Ways Wild, Flames and Canadiens can climb out of their 0-2 holes
By dropping the first two games of their second-round playoff series, the Flames, Wild and Canadiens have put themselves in a position where they have to win four of their next five games to keep their Stanley Cup hopes alive.
That’s not a comfortable place to be. According to this very handy list of playoff records on nhl.com, teams have trailed 2-0 in a best-of-seven series a total of 291 times. Of those teams, 37 have come back to win the series.
Yeah, we’re saying there’s a chance ... but with a success rate of just 12.7%, it ain’t much of one.
Do any of these teams have what it takes to beat the odds?
Down two games to none is familiar territory for Minnesota, which returned home for Game 3 on Tuesday night (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA). This is the fourth time in five years the Wild has fallen into this hole, including three consecutive series against the Blackhawks.
Twice last spring they found themselves in this spot and both times rallied to even the series by winning Games 3 and 4 at home. They completed the comeback to stun Colorado in the opening round, but the more experienced Hawks brushed them aside in the quarterfinal.
So why would it be any different this time around?
The presence of Devan Dubnyk, for one. Ideally the Wild would play well enough that they didn’t need him to steal a game, but these are desperate times. His postseason numbers haven’t come close to mirroring his regular season success, suggesting the second-half MVP has yet to play his best hockey of the series.
The Wild are much deeper up front this year, but they need to make something of it. Key offseason acquisition Thomas Vanek has yet to score in eight postseason games and was a miserable –4 in Game 2. Chris Stewart, who will miss Game 3 with an upper-body injury, has uncorked only nine shots through those same eight games and is carrying the goose egg. Captain Mikko Koivu has just one goal, and that was a fluky bank shot on the power play. Forget about finishing—these guys need to start creating some chances.
But what it really comes down to for the Wild is getting back to what they do best and avoiding the trap of trying to match the Hawks at their own game.
The Wild have had their moments in this series, particularly in the second period of Game 1 when they fought back from an early three-goal deficit to tie the Blackhawks. For that 20-minute stretch, they got off the race track and put on their work boots. They controlled the neutral zone, got pucks deep and created chances with hard work down low. It’s not as fun as what Chicago is doing, but it’s the style that maximizes the Wild’s skill set.
It’s also a style that gives the Hawks fits. Muck the game up, force them to spend more time in the defensive zone and limit their ability to create off the rush. Do that and the Wild might have a shot.
All season long this team made sport of anyone who has been ready to write them off too soon. So why do it now?
After all, Karri Ramo looked capable of singlehandedly changing the momentum of this series with his athletic play in Game 2, especially during a ludicrously lopsided first period in which he stopped 19 of 20 Anaheim shots.
That stubborn performance bought the Flames time to regain their senses. And by the time the second period rolled around, they started to look more like the team that ran Vancouver out on a rail in the first round.
“We started playing to our strengths,” Ramo said. “We speeded up. We put the puck deep and kept it away from their goalie. We started battling. We started playing smart hockey and creating chances.”
True enough. The problem is they haven't shown a great propensity for finishing those chances in this series. And that's where the Flames troubles start.
It's hard to imagine Calgary's top line of Jiri Hudler, Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau being any less effective than it was in Games 1 and 2 ... but it's equally hard to imagine them being much more effective the rest of the way. Hudler is clearly less than 100%. His trip to the dressing room after a minor hit in Game 2 showed how close he is to watching the next game (Tuesday night at 9:30 p.m. ET; USA, Sportsnet, TVA) in street clothes. Gaudreau, who was benched for his own safety in Game 1, is getting sand kicked in his face by Anaheim's bruising forwards and having his time and space taken away by their defense. Monahan simply looks overwhelmed.
But here’s the real issue: It looks like Calgary’s defense is feeling the strain of soaking up the minutes left by injured captain Mark Giordano. T.J. Brodie, Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman are each averaging more than 26 per night, while Deryk Engelland has heroically stepped up to handle better than 20. That’s a brutal load under any circumstances. Those minutes are only getting harder against the Ducks, a team that’s beaten them off the rush in the first two games and barely scratched at its potential to wear a D down with the cycle.
The Flames may find a way to extend the series, but they’re not coming back.
The Habs are in the toughest spot of them all, having lost their first two games at home. They now need to win at least two in Tampa against the team that earned the NHL's best regular season home record (32-8-1). Game 3 is Wednesday night at 7 p.m. ET (USA, CBC,TVA).
But first they have to figure out how to slow down a club that has beaten them seven consecutive times this season.
Or better yet, avoid beating themselves.
Montreal stormed out of the gate in Game 2, but then jammed a stick in its own spokes by taking too many penalties. The ability to maintain discipline, especially in the face of adversity, will be critical.
They also have to increase the quality of their scoring chances. The Canadiens are averaging 1.88 goals per game, 15th in the playoffs. Against Tampa Bay, they’ve scored just three times. All of them were the product of good fortune more than skill. Max Pacioretty’s wrister from the top of the circle in Game 1 was a total flub by Bolts keeper Ben Bishop. Both goals in Game 2 were the result of low-percentage shots taken from within 10 feet of the blueline.
It's not hard to see why that’s happening. Outside of Lars Eller and maybe Torrey Mitchell, Montreal’s forwards seem averse to driving the middle of the ice to challenge Bishop (looking at you, Alex Galchenyuk). Yes, more screens and rebounds would be helpful, but as a group they continue to settle for long-range and bad-angle shots. That’s not a viable path to success.
Neither is a defensive structure that’s forced Carey Price to face more than 32 shots per game, the most of any active goalie. And it’s not just the quantity that's a problem.
Price may be the single most-intimidating player in the postseason. He may be the consensus favorite to claim the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender and the Hart Trophy as the MVP. But look at the quality of shots he faced in giving up a season-high six goals in Game 2 and it’s clear that his defense is struggling to slow Tampa on the rush and when the Lightning gains control in the zone.
The way the Habs are falling apart it’s hard to imagine them winning a single game without a case of grand larceny between the pipes. Maybe if Price could chip in a few tallies at the other end it would be a different story.
The numbers game
• Washington’s Braden Holtby, who has allowed more than one goal in a playoff game only three times in 15 career outings, is now the sixth goaltender in NHL history whose first two postseason shutouts were by 1-0 scores. The others: Tiny Thompson of the Bruins (1929), George Hainsworth of the Canadiens (1927 and 1930), Frank McCool (1945) of the Maple Leafs, Jean-Sebastien Giguere of the Ducks (2003) and Evgeni Nabokov of the Sharks (2001 and 2004).
• The Rangers have played 10 straight one-goal postseason games dating back to Game 4 of last year’s Stanley Cup finals vs. Los Angeles, the longest such streak in NHL history. New York has also appeared in more playoff matches since 2012 (65) than any other team in the league.
• A win on Tuesday night will give the Ducks a franchise record seven consecutive playoff wins, breaking the mark they’ve set in 2003, 2006 and this year.
• Jim Matheson breaks down what makes Connor McDavid so special. Spoiler alert: everything.