Another two weeks have passed, and another playoff round has come and gone. Eight teams entered the fight and only half have moved on. Each year, the final four offers a different theme present in all of the teams. In 2010, the four teams that remained were the Blackhawks, Flyers, Canadiens, and Sharks. The quartet of teams consisted of high-octane offenses that had unproven playoff goaltending that was starting to perform. In 2011, the Lightning, Canucks, Sharks, and Bruins all contained well-rounded depth charts that relied on all four lines to score goals. This year, the third round will feature the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, Phoenix Coyotes, and New Jersey Devils. Their recurring theme? Goaltending.
Every team will need their goaltending to thrive in order for their respective teams to be successful. In the east, home ice advantage belongs to the Rags. Their team has revolved around Henrik Lundqvist for the entire season to create wins. The Swedish star is nominated for the Hart and Vezina trophies. In the west, the series will start at the jobing.com arena in Glendale, Arizona where the Phoenix Coyotes have Mike Smith tending their net. Smith went from an AHL goalie to a force under Sean Burke’s system and is one of the most surprising players of the year. His opponent is none other than Jonathan Quick, who has bailed out the Kings in multiple situations this year. The biggest question mark of the third round in net is none other than Marty Brodeur. He’s arguably the greatest goaltender of all time, but his age has made him quite inconsistent. However, goaltenders like Brodeur never lose their talent and Marty will come up clutch when needed. Regarldess, this round will bring the term, “defensive struggle” to a whole new level.
But that’s the next two weeks. The weeks that just passed had their interesting moments. From a delaying d-man to a clutch forward to an invaluable blueliner, there was no shortage of excitement. Here are “the weeks that were” from April 30th-May 12th.
Zidlicky: Delaying the Devils
In the first round of the NHL playoffs, the final game to take place occurred in Sunrise, Florida. The visiting Devils were prepared to take on the underdog Panthers in a winner-take-all game 7 showdown. With only minutes remaining in regulation, New Jersey was desperately hanging on to a 2-1 lead. Unfortunately, the Devils saw themselves fall victim to the most dreaded penalty in hockey: the delay of game penalty. The puck was shot out of their own zone well above the glass, and it was done by none other than Marek Zidlicky. The former Minnesota Wild was picked up at the deadline by New Jersey to help the team’s average blueline, not take penalties at crucial points in the season. The Panthers capitalized on that chance, and pushed the game to double overtime. Luckily for Zidlicky, he was bailed out by Adam Henrique, who scored the final goal to send the Devils on. After escaping such a close encounter, it would only make sense that Zidlicky would make sure not to make the same mistake twice, right? Wrong.
In the first game of the second round matchup between New Jersey and Philadelphia, the game was sent to overtime. The entire matchup was tense, the play was action-packed, and the chances were coming in droves. All of a sudden (only 30 seconds in), the puck went flying into the crowd of orange, and a defenceman was sent off to the box. That player was none other than Marek Zidlicky. Again. This time, Marek managed to make the mistake in overtime, in a dire situation. Luckily, the Flyers didn’t capitalize on the powerplay, but ultimately did so. If Marek Zidlicky makes the mistake for a third time, the only thing that will be flying out of the playing surface would be Zidlicky himself.
The Definition of Clutch
A common theme of the 2012 NHL playoffs has been disappointing players shining in the playoffs. With Los Angeles Kings such as Mike Richards and Dustin Penner shining through the first two rounds, it re-confirms the fact that there are certain players that elevate their game to an entirely new level. In the Eastern Conference, that theme hasn’t been all that prevalent. Players that have performed are continuing to perform, with no real hero emerging out of nowhere. However, the east does have one player who has taken the title of “playoff performer” to a whole new level. That man is none other than Daniel Briere. The small forward has been dynamite in the postseason throughout his career, averaging over a point-per-game in over 100 playoff contests. In his first game against the New Jersey Devils in the second round, Briere’s playoff clutch level reached legendary status.
Not even two minutes in, it seemed as if Briere had done it again. A puck was thrown out in front, deflected off of Danny, and found the back of the net. Immediately, it appeared that the goal wasn’t going to count. The Flyers’ bench had this false hope of optimism and a celebration that showed as if something went wrong. Upon further review, it was obvious that Briere was following in the footpaths of a small and speedy athlete: Lionel Messi. The puck was clearly kicked in and game continued. Moments later, the puck was situated in the Devils’ zone and managed to find its way in. The goal-scorer? Daniel Briere. The man had scored two goals in one overtime. Of course one clearly wasn’t a goal, but the fact that he scored the second goal after having the first one disallowed was unbelievable. However, Briere’s clutchness was not enough as the Flyers saw themselves fall victim to the New Jersey Devils.
In the last edition of “The Weeks That Were”, one of the largest talking points was the action made by David Legwand. The Nashville Predator was the center of controversy after tapes showed that he covered the puck in the crease and gave it to the trainer. It was an incredibly illegal play, but the hockey gods always seem to show up in situations like this. They didn’t show up in time to save the Red Wings, but some serious karma came to Legwand, this time against the Phoenix Coyotes in the second round.
In game 2 of their series, the Phoenix Coyotes were winning by a goal in the second period. While Smith and the ‘Yotes have been solid defensively for the entire season, the game was still in reach for the Preds. However, with 13 minutes to go Radim Vrbata potted home a tally to put Phoenix up by one. However, this was not just any goal. This was as a result of David Legwand throwing the puck in front of the net right to the stick of Vrbata. Where did David learn that it is okay to throw the puck in front of the goal? Nobody knows. Considering most minor league hockey players learn never to clear the puck by passing it through the crease, it hardly would make sense to throw the disc right into the slot on a silver platter. The Coyotes proceeded to win the game and manhandle the series. It wasn’t the determining factor, but Legwand’s mental gaffe was certainly a reason for why they lost the second game, perhaps causing a huge momentum shift in the series. It just goes to show that cheaters never win, and winners never cheat (well, save for Ryane Clowe of course).
Don’t Know What You’ve Got Until It’s Gone
The National Hockey League consists of well over 600 players annually that are considered among the most talented and “best” hockey players in the world. Of those 600 or so players, about one-sixth of them are considered incredibly valuable assets, and 50 are considered elite. Everybody knows the elite players. Forwards like Crosby, Toews, and Stamkos light the lamp every night and are recognized universally for it. In the blue paint, goaltenders like Henrik Lundqvist and Tim Thomas are invaluable to their teams and consistently steal games. On the blueline, Shea Weber is known for his bruising style of play and hard slapshot, while Erik Karlsson puts up forward-like numbers while playing defense. All of these players are flashy, hard-working, and unbelievably talented.
Those players are integral to their teams. Forwards are told to score and make plays. Goaltenders are instructed to stop the puck. However, there are plenty of defensemen that fill roles and play the game so well that most nights they are hardly recognized. Blocking shots, stopping opponents, and playing for the win are just what these players do. It takes lots of time for them to be recognized for their somewhat “invisible” style of play, but in many cases they are the backbone of their team. Most recently, Rangers’ defenseman Dan Girardi has seen the light of the public for his blue-collar style of play that has made him the most valuable blueliner on the Rags. When these players don’t play, they often fall apart. That was relevant in the second round when the St. Louis Blues played one game without Alex Pietrangelo. The young d-man does everything. 100+ blocks, 90+ hits, and 51 points show that he does the flashy things that d-men are supposed to do, but he does more than just that. Pietrangelo has a Corsi rating of 11.31, meaning that over the course of 60 minutes 11 more shots are directed at the opponent’s net than his team’s net when he is on the ice. To put that in perspective, he is 9th among defenseman in that category and one of only 3 that start more of their faceoffs in the defensive zone than the offensive zone. Needless to say, he defends his net and makes sure nothing gets by him. However, when Los Angeles Kings (more specifically Dwight King) smashed Pietrangelo’s face into the boards, he was ruled out for game 2. The results were disastrous.
The Los Angeles Kings came storming out of the gate by scoring four goals in the first period and never looked back, winning the game 5-2. In every area of the game where Pietrangelo would have been involved in was dreadful. The powerplay, an area where Alex strives in, went 0/9. The team also allowed 5 even-strength goals, a total completely uncharacteristic of the team. The fact is that Alex Pietrangelo is vital to the success of the Blues. The Kings dominated the entire game and went on to sweep the series. Pietrangelo is rarely noticed, but the value that he adds to the team is incalculable as seen in the past series by his absence.