Overrated goaltending, underrated warriors and Yzerman's mission
Too early to call it a trend, but team defense trumps a star goalie in the playoffs
The Sharks' eagerness to make excuses is a reason for their ongoing failure
Gary Bettman won't admit it, but his hands are on Steve Yzerman's hiring as GM
My playoff bracket, still posted somewhere on this site, is in shambles and I won't even begin to defend it. But I will say this: I made the majority of my picks based on what I thought would be the best teams with the best goaltending.
Obviously, that didn't work. Didn't even come close.
It's too early to say there's a trend in the NHL and all-world goaltending is no longer the primary reason for winning, but there does seem to be at least a case for saying that adequate goaltending is good enough, provided that it is supported by great team defense.
The Canadiens won two series against two of the best teams in the game (Washington and Pittsburgh) with a smothering defense and the ability to quickly gain control of loose pucks in their own end and move them out in a timely fashion. The Flyers, with arguably the weakest goaltending coming into the playoffs, have won three rounds (including a comeback from an 0-3 deficit vs. Boston) with pretty much the same game plan. The Blackhawks, who don't often get credit for their overall team defense -- largely because they have such a talented young offense -- limited the Sharks to just seven goals in four games despite going with a goalie who had no playoff experience prior to this season.
Antti Niemi is an open book as a goalie who can be beat from in close and off high shots (all of Patrick Marleau's goals were to the upper half of the cage; the problem for the Sharks being that they didn't get near enough of those type of shots to win). They also couldn't hold leads, a trait that marked Boston's win over Buffalo despite the fact that the Sabres had what was thought to be an all-world goalie in Ryan Miller. New Jersey and Martin Brodeur fell to the Flyers in much the same way.
That said, I'm probably jinxing Philadelphia by picking the Flyers to win the Cup in six. I realize that Chicago is the perceived team of destiny and the Blackhawks have more speed than the Flyers and superb mental toughness, especially when playing on the road, but I'm picking Philly largely because they can match up in front and on the back end. The Flyers also have a more physical edge to their game as well as an up-tempo attack that will get to Niemi in ways that other teams did not.
The Eastern Conference doesn't get a lot of credit for its quality of play lately, but you have to admire the commitment of certain players.
Simon Gagne came back to the Flyers' lineup against Boston after having surgery on a broken toe. Teammate Jeff Carter returned after breaking his right foot, an injury that was preceded by a broken left foot, and he played in Game 4 of the Flyers' series against the Canadiens. Ian Laperriere returned to the ice in the same game with a full face shield after taking a puck to the mug in the first round against New Jersey. Pittsburgh's Jordan Staal and Montreal's Hal Gill missed some time due to skate cuts, but quickly recovered from injuries many thought would take weeks to heal.
There were heroes in the West as well, as Chicago's Duncan Keith took a puck in the face in Game 4 against the Sharks and lost upward of seven teeth. He barely missed a shift, but there didn't seem to be the same kind of intensity regarding shot blocking in some of the western series as there was in the east. One could argue that the Sharks, with Dan Boyle and a few other notable exceptions, headed that list.
I know the Sharks are saying that anyone who knows hockey knows they weren't really swept by the Blackhawks in the western finals, at least not in the traditional way of being run right out via a bunch of lopsided scores.
Memo to San Jose: the history books will record four wins for the Blackhawks and none for you, and not only will that be recorded for all time, it will be remembered that way as well.
You didn't win a single game. With the exception of Marleau, who performed admirably, you produced almost no offense (seven goals), and provided no answers to the Blackhawks' offense, especially Dustin Byfuglien. Your much-touted offseason acquisition, Dany Heatley, he of "I want more options" fame in forcing his trade out of Ottawa, was a complete bust again (two goals over three series; one meaningful, the other a garbage-time tally in a blowout loss, both coming against Detroit).
Against the Hawks, Heatley added nothing and, for the record, took the penalty that led to the game-winning and series-winning goal. True, management covered for him with a claim that he was hampered by a groin injury, but lots of players play hurt in the playoffs and manage to accomplish something. Heatley played to the level of his one and only Stanley Cup Final appearance wirh Ottawa in which he also accomplished nothing.
It's hard for a conference champion to acknowledge defeat. Just ask the Capitals. And to be fair, the Sharks lost to the team that finished second in the West by a single point but with better numbers in goals-for (271-264) and goals-against (209-215) and, given the playoff results to date, appears to be better by a wide margin.
But this was supposed to be San Jose's year. The Sharks had a veteran team with players who have been tested both in victory and in painful defeat, and were up against a foe powered mostly by youth that hadn't been in this kind of situation. As a veteran and supposedly mature team, the Sharks had every reason to believe they could win.
There have been a lot of changes in San Jose over the past few years, but this fact remains: a franchise with four consecutive 100-point seasons has yet to make it to the Stanley Cup Final. One of the reasons seems to be that it accepts defeat and makes excuses for it.
In the NHL, anyone who knows hockey knows that won't get it done.
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