Discipline, goaltending still keys to playoff victory
By Stu Hackel
We've heard, read and written a lot this week about discipline -- or lack of it -- in the Stanley Cup playoffs, almost all of it due to the unprecedented manner in which the opening round has unfolded. There has been an elevated number of suspensions for illegal dangerous play and fights. "This was the time of year when you saw the best players playing the best hockey," Pat Hickey of The Montreal Gazette wrote earlier this week, reflecting on the unusual course most series took in the early going as compared to the norm. "The emphasis was on skill. There was defence and hard hitting but clean hits were the order of the day because nobody wanted to leave his team vulnerable by taking a dumb penalty."
Dumb penalties come in many varieties. Besides the sucker punches and hair pulling, we've also seen selfishly brandished sticks to faces, elbows to skulls, helmets grabbed and a head smashed into the glass, and leaping late head shots. So it was almost refreshing on Thursday night to see a plain old stupid interference penalty at a critical moment that cost a team the game. Almost refreshing...but not really.
Patrick Marleau, come on down.
The Sharks were trailing the Blues 1-0 midway through the third period, and trailing in the series two games to one. with things moving to St. Louis for Game 5. It was a game San Jose surely needed. With their suffocating defensive zone play, their hard forecheck, and their speed in the neutral zone even without the puck, the Blues had been giving the Sharks very little room to move, very few opportunities to get quality chances on goalie Brian Elliott. Then the Sharks started to get some pressure and attack zone time. They could have drawn a power play when the Blues' Scott Nichol pushed ex-Blue Michal Handzus down while he was chasing the puck behind the net, but referee Brad Meier might have been looking at Barret Jackman pulling another former Blue, Brad Winchester, down a few feet closer. No matter, because shortly after, Jackman crosschecked Winchester a few times and that was called.
So here was the opportunity the Sharks needed. But once their power play started, they were frustrated by a very good Blues kill -- as they had been for most of the series -- with St. Louis blocking shots and generally denying San Jose a quality chance. Then the puck went behind the Blues' net and, with about half the penalty time remaining, Patrick Marleau took this dumb, undisciplined call.
Not only did it short-circuit the Sharks' power play, it gave the Blues their own man advantage when Jackman left the box. Andy McDonald, who has been the best St. Louis player in this round, tallied to give the Blues a 2-0 lead (video). It was a bit of a fluky goal, coming on a rebound that first going high in the air off Sharks goalie Antti Niemi before bouncing off his back while he flailed at it and landing in the crease where McDonald swatted it into an unguarded goal. But it was a real playoff-style tally nonetheless in which the Blues just got the puck to the net and outworked the Sharks in front.
That proved to be the game-winner as Joe Thornton narrowed the gap to 2-1 in the last minute with Niemi pulled for an extra attacker (video). Marleau's lack of discipline was actually the second instance of the Sharks killing their own power play, but it was more egregious than the earlier one. They had a man advantage in the second period and nearly scored while Elliott was sitting on his rear inside the net, his legs in the crease, after a collision, but Joe Pavelski's shot hit the sole of Elliott's skate. Then Martin Havlat chopped slightly at David Backes' stick and broke the shaft. That's a slashing call every time, but more bad luck than anything.
The Sharks may want to blame lack of luck for their facing elimination on Saturday, but Marleau, who scored 30 goals during the regular season has not tallied in this round and he has contributed no assists. San Jose's power play is limping along at 2-for-15 while the Blues are 6-for-16. The Blues don't let the Sharks get many good looks at Elliott and fewer second chances. Right now, they seem like the better team.
It hasn't hurt the Blues that with Jaroslav Halak hurt, Elliott is giving them solid goaltending, as he has all season. But there are other big stories, none bigger than rookie Braden Holtby of the Capitals, who was the story of night on Thursday for his 44-save performance against the Bruins which tied that series at 2-2. The Bruins still don't get much resistance from the Capitals when gaining the zone, but as long as Holtby can keep pucks out of the net, coach Dale Hunter's strategy could pay off.
The B's, who meet the Caps on Saturday and Sunday, have outshot Washington 148-109, which is still mindboggling considering the Caps' potential firepower, but each team has scored only seven goals in the first four games. Hunter elects not to push the pace but defend and wait for Boston mistakes on which to capitalize. The Caps might be forced to open up if they fall behind by a larger margin in what have been tight games, but the Bruins power play, which was awful last spring, is once again doing nothing. The Holtby-Tim Thomas matchup could decide this series.
If the shot margin looks big in the Boston-Washington series, Detroit-Nashville has one that's even larger, with the Red Wings holding a 138-91 edge. Those 91 Predators shots are the fewest in the playoffs so far, and it speaks to the job done by their goalie, Pekka Rinne. He keeps Nashville in the game and the well-coached Preds jump on every little mistake that the Wings make. Jimmy Howard hasn't played badly, but Rinne is the biggest reason why the Red Wings face elimination Friday night in Music City.
The difference in the Blackhawks-Coyotes series -- in which each game has gone to overtime -- also comes down to goaltending. Mike Smith has made the big saves for Phoenix when he's had to, but the Hawks' Corey Crawford has not. Mikkell Boedker got his second straight OT winner Thursday night on a stoppable shot after Nick Leddy failed to pick up either him or the puck in the neutral zone.
Crawford hasn't played badly -- he's given the Hawks a chance to win after they've scored late goals three times in this series to force OT. But he hasn't made the big save when it was needed and the Coyotes are now just one win away from their first series victory since moving from Winnipeg and only their third in franchise history.
Another goalie who has no success in overtime is the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist. He's now lost seven consecutive OT decisions after the Senators' Kyle Turris beat him to tie that series at 2-2 on Wednesday. King Hank is 1-7 overall in extra time. The toast of Broadway, Lundqvist's futility was chronicled on New York Magazine's website on Thursday with links to videos of all the OT goals. "Some of the videos linked below might be painful for Rangers fans to watch," wrote Joe DeLessio. The Rangers may want to think about winning in regulation time, although the Senators are proving to be a formidable foe.
When it comes to goaltending, no series has had less of it than the Flyers and Penguins. In fairness to both Ilya Bryzgalov and Marc-Andre Fleury, the teams in front of them haven't provided what you would call rock solid support. The Flyers defense corps is ravaged by injuries. The Pens' might be, too (although no one is talking about them. Paul Martin was ruled out for Game 5 on Friday night). Still, there are shots leaking through these guys that should be stopped. Fewer have gone through Bryzgalov and that's why the Flyers can close out the series with one more win. If he reverts to his Game 4 form, however, it will give the Pens a reason to believe they can climb back into the series. But it's a pretty big mountain to climb.
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