10 Thoughts on the NHL Conference Finals

Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images

We’re almost there. One conference final is into elimination territory, and the other will be after tonight. We’re just days away from having our Stanley Cup final matchup, at which point the NHL scheduling department will probably give us two weeks off to think about it.

Here are 10 thoughts on a weekend’s worth of conference finals action.

1. Ben Bishop makes his move. Like most playoff series, this Rangers-Lightning battle has largely been about the goalies. After a defensive battle in Game 1 resulted in a 2-1 Rangers win, the Lightning poured it on with a dozen goals over the next two games. That led to speculation over what was wrong with Henrik Lundqvist. Was he tired? Hurt? Had the Lightning, who’d also lit him up during the regular season, somehow figured something out that the rest of the league had missed?

Apparently not, since he looked fine Friday, as the Rangers stormed to an easy 5-1 win. That meant it was Bishop’s turn under the microscope, with Jon Cooper even being asked whether he’d considered switching goalies for last night’s Game 5 in New York. That led to a weird discussion over whether the word “asinine” could appear in a newspaper (don’t ask), and an assurance that Bishop would be back in the net. And indeed he was, although that briefly seemed in doubt when he took a puck in the groin during warm-ups.

One shutout win later, we can safely say that was the right call.1 Bishop didn’t make any especially spectacular saves last night, but he didn’t need to. This was a night when a solid performance was all it would take to grab the series lead, and Bishop delivered at least that. He even kind of sort of seemed to take a shot at the empty net when the Rangers pulled Lundqvist with three minutes left; his weak shot was the only thing he screwed up all night.

Bishop is now 6-1 after losses in this year’s playoffs, which is a bad sign for the Rangers if they can win tomorrow in Tampa Bay and extend the series to a Game 7. Of course, Lunqvist is 12-3 when facing elimination since 2012, so go ahead and pick the stat you want to believe in.

Either way, it’s safe to say there won’t be any question about Bishop’s status heading into Game 6. (Barring another shot to the pills, of course.)

2. They can’t all be winners. Last week, we talked about how the Rangers’ tendency to play low-scoring games didn’t necessarily translate into a boring style. In that spirit, let’s just chalk up last night as the exception that proves the rule. It wasn’t a dull game, but it certainly wasn’t exciting, as the Lightning played the sort of smothering road game that coaches love and fans have learned to tolerate.

The teams combined for just 48 shots, with the Lightning blocking more (26) than they got on the Rangers’ net (22). At one point, that included almost an entire half-period without a single save. Every NHL playoff series includes a few memorable games and a few that will be largely forgotten. Let’s chalk this one up as a stage-setter for whatever comes next and move on.

3. Steven Stamkos stays hot. Remember when the main Lightning story line was that the Triplets2 line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov were producing enough offense to mask a disappointing postseason from Stamkos? You probably do, since it was a week ago. Well, the Lightning captain has now scored in four straight games, including last night’s power-play tap-in off a brilliant tic-tac-toe passing play.

Needless to say, that’s yet another thing to worry about for the Rangers, and it could soon be something to worry about for whoever comes out of the West. The Lightning were the league’s highest-scoring team in the regular season, and that doesn’t tend to translate to Stanley Cups. When they were largely a one-line team, the Lightning still managed to look dynamic offensively. If the big line stays hot while Stamkos and linemates Alex Killorn and Valtteri Filppula (who also scored last night) also get rolling, look out.

Now, about that third line …

4. We’re still waiting on Ryan Callahan. In any given series, there are always a handful of obvious story lines that seem like they’ll be worth watching. Sometimes they deliver. And sometimes they turn out to be Martin St. Louis vs. Ryan Callahan.

The two players, of course, were the captains of these teams — St. Louis in Tampa Bay, and Callahan in New York — before last year’s trade deadline. That’s when St. Louis’s trade request and Callahan’s contract stalemate led to the two swapping teams.3 Having them meet 14 months later with a Stanley Cup final berth on the line seemed like the perfect setup for a nice little revenge story or two. Instead, we spent the first three games watching two slumping wingers do … well, not much of anything.

That changed in Game 4 on Friday night, when St. Louis finally scored his first of the playoffs in the Rangers’ 5-1 win. That shifted the attention to Callahan. Even his own coach piled on, with Cooper saying “probably tonight’s the night he’s going to score, because he does that on big stages and he’s probably going to do it in the building that he grew up as a hockey player.”

Nope. It was another quiet night for the winger. Granted, Callahan is a hard-nosed guy who doesn’t necessarily need to score to have an impact. But you know he’d love to get on the scoreboard against his former team, and he’s running out of time.

The good news for Callahan, apart from the fact that his team is leading the series, is that he only has to look to the other conference final for an example of how quickly one slumping player can flip the narrative …

5. Antoine Vermette goes from bust to hero. Last Thursday, I called Vermette one of the biggest busts of the playoffs, then joked that he’d probably break out that very night and make me look bad. He didn’t get that chance — coach Joel Quenneville made him a healthy scratch for Game 3, sending him to the sideline along with rookie Teuvo Teravainen. Vermette didn’t sound thrilled with the development, and given how much the Hawks gave up to land him at the trade deadline, it’s fair to assume Chicago fans weren’t either.

One game later, all is forgiven after Teravainen and Vermette combined for Saturday night’s double-overtime winner (with a little help from a brilliant pass from behind the net by Patrick Sharp).

The goal kept the Blackhawks in the series, and it continues their impressive mastery of multiple overtimes. It was only Vermette’s second goal of the postseason, but scoring in sudden death tends to end a “bust” narrative pretty quickly. At least for a few more games.

6. The Ducks’ third-period explosion was almost unprecedented. After coming into the third period tied 1-1, the Hawks got early goals from Brent Seabrook and Jonathan Toews and seemed to have the game in hand. That’s when the Ducks exploded for three goals in just 37 seconds. It was a stunning outburst, especially against a team that’s usually as poised as the Blackhawks.

It was also the second-quickest three-spot in NHL playoff history. The only time it’s been done faster was in 1979, when the Toronto Maple Leafs scored three in just 23 seconds during a first-round matchup against the Atlanta Flames.4 And a look at the box score from that outburst reveals a familiar name:

Yep, that assist on the third goal is “Quenneville” as in Joel Quenneville, the current Blackhawks coach. For what it’s worth, he was asked about that after the game on Saturday and had no recollection of it. But in an added bit of fun, Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau was also a member of the Maple Leafs organization back then, but he wasn’t dressed for that game — he’d been sent to the minors.

7. The Hawks’ third-pairing problems aren’t getting any better. Last week, we mentioned that the Blackhawks were in trouble if they couldn’t get more minutes from their third pairing of Kimmo Timonen and David Rundblad. Since then, they’ve swapped Rundblad out for Kyle Cumiskey, but that’s been only a marginal upgrade.

On Saturday, in a game that went over 85 minutes, Cumiskey played just 13:27 while Timonen was on the ice for just 10:15. That left Duncan Keith to eat over 40 minutes, while partner Niklas Hjalmarsson played almost as much. (By comparison, the Ducks’ ice-time leader was Cam Fowler at 32:31.) The Hawks are doing what they have to do to win games, but they’re really playing with fire, especially if this series goes the full seven.

8. Corey Crawford almost pulled off an all-time blunder. Crawford didn’t have a great game. That seems like an odd thing to say about a guy who made 47 saves, including 21 in overtime. But he seemed to be fighting the puck all night, often losing it altogether and going into scramble mode on seemingly routine plays. He played well enough to win, and that’s about the best you can say about his performance.

But the game almost didn’t get to overtime thanks to what almost went down as one of the most ridiculous plays in playoff history. With just 30 seconds left in regulation, Ducks super-pest Corey Perry pushed Hjalmarsson into Crawford, bumping him lightly. Crawford responded by going full Hextall and loading up for a two-handed slash on the next Duck he saw, who turned out to be Matt Beleskey. It was an undisciplined play, sure, but nobody gets a penalty in the final minute of regulation unless you commit first-degree manslaughter and/or accidentally shoot the puck over the glass, so maybe you can forgive it.

Except for one detail: Ducks star Ryan Getzlaf had the puck at the time, and he fired it at the net just as Crawford wound up to take his hack. The result was a temporarily open net, which Getzlaf very nearly hit before Crawford got an accidental shoulder on the puck.

Look how close that puck comes to going in.5 Remember, this is the final minute of regulation in a tied playoff game that the Hawks desperately need to win, and Crawford is taking his eye off the play to two-hand a guy (and not even the right guy). Imagine if that had been a goal — we’d be telling our grandkids about the play. Roman Cechmanek had a solid NHL career but never lived down this play, and Crawford’s would have been 10 times worse.

The puck just missed and the Hawks won the game, so instead we’ll all have a good laugh about it and move on. But Crawford was an inch or two away from joining Bill Buckner, Scott Norwood, and Steve Smith in sports failure hell.

9. Sometimes, it’s the little things. When hockey fans talk about skill, we’re usually talking about the big things. Skill is splitting the defense with a nice move, or deking out a goaltender, or diving across the crease for a miraculous stick save. But skill can also come through on the small things, and we saw that on the Hawks’ first goal Saturday, a shorthanded effort by Brandon Saad.

The most memorable moment of the play comes well before the goal, when Ducks defenseman Francois Beauchemin gets tangled with the referee to spring Saad loose. That creates a partial break, and Saad beats Ryan Kesler before scoring on a fairly standard backhand-forehand move.

But watch the close-up replays and you see something amazing. As Kesler realizes he’s beat, he makes a desperation dive in an attempt to knock the puck away. But Saad senses it coming, slides his stick over to defend the move, and flicks Kesler’s stick out of the way in one perfectly timed motion. He does all of that without losing the puck or his balance, or even breaking stride.

It’s almost imperceptible at regular speed and easy enough to miss even in slow motion. It’s also a phenomenally skilled play, one that led directly to a crucial goal. These sorts of plays happen all the time in a game between teams as good as Chicago and Anaheim, even if we rarely remember or even notice them. Every now and then, it’s worth taking the time to stop and admire one.

10. Man, this series is fun. Last year’s Blackhawks-Kings matchup was a classic that got better as it went on. For many of us, it was one of the best series we could ever remember. Getting a sequel that was just as good a year later seemed like too much to ask for, but the Hawks and Ducks are tracking in that direction.

Maybe that’s something we shouldn’t say. Maybe it’s like talking about a no-hitter in the seventh inning, and the series is now going to end in six games after a pair of 4-1 snoozefests, in which case everyone can go ahead and blame me. But I doubt it, because these are two excellent teams without much to separate them, they’re starting to hate each other, and they don’t seem to be aware that slowing things down for a breather might be an option.

After four games of crazy fun, we’re pretty much playing with house money at this point. Here’s hoping we get three more games worth of it.

Filed Under: 2015 NHL Playoffs, Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks, Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers

Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at Down Goes Brown. When he's not writing, he makes hockey jokes on Twitter at @downgoesbrown.

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