taking the series in six. In the third round against the stacked Lightning, Washington won the first two games and then dropped three straight before shutting out TB in the final two.

But in the final, there was a different vibe. Make no mistake, every game was tight, even game 4’s 6-2 Washington win, in which Vegas had plenty of chances to score early before the Caps pulled away. Led by captain Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals were able to answer every challenge from the Golden Knights with big goals, big hits and big saves from Braden Holtby, who just two months ago sat on the bench while Phillip Grubauer started the first two games in the Columbus series.

Leading playoff scorer Evgeny Kuznetzov was a force throughout the playoffs and that continued during the final. Fourth-liner Devante Smith-Pelly scored big goals in each of the last three games of the final. Lars Eller contributed with big goals, including the Cup winner in game 5. T.J. Oshie was a big presence, chipping in offensively and delivering a gutsy performance camping out in front of the Vegas net. Kuznetzov and Holtby would have been deserving winners of the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP, but there was nobody complaining about Ovechkin getting the honor.

Vegas kept pushing, but the Caps were able to counteract just about every move. Marc-Andre Fleury, after dominating the first three rounds, looked merely human in the final. The Knights’ Cinderella story finally came to an end, but what a ride it was.

Meanwhile, it has been four days since Washington won and they’re still partying like there’s no tomorrow. Seems as though Ovechkin has not let the Cup out of his sight the entire time and they haven’t even held the parade yet. The explosion of joy and relief among long-suffering Caps fans, who saw a 44-year drought ended, is reminiscent of other Cup victories by teams who went a long time without winning: the ’94 Rangers, the 2010 Blackhawks, the 2011 Bruins. It’s also kind of nice to see a different team win; from 2009-2017, only four teams had hoisted the Cup (Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh).

While Ovi et al. continue their victory tour through the bars of DC, thoughts turn to the upcoming draft and free agency. And other teams dream of ending their Cup droughts. Certainly Maple Leaf fans are eager for that team to end its 51-year cold snap, one in which the team hasn’t even made the Cup final. But there’s also the St. Louis Blues, the last of the ’67 expansion class to not win a championship, with 50 years of futility. And the Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks, who both joined the NHL in 1970-71, have come close but now are up to 47 years without a Cup.

But if there’s one thing the Capitals’ victory and the Golden Knights’ incredible run tells us, it’s that anything is possible.

Honeymoon in Vegas: The Knights’ Cinderella season continues

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. The NHL’s 31st team, the Vegas Golden Knights, was a feel-good story from Day 1. GM George McPhee put together a competitive team and most, if not all, experts figured they’d be average at best. The expansion draft held last summer ensured that Vegas would be able to pluck better players than previous rookie franchises, but I’ve got to believe that even McPhee and coach Gerard Gallant had no idea their team was THIS good.

With their 2-1 win on the road Sunday, the Knights closed out the stacked Winnipeg Jets in 5 games and clinched a historic trip to the Stanley Cup final. They’ll face the winner of the Washington-Tampa series, which is currently 3-2 in favor of the Lightning. It’s a big leap from the prediction owner Bill Foley made last summer, when he said the Knights would “be pretty good in three years and we’ll make a run in five or six.”

So how did they do it? Vegas built the team around Marc-Andre Fleury, who backstopped the Penguins to three Cups but was left unprotected by Pittsburgh (who opted to stick with the younger Matt Murray). They then acquired via draft or trade a collection of players other teams gave up on: William Karlsson (who scored 43 goals), Jonathan Marchessault, James Neal, Alex Tuch, Erik Haula, Reilly Smith, David Perron, Deryk Engelland, Luca Sbisa and Cody Eakin. On paper, doesn’t inspire the same kind of fear that the Penguins, Predators or, uh, the Jets do. But here we are in the third week of May and Vegas will be one of two teams to fight for the Cup.

The team is fast, tenacious and skilled, powered by the underdog spirit that has driven them all season long. During this playoff run, Fleury has been Vegas’ best player, but the team has received contributions from just about all corners. In the conference final clincher, fourth-line grinder/tough guy Ryan Reaves scored the game- (and series-) winner with a nifty deflection.

The Knights actually aren’t the first new expansion team to make the Cup final in its first year: St. Louis did it in 1967-68. The big difference, of course, was in that first post-Original Six season, the six new teams were put in the West division, which guaranteed that an expansion club would make the final. The Blues were swept in four by Montreal, as they were the following two years by the Habs and Bruins. Back then, the expansion teams were filled with past-their-prime veterans and unproven youngsters.

As the NHL continued to expand in the following decades, there were some godawful debuts: the Capitals in 1974-75 finished 8-67-5; the Kansas City Scouts were 15-54-11 the same year; the New York Islanders in 1972-73 went 12-60-6; Atlanta’s second franchise, the Thrashers, struggled to go 14-61-7 in 1999-2000; and Ottawa went 10-70-4 in 1991-92. All of which makes the Knights’ 51-24-7 regular season finish all the more impressive as they won the Pacific Division.

With Seattle seemingly the favorite to receive a new team a few years down the line, it’s expected that the expansion draft will follow the same process that helped Vegas ice an immediate success. Whether Seattle can match Vegas remains to be seen, but they’ll be given every opportunity to do so. Of course, it’ll be interesting how the other teams deal with the expansion draft and who they give up, watching how Vegas struck gold with rejects from the Island of Misfit Hockey Players.

In the meantime, there are still games to be played by the Knights this season. Can Vegas win the Cup? At this point, how can you bet against them?

A quick trip to hockey mecca

I grew up in the hockey mecca of Toronto, and even though we moved to the U.S. in 1981, I get back every few years to visit family and take in some games. Usually, I go in the summer, so I see Blue Jays games. But a few weeks ago, I flew up for a three-day, hockey-filled trip.

The main reason for the visit was to go to the Panthers-Leafs game at the Air Canada Centre with my cousin Dev, but I managed to pack a lot of puck-related activities into a short period of time. I flew into Toronto’s Pearson Airport on Sunday morning (2/19) and I immediately knew I was in a hockey-obsessed country because the baggage claim area had TVs playing hockey highlights.

The Winter Olympics were still in full swing at this point and after eating lunch at my uncle’s place in Mississauga (a city of 700,000 west of Toronto), Dev and I went to a bar for a few beers and watched the rebroadcast of that morning’s Canada-Finland men’s hockey game. Later that evening, we gathered around to watch the Leafs-Red Wings game on TV. Okay, it was me, Dev and his 6-year-old son; the 4-year-old was watching Peppa Pig on a computer and the ladies were watching the Olympics on the other TV. The game was pretty exciting, with Auston Matthews getting the winner with 31 seconds left in regulation.

The next day, I joined my cousin, his oldest son and my uncle at an Ontario Hockey League (OHL) game between the Mississauga Steelheads and the Flint Firebirds. The Canadian major junior leagues (the OHL, Quebec Major Junior and Western Hockey League) have been a major source of players for the professional leagues including the NHL. The Mississauga club had four players drafted by NHL teams, including RW Owen Tippett (drafted 10th overall by Florida last year) and C Michael McLeod (drafted by New Jersey in the first round in 2016). The Steelheads are having a .500 season while the Firebirds are stuck in last place in the OHL’s Western Division.

It was a Monday afternoon game on what’s known as Family Day in Canada, a holiday that was adopted in Ontario 10 years ago; the idea is to celebrate the importance of families (it just happens to coincide with Presidents Day in the U.S.). The game was pretty close for two periods, with Mississauga up 1-0 after 2 thanks to the efforts of Flint goalie Luke Cavallin. The Steelheads popped in three goals in the third to win the game 4-0. The stadium promo staff were busy throughout, popping up during breaks in the action to interview fans, leading contests and giving away pizza, so much pizza.

After the game, we took my 6-year-old nephew to his hockey practice. It was fun to watch him and his teammates go through their drills. There were a lot of wipeouts and mishaps as the kids, split up into three age groups, zipped around the ice. After going out to dinner, I came back and watched more Olympic hockey late into the night.

On Tuesday, Dev and I took the train into Toronto in the early afternoon. We went to the Hockey Hall of Fame, which I had last visited in the summer of 2013. It had been redesigned since then and had some cool newer displays, including a big one featuring the 100 Greatest NHL Players and another that had great goalie masks displayed.

We got some dinner and then headed over to the ACC. This was my first Leafs home game since 1998, when I flew up to catch one last game at the old Maple Leaf Gardens (where the Leafs played their final game a few months later). The mood was pretty excited in the rink; the Leafs were in the midst of a hot stretch and neck-and-neck with the Bruins and Lightning for the top spot in the East (they’ve since dropped back a bit). Our seats were up in the third level by one of the nets.

I had expected the Leafs to take it to the Panthers, but it was a pitched battle, with excellent goaltending from Florida’s Roberto Luongo and Leafs’ workhorse Frederik Andersen. James Van Riemsdyk popped in a goal in the first and that was it for scoring, but there was no shortage of chances.

The Leafs are on their way to their second straight playoff appearance, led by a trio of young superstars in Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner. Alas, Matthews would be injured a few days later thanks to the Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck, who caught him with a blind-side check that left Matthews with a shoulder injury. That was on Feb. 22 and he still hasn’t returned, although it’s expected he’ll be back later this week or early next week. Still, fans have good reason to be hopeful as the Leafs continue to grow into a contender. They’re not defensively ready yet, but they’ll get there. After decades of futility, the Leafs have finally given their obsessed fan base something to get excited about.

We went home after the game and I was set to leave the next morning, but my flight was delayed so I watched a little more Olympic hockey before heading out. Strangely enough, I left Toronto where it was 35 degrees and rainy and arrived in Boston to find it sunny and in the mid-70s. (We’ve reverted back into winter mode, though: as I write this, we’re in the midst of a blizzard and our third nor’easter in the last few weeks.)  The puck theme continued as I went to play hockey that night. It’s not a hobby, it’s a lifestyle, right?

NHL 2017-18 Season Preview: Back for the Attack

It’s that time of year again. I love the summer, but those three-plus months without hockey are tough. But as we know, summer is fleeting and here we are back in the fall with the beginning of the NHL regular season upon us. I was so busy last week I didn’t even have time to do a season preview before the first pucks were dropped last Wednesday. So instead, here’s a quick rundown of what I’m looking forward to and expecting this NHL season.

Predictions are tricky. You may think you have a team pegged and then they go and do the opposite. Last year at this time, I wrongly predicted that Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa, Boston, Columbus and Calgary would miss the playoffs, while I had the likes of Tampa, Detroit, Philly, the Islanders, Florida, Los Angeles and Dallas all reaching the postseason. I was just a bit off, but I wasn’t the only one.

There’s a lot of young talent in the league that is ready to step up and take the mantle from the likes of Crosby and Kane. Teams are going with skill and speed over size and grit and it’s making for some exciting hockey. The likes of McDavid, Matthews and Eichel are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

New rules. I was happy to see the league institute a new rule around the coach’s offside challenge of goals, which slowed things down considerably last season. Now there are some stakes: if a coach loses his challenge, his team is penalized for delay of game. That should make teams a little more hesitant about challenging goals; indeed, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault challenged a Maple Leafs goal on Saturday night and was penalized after the challenge was shot down. If the end result this season is fewer frivolous offside challenges, it will be worth it.

The NHL is also cracking down on hard slashes to the glove, an issue that came to a head last season with Sid Crosby’s unpunished slash that nearly severed part of Marc Methot’s finger. It remains to be seen how far refs will go in making these calls: will any stick contact to the glove be called, or will it be only hard hacks? Another rule change hopes to prevent cheating on faceoffs by doling out penalties to centers who try to angle for position in the faceoff circle by either moving their skates inside the markings or using head butts to gain position against their opponents.  There were a lot of warnings and eventual penalties called for this in the preseason, but hopefully, teams will figure it out as the season wears on.

More goals? Through the first handful of games, there have been a ton of goals scored. Alex Ovechkin had hat tricks in consecutive periods (in two different games), the Leafs and Hawks burst through the gate with 15 goals in their first two games and defenses in general were looking a little shell-shocked. No doubt teams will settle down, but let’s hope the offenses of the league can keep things interesting.

He’s back. It was great to see the ageless (okay, he’s 45) Jaromir Jagr sign with Calgary right before the season started. He’s only 57 games away from passing Gordie Howe for most games played in NHL history, but he’s not just a feel-good story. Jagr can still play, and he’ll give a talented, young Flames squad both veteran experience and top-notch playmaking ability. I hope he plays forever.

Vegas, baby. The Vegas Golden Knights made their debut last week and it was glorious, going 2-0 out of the gate. Nobody expects that to continue, but it’s nice to see the new club get off to a good start. It’ll be interesting to see whether the team can build a strong fan base out in the desert.

No Winter Olympics. Not for NHL players, anyway. This was announced by the league in the spring, but it’s worth noting again that the NHL will not be taking a two-week break in February to allow its players to participate for their native countries in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Korea. The league cited the disruption to regular season play, as well as the time zone difference and negligible benefits as reasoning for the decision to skip the Olympics for the time since 1994. It’s disappointing for fans (at least this fan, anyway) and it looks like 2022 isn’t happening because the International Olympic Committee has gone on record as saying participation in the 2018 Games is a pre-requisite for being part of the following tournament.

Predictions

I’m not seeing a Pittsburgh three-peat this season. Here’s my picks to click:

East: Tampa Bay over Toronto

West: Edmonton over Minnesota

Stanley Cup: Tampa Bay

Hart (MVP): Connor McDavid

Art Ross (leading scorer): Connor McDavid

Norris (best defenseman): Brent Burns

Vezina (best goalie): Braden Holtby

Calder (best rookie): Charlie McAvoy

Selke (best defensive forward): Patrice Bergeron

Adams (best coach): Mike Babcock

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.

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.