NHL Playoffs notes: Flyers' last hope; Letang avoids justice
No one moves the goalposts quite like the NHL's Department of Player Safety.
As we've seen time and again this season, the group charged with maintaining on-ice discipline rules entirely by whim, its shifting standards inscrutable to anyone outside the inner circle.
So no one could have been all that surprised to learn that Kris Letang will not face supplementary discipline for taking a two-handed swing at the face of New York's Viktor Stalberg on Tuesday night.
After all, they know better than us. They understood that Letang, rather than drawing his stick back and slamming it in Stalberg's jaw as it appeared to anyone who saw it on video, actually was being acted upon by mysterious forces unknown to those who haven't played the game at the NHL level. Maybe Stalberg has a responsibility to keep his face out of the way of Letang's twig. Maybe it's an unwritten rule that, after being checked by Dominic Moore, Letang gets a free shot at the next blue sweater he came across. Or maybe there's a playoff exemption for raised stakes and heightened emotions. Hey, The Code!
It's one thing when an infraction like that gets missed on the ice. It's a fast game and the officials deserve a certain margin of error, even on a seemingly egregious offense like this. But if the current DoPS can't watch a replay on video and recognize the malicious intent and frightening results in Letang's actions then it might be time to bring in some fresh eyes who value the concept of player safety over plausible deniability.
• The changes being made by Dave Hakstol ahead of Game 4 might prove pointless, but with the season on the line the rookie coach of the Flyers is playing the numbers.
Replacing netminder Steve Mason with former Capital Michal Neuvirth seems like an obvious decision after Mason allowed gut-punch goals in consecutive games. It makes even more sense when you consider that Neuvirth put up far better stats on the penalty kill during the regular season. According to War On Ice, Neuvirth posted a .902 save percentage compared to Mason's .827 on all shorthanded chances, and a .823 to Mason's.724 on high-danger chances. Given that the Capitals have scored eight goals on 17 power play opportunities (47%) in the series, slowing them down with the extra man is the only chance the Flyers have of getting this series to Game 5.
Braden Holtby is expected to get the start for the Caps despite suffering an apparent injury during practice on Tuesday. If he can't go, Philpp Grubauer would get the nod for his second career playoff start.
• Dallas Stars center Tyler Seguin is doubtful and defensemen Kris Russell and Patrik Nemeth are questionable for Game 4 tonight in MInnesota. Their absences are concerns, but the Stars have bigger issues to deal with after throwing away Game 3.
Dallas mustered just 17 shots on goal in that 5–3 loss, tying a season low. It wasn't Seguin they were missing. It was desire. After building an early 2–0 lead, they took their foot off the gas and coasted. The forecheck disappeared. The 50/50 puck battles were lost. The Stars couldn't generate the possession that came so easily in Games 1 and 2.
And then there was the recurrence of the defensive lapses that had been all but eradicated over the final month of the season. Assignments were blown. Lanes were left open. The intensity and commitment were missing. Dallas can be a solid defensive team, but all the cylinders have to be firing. When they're not, you get a result like the one they earned on Monday night.
"It's one game. You look at the big picture; I don't want to overreact," coach Lindy Ruff said. "We've talked about the different emotions that are going to go through a playoff series. It's how you react. It's my job to pick it up and make some adjustments and have the guys play our game."
That means a return to their earlier form: tighter, more controlled play in the first, more control of the neutral zone and a sturdier presence at their own blueline. Look for the Radek Faksa-Antoine Roussel-Ales Hemsky line to make a difference with their speed and puck pursuit.
• No official word yet on the availability of Alec Martinez, but there's a good chance the veteran blueliner will be in the Kings lineup for Game 4. He's been sorely missed, and not just for his ability to handle a heavy workload and provide a steadying presence in the defensive zone. L.A. is averaging just 25 shots per game during the playoffs (only Minnesota, at 24.3, is worse) and needs to get more pucks to the net. Martinez, who posted a career-high 31 points this season, has a knack for exploiting the seams. If he can help deliver pucks down low, the Kings have a better chance to solve Martin Jones (a stellar 1.96 GAA).