A chorus of voices calling for a scorched Earth policy is rising. Fans of the eight teams eliminated in the first round want heads dangling from the rafters by October. The heads will serve as a warning for future players and coaches. Don’t betray us ever again.
It’s a hallowed tradition of hockey fandom. A playoff loss means a team is soft, the coach can’t win, the goaltender is a colander, the young players aren’t “big game” guys, player X needs to be bought out, and Tweeter Y could run the team better. If we half the dose of crazy pills, we get a little closer to the truth. Some of these things may be true, but the danger amidst the post-elimination fervor is blowing up a team out of frustration when it’s not the best course of action.
Even aside from frustrating x-factors such as injuries and referees, the playoffs are voodoo. Or, at least, they can seem that way. An unexpected bounce lands say, on Auston Matthews’s stick right in front of Braden Holtby. Usually, that bounce isn’t the determining factor in a game. But even when it is, like Patrick Kane’s series-clinching goal off a stanchion in 2014, it’s not the determining factor in a series.
There is one bit of voodoo capable of swinging a series, though: a hot goaltender. Only a goaltender can single-handedly drag a team to the next round in spite of how the teams actually played.
After you get beat by a hot goaltender — and four teams did in the first round — it’s certainly time to take a look at what went wrong. There are probably problems, but resisting the urge for overreaction is important. Yet, there is inevitably a group of fans (or owners, possibly) mainlining crazy, unable to give proper credit to the goaltender who ended their playoff hopes.
Minnesota dominated play in their opening-round series. They took more than 60% of the shot attempts, which is a feat only seen six times since the 2007-08 season, per Dom Luszczyszyn at The Hockey News. Three of those six series were the 2008 Stanley Cup-champion Detroit Red Wings.
The Wild took shots at the third-best rate in the playoffs, they allowed fewer shots than any team, they allowed fewer scoring chances than any other team, they took the third-most shot attempts and allowed the fewest shot attempts against. The offense and the defense were working.
However, they struggled to best Jake Allen. There’s an argument that the Blues did a good job keeping the Wild out of the home plate area, but that’s largely in comparison to the massive number of shots they allowed.
The Wild were beaten by a hot goaltender. They needed to figure him out, but it’s hard to argue they weren’t getting chances and stopping the Blues from getting to Devan Dubnyk.
The kind of overreaction fan bases are great at is exemplified in the calls for the Wild to trade away a defenseman. Just days into the offseason and there are calls for the team to move Jonas Brodin, Matt Dumba, or Marco Scandella. However, those three ranked 1st, 7th, and 8th respectively among all playoff defensemen in shot attempts allowed while on the ice. That’s not arguing they were perfect. They weren’t. However, they weren’t the problem.
Montreal & Chicago
Like any eliminated team, Montreal and Chicago have issues to address. Chicago’s blue line is thin and aging. Montreal needs a top-line center and probably should have focused on skill over grit at the trade deadline. Nonetheless, calls for sweeping change are omnipresent and probably not giving enough credit to the goaltender who knocked them out.
The culprits here are Pekka Rinne’s .991 even-strength save percentage and Henrik Lundqvist’s .957 even-strength save percentage. Yet, it’s not hard to find extreme reactions.
We opened the phone lines Sunday morning on #TSN690 and nearly every caller wanted to trade Carey Price.
— Sean Coleman (@SColemanUFA) April 23, 2017
I don't think Montrel wants to trade Carey Price. https://t.co/4B3O2t6wLX
— Mike Heika (@MikeHeika) April 25, 2017
For instance, the chorus of voices suggesting the Habs need to trade Carey Price. Price is clearly not the problem. Any return for him in a trade would undoubtedly leave the team weaker in net at a time when Montreal took steps forward overall.
At the other end, Chicago is having a strong reaction to their first-round embarrassment, but they may have some reason to panic. The Blackhawks had a score-adjusted CF% of 47.44% and only took 39.52% of the scoring chances, the worst marks in the opening round. There are problems. However, part of the reaction here is about being shamed by Nashville. Chicago probably still loses this series if Rinne posted league-average numbers, but they likely grab a game or two and aren’t so thoroughly embarrassed.
“There will be change,” promised GM Stan Bowman in his first post-elimination press conference.
“It’s a complete failure when you measure it against the expectations that we have of ourselves,” Bowman said. “We did not come even close to reaching the standard we have set over the years here. And that’s unacceptable.”
Chicago should be disappointed. They were the first top-seeded team to be swept by a bottom-seeded team.
Changes have begun for the Blackhawks. Assistant coach Mike Kitchen has been let go.
— Scott Powers (@ByScottPowers) April 24, 2017
Their reaction is interesting because it’s coming from management that could have a tough time making big changes. Their cap situation — which includes an overage — and double Mount Rushmore of no-trade clauses make it awfully tough to make significant changes. They have enough challenges just figuring out how to manage their cap for next year without filling the bottom of their roster with college free agents.
So far, the team has fired assistant coach Mike Kitchen — which may be internally problematic — and they’ve fired AHL coach Ted Dent. Chicago had an amazing run at the top of the league, but there are no easy answers. Saying there will be sweeping changes feels like bloviating. Though, Bowman has worked roster magic previously.
Writers, fans and managers will dig deep in an autopsy. They call for heads, trades, chances for young players, changing ads on the boards, line-juggling mid-season, or increased size. It’s not satisfying to put a large percentage of a playoff loss on facing a hot goaltender, but for some teams, it accounts for an incredible amount of the reason players will be mowing lawns Wednesday instead taking part in morning skate.
In the end, management answers to owners and fan bases that aren’t even in the same zip code as reasonable. There does need to be some accountability. Something went wrong and their job is to fix it. However, calls for exploding teams because of a hot goaltender is often nonsense, if not impossible.
Dustin Nelson writes about news and the Minnesota Wild for The Hockey Writers.