Beyond the madness of July 1, some time round about, oh, now each year, things tend to taper off so far as action in the hockey world goes.
In the absence of actual news, much like what no beer and no TV once did to Homer Simpson, people tend to go a bit nutty. For instance…
*The consistent wave of rumors du jour that usually go in one ear and out the other might stick with people a while longer, against their better judgment. (Test yourself: 3-way deal between Pittsburgh, Washington and Tampa Bay involving all of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and [the rights to] Steven Stamkos. If you threw this out the window before finishing reading “Sidney”, your faculties are still intact. If not, seek help.)
*Staples of the web, like KK’s own The Confluence, might just pack it in for good. Tony has done just that and that makes us sad. But best wishes down the road and thanks for years of solid material.
The NHL Entry Draft is one of those annual “hope springs eternal” events. If the awards show bids farewell to a season gone by, the selection process for the latest prospect crop marks the league’s transition into next year.
Just like that, every club starts anew.
Just like that, the page is turned for all.
The Boston Bruins reign as Stanley Cup champions has just begun and yet, as of tonight, even they have work to do. 29 other teams are now gunning for what they have. And for some, reshaping their franchises to make a run at hockey’s iconic chalice will start with their first overall selection tonight.
Of course, it’s been said that there aren’t any immediate game-changers to be had among this crop – and certainly not beyond a half-dozen or so prospects atop most draft boards. But the draft itself has become such an integral aspect of building a championship-caliber team, even the late round selections will be a product of weeks and months of internal debate and study on the part of a team’s decision-making hierarchy.
For other clubs, the leap from 2010-11 to 2011-12 will be aided during draft weekend by trade. This year, with the Philadelphia Flyers kicking things off with a pair of earth-rattlers a day in advance, shipping key components Mike Richards and Jeff Carter out of town in separate deals yesterday, the expectation is that trade activity in St. Paul could be high. As teams gear up for free agency next week, some will look to get a jump on crazy season by filling holes and altering their salary scales with a deal or two and there is a wealth of big-name talent reportedly on the trade market already.
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Anyone else feel like the Tampa Bay Lightning have enjoyed a mini-off-season of sorts lately?
Granted, it’s only been five days since the Bolts disposed of the Washington Capitals with the big broom of death, completing the four-game sweep at the St. Pete Times Forum last Wednesday to reach the Eastern Conference Final (and granteder, any kind of rest would do wonders for any team at this time of year) but, still, the first two rounds were quite the whirlwind and after a head-spinning couple of weeks, in all honesty, it’s been nice to have a little down time.
That’s all over for the Lightning, who returned to practice yesterday and hit the ice again today (with the addition of forward Simon Gagne, albeit in a red, non-contact jersey, now expected to be back for game one).
And it’s all over for yours truly as well as we’re close enough now to the start of the series for a comprehensive preview to post aaaaaaaaany time now and for game-by-game coverage to resume in short order, to boot.
With that, I’ll remind you of the upcoming collaboration with Matt Kalman of The Bruins Blog, who is working with me on the series preview and will be joining forces throughout the series for alternating Q&A sessions not unlike those I had the pleasure of doing with From the Point‘s Brian Metzer in round one.
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The Pittsburgh Penguins understood the distinction between regular season and playoff hockey. They just didn’t have the firepower to finish off the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Washington Capitals had all kinds of firepower at the ready but still haven’t mastered the “next level” aspect of the postseason. That their offensive arsenal never fired in unison only exacerbated their issues resulting in a clean semifinal sweep by the Bolts.
Now, with their opponent for the Eastern Conference Final officially set in the Boston Bruins, the Lightning will face their stiffest competition yet.
Boston has both the guns and the gusto, as well as a feel for the pulse of the playoffs.
Not that Pittsburgh and Washington weren’t (because it can be argued that both previous playoff adversaries for the Lightning, particularly the latter, underachieved to a certain extent in their respective series) but the Bruins are dangerous.
And they possess the primo crease-keeper in all the NHL, in the eyes of many.
It’s only fair to admit, again, that there’s a significant level of shock in my camp about the level of success the Tampa Bay Lightning have achieved not only this season but now, especially, in the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The comeback against Pittsburgh, after going down 3-1 with the Penguins heading home for game five, was remarkable. The second round sweep over Washington, in my opinion, was nothing short of against all odds.
Maybe you thought they’d beat the Capitals. Fine.
But you can’t tell me you called a sweep. If you did, I’d like to shake your hand.
I’m left with no choice but to say this: I’m going to have a very difficult time picking against the Lightning again in the Eastern Conference Final. (The fans won’t want me to, at this point, having gone against the hometown Bolts twice now in my
predictions thus far, and I get that. Just saying. Might be difficult… I’m pretty sold.)
Along with the shellshock for me tonight comes a little weariness, so I’ll leave you until tomorrow with some rapid-fire thoughts and a few choice postgame quotes from tonight.
Figuring out exactly why the Tampa Bay Lightning up three games to none on the Washington Capitals in their Eastern Conference Semifinal series is no easy task.
After all, while some pundits may have had either enough confidence in the Bolts to pick them to win this series or not enough in the Caps to see it going their way, few (if any) could have had Tampa Bay a single game away from a clean sweep over Washington.
From an analytical standpoint, one could point to a power play that has only clicked once in three games for the Capitals (and only then, on a five-on-three advantage).
Or credit for that development in the series could go Tampa’s way, their penalty killers now 49-for-51 in the postseason.
One could single out Capital players like Nicklas Backstrom, scoreless now in eight playoff games, with only a pair of assists to his credit.
Or heap praise upon Lightning contributors such as Sean Bergenheim, now with five goals for Tampa Bay in his first crack at the Stanley Cup playoffs.
One could look at a goal or two that have slipped past youngster Michael Neuvirth in the Washington crease when, perhaps, they should have been stopped, and also note that seasoned veteran Dwayne Roloson across the rink has done less of just that for Tampa Bay.
But maybe analytics aren’t the key to how this series has played out through three games.
As you get set for game three’s early start at the St. Pete Times Forum tonight, here’s an audio clip on the Washington/Tampa Bay series from a spot I did on Calgary’s FAN960 yesterday.
Thanks to Pat Steinberg and Jason DeForest for having me on.
Also, I’ll be providing updates on Playoff Game Night on TSN Radio throughout tonight’s game once again and, unless a potential extended overtime prohibits as much, will jump over to Ice Cap on NHL Home Ice for a postgame wrap-up around 10:25, ET.
Busy season continues…
The Tampa Bay Lightning pushed division rival Washington all year, perhaps forcing the division champs to elevate their game to a level they wouldn’t have reached themselves, regardless of the regular season success they’ve enjoyed in four straight seasons.
Now, as Tampa Bay’s push has continued into the second round of the playoffs, where they currently lead Washington 2-0, it’s as simple as the Capitals having no other choice but to push back – if they even have it in them.
It’s beyond gut-check time for the Caps, the perennial postseason underachievers who now head to Tampa in quite the hole, up against a Lightning squad that has exhibited incredible resolve and team commitment, not only of late in the playoffs, but all year long.
They did so again last night, without key contributors up front and on defense, with forward Simon Gagne and defenseman Pavel Kubina both lost to probable concussions in game one. Lo and behold, a replacement Jones for each hobbled player stepped in adeptly in the game two win. Forward Blair had a momentum-changing quick shift in overtime just before Vincent Lecavalier’s game-winner and defenseman Randy made the breakout pass to Teddy Purcell that led directly to the decisive score.
But that’s just it about the Lightning – one guy goes down to injury or, at times, doesn’t play well and another steps up – or, in this case, two.
On the Washington side of things? To this point, not so much.
You could point to the fact that the Washington Capitals took four of the six regular season meetings with the Tampa Bay Lightning this season.
Or that the Lightning are riding all kinds of momentum after a stunning comeback from a 3-1 deficit to the Pittsburgh Penguins in round one.
You could argue that the Caps will be relieved to simply be out of the first round after last year’s disappointing early exit amid lofty expectations.
Or that the Bolts are wiped after a seven-game grind.
But I’d just as soon put all of that – all of it – aside leading up to a series that will yield one of two potentially axis-shifting results:
The reloaded Lightning, stabilized by new ownership and one of the most-respected names in NHL history running the front office and steered by a blossoming mastermind coach, extending the ultimate one-year turnaround into a shot at a conference championship – and a step away from the grandest prize of all – just like that.
Or the regular season stalwart Capitals, finally living up to their billing as a bona fide contender, knocking not one but two playoff rounds out of the way – two more than many expected – inching closer to cementing their names in history and cementing the mouths of herds of detractors.
Well, that was some ride, wasn’t it? It was only fitting to end things with a 1-0, game seven thriller to cap a largely unpredictable series and a stunning comeback for the Tampa Bay Lightning. As we said several times throughout, this series had just about everything.
Kudos to the Pittsburgh Penguins for an outstanding season and an amazing will to fight through all kinds of adversity. There’s no doubt in my mind that, with Sidney Crosby and/or Evgeni Malkin in that lineup, this one wouldn’t have ended up going Tampa’s way. But, in the end, it did and now the Bolts are off to the Eastern Conference Semifinals and a date with division rival Washington for a berth in the Conference Final.
Before we get to that, the Pens/Lightning series is worth one final reflection, at least and, after Metz tackles the unenviable task of accounting for what went wrong down Pittsburgh way, I’ll jump back in to hash out a handful of things that the Bolts did right:
Metz on the ousted Penguins:
Jon and I knew that this series wouldn’t go on forever and that one of our teams would have to head home for the summer. We also talked openly of wishing that each of the teams could move on, as the series was damn entertaining and we have been enjoying the heck out of our collaboration. But, as is the case with most team sports, there is no “alright, we both win” situations and it is I that has been put in the unenviable position (as JJ said in his lead in) of explaining why YOUR Pittsburgh Penguins are hitting the links as we speak. (Well, maybe not yet, considering they have their final clean-up day tomorrow… but Saturday? It’s on!)
Though the Penguins had what some would call a stranglehold on the series having taken a 3-1 lead through four games, it really wasn’t that tight of a death grip. Anyone who had been watching the series realized that the Penguins had shown plenty of Achilles heels during those first four games. The biggest of which was their inability to score goals.