SUNRISE, FL – DECEMBER 17: Goaltender Ryan Miller #30 of the Buffalo Sabres warms up prior to the game against the Florida Panthers on December 17, 2010 at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Ryan Miller
Jared Bednar of the Colorado Avalanche, Bruce Cassidy of the Boston Bruins and Gerard Gallant of the Vegas Golden Knights have been named as the three finalists for the 2017-18 Jack Adams Award. The winner of the award, voted on by the NHL Broadcasters’ Association and given to the the head coach who has “contributed the most to his team’s success,” will be announced during the NHL Awards show in Las Vegas on June 20.
The Case for Jared Bednar: With a full summer to work with compared to 2016-17, Bednar helped guide the Avalanche to a 47-point improvement and a trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2014. The production of their youth was key in the resurgence, with Bednar using 11 rookies throughout the season, tied for the most in the NHL. Led by Alex Kerfloot (43 points), J.T. Compher (23 points) and Tyson Jost (22 points), Colorado rookies played an NHL-high 419 games. The offense also posted its best numbers since 2006-07 with the number of goals scored (shootout excluded) increasing from 165 last season to 255 in 2017-18.
The Case for Bruce Cassidy: During his first full season in Boston, Cassidy led the team to 50 wins and 112 points, the Bruins’ fourth-highest total in 40 years. Like Colorado, the Bruins received contributions from their kids with an NHL-best 58 goals from rookies in 2017-18. Cassidy’s impact extends back to when he took over for Claude Julien over a year ago. The Bruins went 18-8-1 in final 27 games of last season to help return to the playoffs following a two-year absence. This season, Boston cruised through the regular season and was in contention until the final few days for not only the top spot in the Eastern Conference but also the Presidents’ Trophy.
The Case for Gerard Gallant: What else can you say about the job Gallant, an Adams finalist for the second time, and the Golden Knights did during an historic inaugural season? Vegas finished with 51 wins and 109 points to become the first modern-era expansion team from any of the four major North American professional sports leagues to win its division. After a hot start, the Golden Knights saw their goaltenders hit with injury, which included losing Marc-Andre Fleury to a concussion for two months. They would use four netminders to stay afloat and set an NHL record on Feb. 1 with their 34th win, most by a team in its first season.
2018 NHL Award finalists
Ted Lindsay Award (Thursday)
Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award
King Clancy Trophy
Bill Masterton Trophy
Lady Byng Trophy
SECOND ROUND OPENING GAMES
Thursday, April 26
Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals, 7 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
San Jose Sharks at Vegas Golden Knights, 10 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Friday, April 27
Winnipeg Jets at Nashville Predators, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Saturday, April 28
• If Boston advances… Bruins at Tampa Bay Lightning, 3 p.m. ET (NBC)
• If Toronto advances… Maple Leafs at Tampa Bay Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Mike Babcock loves himself some clam chowder, so going back to Boston for Game 7 against the Bruins Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, live stream) means he has that option again for a pre-game meal.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have put themselves in this situation with two straight wins after being down 3-1 in their opening round series with the Bruins. The talk about the collapse from five years ago, and the fall-out from that, is in the past, as both teams face a win-or-go-home night ahead.
“There’s no more bullets left in the chamber. This is it,” said Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk. “This is your last shot to move on or go home. Obviously, even that much more, the desperation gets amplified.”
TD Garden will be loud and energy-filled and emotions will be high with the stakes being what they are. The Maple Leafs played a much smarter game in Game 6, taking only two penalties compared to the six power plays they gave the Bruins in Game 5. Boston’s power play is second in the NHL this postseason (31.6 percent), and any time Toronto allows the Bruins to play with a man advantage is time that’s taking away from their stars being able to create scoring opportunities at even strength.
The approach will be the same refrain you hear from head coaches in these situations: keep it simple. No major adjustments, no overhauling of a game plan for a new 60-minute battle — just worry about puck possession and do your job.
How much does scoring first help? Historically, the team that scores first has won 75 percent of the time (126-43) in Game 7s. That’s all built into Babcock’s plan, as well as the message to his team about not being afraid of what’s in front of them.
“I think the other thing you’ve got to do, and I’ve talked quite a bit about this, there’s only certain moments in your life that turn into memories,” Babcock said on Wednesday. “This is one of them right here tonight. Make it a great memory. We have an opportunity here today to enjoy ourselves, to embrace the situation, to play well, to play hard. We’re capable. Let’s do that.”
This will be the third straight elimination game for Toronto, and the mindset of knowing it could be the last game of your season has so far been enough to result in efforts that has led to victories.
“That’s the positive. I think being down 3-1 we’ve played desperate hockey, we know what that feels like, we know how to start games,” said Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri. “This feeling really isn’t anything new for us over the course of the last few games. They got off to an early lead and we had to step it up. Now it’s really up for grabs.”
One of my favorite NHL things to watch from a distance right now is the way the city of Boston collectively eats itself alive arguing about whether or not Tuukka Rask is a good big game goalie, or a good goalie, or a bad goalie, or a bad big game goalie, or just some kind of a goalie.
Just doing a quick browse around the city’s sports hub to get a vibe for what the mindset is heading into Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, live stream) and you see him described as “divisive.” You see references to his poor (and to be fair, they are not great) numbers when the Bruins are facing elimination on home ice. And it even goes back before this game, like when he “again” left “a lot to be desired in a big game in Tampa.”
All of this matters, of course, because Rask hasn’t yet won a championship, and if a player hasn’t yet won a championship all of their postseason and big game shortcomings get magnified because, you know, they just can’t get it done when it matters, or something. Win one or two and nobody ever forgets it no matter how little you do after it.
You also had Bruins play-by-play man Jack Edwards taking the other side and calling out the Rask critics for not going to games and needing somebody to throw under the bus in a city that has had an embarrassment of riches in recent years when it comes to winning.
All of this makes Game 7 on Wednesday one of the defining moments of Rask’s career.
At least until the next big game that will be the next defining moment of his career, with the result from that game — no matter what it is — making us forget about the result from this defining moment — no matter what it is.
If he wins, he came through in the clutch with a big game and rewrites the narrative of his career. At least temporarily.
If he loses, it is just another game where Rask came up small.
As an uninterested third party observer, it is all tremendous theatre, especially when you consider the reality that over the past 10 years Rask has been one of the best and most productive goalies in the NHL.
A goalie that probably 25 or 26 general managers and coaches in the NHL would have sold their souls to get.
That production is not just limited to regular season success, either. Among goalies with at least 50 playoff games played, Rask has the third-best postseason save percentage in NHL history.
That is worth something.
Every playoff game is a big game. And while the critics are not necessarily wrong to point out his record and struggles in games (the numbers are what they are, you can not hide from them), there is also something to be said for the fact he has only had to play in six games in his career where the Bruins were even facing elimination. They’ve won five series in his career where they never once had to face elimination, including two on their way to the Stanley Cup Final in 2013.
Comebacks make for compelling viewing and high drama, but there’s a lot to be said for blowing a team away early and not needing to rely on a comeback.
In one of those postseason series wins — a Conference Final, no less — he allowed just two goals in a four-game sweep against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Are those not big games, too? Of course they are. Did he not come through for the Bruins against a team that had lit up the rest of the Eastern Conference before running into him and the Bruins? Of course he did. But because he and the Bruins lost to a buzzsaw of mini-dynasty in the Cup Final it gets forgotten (as does the fact he had a .931 save percentage it that series — maybe the guys in front of him should have scored more than a combined three goals in Games 5 and 6).
But this isn’t necessarily about just Tuukka Rask.
This is about the way we watch and analyze sports. We selectively pick and choose what is important based on what our preconceived ideas of a player or team are. We also observe these things from a bubble that is limited to what is happening in our immediate area. And that’s where Edwards kind of touched on something important when he remarked about Boston’s “embarrassment of riches” in recent years and needing to find something to be controversial.
Cities whose teams win a lot of championships — Boston and Pittsburgh come to mind here immediately — lose all perspective for how rare championships actually are. And they get greedy. They get spoiled. They get an unquenchable thirst for more and a belief that they deserve that next championship more than the other city because they’ve experienced it and winning is what they do. When the local teams inevitably fall short — and they always do eventually — somebody has to be the fall guy. Somebody has to take the blame for the missed opportunity. The city needs its pound of flesh to make itself feel better for losing.
Sometimes that pound of flesh comes from the best player for not scoring in the big game that the team happened to lose. Other times it is the goalie. But we always come for it.
Has Rask struggled in games where the Bruins are facing elimination? The numbers are what they are. But here’s the thing we lose sight of: Most goalies end up with poor records in elimination games because most teams end their season with a loss. Only one team ends its postseason with a win. This is true in every sport. There are 123 professional sports teams in the four major North American men’s sports leagues. Do you know how many of them have won a championship — just one — over the past 15 years? Only 37 of them. Roughly 30 percent. That means over the past 15 years 70 percent of the sports watching population has had their season end with bitter disappointment.
Championships are rare. Extremely rare. They are extraordinarily hard to win and there is never any one particular thing or player that is responsible for why a team won or lost one. More often than not your team is going to lose the next big game. That is just the nature of the beast that is professional sports.
So, back to Rask and Wednesday’s Game 7 against Boston.
What’s going to happen? No idea. He might play great and win. He might play so-s0 and lose. He might get pulled in the first period. He might play really well and lose to a goalie that just so happens to be a little bit better at the other end of the ice (which is exactly what happened in Game 6 in Toronto).
No matter what happens Rask is going to be the same goalie — one of the best in the league over the past decade — that he was coming into the game. We’ll just use this one game to largely define him and his career.
Until the next one.