NHL playoff notes: Crucial net calls; next offensive trend; more
No, Roberto Luongo was nowhere near good enough in Thursday's 5–4 loss to the New York Islanders. But Florida Panthers coach Gerard Gallant is making the right call in sending him back between the pipes for Friday night’s crucial Game 2.
There was some question after Thursday's loss whether the veteran might be replaced by backup Al Montoya, but Gallant made it clear on Friday that the start was never in doubt.
“The only reason I didn’t say it [after Game 1] is I just wanted to make sure [Luongo was] healthy,” Gallant told reporters. “He’s not a young kid anymore. He’s 37 years old so I just have to make sure. It’s not about his performance.
"Do we need more from Lu tonight? No. We need more from our team tonight. Those turnovers killed us.”
That's an accurate assessment to some extent, but it's also very kind to his keeper. Luongo's under tremendous pressure in this series. Playing behind a young and inexperienced team, it's up to him to be the stabilizer when things don't go smoothly.
That didn't happen in Game 1. The wheels flew off repeatedly as the kids struggled with the immensity of the moment. And when Luongo couldn't come up with that big redemptive save when his teammates needed it most, it killed the Cats.
It was a poor performance. But putting him back in is a no-brainer. Luongo has been their go-to guy all season long, winning 35 games and posting a .922 save percentage. Putting Montoya in would have sent the wrong message to the rest of the team, that the opening loss was somehow Luongo's fault, rather than theirs.
He's no sure thing: Luongo is 4-6 in games following playoff losses since 2011. But he's Florida's rock. Win or lose, Gallant made the right choice.
• The decision to pull the goalie for an extra attacker late in a game is typically an act of desperation.
But pulling the goalie against the Dallas Stars? That's an act of futility.
The Stars scored 24 empty-net goals this year, setting an NHL single-season record. They picked up their first of the postseason on Thursday night when Jamie Benn took advantage of turnover in his own zone and buried one into a gaping cage with exactly four minutes remaining to salt away a 4–0 win over the Wild.
The Stars' success isn't simply a factor of playing so often with the lead, although Dallas did plenty of that this season. It's more about trashing a long-held philosophy.
"I think we've broken the rules," coach Lindy Ruff said. "The old thinking was you have to get to center, but my thinking isn't that anymore. I let the guys go after it, because I feel if you chip it out, five seconds later, they're back in your zone. If we miss [the net], we're coming down for a face-off, that's basically the same result."
This is a copycat league. It didn't take long for other teams to embrace Colorado coach Patrick Roy's aggressive approach to goalie pulling. Won't take long for Ruff's fire-at-will theory to become the standard, either.
• Help is on the way for the offensively challenged Wild ... but not in time for their first-round series against the Stars.
Earlier this week, the Wild inked power forward Alex Tuch to a three-year, entry-level contract. That was past the deadline for 18th pick in the 2014 draft to join the team this season, but with his size (6' 4", 200) and elite hockey sense he'll contest for a spot on the opening night roster for 2016-17. The 19-year-old sophomore had 18 goals and 16 assists in 40 games with Boston College this season. He's viewed as a top-six winger with 25-goal potential.
Then on Friday morning, Elliotte Friedman reported that the Wild have signed coveted college free agent Sam Anas to a two-year ELC. The Quinnipiac junior led the ECAC in goals (24) and points (50), and finished the season as the active career scoring leader in college hockey (132 points in 121 games).
Listed at 5' 8', 170 pounds, Anas is nowhere near the pro bluechipper that Tuch is, but there are elements to his game that suggest he could be the next undersized forward to make an impact. "He's got ice in his veins," a scout told SI.com. "He's so calm under pressure. Nothing rattles him, so he has that ability to make good decisions ... to make good plays where others might [throw the puck away].
"He has the tools to be a finisher. [He has a] great shot. He can really fire it."
Anas is likely to need some time with AHL Iowa before he gets a look in Minnesota, but he could see time with the big club next season. "He knows he's small," the scout said. "He knows he has to do more to prove himself. It hasn't stopped him before. I think a lot of teams would have loved to have him in their system. He has a chance to be a player."
• For all the attention paid to Washington's devastating power play, it could end up being their smothering penalty kill that is the deciding factor in their series against Philadelphia.
The Caps found themselves shorthanded three times in the first period alone in the series opener on Thursday night but survived the early threat thanks to a PK that ranked second during the regular season at 85.2%. The key to their success: sending their high forward (usually Mike Richards or Jay Beagle) to aggressively pressure Philadelphia's point men and take away the time they needed to move pucks side-to-side or or down low to where Wayne Simmonds dangerously lurked.
The Flyers ranked third in the league in power-play time this season, so it's likely that they'll continue to get chances in this series. And it's a certainty the coaching staff will make adjustments in an effort to change the momentum of a unit that struggled over the final two weeks of the season pucks. But the speed and tenacity of Washington's forwards are bound to be factors moving forward. And if Philly can't figure out a way to get more pucks into the mosh pit in front of Braden Holtby, this could be s short series.