Stanley Cup Final: Defending champs meet the newcomers

Two hundred twenty-seven days ago, history started its run through the NHL season. Since the opening day of the 2016-17 season, there were stellar rookie campaigns from Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine as well as record-setting milestones from Jaromir Jagr.

The Columbus Blue Jackets enjoyed their best season ever, while the Colorado Avalanche submitted their worst season in franchise history. All the eventful storylines lead to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final between the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins and the title newcomers, the Nashville Predators.

For the Predators, it’s their first-ever trip to the Final in the franchise’s 18-year history. They shocked the hockey world when they swept the Western Conference juggernaut Chicago Blackhawks in the first round.

They followed that up with a five-game series win over the Saint Louis Blues. In their debut in the conference finals, they dispatched the Anaheim Ducks in six games and won in front of their home fans.

The Penguins are used to this spotlight, though their path to this destination was paved different to what they expected. After losing their best defenseman and number one goalie before the opening round, they ended up taking down two division rivals, the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Washington Capitals.

Then, the surprising Ottawa Senators pushed them to double overtime of Game 7 in the Eastern Conference final. Chris Kunitz made sure that the Pens faithful left PPG Paints Arena with reason to celebrate with the series-clinching tally.

Nashville and Pittsburgh meet for the third time this season. Each team won a contest in the regular season. Here’s how both teams stack up heading into the Stanley Cup Final.

Nashville’s Strengths

2017 Stanley Cup Final

Ryan Ellis (left) with Mattias Ekholm (right). (Photo: Nashville Predators Twitter)

David Poile brought P.K. Subban to the Music City to emphasize the strengths on defense and moving the puck from zone to zone. Both units have been fantastic this postseason.

Subban and Roman Josi have found ways to block shots, create scoring chances and cause havoc in the neutral zone. They have been great, but so have their partners.

Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm have combined for 19 points and a +17 rating on the ice. All four logged the most ice time in the playoffs so far. They will continue to do so because of their effectiveness.

While his blue line has been sharp, Pekka Rinne is helping his own cause with his play. While he wasn’t as solid as the first two rounds, he did enough to thwart an impressive Ducks’ offense, allowing 14 goals for a .925 save percentage. He continues to play above his previous playoff production.

Nashville as a unit did well on the penalty kill last series and allowed just five powerplay goals all postseason. From Colton Sissons’ hat trick in Game 6 to clutch goals from unlikely sources, the Preds have surprising depth up front.

This is the most complete team they’ve had in months. Despite entering the playoffs as the eighth seed, Nashville is built like a Stanley Cup-caliber team.

Nashville’s Weaknesses

There aren’t many weaknesses for this team, but it starts with their health. Ryan Johansen, their best skill forward, is out after emergency thigh surgery last series. Captain Mike Fisher sustained an injury last series, but he returned to practice a couple days ago and the team is hopeful he’s ready for Game 1. Viktor Arvidsson’s status is unknown after he missed yesterday’s practice for an undisclosed reason.

Their health should improve closer to the start of the Final, but for now, it’s a question mark.

Rinne, for his performance in net this year, historically struggles against the Penguins. In eight games against Pittsburgh, he’s 1-5-2 with a 3.57 GAA and a .880 save percentage. He did not play in Nashville’s win against them in the regular season and gave up four goals in the other matchup. He has his hands full with a stacked Pittsburgh lineup, so he needs to continue to defy his past numbers.

As a whole, Nashville is not a strong powerplay team. They’ve scored just 15 percent of the time on the man advantage. As discussed further, Pittsburgh doesn’t give up many opportunities on the penalty kill. Nashville doesn’t have the edge on special teams.

Pittsburgh’s Strengths

The Penguins not only have the depth and speed on offense, but their systems and the way they score boost their efficiency.

On the game-winning goal on Thursday night, Justin Schultz cut in front of the net with Jean-Gabriel Pageau trailing him. Schultz saw another defender in front, so he skated by him to keep Pageau on the far side. Because of this, Pageau screened goalie Craig Anderson, who did not see Kunitz’s shot.

That creativity, combined with Pittsburgh’s skill and aggressiveness, is dangerous for any team.

2017 Stanley Cup Final

Evgeni Malkin. Photo courtesy of CBS Sports. PHoto by USATSI.

Their formations work even better considering Sidney Crosby’s teammates are too. Evgeni Malkin continues to lead all scorers with 24 postseason points. Phil Kessel isn’t far behind with 19 points. While he didn’t play in Game 7 due to an upper-body injury, Patric Hornqvist played well in both games against the Predators this season.

Matt Murray made 123 saves between the pipes since taking over for Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 4. Nashville produces with under-the-radar players. Pittsburgh has the star firepower.

The key factor for the Penguins is special teams. Their penalty kill is a respectable 85.5 percent, giving up just eight goals in the playoffs. However, their 14 power play tallies are tops in the postseason and they had the second-most such goals in the regular season at 60. The Predators’ penalty kill is average, but Pittsburgh can expose it if they play to their expectations.

Pittsburgh’s Weaknesses

As is the case with Nashville, Pittsburgh has its own share of bruises. As mentioned before, Hornqvist didn’t play last game. Schultz returned to the lineup after missing four games. Kunitz had to miss time earlier in the postseason.

They didn’t do themselves any favors going to seven games for two consecutive series. They’re healthier than they were a few weeks ago, but health is still a nagging issue.

On top of health issues, some forwards are in a lull, too. Conor Sheary was a healthy scratch in Game 6 and hasn’t scored in 16 games this postseason. After an electrifying start, Jake Guentzel has just two goals since May 1. He was a non-factor after regulation on Thursday.

While Bryan Rust was never expected to excel up front, he hasn’t lit the lamp as much compared to his four goals against Columbus. Pittsburgh is stacked on all four lines, but the role players have had more value on the intangibles than on the score sheet lately.

Finally, how well can the Penguins adjust to the vaunted Preds blue line? They struggled to adjust to Ottawa’s neutral zone trap, and while Nashville doesn’t use a trap as often, it’s a little different than Guy Boucher’s scheme. The Predators could use a similar system as they did against Chicago, who is also a fast team.

Stanley Cup Prediction

A powerful offense meets an imposing defense. Nashville is seeking their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Pittsburgh can be the first team to win back-to-back championships since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.

The Predators will not disappoint in their Cup debut, forcing the Penguins off their game. However, Pittsburgh knows how to adjust and win on this stage. They have the best skill player and their offense runs a bit deeper than the Preds’ defense.

Get ready for a fun Stanley Cup Final- Penguins in 7.

 

Feature image from of the Tennessean. Photo by Charles LeClaire, USA Today Sports

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Is P.K. Subban skating towards the NHL Hall of Fame?

It is the first time P.K. Subban was at this point. After seven missed opportunities and two misses in the conference finals, he heads to the Stanley Cup Final. But even when Subban’s Nashville Predators dispatched the Anaheim Ducks 6-3 on Monday night, he knew exactly what to do at the postgame ceremony.

Don’t touch the Campbell Bowl.

That’s the superstition for a conference finals winner. There’s no celebration for reaching the end when there’s a better trophy to hoist. Nonetheless, Subban has his first shot at holding up the ultimate trophy: Lord Stanley’s Cup.

As Subban climbs the ladder to the hockey pinnacle, how is his progress towards becoming an NHL great? Is he on the path to the Hall of Fame, and will a Stanley Cup put him in the discussion?

The Pros for P.K. Subban

It’s easy to analyze Subban’s body of work from a statistical standpoint to start. He’s a four-time All-Star who won the Norris Trophy back in 2013. Multiple aspects of a defenseman’s game judge Norris winners, one of them being scoring.

Subban brings that to the table. Since his first full season in the NHL back in 2010, Subban’s 316 points are the sixth-most for a defenseman in that span. He’s also done well on the power play with 143 total points in his career.

Other statistics also jump out on his resumé. His 576 penalty minutes are third-most amongst his blue line colleagues in the last seven seasons. The advanced metrics across are also favorable. In his career, his Corsi and Fenwick ratings are 52.5 and 52.4 percent, respectively, meaning his team controls the puck more when he’s on the ice.

Entering this season, his offensive zone starts and finishes were virtually even around 53 percent. Therefore, his teams did not cede possession while in the offensive zone much during his ice time. In short, he does well in moving and keeping the puck for his team.

P.K. Subban Hall of Fame

P.K. Subban has charged up the Predators fanbase. Photo courtesy of NHL.com.

This may not be as important to his case as his play, but it still holds value: he’s a talented and well-liked person. He’s come in to a new atmosphere and brought excitement to the Predators franchise. He’s embraced his new home with acts of community service and is a solid presence in the locker room.

It won’t stand for much when it comes down to voting, but it spotlights his character and his play instead of detracting from it.

The Cons for P.K. Subban

Subban has done well in his time in the NHL, but anointing him into the Hall of Fame may be premature. For starters, he’s only 27 years old. There is still plenty that could happen in the rest of his career, be it injuries or decline in play. Other factors include varying statistics in other categories and the competition playing around him.

Hits, blocks and takeaways have been measured for a defenseman’s effectiveness for a while, even though the categories do not tell the entire story. Even so, they have merit as to the type of player one is.

Subban’s marks in these categories have ranged from inconsistent to uninspiring. In the 2014-15 campaign, Subban had 142 blocked shots. Yet in the season after, he finished with just 80.

His 135 hits in 2013-14 are a career-high, but he ended with just 78 in Nashville this year.

He had 183 takeaways in his career, but that hardly stands up against other defensemen. All of these statistics are mutually exclusive, and the defensive system can alter them as well. The question is if the variance will hurt his chances.

P.K. Subban Hall of Fame

Back in his Montreal days, P.K. Subban squared off against Erik Karlsson often, Photo by John Mahoney, The Montreal Gazette.

Not only do some stats falter in comparison, but other players excel at his strengths, too. Subban has only reached the top 3 in Norris voting twice out of seven seasons. In that span, other players such as Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns have more points and ice time.

Karlsson is an excellent skater while Burns has a fearsome shot. With players that do better in similar areas, Subban’s place amongst the premier defensemen is not as clear.

How does P.K. Subban get there?

P.K. Subban is a talented player. Overall, he had a fine season for Nashville and is now leading them into the Stanley Cup Final. Great players always have more incentive to get into the Hall of Fame with a title.

If Subban takes the Music City to the top, it’ll boost his chances. Karlsson and Burns have yet to win the Cup.

As for his play on the ice, his value comes from his puck handling and his ability to score. Looking at the recent defensemen inducted into the Hall of Fame, Subban has work to do. Scott Niedermayer, elected in 2013, had 838 total points in 18 seasons. Subban has 358 in eight years, and he averages more points per game than Niedermayer.

At the same time, he doesn’t produce as much as Nicklas Lidstrom did in his career. Other players like Chris Pronger excelled in other areas such as PIM. Chris Chelios played 28 seasons and his incomparable to most defensemen.

As it stands, Subban would probably need around seven to nine more seasons of high-quality performances. Regression is expected at some point, but Subban has the potential. Hoisting the cup with Nashville is just one step, but it goes a long way.

 

Stats via Hockey Reference, Puckalytics and Behind the Net. Feature image courtesy of SportsNet.ca

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The History and Merits of the Neutral Zone Trap

Guy Boucher loves it. Neutral hockey fans loathe it. But 22 years after the New Jersey Devils perfected it, the neutral zone trap is making a comeback.

The Ottawa Senators punched a ticket to the Eastern Conference finals this season with the help of their 1-3-1 trap. It completely stunted the New York Rangers in Game 6 of the second round, and has bogged down the Pittsburgh Penguins at times in the current series. Nonetheless, hockey fans continue to argue that the trap is terrible for the sport of hockey.

How has the trap evolved over the years? Does it really slow down games and hurt the sport’s appeal? As it turns out, the trap was fairly popular back in the day.

Pre-Lockout History

Many remember the 1990s as the age of the trap defense and subsequently, the “Dead Puck Era”. The trap itself has been around much longer. There are unsubstantiated claims that the Toronto Maple Leafs developed a trap scheme as early as the 1920s. It’s not until the 1970s that it gained traction.

Many European Olympic teams such as Sweden and Czechoslovakia sought to inhibit the mighty Soviet national teams. Stateside, teams in the 1990s began to utilize the trap. Roger Neilson’s Rangers employed it in the 1992-93 campaign. However, the players hated using it, and Neilson lost his job.

neutral zone trap

The 1994-95 Devils are credited with perfecting the neutral zone trap. Photo courtesy of Real Clear Sports.

The dawn of the neutral zone trap appeared in 1995 when the Devils implemented it. Head coach Jacques Lemaire, who played in a trap with Montreal back in the 70s, had defensemen Ken Daneyko and Scott Stevens create a brick wall.

They swept the Detroit Red Wings that year and shocked – perhaps infuriated – fans everywhere who wanted more exciting hockey.

Even though fan and player backlash ensued, coaches began to utilize the neutral zone trap more. The Rangers, years after ditching Neilson for using it, credited Colin Campbell for using a similar system. Despite this, the NHL wanted to find a way to render the formation ineffective.

During the 2004-05 lockout, the league eliminated the two-line pass, which made it illegal to complete a pass from the defensive zone to the offensive side of the center line. Neutral zone traps countered this strategy, so eliminating the pass hoped to curb the trap’s use.

Post-Lockout Use

As it turns out, the trap was just as effective in stopping quick teams as countering the two-line pass. Lemaire utilized it in Minnesota and New Jersey until he stepped away in 2011. Boucher used it when he started as the Tampa Bay Lightning’s head coach in 2010.

It led to the classic game on Nov. 9, 2011 against the Philadelphia Flyers. Philadelphia decided the best counter to the trap was to hold the puck in their defensive end and wait for the Lightning to break from position. Tampa would not budge, resulting in nothing happening for minutes on end.

neutral zone trap

To counter Tampa Bay’s neutral zone trap, Philadelphia did… nothing. Photo courtesy of Yahoo Sports.

The NHL did not address the trap during the 2012-13 lockout. The trap was not a high priority during the strike, but it was an opportunity to at least address that no side took.

There were other strategies such as blocking shots that began to grow in popularity. When the season started, Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle ran a neutral zone trap. Toronto defenseman Mark Fraser even recalled Carlyle’s formations were exact replicas of Lemaire’s systems.

In this postseason, the Senators aren’t the only team deploying traps. The Nashville Predators unleashed an effective albeit unorthodox 1-4 trap against the Chicago Blackhawks. Chicago’s offensive chances were rare, and Nashville dominated on both ends. It’s interesting to see two of the four remaining teams use traps well.

Is the Neutral Zone Trap Effective?

There are multiple counterarguments to using a neutral zone trap: the sacrifice of offensive chances for forwards and the pace of play. Regarding the former, the statistics are inconsistent. This season, Ottawa was 22nd in the league with just 206 goals. However, before their first Stanley Cup, the 1993-94 Devils were second in the NHL with 306 goals, seven more than the eventual-champion Rangers.

neutral zone trap

Photo: Sean Kilpatrick, The Canadian Press

Forwards in a trap do have to prioritize checking and defense over scoring. Yet in 1993-94, New Jersey’s John MacLean, Stephane Richer and Bill Guerin combined for 98 goals and 166 points. Phil Kessel had 52 points in 48 games for the trapping Leafs in 2012-13.

While some of the forwards on the deeper lines may forfeit offensive chances, the skill players can still find ways to get to the net while performing the job.

As for the entertainment of trap-heavy games, it’s tougher to watch than a regular game. Hockey is a game of speed, and fans want to watch offensive rushes towards the net more than neutral zone turnovers. On the other hand, a trap is strategy; it’s not something that needs policing. Unless a tactic gives one team an unfair advantage, the NHL shouldn’t ban formations from the game.

Fans have to enjoy the on-ice product, and neutral zone traps aren’t the most exciting strategy to watch. Ultimately, if the neutral zone trap goes the way of the dinosaur, then it needs a clear counterattack and teams have to overcome it. Otherwise, its popularity could boom with an Ottawa Stanley Cup.

 

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Amidst unknown future, Marc-Andre Fleury excels

The writing was on the boards for Marc-Andre Fleury.

He rode the pine late in the 2016 season because of concussion-like symptoms. He lost his starting gig to Matt Murray as the 21 year-old carried the Pittsburgh Penguins to a Stanley Cup title. Murray was the starter heading into 2017 before an injury pushed Fleury back to his throne. Despite that, the Penguins signed Murray to a three-year extension last October.

While Fleury still viewed himself as a starting NHL goaltender, Pittsburgh’s actions showed he was due an impending outbound ticket from the Steel City.

Now with a cap crunch possibly looming, the Penguins are three wins away from returning to the Stanley Cup Final thanks to Flower Power.

Full-Circle Journey

In an ironic role reversal from last year, Fleury took the reins for the 2017 playoffs after Murray sustained a lower-body injury before Game 1 in the first round. “The Flower” hasn’t looked back since. He’s won nine of 14 games while eliminating division rivals Columbus and Washington.

Facing an average of 34 shots per game, he stands tall with a save percentage of 93.1 percent. Murray healed from his injury last series, but watched as Fleury shut out the Capitals in a decisive Game 7. Fleury continues to start in the series against Ottawa, currently knotted at one game apiece.

Fleury has come full circle in his return to the postseason spotlight. He became the Penguins’ all-time winningest goalie by his ninth season and currently has 375 victories. He backstopped Pittsburgh’s first Stanley Cup win in 17 seasons back in 2009.

Prior to his injury last season, he was on pace for a career year in goals allowed and save percentage. However, the concussion-like symptoms stunted his momentum and allowed Murray to vault over him on the depth chart.

Fleury, nonetheless, took this season in stride. There were never any rumblings about his contempt for not gaining more minutes. Even with doubts about his future with Pittsburgh rising each month, he said all the right words about the organization. The coaching staff and media praised how he handled the situation. Now, he could earn a fourth Stanley cup berth.

Cap Conundrum

While Penguins fans enjoy the Flower Power now, his long-term status with the team is in question. The Murray extension plays a pivotal role in it as well. Fleury has two years left on his contract with an average annual value at $5.75 million. Murray’s new contract kicks in next season at $3.25 million. That’s $9 million towards two netminders.

This situation isn’t common around the league. Only six other teams in the NHL have $9 million or more in cap space reserved for goalies. The Rangers and Penguins are the only ones on the list that do not have a restricted free agent counting towards the cap. Amongst those teams are Carolina and Dallas, but they have crowded nets after acquiring Scott Darling and Ben Bishop. This means Pittsburgh may seek to drop a goalie to ease their cap.

Is Fleury’s recent play enough to keep him close to the Three Rivers? It’s unclear at this moment.

The Penguins must protect him in the upcoming expansion draft due to his no-movement clause. However, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said back in November that Murray’s deal is a bridge contract. He will likely command a higher contract at the end of it, and his age is much more favorable than Fleury.

While it may mean parting ways with the franchise’s best goalie in history, capitalizing on his recent value may make more sense.

What’s next for Fleury?

Marc-Andre Fleury holding the Stanley Cup. Photo by Matt Freed, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

There are options for Fleury if he becomes available for a trade. Carolina and Dallas showed that teams today are looking for solid performers in net. Winnipeg, Vancouver and Buffalo could be in the market for a goalie. Las Vegas also needs one, but Pittsburgh would have to either protect Fleury and expose Murray, or negotiate with the Golden Knights to keep his rights.

Even while he returns to the starting gig and excels in the playoffs, Marc-Andre Fleury’s future with the Penguins is up in the air. He’s come a long way from this time one year ago. Enjoy the ride for now.

 

Feature image by Geoff Burke, USA Today Sports

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Henrik Lundqvist

Cup hopes for Henrik Lundqvist fading as Rangers struggle

What do you get when you add 405 wins, a Vezina Trophy and 11 playoff appearances altogether? For Henrik Lundqvist, it equals zero Stanley Cup titles.

The numbers make the math seem nonsensical, but that’s the irrationality of the New York Rangers’ inability to win a title with Lundqvist in net. With time fading away, his window to claim one is closing.

Since his arrival to the NHL in 2005, Lundqvist has shocked the hockey world with his play. The 405 wins are the most of any European-born goaltender in history. His 2011-12 Vezina victory came the same year he finished third for the Hart Trophy, which is remarkable for a goalie. In those 11 postseason appearances, Lundqvist has 61 wins, most in the Blueshirts record book.

Henrik Lundqvist after the Rangers selected him in the 2000 NHL Draft. Photo courtesy of MSG Networks/Photo by Getty Images

As a seventh-round pick in the 2000 NHL Draft, during which Rangers legend Mike Richter stood between the pipes, Lundqvist was never supposed to be this good. Now that he is, he needs hockey’s ultimate prize to entrench himself in history.

Unfairly or not, fans view great players who haven’t won a Stanley Cup in their careers differently. There are some talented alumni who come to mind. The Russian Rocket himself, Pavel Bure, never drank from Lord Stanley’s Cup. Adam Oates went to the playoffs 15 times in his 22-year career, only to fall short each time.

In the present day, Lundqvist’s division rival Alex Ovechkin continues to face criticism for failing to take the Washington Capitals to the top. Lundqvist, despite shattering hockey records, receives similar shame.

There’s one issue, however: the five players on the ice in front of him haven’t helped.

While Lundqvist’s record in the playoffs is a mediocre 61-65 record, he’s done his part in the postseason. His save percentage stands at .922 and he’s made over 3,500 saves. His greatest moments came in his Vezina season and the year he brought the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final. On May 12, 2012, five years ago yesterday, Lundqvist was incredible against Ovechkin and the Capitals, making 22 crucial saves as the Rangers won in seven games. In 2014, his performance against the Montreal Canadiens in the Conference Finals, and most of that postseason too, was tremendous.

The problem for “The King” and the Rangers is getting over the mountain. In 2012, it was an upstart Devils team that found a heartbreaking overtime goal from Adam Henrique. Then in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, the Los Angeles Kings constructed as impressive a brick wall as Lundqvist with Jonathan Quick. On top of that, their offensive pace and pressure were too much for an inconsistent Rangers defense.

Henrik Lundqvist (center) in 2014 after Alec Martinez (left) scored the Stanley Cup-clinching goal. Photo courtesy of the NY Daily News/photo by Mark J Terrill, AP

Other years, it was a sluggish offense. Ask any Rangers fan about how Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards and Rick Nash fared in the playoffs in recent years. All three have hefty contracts and are expected to be the top goal scorer each year. All three combined for 32 goals in 153 postseason games for the Rangers.

This postseason, the Rangers fell to the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Lundqvist was incredible in the previous series against Montreal. His .9466 save percentage was the second-highest of his career in a playoff series. However, his defense left him out to dry against the Senators.

New York had issues clearing the puck and turnovers in their own zone. As a result, Lundqvist had to make countless sprawling saves. Even when he did, one more shot zipped past him. For a team with over 100 points this season, a second-round exit was disappointing. It was even more so for Henrik.

In a race to hold the Stanley Cup, Lundqvist is losing to Father Time. He’s 35 years old, and his GAA has increased over the past three seasons. The Rangers have to examine multiple contracts on the blue line. They may also lose a forward to the expansion draft this summer.

Lundqvist has a hold on to his starting job. That’s clear as crystal. Will he get the opportunity to show off the Stanley Cup to the fans at Madison Square Garden? It’s getting harder to predict.

Featured Image by hlundqvist30.com

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Playoff-tested teams meet underdogs in NHL Conference Finals

Welcome to the NHL’s version of the Frozen Four. We saw two series go to the final game, while two surprise teams seek to continue their underdog run for Lord Stanley’s Cup. After the Predators and Ducks squared off last night, the tension is mounting as the season wraps up. What will unfold in the Conference Finals?

Eastern Conference Finals: Ottawa Senators vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

Season Series: Ottawa 2-1-0 (Penguins 1-1-1)

Ottawa

The Ottawa Senators, who once desperately held on to a playoff spot, are one of two teams in the East left standing. Just like everyone predicted. They haven’t reached this point just on luck though. After a distributed offense dispatched the Boston Bruins in Round One, Ottawa eliminated the New York Rangers in six games in the Conference Semifinals.

The Senators are getting a great combination of solid individual performances and overall team production. They did not score the first goal in any of the first five games against the Rangers. Despite that, they dismantled four two-goal deficits and scored seven times in the final five minutes of regulation and overtime. Their determination was impressive all series long. Their adjustments in Game Six were just as great. Scoring first, they put three back on the blue line and bottled up New York’s offense in the neutral zone. This formation wasn’t as apparent early on, but they changed their strategy and it worked.

Erik Karlsson advances to his 1st Conference Final. Photo courtesy of NHL.com

Ottawa has to thank Erik Karlsson a a few others for bringing them to this point. The Norris Trophy candidate is playing on two fractures in his foot. Even so, he averaged 29 minutes per game on the ice and either recorded a point or was on the ice for every Sens’ game-winning goal. He wasn’t the only superstar. Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored four times in Game Two and limited an anemic Rangers special teams to two power play scores in 24 chances. In net, Craig Anderson wasn’t his sharpest, but he stood tall with 37 saves in the clincher. On a team that has a top-three defenseman, overproducing contributions from the role players are gravy.

Pittsburgh

The defending Cup champion Pittsburgh has a number of star players, though their top guy is hobbled. Sidney Crosby sustained a concussion in Game Three against the Washington Capitals. Crosby later returned in Game Five but took a few hits that led to questions about his overall health. Nonetheless, the Penguins took down the Caps in seven games to reach the Conference Finals.

Everyone who is healthy aids the cause. Evgeni Malkin leads all players with 18 postseason points. Jake Guentzel’s nine goals are also tops in the playoffs. Marc-Andre Fleury continues to stand on his head. Pittsburgh has multiple weapons that are moving the puck and scoring. Save for Guentzel, most of the players here have playoff experience as well. The Penguins know how to win in the postseason, even with defensemen Kris Letang and Trevor Daley nursing injuries.

Prediction

The Senators are a great penalty killing team and they’ve shown unparalleled determination and heart. You can’t measure that. Pittsburgh is ailing and their special teams weren’t good against Washington, but they’re stacked on all four lines and ride a hot goalie. You can measure that. Pittsburgh in 6.

Western Conference Finals: Nashville Predators vs. Anaheim Ducks

Season Series: Anaheim 2-1-0 (Nashville 1-1-1)

Nashville

Smashville is rocking after reaching the conference finals for the first time in franchise history. Bridgestone Arena is selling out and ratings are up in the area as fans have Stanley Cup aspirations. The Preds beat two deep teams in the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues. Their penalty kill is 21-for-24 this postseason, and they’ve scored more than one goal in eight of ten games. Everything is clicking for the Predators, and it’s made Pekka Rinne’s job easier.

Pekka Rinne (right) also reaches his first Conference Final. Photo courtesy of SI.com

Rinne played well against the Blues. After allowing six goals in the first two games, he allowed five the rest of the way. What was impressive to watch was his poise. He stayed with the puck off rebounds and screens every time the Blues threatened. His postseason save percentage stands above 95 percent, which is easily a career-high. The 34 year-old has to continue his sharp play.

Anaheim

Nashville has a tough matchup against the Ducks. Overcoming two three-goal deficits and a 7-1 road loss, Anaheim sent the Edmonton Oilers home in seven captivating games. Anaheim is fast and physical, meaning they can get through the intense Nashville back line in the neutral zone. The Preds offense not only has to face Hampus Lindholm and Cam Fowler, but Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler are aggressive two-way players.

Getzlaf is coming off a monstrous series versus the Oilers. He recorded five goals and 10 points with +7 rating on the ice. Jakob Silfverberg broke out with five tallies himself. Kesler and Corey Perry were quiet to start, but ended the series on high notes. Rickard Rakell is dangerous on the top line with Getzlaf and Perry. This is a top-heavy Anaheim lineup. If they continue to succeed at this rate, they could advance to their first Stanley Cup Final since 2007.

Prediction

Both teams run deep on both sides of the puck. P.K. Subban and Roman Josi anchor Nashville’s blue line, while Getzlaf and Kesler lead the offense. Anaheim’s young defense faces an underrated Preds offense. If there’s one overwhelming advantage, it’s goaltending. Rinne has been hot; John Gibson has been inconsistent, at worst. It gives Nashville the edge. Predators in 7.

 

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Thrilling Ducks-Oilers Series Ends with Decisive Game 7

To Mark Letestu and the Edmonton Oilers fans, the open net looked as tantalizing as it did the four other times.

Rogers Place erupted after Letestu’s goal gave the Oilers a 5-0 lead over the Anaheim Ducks in Game 6 last Sunday. The offensive outburst solidified an eventual 7-1 win for Edmonton, knotting the series at three games apiece. Fans were excited enough for the win, but even more so for the consequences of it: Game 7 of what has been a thrilling series.

The Edmonton-Anaheim battle has had historic comebacks, unlikely heroes and highlight-reel goals from tremendous talents. As predicted here at The Game Haus, it’s a no-brainer why this series is going to seven games.

As the series opened in California for Game 1, the physicality and grit was apparent. Two of the best-hitting teams in the NHL battered each other on the boards, leading to very few opportunities for either side.

It was a 1-1 tie heading into the third period before both teams turned up the intensity. Edmonton defenseman Adam Larsson, the marquee acquisition for general manager Peter Chiarelli last offseason, notched two of the Oilers’ four goals in the period.

His tally with 4:40 remaining in a 3-3 contest gave Edmonton a much-needed win on the road. Larsson scored just four goals all season. He was the source of firepower Edmonton didn’t expect, but certainly welcomed.

Outdoing themselves, Edmonton secured another road win in Game 2 thanks to Cam Talbot. Anaheim was relentless on the attack for a full 60 minutes, finding ways to shoot from anywhere on the ice. But Cam Talbot was sensational in the affair, posting 39 saves in a 2-1 victory.

Despite playing well in the first two games, the Ducks were in a 2-0 hole. They had only lost 12 games at home in the regular season, the third-fewest in the league. However, they were in this spot in the final weeks of the season.

Slumping atop the division while Edmonton gained ground in the standings, Anaheim went on a tear to close out the year. It would do the same north of the border.

Ryan Getzlaf took over in the first period of Game 3, tallying a goal and an assist to put the Ducks on top 3-0. He’s moved the puck well throughout the offensive zone, but that doesn’t come as a surprise. He’s also managed to fight his way to the net facing a ton of pressure from Edmonton, and he finds a way through. His performance set the tone at the start of the affair.

Even though the Oilers came back from a three-goal deficit, Jakob Silfverberg took over in the third. These two were instrumental in the Ducks’ comeback in the series at a time where Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler got off to slow starts.

Ducks-Oilers Game 7

Photo courtesy of USA Today/photo by Jeff McIntosh, The Canadian Press via AP

Getzlaf and Silfverberg continued to excel in Game 4. The Oilers scored twice in the first, including a beautiful snipe from wunderkind Connor McDavid.

But Getzlaf willed the Ducks with two goals and three points in the second for a 3-2 Anaheim advantage.

Edmonton answered at the 18:18 mark in the third thanks to Drake Caggiula, of all people.

Getzlaf and Silfverberg picked up goalie John Gibson, though, connecting for the overtime winner 45 seconds into the extra frame and tying the series. These occurrences set the precedents for what became a best-of-three series: the road team is king and no lead is safe.

Speaking of unsafe leads, Game 5 in Anaheim was arguably the wildest game of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. McDavid, Caggiula and Leon Draisaitl lit the lamp in the second period. Talbot stood on his head the entire game.

But with 3:16 to go, one of the most improbable comebacks began. Anaheim scored twice and then a questionable goaltender interference no-call led to Rickard Rakell’s equalizer with 15 seconds left. Replays showed Kesler at least made contact with Talbot’s pad before he tried to save the puck.

Despite the missed call, the game went to double overtime before Corey Perry, who was phenomenal all night, sent the loyal Ducks fans home happy. Anaheim led the series 3-2 before Edmonton’s Game Six thrashing.

Hockey fans have seen it all in six games as fans of both teams have seen enough tense moments. There’s just one more tonight in Anaheim, though home ice hasn’t helped either team much here. Here are important keys for each team.

Ducks-Oilers Game 7

Cam Talbot. Photo courtesy of Newsday/photo by Codie McLachlan, Getty Images

EDMONTON: Stopping Ryan Getzlaf is next to impossible. The Oilers need to pay attention to him, but limiting those around him will make the most difference on defense. This also means helping Cam Talbot as much as possible. The blue liners have to clear pucks out from in front. If Talbot from the last two games shows up, then the Oilers have a chance.

ANAHEIM: Special teams needs to get going. After a top five penalty kill in the regular season, the Ducks have allowed seven power play goals. On the flip side, their power play is 0-for-15 since Game Two. They got here with strong special teams and they have the talent, but they need to execute tonight.

Regardless of the keys, this game can go either way. McDavid versus Getzlaf has been enjoyable to watch. The game should be the same.

 

 

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Unpacking the NHL’s Concussion Controversy

Time stopped for Sidney Crosby on Monday night in Pittsburgh for the fourth time in his career.

Crosby, known as one of the best skill forwards in the NHL, sustained a concussion after a hit from the Capitals’ defenseman Matt Niskanen in the first period of Game 3 of the Penguins-Capitals playoff series. Crosby did not return for the rest of the game and missed the next one.

There is mounting concern for Crosby, who has four reported concussion-related injuries in his 12-year NHL career. There also could be more unreported injuries that went unnoticed. Crosby’s career length and well-being after hockey are up for debate.

Many former players with concussion histories have struggled with health issues in retirement. However, both the players and the NHL haven’t helped each other enough to combat the issues. From players’ hesitancy to report concussions in the past, to Gary Bettman’s denial of a link between concussions and CTE, the NHL has a concussion controversy.

This season, at least 13 players across all 30 teams were listed on injury reports with a concussion or a head injury. Concussions aren’t a recent issue in the league either. In 2011, the Canadian Medical Association Journal published a study that found 559 concussions amongst NHL players from 1997-2004. Pat LaFontaine, a talented forward in the 1980s and 1990s, suffered six in his career and ultimately retired at 33.  Eric Lindros had seven across 15 years.

Exported.;

Courtesy of NY Daily News/Photo by Chris Gardner, AP

The difference for Crosby, LaFontaine and Lindros though, is their overall ability. While they missed considerable time with concussions, their place on rosters was never in doubt. That wasn’t always the case for Bryan Muir.

Muir played with seven different NHL teams and constantly rode the shuttle to and from the minor leagues. He also suffered from multiple concussions, even reporting instances of vomiting on the bench after a hard hit. During his playing days, concussion tests weren’t as expansive. If x-rays couldn’t find his injury, he wouldn’t report it to the team for fear of being sent down.

This is the concussion culture in the NHL. Fringe players don’t want to admit they’re hurt because of their tenuous grip on an NHL roster. Many of these players sacrifice their health because of it. This leads to long-term health effects after their careers are over. While it’s understandable for players to feel this way, they’ve harmed themselves from doing it. Muir has mentioned he misses his playing days, but he also notices changes in his mood. He has a short temper and mood swings, and he’s unsure if it’s due to the concussions.

For others, like Dale Purinton and Dan LaCouture, substance abuse, depression, and memory loss riddled their post-career days and led to strains in their personal lives. Both were arrested at one point, and LaCouture lost his wife and custody of his kids. Athletes these days have to be aware of what their bodies tell them when sustaining heavy injuries.

Derek Boogaard and Steve Montador each suffered concussions during their playing days in the 2000s. Boogaard officially had three, and it led to impaired memory and depression later in his life. He accidentally overdosed on painkillers and died in 2011.

Montador retired shortly after a hit to the head in 2012. He died in his home in 2015 without a clear cause of death. Both had CTE, a brain injury that is only detectable after death. Symptoms of CTE include memory loss, depression and issues with impulse control.

These symptoms line up with injuries from concussions. Despite this, the NHL isn’t certain of a link between concussions and CTE, leading to dissent between the league and former players.

Last October, Commissioner Gary Bettman wrote to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce that the speculation of a link between head trauma and neurodegenerative diseases is unproven. He mentioned the gaps in the research of CTE as additional proof.

The Rotman Research Institute at Toronto’s Baycrest Health Sciences found recently in early testing that there isn’t a strong correlation between concussions and cognitive functions. Retired players, including a participating Muir, actually do well with it. Despite the early conclusions in that study, it doesn’t match what the players feel. Bettman’s stance is alienating the former players who have noticeably changed since their days in the league.

Previous athletes began to take action against the league for it. Over 126 former players who’ve had concussions are filed a lawsuit against the NHL. The suit claims the league did not do enough to protect them from head injuries and resulting health issues. It’s reached as far as the federal courts as the NHL maintains the absence of a causal relationship.

The former players and the league are taking the same path as the NFL.  The league denied the relationship too, and former players sued. Eventually, the two sides reached a settlement in 2015.

Courtesy of The Sarnia Observer/Photo by Shaun Best, Reuters

The NHL is fulfilling its duty now to prevent concussions.  Hybrid icing, concussion spotters and fines for violating protocol are important for preventing future head injuries. At the same time, they have an obligation to aid the former players that are suffering through the aftereffects of hockey. Likewise, the players have to be honest with doctors and coaches if they are suffering through injuries. Even if it’s a player fighting for his roster spot or a postseason game, the ramifications of the game have to take a backseat.

Sidney Crosby is skating with his teammates in practice. He is still questionable for Game 5 tonight, but if he’s healthy, he’ll likely play. If there’s even the slightest issue with his health, he must sit. As history has proved, the NHL and its players have to address the issue head on. Delicately, of course.

 

Featured Image by Drop Your Gloves

 

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Predators building exceptional hockey brand in Nashville

The city of Nashville is known as the country music capital of the United States. The Music City pays homage to its grassroots background with destinations such as the Honky Tonk Highway, the Johnny Cash Museum and the Grand Ole Opry.

While the city has made its name through the sounds of plucked guitars and southern twang, it’s the sound of sharpened wood hitting rubber pucks captivating the residents lately.

The Nashville Predators are the talk of the town as the team is in the midst of a historic postseason run. The Predators entered the Stanley Cup playoffs as the final wild card in the Western Conference. They lost six of their last eight games of the regular season. Plus, they squared off against the West’s top team, the Chicago Blackhawks. Virtually every hockey expert predicted a quiet series win for Chicago, who beat Nashville in the playoffs in 2015.

NHL: Nashville Predators at St. Louis Blues

(Photo by of nj.com)

They ended up throttling the top seed, sweeping the Blackhawks in four games. It was the first time in 23 years the number one seed was swept under the current playoff format. That series win put the Predators on the national spotlight as more people took notice of the team. While their recent success is helping build the brand, the Nashville Predators already do well in that department.

The Predators and their fans have embraced one another in the past four years. Since the 2013-14 season, the average attendance at Bridgestone Arena has risen each year. They sold out every home game in the regular season for the first time in franchise history. Every home playoff game has reached full capacity as well. Bridgestone Arena has done its part to create a homely atmosphere.

The Predators’ goal horn has sounded 143 times and counting this season. Each time it plays, Bridgestone Arena reverberates with Tim McGraw’s peppy lyrics laced with the edgy jams of The Black Keys. It salutes the city’s country roots while pumping up the home crowd. It’s a unique bond that’s hard to replicate.

The atmosphere earns praise from visiting fans too. They commend its respectful fans and the sweet aroma of southern comfort food. This type of branding embeds the Predators even further into the expansive heart and soul of Nashville.

Even if fans don’t make it to the game, they’re still watching. Newschannel 5’s Steve Layman reported that Nashville’s Game 3 win over the Saint Louis Blues drew a 9.4 rating in Nashville homes, the team’s highest ever. That means that 60 percent of Nashville residents tuned in on a warm Sunday afternoon to watch hockey. The fans have been excited about the Predators for some time.  Now, it seems that their enthusiasm has reached a fever pitch.

General Manager David Poile deserves credit for spurring the Predators’ growth in Nashville as well. His defining moment came when he shipped captain Shea Weber to the Montreal Canadiens for fellow defenseman P.K. Subban. Poile has looked like a swindler with the move, as Subban is enjoying a nice season with Nashville.

While he’s made a difference on the ice, he’s done even more impactful work for the city through his community service. His incredible work for charity has made him as beloved a person in Nashville as he still is in Montreal. It makes him and the team so easy to rally behind. Even citizens who aren’t into hockey can support Subban and the team through their philanthropy.

Nashville Predators P.K. Subban presents Gov. Gen. David Johnston with a team jersey during a ceremony, Wednesday, March 1, 2017 in Montreal. Subban received the Governor General Meritorious Service Decoration. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP)

(Photo by the Daily Herald/Photo by Paul Chiasson)

While the Predators have reached new heights in their popularity in the city, their hockey aspirations seek even greater goals. The franchise has yet to reach a conference final in 18 seasons of operations. They made a huge leap towards that on Tuesday night with a 2-1 win over the Blues to take a 3-1 series lead.

The full effect of Nashville hockey was on display. The Predators showed intense fights that put the smash in Smashville. After fighting through two periods, Ryan Ellis busted through with an absolute snipe on the power play at the five-minute mark. James Neal did the same eight minutes later. The crowd was in it down to the final second.

Nashville will always have country music as its main identity. However, for the foreseeable future, Nashville is the epicenter of playoff hockey. The Predators brand is growing exponentially, and they have plenty of room on the hype train.

 

 

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Rivalry or Not, Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin is NHL’s Best Battle

Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa battled for the MLB’s home run title in the 90s. Basketball pitted Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the “Golden Age” of the NBA back in the 80s. These rivalries combined talented athletes with powerful teams looking to one-up the other for the ultimate goal.

The NHL has experienced its share of all-time greats facing each other. However, none have come close to the fanfare of Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin.

They’re arguably the two best forwards since entering the league in 2005. Ovechkin is an 11-time All-Star and collected three Hart trophies. Crosby has two Hart wins, six All-Star nominations, 1,027 career points and two Stanley Cups with the Penguins. Ovechkin’s 558 goals since 2005 are the best in the league, with Crosby right behind him at 382. Their superstardom sets the scene for their intense battles, but they don’t see it that way.

(Photo courtesy of Washington Post, taken by Bruce Bennett, Getty Images)

Rivalries occasionally have the connotation that bad blood between the players is crucial. Even though there was a mild spat in 2009, the two have expressed respect for one another.  Ovechkin was more vocal of their relationship, saying at the 2017 All-Star Game that they aren’t “best friends.”

There is no strife between them. Instead, there’s an appropriate balance of respect and understanding that they are fierce competitors who are vying for the same goal. Some may argue Ovechkin and Crosby’s blasé attitude towards each other eliminates the notion of a rivalry.  However, that’s not the reason why fans and the media hype it up.

The Capitals and Penguins have combined for 21 winning seasons since Crosby and Ovechkin joined the NHL. Both teams were under .500 in 2005-06, while Washington’s last losing season was the following year. The Capitals and Penguins are amongst the best in the NHL and play in the same division. It’s one of the top rivalries in all of hockey, and the two superstars make it that much more enticing.

It’s safe to say Crosby and the Penguins have the edge in the rivalry. Pittsburgh has won two Stanley Cups with Crosby, while Ovechkin has never seen his team reach the Conference Finals. In 2009 and 2016, the Penguins dispatched the Caps in the playoffs en route to those championships.

The Penguins have won 106 games against Washington compared to 95 for the Capitals against the Penguins.  This can make the rivalry more one-sided towards the Penguins, but it’s not exactly a landslide either.

In the 217 games in the rivalry, the Penguins have scored just 15 more goals. For years, these games have been close, and that was apparent on Thursday when Ovechkin and Crosby squared off for the 14th time in the playoffs.

Since it’s appropriate there’s history being made, this year’s playoff meeting is the first time in the shootout era that the top two regular season teams are meeting in the postseason. Crosby did not disappoint in the second when he notched two goals in 52 seconds in the second period. Just as Pittsburgh started to gain ground with a 2-0 lead, Ovechkin answered with a wrist shot to make it 2-1. The Capitals came back to tie it before Nick Bonino tallied the game-winner in the third and the Penguins took Game 1.

No matter the result, Crosby and Ovechkin were sharp once more against each other. Ovechkin has 22 points against the Penguins in the playoffs, while Crosby has 17. The two are tremendous in the postseason, but they always step it up against each other under the brightest lights.

(Photo courtesy of CBS Sports Radio, taken by Harry How, Getty Images)

We’ve witnessed plenty of exciting individual matchups in the NHL throughout the years. Like Crosby and Ovechkin, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux contended for the pinnacle of hockey’s top player in the late 80s and early 90s. However, Gretzky was on the West Coast while Lemieux was with Pittsburgh. Despite entertaining games between the two, their matchups were too infrequent to establish a long-standing individual rivalry.

The Crosby/Ovechkin rivalry has what Gretzky/Lemieux missed and blends traits of the classic rivalries of other sports. It’s the race for dominance that McGwire and Sosa had, and the magnitude of the matchups like Bird and Johnson in the NBA Finals.

Thursday’s game was a microcosm of the Penguins and Capitals rivalry since Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin entered the NHL.  Both players shine, but the Penguins end up ahead. Nonetheless, that game showed that these two have created a rivalry that has made their battles must-see hockey.  It may not be a heated rivalry based on their indifferent thoughts of one another, but their play on the ice and their teams capture the essence of a legendary clash.

 

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