Five Thoughts: Alain Vigneault’s crazy gamble; A pair of bad hits make us weary

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With so many things cropping up yesterday there’s plenty of thoughts to get to. Before those thoughts, let’s give it up to the Nashville Predators for advancing to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in team history. There are a lot of great stories on that team to be told and it’s great that they’ll get more looks on television to tell them. Hockey in the honkytonk is for real. As for everything else on our minds, let’s have a look.

1. If for nothing else, you have to give Canucks coach Alain Vigneault credit for having gigantic brass ones. Opting to start Cory Schneider over Roberto Luongo in Game 6 is as unexpected of a move as he could make. Even though Luongo’s struggled in his previous two games, making a move that bold takes guts or a touch of insanity. Schneider played well when he wasn’t handling the puck, but that was one of the risks with going with your backup goalie to start so deep into a series. The communication between Schneider and his defensemen obviously wasn’t there and the first two goals he allowed were due to that unfamiliarity. The Canucks didn’t come away with the win so that leads us to our next thought.

2. Now the big debate will center around who gets the start in Game 7 for Vancouver. The Blackhawks have all the momentum now and for whatever reason Vigneault started Schneider you have to wonder if that applies to Game 7 now. Schneider left Game 6 after giving up a penalty shot goal to Michal Frolik. While it looked like it could’ve been a bad injury, it turns out he cramped up badly and will be available for Game 7.

We’ve seen the goaltending debate go on in Philadelphia and now sparking up in San Jose during these playoffs, but is this actually happening in Vancouver? Seems like it is and that’s what makes all of this all the more stunning. What an incredible meltdown from the team that seemed ready to roll through the playoffs.

3. How fun must it be to be Chicago’s Ben Smith? Smith is a former Boston College standout who rode shotgun to two national championships with the Eagles in 2008 and 2010. In 2008 he played alongside Nathan Gerbe and in 2010 he was playing wingman to Chris Kreider and Cam Atkinson. This year he was a late season call-up for Chicago who played in six regular season games and scored one goal. Now six games into the playoffs he has three goals and scored the game-winner in Game 6 and has helped Chicago to the verge of pulling a titanic upset in the first round. Not too bad for a kid who was a sixth round pick in 2008.

4. Many people who are a lot smarter about hockey than I ever will be believe that Flyers captain Mike Richards will not be suspended for his nasty shove from behind on Tim Connolly that knocked Connolly out of the game with a head injury. Richards was given a minor penalty for boarding on the play and for Connolly it’s a brutal hit because of his past concussion problems.

I respect their takes on that play, but it’s hard for me to believe that there wasn’t some ill intent on that play. Perhaps it’s more emotion than rational thinking speaking here as careless plays like that make me sick to my stomach, but if I were in Colin Campbell’s position chances are I’d be a hated man in Philadelphia for the way I’d rule on that play. There was no need for Richards to check or push Connolly on that play. You want to make a play there, go for the puck not smearing the player.

5. Expect a lot more talk about the mysterious “hitting zone” behind the net today. Chicago’s Bryan Bickell caught Vancouver’s Kevin Bieksa with a very obvious head shot that was virtually the same kind of hit Raffi Torres delivered to Brent Seabrook. There was no penalty on the play and Bieksa was slow in getting to his feet. Obviously the standard has been set now, but it certainly didn’t take long for there to be a hit that was virtually identical in it’s violence. That’s one very dangerous precedent the league has set concerning hits in that location of that manner. If you’re behind the net there should be a sign saying “Welcome to Thunderdome” from now on.

Trevor Daley eager to play in first Stanley Cup Final, after missing last year’s series due to injury

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Forced to watch last year’s championship series as a spectator, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Trevor Daley will now get his chance to play in the Stanley Cup Final.

Last spring, Daley suffered a broken ankle in the Eastern Conference Final, ending his postseason.

He didn’t play in the final, which Pittsburgh captured in six games, but did lift the Stanley Cup, the first player after Sidney Crosby to do so — a gesture from the Penguins captain to Daley, whose mother was battling cancer and wanted to see her son with hockey’s coveted silver chalice.

A week later, Daley’s mother passed away.

Despite missing time late in the second round and early in the third round because of injury, Daley returned to the Penguins lineup and played the final five games versus the Ottawa Senators. That’s a boost to Pittsburgh’s blue line, which has battled through injuries to key figures during the playoffs and even before with the loss of Kris Letang.

Daley’s wait for this opportunity will soon be over. Game 1 against the Nashville Predators goes Monday.

“It feels like we were just here. To get back here this soon is pretty cool,” said Daley on Sunday.  “It sucks to watch. I don’t know how you guys do it.”

It’s a rare feat in the salary cap era for a Stanley Cup-winning team to even make it back to the final the following year. The Detroit Red Wings were the last team to do that, back in 2008 and 2009.

“I think he understands how difficult it is to win the Stanley Cup,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “So I think he’s one of those guys that doesn’t take it for granted.”

Since his return during the last round, Daley has played 21:39 per game, with a two-point performance in that Game 5 blowout win versus the Senators. What makes Pittsburgh’s run back to the final more impressive is the fact they’ve made it — and that includes a second-round victory against Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington — without a true No. 1 defenseman, a distinction that usually belongs to Letang, except his season came to an end before the playoffs began.

Daley has been hurt during this postseason. So, too, has Justin Schultz. All of the injuries on defense meant greater responsibility for Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, Ron Hainsey and Ian Cole.

Daley has been back for a while now. Schultz returned for Game 7 versus Ottawa and played more than 24 minutes, with a goal and an assist. But with the injuries on defense, the Penguins have redefined the phrase ‘defense by committee.’

Depth on the blue line was an issue general manager Jim Rutherford addressed at the deadline, acquiring the 36-year-old Hainsey.

Despite his age and more than 900 games of regular season experience, Hainsey had never played a Stanley Cup playoff game in his career. At least, not until this spring. He has one goal and five points in 19 playoff games this year. He’s never been known for eye-popping offensive production, but what he has done for the Penguins is provide a reliable presence on defense and quality ice time, averaging more than 21 minutes per game.

It’s been a long time coming, but now, he too will play in the final.

“We all know about it. This is his first time in the playoffs. I was telling him the other day, ‘You’re undefeated. You’ve never lost a series,'” said Daley. “So that’s a pretty good record so far.”

On the big stage, Subban can’t escape ‘The Trade’

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PITTSBURGH — Three hundred and thirty-three days.

That’s how long it’s been since the Canadiens and Predators pulled off the seismic P.K. Subban-for-Shea Weber trade.

The deal was made on June 29, 2016. Today is May 28, 2017.

Three hundred and thirty-three days.

You’d think, then, given all that’s transpired in between, Subban would have plenty of topics to discuss on Sunday for Stanley Cup Final media day. He could talk about the first Cup Final in Preds franchise history, for example. Or maybe his role on what’s become the league’s best blueline. Perhaps some thoughts on Nashville’s emergence as a hockey market.

Nah. Because people still wanted to talk about The Trade.

So P.K. obliged.

“When David [Poile, Nashville’s GM] made that trade, whether we wanted to say it or not, a lot of people touted it to be a boost that was going to put us over the top,” Subban said, replying to the first of many questions about the now famous deal. “I didn’t really see it that way, but it seems that for our team, we just gelled at the right time and we’ve been clicking down the stretch.

“I guess you could say I’m definitely happier. Just to come in and do my job every day, whether that’s to play 32 minutes or play 15. I’m just happy to do whatever it takes to win.”

To be fair, it’s not like talking about The Trade rehashes old stuff. Quite the opposite, what with new storylines emerging on a weekly basis. The latest? Well, a question was asked today if Subban would bring the Cup back to Montreal, should he win it. Which came on the heels of the narrative that, in just one year, P.K. and the Preds got to where P.K. and the Habs couldn’t over the previous seven.

So, back to The Trade.

“One of the toughest things for me to think about was coming into a locker room that [Weber had] been in for 12 years, and figure out how I was going to fit in,” Subban said. “Because he had such a great presence, and such a great career in Nashville. I’m sure when he had to go to Montreal, he had to do similar things as well.

“When I got traded, I said it. Now, I don’t know if I want to look back, but I said I felt like I could win a Stanley Cup with this hockey club. I’m sure [Weber] felt the same way too when he was here.”

Winning the Cup was what Poile envisioned after making the deal. He recalled his first meeting with Subban and how, early into it, the two squared away any issues that might arise from Subban’s off-ice interests — his charity work, his foundation, his growing media presence, etc. etc.

Poile:

The whole idea was to get on the same page. Just the first meeting we had, like, ‘What are your goals?’

He said, ‘To win the Stanley Cup.’

I said, ‘That’s what our goals are, too.’

If we can get that straightened away in terms of your desires to be the best hockey player you can be, and we can both work towards winning the Stanley Cup together, we’ve got mostly everything covered. The other parts of your life, what you do off the ice, we would like to be there to support you.

I think the most important thing is that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing so there’s no surprising and, to repeat again, we can support you.

I don’t want to say it was as simple as that, but I think it was as simple as that.

Finally, everyone knows you can’t talk about The Trade without asking The Question.

And so it was posed to Subban. You’re in the Cup Final. The Habs were bounced in Round 1.

Who won it?

“What Shea brings and what I bring — maybe we have some similarities, but we have some differences as well,” Subban explained. “As far as who wins the trade, I think that both teams are different and were looking for something different.

“I don’t think I can really debate who won the trade. I’ll allow you guys to do that, you guys got all the stats and the numbers and statistics. I’m just focused on our team right now.”

And with that, Subban was done talking about The Trade.

For today, anyway.

Pekka Rinne finding consistency at the right time for Predators

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PITTSBURGH — As the longest-tenured member of the Nashville Predators roster, the team’s run to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final has to be extra special for starting goaltender Pekka Rinne.

He has been one of the core players in the organization for more than a decade and been through all of the recent postseason disappointments as the team was unable to climb the hurdle that was the second-round of the playoffs until this season.

“Before each season, you know, when you’re a professional hockey player, you dream about this situation,” said Rinne on Sunday afternoon during the Stanley Cup Final media day.

“Every season my goal is to win the Stanley Cup, in all honesty. You come to training camp, you prepare yourself all summer, and now finally we are in this situation. I always felt that one day we would be in this situation.”

One of the biggest reasons the Predators are in this situation has been because of Rinne and his play in net.

Nashville’s defense has obviously gotten a significant portion of the headlines this postseason, and for very good reason. It is the NHL’s best group, has played exceptionally well, and as Rinne himself said on Sunday is “the backbone of the team.”

But goaltending is still the one position that can make-or-break a postseason run and flip everything upside down. A hot goalie can lift an underdog and sink a favorite in any given series. As the last line of defense, Rinne has been a rock for the Predators and been able to take his play to an entirely different level this postseason.

The biggest change: Just finding some consistency to his game.

Even though Rinne’s overall numbers for the season were strong (his .918 save percentage was above the league average) they fluctuated wildly on a month-by-month basis.

It looked a little something like this: .906, .949, .875, .933, .888, .923, .960 (three games).

After finishing the last two months on a high note, Rinne has continued that strong play into the postseason and posted a save percentage of .930 or better in 12 of his first 16 playoff games. Combine that with a defense that has a top-four like Nashville’s and it has made them the toughest team to score against this postseason.

Entering the Final the Predators are allowing just 1.81 goals per game. The only team that allowed fewer goals during in one playoff run during the salary cap era was the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings (1.50).

“It’s hard to explain,” said Rinne on Sunday when asked about what changed in his play.

“I think we started off really well against Chicago, then you gain some confidence, and personally I was playing well. Once that ball starts rolling you feel better and better and things start to go your way. I feel the biggest thing is as a team, for a long time in the regular season we were trying to find consistency and at times we didn’t do a good job. I feel like this postseason we’ve been really consistent and solid and playing really good hockey for 16 games now.”

The Predators were the 16th out of 16 teams to clinch a playoff spot this year and had to begin their Stanley Cup Final run with a first-round matchup against their long-time arch nemesis, the Chicago Blackhawks. Not only a team that entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and was viewed as the favorite to reach the Stanley Cup Final, but also a team that had eliminated Rinne and the Predators twice in the past seven years.

Nashville was not only able to conquer that hurdle, it ended the series in a clean four-game sweep. It set the stage for the Predators to break through and advance beyond the second-round for the first time in franchise history.

“I feel like any year the hardest thing is to get past the first two rounds,” said Rinne.

“You still have so many teams at that point. Once you get past those rounds, you really start feeling confident and things are going your way. It is a very powerful feeling when 23 guys come together. It was something against Chicago, that was my third time playing against that team and first time winning against them, it was almost like a hurdle we had to get over and we did that. It was a big win for the organization as well.”

Now the organization has chance to do something even bigger over the next two weeks.

In recent years as Rinne has gotten older his play has started to decline a bit from where it was earlier in his career, almost to the point where he was viewed as a question mark or perhaps even the weak link on the roster. That has not been the case this postseason, and it is one of the biggest reasons the team has this opportunity in front of it.

Minus Johansen, the Preds have ‘some big shoes’ to fill

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PITTSBURGH — It was Jan. 6, 2016, when the Nashville Predators took on the look of a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

That was the day the Preds acquired Ryan Johansen from Columbus, giving them that true No. 1 center that every Cup champ seems to have.

It was the one, big piece the Preds had been lacking. To get him, it cost them an excellent, young defenseman in Seth Jones.

Alas, Johansen has now been lost for the playoffs. To their credit, the Preds managed to eliminate Anaheim without him, taking Games 5 and 6 of the Western Conference Final after he was diagnosed with acute compartment syndrome.

But in the franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup Final, the Preds will have to take on the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins, a team with two of the best centers in the game.

Suffice to say, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are tough to handle at full strength, let alone without such an important player as Johansen.

“Certainly you’re talking about a couple good centermen that we have to face,” said Nashville head coach Peter Laviolette. “We had a couple good centermen (Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler) last round that we had to face.”

Preds winger Filip Forsberg didn’t try to sugarcoat the loss of Johansen.

“Obviously he’s one of the best players in the league,” said Forsberg. “It’s tough to play without him. But at the same time, other guys stepped up. I think that’s been the case all year. We’ve been dealing with injuries all year. I don’t know how many players we’ve used, but every player that’s come up has made a huge impact on the team.”

Colton Sissons stepped up big time against the Ducks, notching a hat trick in Game 6. The 23-year-old is expected to center Nashville’s top line, flanked by Forsberg and possibly Pontus Aberg, when the final starts Monday in Pittsburgh.

“It’s exciting, it’s nerve-wracking,” Sissons said. “We lost a lot of offense and a big, heavy, strong centerman in Johansen. There’s gonna be some big shoes for us to fill.”

Sissons, 23, has spent most of his professional career in the AHL. With the Preds, he’s mostly been in the bottom six. But his new linemate is a big fan.

“He can do it all,” said Forsberg. “He’s been playing mostly on the third and fourth lines this year, and been playing really well. Solid, two-way player. But we played together in Milwaukee and I saw the offensive upside that he had.”

It’s quite the matchup this series offers. One team without its No. 1 center, but a great group of defensemen. The other team without its No. 1 defenseman, but a pair of elite centers.

“Certainly we’ll miss Ryan,” said Laviolette. “I don’t think anybody can argue that. He was a big horse for us down the middle that was able to match up against anybody. We had to go a couple of games without Ryan. Our guys responded OK.”