In a pair of playoff matchups against the top two teams in the NHL’s Western Conference, the L.A. Kings have lost A game — the A is capitalized there to signify that it is to be pronounced in the incredulous manner of Wayne. It’s the first time any 8-seed has knocked off the nos. 1 and 2 teams in the same playoff season, and the Kings have gone one step further — they’ve won with authority.
While no team in the East has cruised through the playoffs with that kind of ease, the lower seeds in that conference have nevertheless given their top-dog opponents a real fight. It took no. 1 New York seven games to get rid of the no. 8 Senators, and the Rangers are now tied at 2-2 with the no. 7 Capitals. Which is probably why the Rangers’ Brian Boyle, asked about the team’s trouble with lower seeds, preferred not to think about it that way.
“At this point, I just kind of throw the seeding out,” he said Sunday.” We have home ice. That’s what the seeding dictates, but other than that, it’s pretty close for a lot of these teams. They have good goaltending, offensive weapons, they play strong defensively.”
No. 2 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 8 Los Angeles Kings
Kings sweep series, 4-0
All the teams who have made it this far ought to theoretically fit Boyle’s description, but it’s not the case: The Flyers have issues in net, for example, while the Predators have been hurting for goals. But of all the teams left, it sounds most closely like a description of the surging L.A. Kings. Or, as St. Louis Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock put it after his team was swept by them on Sunday: “L.A. plays the way you have to play to win the Cup now. They play the game the right way. I’m sure they’ve had stumbles along the way to figure it out. But it looks to me like they’ve figured it out.”
Oh, there were stumbles indeed. The Kings were the second-lowest scoring team (2.29 goals per game) in the league during the regular season, out-snakebitten only by the Minnesota Wild. Head coach Terry Murray was fired. GM Dean Lombardi was said to be on the hot seat. Dustin Penner was pilloried. Captain Dustin Brown was on the verge of being traded. Defenseman Jack Johnson was traded. As late as mid-March, a spot in the playoffs seemed far from certain.
It’s funny: Many of the people so shocked by an 8-seed beating up teams like the Canucks and the Blues are the same ones who, before the season began, considered L.A. to be a championship contender. These expectations rendered the team’s regular season a resounding disappointment, but they’re also why no one should be all that surprised by the team’s past few weeks of play (especially considering that they’re now a better team than they were in the preseason, what with their steal of Jeff Carter).
The Kings’ many 1-0 or 2-1 losses were as much a factor of luck as anything else: The team’s 7.5 percent shooting percentage was the lowest in the NHL; had they managed even the league average of 8.9 percent they would have scored an additional 36 goals over the course of the season. As Jonathan Willis pointed out here at Grantland, “Teams that lose a lot of one-goal games don’t usually make the postseason, but when they do, they’re typically better than their overall record would indicate.” (At Backhand Shelf, Cam Charron calls them “not your older brother’s 8-seed.”)
Jonathan Quick has gotten and will continue to get a lot of the credit for the sweep of the Blues, and deservedly so: He posted a .939 save percentage over the second-round series. (Also, according to an upcoming issue of The Hockey News, he’s “so competitive, he cheats to win games against his 2-year-old daughter.” As someone who has endured the crippling self-doubt of losing games of Candyland to smug young children while babysitting, I approve of this message.) But while it’s fair to say that Quick is one of the main reasons the Kings were able to make the playoffs in the first place, he’s not solely responsible for their postseason success.
St. Louis was smothered by L.A.’s offensive depth — Kings coach Darryl Sutter likes to roll four lines, and fittingly it was a first-liner (Brown) and a fourth-liner (Jordan Nolan) who scored the goals in Game 4.1 Nolan also got into a fight with St. Louis’s Chris Stewart, which led to Stewart’s “Shhhhh, fuckin’ shhhhh,” which I’m totally borrowing next time I’m in a library.
The defense in front of Quick was strong, too, with Hitchcock calling Drew Doughty — who at 22 is scarily young for an elite defenseman, and who has really been playing up to his big contract of late — the best player in the series. On special teams, L.A. shut down St. Louis’s normally strong power play: The Blues went 0-17 after having gone 6-18 against the Sharks in the first round.
So, to recap: good goaltending? Check. Offensive weapons? Finally, yes. Strong defensively? Yes. Who cares about seeding when you’re balanced like that?
So just how long will the Kings be biding their time waiting for their next opponent? It could potentially be up to a week — a layoff that hasn’t worked out so hot for the Philadelphia Flyers — and the timing will be determined by the duration of the three remaining conference semifinal matchups. I have helpfully ranked them here in order of nailbititude ranging from Most Likely to Be Over by the Time You Go to Bed Tonight (If You Live on the West Coast) to Most Likely to Be the Death of Me Yet.
No. 3 Phoenix Coyotes vs. No. 5 Nashville Predators
Coyotes lead series, 3-1
Of the two series (the other being Philly-NJ) that could go down as a gentleman’s sweep, this one seems to have marginally greater potential to be dunzo — both on account of Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith’s brick-wall play, and because the Nashville Predators suddenly have the desperate feel of a sinking vessel.
After dispatching the Red Wings in five games in the first round, the Predators had the look of a top contender. But the normally tight ship started springing leaks when it was announced that Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn were being scratched from Game 3 after some late-night gallivanting, and took on additional water when head coach Barry Trotz sat them again in Game 4.
While Trotz rationalized his decision as being about keeping the winning roster from Game 3 together, having two of his most productive offensive weapons watching the game from the rafters backfired when the Predators lost a tight 1-0 game to go down 3-1. Shane Doan somehow overpowered the typically unoverpowerable Hal Gill for the score.
“It’s tough to watch,” Kostitsyn said. “You want to help your team, but you can’t help. You just watch the game.”
They weren’t the only two late-season acquisitions to remain undeployed in Game 4, either: Paul Gaustad, for whom Nashville gave up a first-round draft pick in large part because they wanted his face-off prowess for the postseason, took just one face-off in the third period. While Kostitsyn and Radulov will be back in the lineup for Game 5, the Coyotes will be without defenseman Rostislav Klesla, who The NHL reportedly plans to announce today that it has tentatively found an ownership group for the currently league-owned franchise. Helmed by Greg Jamison, the former CEO of the San Jose Sharks, the consortium aims to keep the team in Arizona — provided, of course, that they can convince the grumpy city of Glendale to go along with their plan.
Outside the Nashville fan base, there is at least one guy who hopes the team can turn the series around. Asked if he was looking forward to the potential of mercifully short flights to Phoenix from L.A. in the next round, Kings coach Darryl Sutter said what the room full of media was secretly thinking: “I kind of like Nashville, too.” Same!
No. 5 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 6 New Jersey Devils
Devils lead series, 3-1
A little bit of their first-round series with Pittsburgh must have rubbed off on the Flyers — and not in a good way.
First it was the blown early lead. In Sunday night’s Game 4, Philadelphia built a 2-0 cushion with less than seven minutes to play in the opening period thanks to a power-play goal from Scott Hartnell and a shorthanded score from Claude Giroux.2 By the time the two teams took to the locker room for the first intermission, though, the Devils’ Petr Sykora and Marek Zidlicky had evened the game at 2-2.
Then it was the mini-meltdowns, another staple of that frenzied first-round playoff series. (So many choice words were exchanged that earmuffs had to be applied to a young boy in the front row.)
Hartnell, called for goaltender interference in the first period, threw his glove down on the ice in frustration. Giroux, incensed over something near the end of the second period — head coach Peter Laviolette later said it had to do with Martin Brodeur not getting whistled for playing the puck outside of the designated trapezoid — became a one-man guided missile. His target? Dainius Zubrus, who had scored minutes earlier to put the Devils up 3-2, and whose head Giroux’s elbow got right in the way of.
Zubrus would return to the game — and score the game-sealing empty-netter, to boot — but the question contentiously batted around in the aftermath of Joisey’s3 4-2 win has been whether Giroux would be back for Game 5. Earlier today the league announced that he will not, suspending him for a game (and entering him into the hallowed pantheon of “repeat offenders”).
So, can Philadelphia live with or without Giroux (with or wiiiiiiithout Girooooooux)? I’d be surprised if the Flyers didn’t win Game 5 at home, even if their leading scorer is out of the lineup. (These things can have a way, in the short term, of effectively riling up a team.) But to do so, they’ll have to stop making everything a free-for-all shootout, shore up their defense, and find a way to overcome New Jersey’s frustrating forecheck, which at times has kept Philadelphia from so much as recording a lone shot for huge stretches at a time.
“It seems everything is difficult,” admitted Philadelphia’s Danny Briere. “All year we’ve been a team that makes crisp passes to get out of the zone. We make smart plays, heads-up plays. And right now we’re forcing things. We’re getting rid of it. One guy will be in trouble and instead of making a good, hard play he’ll just give his struggle away to the next guy.”
If the Flyers want to avoid giving their struggle away to New Jersey’s next opponent, they’ll have to win three straight. (Unfortunately, that’s something they’ve been able to do only once since December.) NHL.com’s Dave Lozo told fans to look on the bright side, though: “If you’re a Flyers fan, and you’re going to beat the Devils in the postseason, don’t you want to do it by coming back from down 3-1?” Indeed.
No. 1 New York Rangers vs. No. 7 Washington Capitals
Series tied, 2-2
All eyes were on the Capitals on Saturday to see how they’d recover from their triple-overtime loss at home to the Rangers in Game 3: Would they be able to move on and put the past behind them? Well, yes and no. Washington won 3-2 to tie the series at two games apiece, but they did so by going back even further into the olden days. (So did this guy, I think.)
For the first time since October 30, 2010, the Capitals got goals from Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green, three-quarters of the players once heavily marketed as the team’s “Young Guns.” (Only Alexander Semin failed to light the lamp on Saturday, that Soviet sphinx.) “We’re not that young anymore,”4 said Green, whose goal with 5:48 to play in the poorly officiated game would turn out to be the 3-2 game-winner. “But it’s good to know we can still put it in net.”
Like the Kings, the Capitals are a team who entered the season with high expectations, totally failed to live up to them, fired a coach, maligned a captain, eked their way into the playoffs, and are just now hitting their stride. They also are becoming in many ways a mirror image of the team the Rangers have been all season.
Ryan Callahan told the New York Times that “it’s hard to play against a team like that … They’re similar to us in style, the way we block shots and collapse.” (His teammate Michael Del Zotto disagreed.)
With two teams so evenly matched, don’t be surprised if this one goes the full seven. Quite frankly, I’m not sure I can take it — that triple-OT game was quite enough, thankyouverymuch. But that’s how these two teams just are, playoff seeding be damned.