We asked two of our hockey scribes to put their heads together and discuss their impressions of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs thus far. Their consensus: surprises galore and a few dull moments in the east.
Adrian Dater: Allan, let me start by saying that I've been as confused by a few things in these playoffs as you look in your SI.com mug shot.
Allan Muir: I could pen a 12-part series on how Gary Bettman singlehandedly saved the game of hockey and it wouldn't cause me as much grief as that old mug shot. No one told me to say cheese. But yeah, this has been a wacky, unpredictable spring. Biggest surprises? Brendan Shanahan's Disciplinary Wheel of Mystery or maybe the Devils on the brink of the Stanley Cup Final.
Dater: Hey, at least you have hair. Geez, I've got a fivehead, not a forehead. OK, let's start with that Shanny Wheel of Mystery. I thought, like you, that the wheel would stop on the "Nah, just a tough hockey hit, no suspension" slot after Martin Hanzal boarded Dustin Brown in Game 2 of the Coyotes-Kings series. I mean, Brown ain't the Dalai Lama. He deserves to be protected from the league's department of player safety just like anyone, but Brownie stopped before the hit, which made Hanzal's board look worse than it probably was.
Muir: You're missing out on sponsorship opportunities, AD. That's a lot of space for rent you've got up top! Sometimes I think Shanny's playing the Lady Gaga card, being unpredictable for the sake of it, just to keep the guys on their toes. Ever since Shea Weber got a wrist slap after going Iron Sheik on Henrik Zetterberg in the first round, it's been a total crapshoot trying to figure out what's going to flip the switch for him. I still think Mike Smith's hack job on Brown was the cheapest shot in that game. Not suspension worthy, but a major for sure. I don't know which ref called the dive, but the league sure does...and there's no way he's moving on to the final after blowing that one.
Dater: No question, Mr. Johnny Rotten lookalike mug man. I'd hate to be one of those hockey people who goes over every frame of a questionable incident like it's the Zapruder film. But if you look at the Hanzal-Brown hit, Brown put himself in a bad position by stopping at the last second by the end boards. Hanzal was finishing a hit. A big, nasty hit, yeah. A penalty-worthy hit probably. But a suspension? No, ESPECIALLY after Shanny's free pass to Weber. That truly got the playoffs off to a weird start for the safety department, and I'm not sure Shanny has recovered. That said, I wouldn't wish that job on my worst enemy, who right now is the barber who cut my hair in that mug shot.
Muir: C'mon, AD, you knew what you were getting with that $2 haircut. After writing about the Hanzal hit the other night, I got a lot of hate mail from people who claim it was a blame-the-victim mentality. I get where they're coming from (Los Angeles, mostly), but players have to make smart decisions about their own safety. There was a play there for Brown that would have allowed him to control the puck AND protect himself from the worst of that hit. Instead, he stopped short...and we don't do that in my country. Decisions like that aren't making Sheriff Shanny's life any easier.
So, you've been covering Eastern games. Getting plenty of on-the-job shut-eye?
Dater: I'm sleeping much better than you. I can up my entertainment quotient by watching grass grow. If the net were in the corners, the Rangers would score 100 goals a night. I mean, I can appreciate John Tortorella's thinking. He's in the conference finals with his system of dump-and-chase, so get a one-goal lead and collapse around the goalie for the final however many minutes. Should he care that we're all falling asleep watching Rangers games? Heck no. But I can just hear the stuff coming out of the next GMs meeting: "We need to do something about this blocked shot stuff."
What's your take on the Tortorella press conference thing? I grew tired of his act after Game 2. Yeah, I get it: he's gruff, he's a curmudgeon, it's maybe part of his shtick. That's fine. We don't need to be loved as media people. We're used to being hated. But come on -- don't give stupid, disrespectful answers to a guy like Stan Fischler. Stan Fischler has written, like, 23,000 hockey books. Torts always talks about accountability. Show a little yourself, too.
Muir: There's no way to defend the guy. He's been acting like a punk -- and I don't mean that in a flattering, Joey Ramone-type way. But honestly, I think we're being played. I don't know how many people outside the media care that he's being so churlish in his pressers, but we're making it into a big story just like he knew we would. And I bet he's lovin' it. Does he owe us, and by extension, hockey fans, insight into why he benched Marian Gaborik for most of the third period of Game 2? Yeah, I think so. Does he always owe a respectful response to Fischler, who's done more to promote the game than just about anyone? Of course. But he doesn't care because his amped up belligerence is drawing us offside, so we're talking about him more than issues like Gabby's giveaway and the team's lack of compete. Tortorella is like an evil version of Wayne Gretzky at the 2002 Olympics and this is his smokescreen. For a team with so much high-end talent, its greatest skill might be sucking all the entertainment value out of a game. Way to sell the product, boys! But if things end up going the Rangers' way, we'll all look back at this sideshow as a bit of genius manipulation that helped them remain focused on the task at hand.
Dater: And if he doesn't, we'll have the carving knives ready. Never get into an argument with a side whose ink is in barrels. Speaking of arguments, I feel vindicated. I had people question my mental health all year long for putting the Kings as high as I usually did in my Power Rankings. I never lost faith, especially after Darryl Sutter came aboard. I always thought: they've got the goalie, they've got guys who CAN score, they've got the two-day D-man. They just need to get 'er goin' at the right time. And, voila, here we are. But am I surprised they are 7-0 on the road in the playoffs? Uh, a little. But Sutter's brilliance as a coach is shining through. I think more should be made of just what a great coach he is. He had winners all those early years as a Sharks coach, then he took the Flames to the Cup final in '04. Now he takes a Kings team that was in disarray to within two wins of another final. Guys who have played for him have told me that he makes you feel like an adult. He's tough a lot, yeah, but it's in that respect-commanding, authoritative way, like your dad or something.
Muir: It's all about putting guys in a position where they can succeed and holding them accountable. That's why the Kings are responding. And they have to be so relieved not to be playing under Terry Murray at this point. Murray taught them how to take care of the defensive side of the equation, and he's an undeniable part of this team's success, but his overall scheme made it miserable to come to the rink. Sutter's style adds that layer of go-go that wears down the opposition. And you can tell those guys are having fun playing it.
You want to really understand Sutter's impact? Just compare the way Dustin Penner is competing now to, well, pretty much any time since Anaheim's Cup run in 2007. A guy who played with the dimmer switch set on low for years has been one of Sutter's most consistent performers. Sutter is like hockey's Dr. Oz right now. He has all the answers. Win or lose this spring, hasn't Sutter turned finally L.A. into what it should have been all along: a premier free agent destination?
Dater: Yup, Penner isn't snidely known only in connection with my favorite breakfast food anymore. Regarding LA as a premier destination, it's obviously not a bad place to live if you have the bucks, and a lot of people don't realize the Kings have always had some of the best, most hardcore hockey fans of all. Really, they've always drawn pretty well for games, even in some of their bad years. I think LA being in the final would be quite the boost for the NHL in a lot of ways. They'll get to show off the great "LA Live" setup now outside the Staples Center for one thing, and we'll see some honest-to-god real celebrities in the crowd. Maybe even Britney will come to a game! And the media will show up, something that probably won't happen as much if the final is in Glendale, Az.
OK, on to the last couple of topics, because I know you've got to go charge up the weedeater for your next haircut: No question about Jonathan Quick being the Conn Smythe winner if the voting were held today, right? Or are you a Henrik Lundqvist guy? One of those two will win it IF the Kings-Rangers play in the Stanley Cup Final.
Muir: Quick's been good alright -- my American-born son is giddy thinking about him donning the red, white and blue in Sochi -- but has he been THE difference-maker for the Kings? I don't think so. He's been solid with flashes of brilliance -- his save on Daniel Sedin's breakaway in Game 5 of that first-round series will go down as one of the biggest of the playoffs -- but he hasn't been Tim Thomas in 2011. To me, Brown's been the man. Hard to believe they were toying with the idea of moving him at the deadline. He's been everything a captain should be at this time of year. If you want to know what Kings hockey is about, watch the way he plays the game. Big goals, big hits, relentless puck pressure...he's been a lot of fun to watch. If it's New York, it'll have to be Lundqvist, although Ryan McDonagh deserves a few votes. What a beast he's been. Glen Sather should send Pierre Gauthier a little something to apologize for fleecing him in that Scott Gomez deal. Maybe he could ask George Richards of the Miami Herald for some floral ideas.
And if it's the Devils...well, not that he'll get it, but my man-crush on Adam Henrique's game grows more ardent every time I watch him play. I know you probably backed your boy Landeskog for the Calder, but give me Henrique any day.
Dater: Yeah, I went the homer route and took Landy. But come now, he was better than Henrique in the first 82. He'll win in a mudslide. I'm drinkin' the Brown Kool Aid too (wait, that sounds gross). He's been what playoff hockey is all about. And, yes, if Dean Lombardi had traded him at the deadline, the Kings might be sitting home right now. I say might, because I still think Quick might have stolen those first two rounds anyway. I hate going with the goalie all the time for the Conn, but look at those numbers.
So who you takin' for the Cup right now, so I can go call my bookie and get a bet on one of the other three teams still left?
Muir: You'll never go broke betting against me, brother. I've been William H. Macy in The Cooler this spring. If I like a team, they're as good as golfing, so I hope Kings fans forgive me for smooching them with the Muir Kiss o' Death. I haven't seen any team play a more complete game with more consistency than L.A. Still six wins to go, but this group is on a run like we haven't seen since the 1977 Canadiens. Barring a serious injury, I don't see any of the three remaining teams touching them.
Two bonus predictions: World Championships, give me Russia. And the Memorial Cup? Anybody but London. I'm from Windsor, after all.
Dater: London? Since when did the Brits get into hockey? Oh yeah, London, Ontario, from your neck of the woods in Oh Canada. Sorry for all your country's teams being out by the first round by the way. Like I said, I've been on the Kings' wagon all year and I ain't jumpin' off now. Kings and the Cup -- kinda goes together like peanut butter and jelly doesn't it? So good call on the Kings. You're smarter than you look, kid.