While it’s true that struggling in December certainly beats struggling in April, losing eight games in a row is a pretty difficult thing to spin in a positive way. Especially when this win-less streak leaves the Washington Capitals without something they’ve enjoyed for a long, long time: the top spot in the Southeast Division.
In fact, the Capitals aren’t even guaranteed the second spot in the Southeast by the end of Saturday. If the Tampa Bay Lightning hold on to win against the Buffalo Sabres (they currently lead 2-1 in the third), the two teams will be tied at 40 points but Tampa played in two less games so far.
The Bruins basically won the game in the first period, taking a 3-0 lead. Washington showed some fight by shrinking Boston’s lead to just one goal, but Tim Thomas did his best Jaroslav Halak impression as he stopped 39 out of 41 Capitals shots.
To add to the Capitals frustration: they out-shot Boston 41-21, including an astounding 26-2 advantage in the third period. They only managed a Karl Alzner goal in that final frame, though, as Thomas is building a season that might just top his Vezina Trophy winning 2008-09 campaign.
It’s hard to blame Alex Ovechkin – he earned an assist on Alzner’s goal and dropped the gloves during the team’s game against the New York Rangers – but certainly some will make a rash judgment that he’s not a “winner” or something. (Ugh, take it easy, reactionary hockey fans/writers.)
I think it would be hasty if the Capitals reacted by firing Bruce Boudreau or doing something else extreme … but it sure would make for some captivating material for HBO, wouldn’t it?
Wild fire GM Chuck Fletcher, who leaves behind a mess
The team added that they are immediately searching for a replacement.
For better or worse, the Wild have been generous when it comes to giving their general managers time to make their new approaches work.
Fletcher was GM since May 2009, while Doug Risebrough served as the first GM for about a decade (1999 to 2009). While some teams employ their top executives for multiple decades (see: David Poile in Nashville, Ken Holland with the Red Wings), there are also plenty of front offices who receive precious few opportunities to get things right. Fletcher received plenty of opportunities to break through, and ultimately, his run with the Wild ends with a whimper … and some problems for the next GM to sort out.
Let’s ponder the biggest decisions of the Fletcher days.
There’s simply no way to get around it: the dual signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter were the defining moves of Fletcher’s tenure with the Wild. On July 4, 2012, Fletcher handed Parise and Suter matching 13-year, $98 million contracts.
Just seeing the total cash and term on those deals is staggering, especially as each contract seems to look scarier every time you consider the implications for the Wild as a franchise. Both players are 33 – and showing their age at times, especially in the case of Parise’s unfortunate health – yet their $7.538M cap hits (with no-move clauses) won’t expire until after the 2024-25 season.
At the time, Parise and Suter linking up in Minnesota as free agents felt as close to the NHL would get to its version of LeBron James’ “Decision.” The biggest of many differences is that, while the Miami Heat won two titles and made multiple NBA Finals appearances with James & Co., the Wild have settled for modest gains. Sure, they’re riding six straight playoff appearances, but they’ve never gotten beyond the second round and haven’t won a division title since signing Suter and Parise.
Spending $15M in cap space on the two already seems dicey. It may only look worse going forward, and if a new GM gets the Wild out of one or both of the deals, it will come at a cost.
The bad tends to outweigh the good when you consider how much Minnesota is spending on its team (a final cap hit above $75M this past season for a team that won one playoff game, according to Cap Friendly).
This is an aging group, which is disconcerting when you consider that this team doesn’t appear to have a ceiling as a true championship contender.
Eric Staal stands as one of the best additions of Fletcher’s tenure – and make no mistake about it, Fletcher’s had some nice hits along the way – and he’s already 33. Staal also will need a new contract after next season.
Staal, Parise, and Suter are all 33. Mikko Koivu is 35. Even Devan Dubnyk (another nice Fletcher find, and a guy on a team-friendly contract) is already 31.
Again, it’s not all bad. The Bruce Boudreau addition helped players old and young flourish. Fletcher fleeced Garth Snow in getting Nino Niederreiter. The franchise has done a nice job in certain drafting and developing situations, particularly with the likes of Mikael Granlund.
The whiffs have been pretty epic, though, with Parise and Suter already entering albatross territory.
The next Wild GM faces a tough haul.
Do you try to move Parise and/or Suter, even if it means sweetening the deal by giving up picks? Should the Wild keep Boudreau or let him move on if the plan is a more concerted “rebuild” effort? Would the Wild be better off making difficult decisions, such as parting ways with underrated Selke-caliber center Koivu while he still has value (if he’ll waive his no-move clause, of course)? How much will useful RFAs Matt Dumba and Jason Zucker cost?
Those are some difficult riddles to answer. Fletcher faced tough calls of his own, and enough went wrong that he’ll no longer be running the show in Minnesota.
A year after Mike Babcock told arena staffers in Washington he’d see them a few days later for Game 7, John Tortorella claimed his Blue Jackets would be back after winning Game 6 back in Columbus.
Now the trick is doing what Babcock’s Toronto Maple Leafs couldn’t last year: stave off elimination from the Capitals.
“It’s about finding a way to win a hockey game right now,” Tortorella said Sunday. “There are so many ways of winning and losing in playoff hockey, so many ebbs and flows. That’s just the way the game is.”
Toronto is in the same spot as Columbus, down 3-2 in its first-round series against the Boston Bruins with Game 6 at home Monday night (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, stream). The Maple Leafs held off a significant surge from the Bruins on Saturday night to avoid being eliminated in five and send the series back across the border.
“You got to look forward — there’s no sense and no good in looking back,” forward Connor Brown said. “We’re going back to (Air Canada Centre) where we love to play. Our fans are going to be excited so right now we’re all just thinking about Game 6.”
Game 6 in the Bruins-Maple Leafs series comes after Boston took a 3-1 lead in the absence of suspended Toronto center Nazem Kadri. Goaltender Frederik Andersen needed to make 42 saves to keep the Maple Leafs alive as they hope to avoid another first-round exit.
The Blue Jackets are trying to do the same in their Game 6 Monday (7:30 p.m. ET, CNBC, stream) after losing to the Capitals in overtime Sunday in Game 5. Four of the five games between Columbus and Washington have gone to OT compared to one total in the other seven first-round series.
“It’s been a crazy series,” Capitals forward Brett Connolly said. “So much is happening. Calls and OT — it’s been fun. I think guys are enjoying it. It’s pretty nerve-wracking, but we’re going to keep pushing forward here. We know we have a good team. They have a good team, as well. It’s not going to be easy.”
It’s rarely easy for the Capitals, who are 2-5 in their past five chances to eliminate an opponent and 6-11 overall in those situations in the Alex Ovechkin era. They’re also 2-5 over that time in Game 7 at home, which they’d like to avoid another incarnation of Wednesday.
This is the same situation Barry Trotz’s team was in last year — an overtime-filled first-round series against Toronto — and it wrapped things up in six.
“If you have a chance to eliminate a team, you have to have that killer instinct,” Trotz said. “You have to have that ability to close out a team. And it’s the toughest game to win because the other team is desperate. Their backs are against the wall. They’re there. They’re going to give their absolute max effort.”
No one doubts max effort from the Blue Jackets or the Maple Leafs staring down elimination. Columbus outshot Washington 16-1 in the third period of Game 5, and while that kind of ice-tilting onslaught is unlikely, the Blue Jackets are going to try to push the pace and ratchet up the pressure on the Metropolitan Division champions after blowing a 2-0 series lead.
“The belief in this room is incredible,” captain Nick Foligno said. “There’s no better motivation than what we’re facing.”
Tactically, the Blue Jackets need to cash in on the power play after going 0 for their past 13. Goaltender Braden Holtby and Washington’s penalty kill have been the difference in the series.
“The penalty kill has been a major factor for us in the last few games,” Trotz said. “I think as a group, they’ve all stepped up. I don’t think I can single out anybody. They’ve all stepped up. The penalty kill is as good as the five guys that you have, your four and your goaltender. They’ve been very committed there.”
WAITING IT OUT
The Vegas Golden Knights and San Jose Sharks will meet in the second round of the Pacific Division bracket, while the Winnipeg Jets await the Nashville Predators. In the East, the Atlantic Division-champion Tampa Bay Lightning finished off New Jersey on Saturday and will face Toronto or Boston in the second round.
AP Sports Writers Mitch Stacy in Columbus, Ohio, and Jimmy Golen in Boston contributed.
“You guys know I’m biased about [Pekka Rinne], but in my opinion, he was the best player in the league this year,” Subban said of MacKinnon, per Tracey Myers of NHL.com. “That’s not to take away anything from other guys like Taylor Hall who have had great years. But I think for him and what he’s done with this team, a team that’s been up and down…he’s just come into his own and he’s a phenomenal hockey player. He’s so tough to handle, so fast, strong and shifty. My expectations for him as a player as a player is to be a hall of famer by the end of his career. He understands that. Just tremendous respect for him. I just told him I hope he takes home that trophy that he deserves as the MVP. He deserves it.”
MacKinnon’s 97 points during the regular season was the fifth-highest in the league this season. It’s important to note that he played between four and six games less than the four guys who finished ahead of him.
In the postseason, The 22-year-old had three goals and three assists in six games against the Predators.
There’s many reasons for Colorado’s turnaround in 2017-18, but there’s no denying that MacKinnon’s play was the biggest factor. His points-per-game jumped from 0.65 last year to 1.31 this year. The Avalanche went from being the worst team in the NHL by a mile to finishing in a Wild Card spot.
• The Sporting News came up with a first-round mock draft for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. There’s no surprise at no. 1, as Rasmus Dahlin is the pick, but things get interesting after that. (Sporting News)
• Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper has added the Golden Knights’ logo to the end of his bats. (Sports Logos)
• Ellen DeGeneres paid tribute to the victims of the tragedy in Humboldt at an event in Calgary last week. (CBC)
• Boston University head coach David Quinn will serve as the bench boss for Team USA at the World Junior Hockey Championship next December. (College Hockey News)
• One year after leaving the NHL, Andrei Markov took home the KHL’s Gagarin Cup with AK Bars Kazan. (Associated Press)