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What went wrong – NHL playoff picks and first round recaps (Eastern Conference)

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With the second round of the NHL playoffs kicking off tonight, this seems like a pretty good time to make my picks for the second round.

But before I do, I’m going to take minute or two and go over my first round picks and why I was right or wrong, at least for the Eastern Conference (I’ll have my Western recap and picks up in the next little while).

What I predicted: Washington over Montreal

What actually happened: Montreal won in seven

Well, if I can be so bold, this was a massive upset. Going by point differential, the second biggest upset in playoffs ever. It’s certainly the biggest upset since Edmonton beat the Red Wings in 2006.

So, what happened? I took the Capitals because I bought into their hype. I still would, if the series were being played again starting tomorrow. By almost every stretch I can think of, the Capitals were the better team:

  • The Capitals had 54 wins and 121 points on the season; Montreal had 39 wins and 88 points.
  • The Capitals scored 318 goals to Montreal’s 217. Their goal differential was 85, Montreal’s was -6.
  • Washington’s SRS – a measure of strength and quality of wins –  was 0.90, Montreal’s was -0.14.
  • The Capitals had three players with 30 goals or more and four with 70+ points. Montreal didn’t have a single player who scored 30 goals and nobody with more then 70 points.

It wasn’t really hard to say to think that the Capitals were the better team. So, again, what happened?

Goaltending happened, especially for Montreal.

In the regular season, the Habs GAA was 2.57 and their Save percentage was .919. In the first round – against one of the best scoring teams in the NHL, no less – their GAA was 2.78, but their save percentage jumped to .931.

Jaroslav Halak made nearly 220 saves in the first round, far more then the number of shots both goalies for the Caps faced. He was more then impressive, he was stunning.

There was no better example of this then game six, when the Habs needed a win on home ice to force a game seven. He turned away over 50 shots in a 4-1 victory, stunning the Capitals. In a must-win game, Alexander Ovechkin was stopped eight times, Alexander Semin seven times, Joe Corvo ten times.

And remember, home ice was not friendly to the Habs in the playoffs. Games three and four, both played in Montreal, were blowout losses, 5-1 and 6-3, respectively.

Of course, it wasn’t just Halak who won the series. Washington did their part, too. Both goals in game seven for Montreal came off of bad defensive breaks for the Capitals. The first, a Montreal power play goal, came on a Marc-Andre Bergeron one-timer right after the puck was passed through Washington’s defenders – in a space right through three players.

The second was even weirder, coming from a long Montreal dump into the Capitals end and took a weird bounce from two players and ended up right on Domonic Moore’s stick, who scored stick-side and made it a 2-0 game. Again, this came off a defensive lapse on Washington – with three people in their own end, nobody was keeping a body on Moore; when the puck landed on his stick, he had a clear path to the net. It wasn’t Washington floating, but was something they should have avoided.

Those two goals were a microcosm of what went wrong for the Caps, especially in the later games: they spent so much time putting pressure on the offensive end, they were easily caught unguarded on breaks to the net on when shorthanded. It was an ugly, frustrating way for it to end for the President Trophy winners and it was one I certainly didn’t see coming.

What I predicted: New Jersey over Philadelphia

What happened: Philly won in five games

Another upset, although not one quite as staggering. The Devils had won 48 games, had 101 points and a SRS of 0.31; the Flyers only got into the playoffs on the last day of the season (thanks to a NY loss) and had 41 wins, 88 points and a SRS of 0.08, making them decidedly average.

So what happened this time? The first instinct is to say something along the lines of, “Oh Marty Brodeur is too old” or that he played too many minutes. Maybe if I were a lazier writer, I’d say the Flyers wanted it more or some other old warhorse cliche.

But honestly? I think was a fairly evenly matched series.

In the regular season, the Devils lost four games to the Flyers, three of them by just a goal. They only won once, a 4-1 victory in December. Same for the Flyers – only once did they beat the Devils by two or more goals.

So really, for two teams so far removed in the standings, you couldn’t have asked for a closer regular season series. It was a trend that repeated itself in the postseason. Two games were decided by a goal, and another was pretty close – two late goals by the Devils, including an empty netter, shoved it in their favor.

Still, in the final two games, the Devils were stymied by the Flyers and only scored once, losing 4-1 and 3-0. For a team that eight times in the first three games, it represents at least a dropoff and at worse, a major collapse. How much of this actually lies with their goaltending?

Well, it certainly played a big role: Brodeur’s GAA exploded from 2.24 in the regular season to 3.01 in the first round. His save percentage fell from .916 to .881. In both cases, they’re the worst in his career as a starting goaltender. But if Brodeur played such a role in the collapse, why did backup Yann Denis not play a single second in net?

I’d argue it was the Devils scoring that played as big a role in the collapse.

While the Devils were not a high-scoring team – with just 222 goals scored this season, they’re below the league average – in the last two games, they had a hell of a time scoring.

In the regular season, Zach Parise scored 38 goals for the Devils. Travis Zajac scored 25 in 82 games. Combined, they scored just two goals in the first round. Indeed, the only Devil who scored with regularity was Ilya Kovalchuk, who had been brought on board in February. In five games, he scored two goals – one of only two Devils to score more then once. Only six players for New Jersey had two or more points.

For contrast, the Flyers had six players with two or more goals.

Credit has to be given to Flyers goalie Brian Boucher. One of the three goalies that got regular starts with the Flyers, he shined in the postseason. His GAA went from 2.76 to 1.59 in the first round; his save percentage went from .899 to .940. He even posted a shutout in the first round, something he only did once in the regular season. I certainly didn’t see him playing this well.

What I said: Boston over Buffalo

What happened: Boston won in six games

Here’s one I got right. At the start of the playoffs, I thought the Bruins were an underrated team and I didn’t like Buffalo a whole lot. Sure the Sabres had won their division, but head to head with Boston?

They had won four of their six meetings, one in overtime and another in a shootout. In a vaccum, that makes them the better team.

What I didn’t see was just how intense their matches would be. The Bruins racked up over 100 penalty minutes, with Chara alone getting 25. The Sabres had 112, with winger Patrick Kaleta getting 22. For contrast, the Devils had 88 penalty minutes, the Sharks 44. This was a rough series.

Plus, it was a close one, too: all but one of the games were close affairs and one – game four – went into a second overtime. That was a pretty good game.

For one thing, goaltending for both sides – Ryan Miller for Buffalo, Tuukka Rask for the Bruins – stayed about the same in the series.

Scoring was weird, too. Boston had their scoring more spread around – six players had four or more points, to Buffalo’s two – but the Sabres had the only blowout win in the series, a 4-1 victory in game five.

Thusly, back to game four, the second OT. I think it was that too many men penalty, the one where the Bruins scored on the ensuing power play, that really tipped this series. Before it, it was anybody’s series; Boston led 2-1, but all three games were close. The next game was a big win for the Sabres, but they lost another close one in game six. This is where a cliche comes in handy since I’m not sure why Boston won without resorting to one like “they wanted it more.” Three of their wins were by a goal; the one where they won by two was punctuated by an empty net goal.

The one thing I’ll take away from this series is that they could pull out big wins when they had to, just like the Canadiens did against Washington.

What I said: Pittsburgh over Ottawa

What happened: Pittsburgh won in six

My prediction here may have been a bit biased, since I can’t stand the Senators and I kind of have a soft spot for Crosby. But I also liked the offensive presence of

Still, it was another good, close series. Two went to overtime, including a three-OT game, and a couple other that were close.

But it was the one that wasn’t close that defined the series for me. Game four, a 7-4 win for the Penguins on the road. In a wild second period, there were eight goals scored. After 40 minutes, it was a 6-3 lead for the Penguins and I felt they were clearly in control of the series. Why?

Be exploding like that in a must-win road game, they showed that they can be maybe the best pure scoring team in the Eastern Conference. It was an outburst of offense that no other team, including two teams that finished higher then them in the standings, were able to accomplish. The Penguins may not be the best defensive team in the playoffs, but they can sure score like nobody else.

And after winning game four, the Penguins took a big 3-1 series lead. Ottawa had to fight tooth and nail to win game five. In game six, they were playing with an amazing amount of will – they were hitting hard and often, throwing themselves into hard checks along the boards. They wanted that win and were pushing themselves as hard as any team I’ve seen. It’s unfortunate that they didn’t have it in them; a game seven between the two teams would have been electric.

 Anyway, that’s enough recap. Here’s my Eastern Conference picks:

– I like the Bruins over the Flyers. The Bruins have solid goaltending in Rask and while their season series is 2-2, the Bruins have won the last two meetings. It’ll be a rough, series, though.

– I like Pittsburgh over Montreal, but with reservations. As shown against the Capitals, the Canadiens are on a roll and can shut down high scoring teams. But the Penguins have won three of the four games between the two this season. Given that, and how the Penguins have had a few days to rest after their series, I like them.

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Sidney Crosby is a player under pressure

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Second in an ongoing series at current athletes

There’s this ad in Canada right now for Tim Horton’s that stars Sidney Crosby. He’s riding a bus – presumably with the rest of the Pittsburgh Penguins – out in some kind of countryside.

The bus breaks down, Crosby looks out the window and sees a group of kids playing hockey on a pond. And grabbing his stick, skates and gloves (nice to know he keeps those handy), he goes out and plays with them while a light snow begins to fall.

It’s a cute ad, though it’s one I like a bit for an entirely unrelated reason. And it’s one of many, many ads that prominently feature one Sidney Patrick Crosby, currently of the Pittsburgh Penguins. His likeness is attached to everything from clothing (including the stuff he wears in that Tims ad) to Gatorade.

The NHL is hitching its wagon to Crosby. He is the face of the league, hockey’s spokesperson and maybe the best talent to come out of Canada in a long, long time. Already the captain of the Penguins at the young age of 21, he’s already tearing into the league; he led the league in scoring in his second season by putting up the Gretzky-like 120 points – before he turned 20.

Fair or unfairly, that is a shadow he is gong to have to with. The shadow of Gretzky will always lie on hockey, but especially so on Crosby, as it has on every Canadian player in recent memory, from Eric Lindros to Alexandre Daigle. But for Crosby, it is perhaps the best comparison that could be made.

Like him he wears a high number. Like him he’s got a great scoring touch – but is just as likely to set somebody else up instead. Like him, he started his career on a young team brimming with talent. And like him, Crosby came into the league with a ton of hype.

Gretzky lived up to his, putting up unreal numbers in a time where scoring was at a peak. His 200 plus point seasons are unlikely to ever be repeated, let alone broken. Even now, close to a decade after his final game, his name is still shorthand for greatness in hockey.

This has to weigh down on Crosby. He a great talent, yes, but the entire league sometimes seems to pivot on his shoulders. Gretzky never had to save anything from oblivion.

He started immediately after the NHL cancelled an entire season. He is, through no fault of his own, the savior of hockey, the player who will rescue the sport from cable-TV obscurity.

The NHL he inherited was a league in it’s worst shape in decades, since the halcyon days of Gretzky, Lemieux and Messier. The league had moved from ESPN to OLN, a small network best known for broadcasts of fishing and the Tour de France and an occasional game on NBC. The NHL had just endured a lockout that cancelled a season – the first time an entire season had been cancelled in a major pro sport. Scoring was down.

Hockey was in danger of losing its position as the fourth sport in the US. Some would even argue it already had: to NASCAR.

So along came this baby-faced kid, not even old enough to vote, who was supposed to change all of this. He was supposed to be a tremendous talent, somebody that the NHL could latch itself to.

He thusly was prominently featured on NBC’s game of the week. He is in almost innumerable ads. He is the face of hockey in North America, to the North American fan. And this must certainly have put an incredible amount of pressure upon him.

Sidney Crosby is cranky. He has been called a whiner. He jawbones at referees, he argues for calls and it has been written that other players think he’s soft. This was most evident earlier this year, when he complained a hit from Alexander Ovechkin was dirty.

So, yes, he does complain. But no other player has the same circumstances he does; the expectations, the pressure, the hype and the weight.

Back to that ad I like so much. I don’t like it for it’s contrived scenario, or for it’s forced punch line. I like it for what I think it unconsciously shows about Crosby.

He gets away, but he’s still known. He escapes to a backwoods pond but everybody still recognizes him. He smiles because he loses himself in the game. He’s away from all the lights, from all the hype and the noise and the talk and the expectations…

Phil Dusenberry, the former chairman of BBDO North America, once wrote that advertising is not about ideas, but insights. What insight, then, is behind that ad? Was it an attachment of hockey being an escape for Crosby? Or was it an extension of earlier ads that showcased his history with minor hockey? Or was it even saying something at all?

I remember a couple years ago, Crosby was on the Tonight Show. He brought along the dryer he used to shoot pucks at in the basement of his parents house, back when he was growing up. That was how he used to practice his shot. Not against an older brother, not against a family friend, not against his dad. But by shooting pucks into an open dryer.

A solitary activity, turned by his talent, into him charged with saving a professional sport from obscurity.

It’s a heavy weight for a kid who’s barely old enough to order a beer.

Written by M.

March 21, 2009 at 9:36 pm

Some thoughts on Crosby

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Second in an occasional series

There’s this ad in Canada right now for Tim Horton’s that stars Sidney Crosby. He’s riding a bus – presumably with the rest of the Pittsburgh Penguins – out in some kind of countryside. The bus breaks down, Crosby looks out the window and sees a group of kids playing hockey on a pond. And grabbing his stick, skates and gloves (nice to know he keeps those handy), he goes out and plays with them.

It’s a cute ad, and it’s one I like a bit for an entirely unrelated reason. And it’s one of many, many ads that prominently feature one Sidney Patrick Crosby, currently of the Pittsburgh Penguins. His likeness is attached to everything from clothing (including the stuff he wears in that Tims ad) to Gatorade.

The NHL is hitching its wagon to Crosby. He is the face of the league, hockey’s spokesperson and maybe the best talent to come out of Canada in a long, long time. Already the captain of the Penguins at the young age of 21, he’s already tearing into the league; he led the league in scoring in his second season by putting up the Gretzky-like 120 points – before he turned 20.

Fair or unfairly, that is the mark he is gong to have to with. The shadow of Gretzky will always lie on hockey, but especially so on Crosby, as it has on every Canadian player in recent memory, from Eric Lindros to Alexandre Daigle. But for Crosby, it is perhaps the best comparison that could be made.

Like him he wears a high number. Like him he’s got a great scoring touch – but is just as likely to set somebody else up instead. Like him, he started his career on a young team brimming with talent. And like him, Crosby came into the league with a ton of hype.

This has to weigh down on Crosby. He a great talent, yes, but the entire league sometimes seems to pivot on his shoulders. He started immediately after the NHL cancelled an entire season. He is, through no fault of his own, the savior of hockey, the player who will rescue the sport from cable-TV obscurity.

He thusly is prominently featured on NBC’s game of the week. He is in almost innumerable ads. He is the face of hockey. And he must certainly have an incredible amount of pressure put upon him.

Sidney Crosby is cranky. He has been called a whiner. He jawbones at referees, he argues for calls and it has been written that other players think he’s soft. This was most evident earlier this year, when he complained a hit from Alexander Ovechkin was dirty.

So, yes, he does complain. But no other player has the same circumstances he does; the expectations, the pressure, the hype and the weight.

Back to that ad I like so much. I don’t like it for it’s contrived scenario, or for it’s forced punch line. I like it for what it almost unconsciously shows about Crosby. He gets away, but he’s still known. He escapes to a backwoods pond but everybody still recognizes him. He smiles because he has to – but I can almost imagine that sometimes he wishes it could happen, that he could get away from all the lights, from all the hype and the noise and the talk and the expectations…
Get away and simply go back to the game, the one he enjoyed as a kid.

I remember a couple years ago, Crosby was on the tonight show. He brought along the dryer he used to shoot pucks at in the basement of his parents house, back when he was growing up. That was how he used to practice his shot. Not against an older brother, not against a family friend, not against his dad. But by shooting pucks into an open dryer.

A solitary activity, turned by his talent, into him charged with saving a professional sport from obscurity.

It’s a heavy weight for a kid who’s barely old enough to order a beer.

Written by M.

February 23, 2009 at 9:28 pm