The Stanley Cup Final is finally here and so is the end to my hiatus from writing about hockey. As you can tell, I’m still upset beyond belief of the Capitals not playing the Stanley Cup final. It just can’t be stated enough that this was the best chance they will ever have of winning it in the Alex Ovechkin era because they only needed to play teams that were much more inferior to them from an underlying numbers standpoint if they got passed Pittsburgh. They had the Penguins right where they wanted them and they flat out blew it.
Barry Trotz’s men did everything that any other team should be coached to do except put the puck in the net and stop shots from going in in the entire series. That stuff, beyond repetitive drills that never mimic real-life game action, is always uncontrollable. But as Nicklas Backstrom said, they lost the series within the first four games. Washington flat out did not show up in Game 2 and should have won Game 4. For the second straight year, that latter game was an opportunity for Washington to beat a Penguins team without so many of their key players, just like Game 4 in 2016 and laid an absolute egg instead. Washington was only able to score first in five of their 13 total playoff games and went 1-3 at home in their series with Pittsburgh. Teams never win Stanley Cups with numbers like that, but there was no evidence of Washington delivering those numbers the entire regular season.
Now, we Caps fans have to watch a Pittsburgh Penguins side whose had a third of its roster not play at 100% health and is significantly worse on the backend than last year against a Nashville Predators team that has Filip Forsberg in it. Some have said that people need to let go of the Forsberg trade that has scarred the modern era of Washington Capitals history, and that’s true since George McPhee was fired one year later.
But it’s getting beyond obvious now that the first round of the 2012 NHL Draft has become the worst since the 2005 lockout. Nail Yakupov is a healthy scratch every other night for a team not named Edmonton. Ryan Murray is a torn ACL waiting to happen. Griffin Reinhart got drafted ten spots too early for some reason. Alex Galchenyuk probably isn’t a top line forward and know one knows in Montreal if he’s a center or a wing. Scott Laughton may not make it. Mikhail Grigorenko has been labeled the next Alexander Semin so much before he ever got selected that he’s been damaged goods before he was ever given a shot. Oh, and Tom Wilson might not be a good hockey player, apparently. So almost by default, Forsberg is the best forward out of that entire class and Washington had him as a result of the clever Semyon Varlamov trade. Now he’s gone.
Also consider that the Predators are also coached by Peter Laviolette, a head coach that was available when Washington was in search of replacing dumb-dumb Adam Oates. When you also consider that Jon Cooper was also available during the summer that Dale Hunter resigned, that is two of the most elite coaches in the NHL available that Washington could have had, didn’t, and have played or are now playing in Stanley Cup finals with other teams instead. I still stand by the fact that Nashville hasn’t played anybody good while Pittsburgh has played two 110+ point teams, plus an unbearably mediocre Ottawa team, but it’s getting more obvious by the month that Washington doesn’t have a clue, no matter who is the general manager, how to hire a winning head coach with the most modern and innovative beliefs. Trotz is innovative, but he is not even close to the most innovative and he’s certainly not the most modern.
I still stand by the fact that Nashville hasn’t played anybody good while Pittsburgh has played two 110+ point teams, plus an unbearably mediocre Ottawa team, but it’s getting more obvious by the month that this franchise doesn’t have a clue, no matter who is the general manager, how to choose the best coaching candidate available. Laviolette would have been perfect for Washington’s forwards and remaining prospects from the McPhee era and so would have Cooper.
Instead, we are stuck with Trotz, who refuses to allow young players to develop by giving them major roles early and letting them learn from their lessons by keeping them there instead of mindlessly healthy scratching them. Watch him ruin Jakub Vrana’s career just like he already has done to an extent with Nate Schmidt’s and Andre Burakovsky’s. These are players that should have been counted upon the exact same way Jake Guentzel has been for Pittsburgh and Pontus Aberg and Kevin Fiala has been for Nashville. You always have to stay young and if that is not accepted by a coaching candidate, make sure that dude never sets foot in an NHL facility ever again. That’s 2017 in the world of hockey.
And now, two of the team’s most adaptable franchises in a season full of uncertainty in terms of where the sport is heading for the long term are playing the Stanley Cup Finals. If this series has to occur at the expense of having Washington continue to have stuck-up individuals in key positions and blow it, so be it I guess.
So I guess I have to preview this randomly generated series. There is no denying that this postseason has been a rough go in the field of analytics when it comes to predicting who will win each series. Of the 14 series in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, only nine of them have gone as predicted, but three teams with the highest expected goal margins in all situations in their respective matchups have been eliminated from the postseason, including four teams of the six biggest margins.
— Rob Pizzola (@robpizzola) May 26, 2017
One of those four postseason series highlighted involved the Penguins, who were absolutely destroyed by Washington based on the underlying numbers. Fortunately for Mike Sullivan, Marc-Andre Fleury overachieved for the first time in almost a decade while Braden Holtby played his worst hockey in his entire postseason career. Otherwise, how else can you explain Fleury recording a 92.4% save percentage in the postseason versus a 90.7% save percentage in the much larger sample size that is the regular season. Once Fleury showed signs of his normal mediocre self, Sullivan pulled the plug on that fun trip and went back to Matt Murray, who returned from the knee injury he picked up in the very first warm-up of the postseason.
Within his two years in the NHL, Murray is developing into one of the better goaltenders in the NHL and has had to do it with a much more patchwork defense in front of him. The Penguins’ biggest weakness all year has been their lack of shot suppression while at even strength as evidenced by their 67.2 shot attempts per hour in the postseason. Justin Schultz has to carry the load for the team’s offense from the blue line and for some reason, Sullivan would much prefer to have AHL caliber defenseman and Pokemon-in-training Chad Ruhwedel instead of midseason trade acquisition Mark Streit. Now with Ruhwedel out with a concussion, Sullivan’s options in defense are really stretched thin, especially since he hasn’t had Kris Letang for more than half of this season.
It will be critical for Nashville to dominate and deliver at even strength if they want to win the Stanley Cup and so far, they have been achieving that. Not only has the team seen 53.1% of their shot attempts go in their favor in the playoffs, but they have generated a 26-16 scoring margin as well. There was some major worry that the Predators would start to crumble once Kevin Fiala and Ryan Johansen were dealt with season-ending injuries. Instead, the likes of Colton Sissons and Austin Watson, two of Nashville’s worst players in the regular season, combined with seven goals in the conference finals and have guided them to where they are today.
Now Sissons is playing in Johansen’s spot on the top line with Forsberg and rookie Pontus Aberg while Viktor Arvidsson needed to be sent down to the second line to improve the scoring among the depth forwards. It has worked to a point as James Neal was able to score two goals and an assist in the Anaheim series. Mike Fisher, on the other hand, missed two games this series due to an eye injury and still hasn’t recorded a point in 14 postseason games. While Nashville has gotten away with secondary scoring in waves, they might have to depend on it more if Sidney Crosby’s line is able to shut down Forsberg’s trio.
If anything, Pittsburgh’s lack of puck possession has lessened the amazement how Sullivan can consistently get away with putting four scoring lines. In particular, whether through injury of the current form of players, Sullivan will be implementing a Phil Kessel-Evgeni Malkin partnership on the second line while Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist are playing with Matt Cullen on the sheltered fourth line.
Now if there is a department that might truly swing a series around beyond random injuries and bouncing pucks, it could be special teams. Both teams have generated between 99 to 101 shot attempts per hour this postseason, but Pittsburgh has been the most potent unit with 11 goals in 56 tries (19.4%) while Nashville has only scored six times in 47 opportunities (12.8%). During the conference finals, the Predators were easily the worst unit of the four remaining teams with 75 attempts per hour and two goals during their six-game series with Anaheim. It has been quite clear that without Johansen, the team has lost a key fulcrum to their unit and will need all hands on deck if they want to score on an elite goaltender like Murray.
Meanwhile, for all of Pittsburgh’s warts during normal hockey, they still have all the skill required to be one of the most potent man-advantages in the NHL. Schultz’s strengths have been on full display while on the man-advantage (five out of his 10 postseason points have come on the power play) while 10 of Malkin’s 17 assists in the playoffs have also come while a man up.
Now it’s not like both teams lack the ability to shut down opposing offenses while on special teams. In fact, both have been able to perform with over 85% efficiency on the penalty kill this postseason. Both teams had to play at least one opponent that can generate tons of shots and goals on the power play as well (Anaheim for Nashville, Washington for Pittsburgh) and survived. However, if Nashville can’t find answers while they’re drawing penalties, they could be in deep trouble.
As if these playoffs can’t be unpredictable enough, this one looks like a doozie. There are so many variables that can change the entire complexion of the series. Both teams are not functioning at 100%. Both Hornqvist and Fisher are not playing with a complete bill of health and you can make good cases that both teams had the brackets go their way to make it this far. Does Nashville take advantage for only playing 16 grueling playoff games or can Pittsburgh continue to roll with every punch that has been thrown at them? I wouldn’t write out any outcome because that’s literally how this big picture view of this NHL season has gone.
Penguins in Seven