The NHL’s Strange Cup Final

May 30, 2012 7:57 am
Stanley Cup Finals

The Ottawa Senators faced the New Jersey Devils four times in 2011-12. Two of these games went past the allotted 60 minutes of regulation; the Sens won once, in a shootout, while the Devils claimed the other three games by narrow margins. On none of these occasions, or at any time during the regular season, did New Jersey appear to be favourites in a wide-open Eastern Conference. Despite featuring high-calibre offensive players like Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Patrik Elias, as well as the ever-dependable Martin Brodeur in goal, the Devils seemed merely a fraction of their former dynastic selves, destined to take advantage of a favourable first-round matchup and bow out of the NHL playoffs soon after.

Tomorrow, the Devils will take to their home ice in Newark to host Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

A year after an invigorating postseason climaxed with a seven-game duel between the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks, the NHL is set to conclude its strangest set of playoff series in recent memory. Based on the standings, neither finalist was expected to accrue even four postseason victories, but the Devils and the 8-seed Los Angeles Kings have bucked history and conventional wisdom in outlasting their conferences, and now stand four wins away from hockey’s Holy Grail.

Jonathan Quick has a 1.54 GAA and a .950 SV% during the 2012 playoffs.

Only in these playoffs could an 8-seed – generally the weakest of the NHL’s elite teams, or the best of the mediocre – be considered favourites in the Stanley Cup final. Although the Devils will open the series at home due to their numerical advantage, it is the Kings who enter the championship round having dropped just two games all postseason, and none on the road. Captain Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar have led the offensive charge; defenseman Drew Doughty has rebounded from a pedestrian 36-point campaign; and goaltender Jonathan Quick has somehow managed to raise his game from a superb regular season, one that garnered him a Vezina Trophy nomination.

As it stands, Quick will be a shoo-in for Conn Smythe Trophy honours if he stonewalls the Devils. Such a performance would also make the Kings the beneficiary of an unforeseen incongruence: the most unlikely Stanley Cup champions of all-time, as well as one of the most dominant. Just the second 8-seed to reach the Cup final (after Edmonton in 2006), LA has defeated the Western Conference’s top three seeds in a brisk 14 games. 29th in goals for during the regular season, the Kings have scored four goals or more in exactly half their playoff games, never conceding more than three and never allowing their opponents any modicum of hope. A team that saw their coach fired 29 games into the year, the Kings are on the verge of going where no 8-seed has gone before, and going there with a nearly unblemished record.

The Devils, meanwhile, have appeared for years to be the remnant of one of the NHL’s last dynasties, a team that clashed with Detroit and Colorado for Stanley Cup supremacy during the decidedly unbalanced late 1990s and early 2000s. Decried throughout their championship years for their monotonous, trapping hockey, the Devils have tallied three goals or more in 14 of their 18 playoff games. (They’ve also been shut out three times.) Brodeur, who looked each of his 40 years at several points in the regular season, has not been dominant (certainly not on the level of Quick), but has performed well enough to stymie each opponent the Devils have faced. New Jersey has made less noise in the media and among fans than any other successful playoff team, scuttling through the Eastern Conference and emerging with home-ice advantage. Killers move in silence, and so do 6-seeds that make the Stanley Cup final.

Ilya Kovalchuk leads the playoffs in scoring with 18 points.

Each top team has looked impervious during this erratic NHL season, before crashing and burning not long after. The Canucks won their second consecutive President’s Trophy, lost Daniel Sedin to a concussion in late March, then lost in five to Los Angeles, with Quick playing the role of Tim Thomas reincarnate. The reinforced Pittsburgh Penguins bowed out meekly in the first round, with Marc-Andre Fleury adopting the form of a common kitchen appliance. The Philadelphia Flyers blitzed Pittsburgh to the tune of 30 goals in six games, then found themselves unable to hit the net against New Jersey. The St. Louis Blues thrived under a stifling defensive system implemented by their affable head coach, before being swept away by the Kings faster than a John Tortorella press conference. Tortorella’s New York Rangers, for their part, struggled to defeat the conference’s two lowest seeds in seven games, before their dismal counterattacking style was exposed by (of all teams) the Devils.

So who remains? The Devils escaped in double overtime of their seventh game against the league’s weakest division champ, before finding their stride and outclassing two detested rivals. No 8-seed has ever advanced so far and with such ease as the Kings. Neither team can be considered a favourite or underdog, partially because neither team should be anywhere near the Stanley Cup playoffs at this time of year.

Regardless of which club emerges victorious, the NHL will crown its lowest-ever champion in terms of seeding. If these playoffs have taught us anything, however, it might be that seeding has been rendered meaningless, giving way to a new brand of parity where dominance is exhibited in the seemingly weakest teams. Credit the Devils and Kings for what they’ve accomplished, but this much is clear: in the post-post-lockout NHL, practically anyone can win. This year, it might as well have been anyone.

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Eulogizing the Senators

May 9, 2012 8:43 am

Breakout, drop pass, gather, wind-up, wrister, twine, the last step serving as the swiftest route to pandemonium. The horn rang for 36 seconds, resonating from the sound booth to the rafters, delighting and fuelling the raucous crowd stretching the limits of the building’s capacity. Each decibel commemorated a landmark season that had begun 194 days before for the Ottawa Senators, one accompanied by a minimum of 82 twists and turns and one that would be cut short eight days and three cross-border flights later.

When Kyle Turris snapped his overtime winner over the shoulder of the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist on April 18th, he was met with a roar unlike any he’d heard in Glendale as a member of the Phoenix Coyotes. Anecdotally, it appears that the roar eclipsed any in other in the 16 years that the Senators have played at the Palladium, the Corel Centre or Scotiabank Place, as well as any in the franchise’s 20 total seasons of existence. In a year prolonged and defined by unforeseen, unforgettable, comeback, moral and statement victories, Turris’ tally cemented the sweetest win of all.

The win was one of just three in the first round of these playoffs, one devastatingly short of the marker necessary to advance. While past Senator teams would have been skewered nationally for failing to produce even a measly first-round victory, this unit was celebrated differently, having surpassed any sort of expectations by reaching the postseason in the first place. For a franchise who lorded over the NHL for nearly a decade without sipping from Stanley’s cherished Cup, the newfound role of underdog was one embraced by established veterans and unproven youngsters alike. It took a carefully constructed mélange of burgeoning superstars and role players with hearts emblazoned firmly on their sleeves to accomplish what the Ottawa Senators did in 2011-12, a diverse cast of characters that were, in a word, family.

The city of Ottawa awoke on April 27th much like it had in each day of the previous 20 years: without a Stanley Cup championship and smarting from another untimely playoff elimination. Past Senator squads, replete with considerable talent and the burden of anticipated success, wilted under the brighter lights of spring hockey, either bowing out in early rounds or hanging on until the bitter end, losing rapidly and violently on the game’s biggest stage.

The Stanley Cup playoffs are a series of theatrical performances, presented to the viewing audience in an escalating sequence of vignettes within the backdrop of two contrasting cities. They are epitomized by conflict (team vs. team, player vs. player, Shanahan vs. NHL fanbase), emboldened by familiarity and the overarching brutality of the sport. In the span of four to seven games, lengthened by overtimes and interspersed over the course of two weeks, an innumerable amount of storylines will emerge as players enter, fade or are forcibly withdrawn from the limelight, turning themselves and their teams into heroes or heels, champions or failures, or something in between.

These Senators were heroes and heels, depending on whom you talked to. The same goes for champions and failures, though neither term is particularly apt for characterizing a team whose final results place them in the very middle of the pack. Pre-season expectations had them failing miserably and historically, while post-Turris goal fantasies vacillated to Lord Stanley’s doorstep. They fell somewhere in between.

Nearly every man on the roster made their presence felt to some degree at some point during Ottawa’s seven playoff games. With the top scorers shackled through the first four, the Sens remained in the series on the strength of their previously unheralded grinders. Chris Neil, Matt Carkner and Zenon Konopka antagonized Rangers players and fans with their physical play and by chipping in offensively in the most crucial of moments. Neil banged in a rebound off Ryan McDonagh’s leg to clinch Game 2 in overtime. Carkner set the stage for the Game 4 comeback by slipping out of the penalty box and threading a nifty pass to Milan Michalek. Konopka cemented his reputation as one of the world’s premier faceoff men by securing draws at a tremendously high rate.

Moral justification aside, Ottawa needed Carkner’s beat-down of Brian Boyle in Game 2 to enter the series. Cast aside in Game 1, with the liberties taken by Boyle on Erik Karlsson reverberating from the defeat, the Senators announced that they would be no easy out by inserting Carkner and watching him turn a 6’7, 244lb man into a quivering punching bag. Boyle had every opportunity to defend himself, choosing to accept his beating in the hopes of capitalizing on the ensuing major penalty. Five minutes later, the Senators had killed off the major and officially entered the series.

Karlsson, tabbed for a perplexing roughing minor during the initial Boyle ruckus, struggled to produce offensively but remained Ottawa’s best skater. Spending nearly half the series on the ice, Karlsson matched the defensive prowess of the Rangers’ shutdown duo of McDonagh and Dan Girardi, much to the consternation of those who still dismiss the Swede’s ability in his own end. In a series marked by the Rangers’ rugged and aesthetically depressing defensive play, it is fitting that Karlsson’s lone goal (on 31 total shots) came from behind the goal line.

Up front, Jason Spezza was locked down for the most part by McDonagh and Girardi, but still won Game 5 with his two goals and led the team with five points. Despite the rampant trade talk that will ensue this (and every) offseason, the future captain was hardly the reason Ottawa failed to advance. Craig Anderson was nothing short of superb, while Daniel Alfredsson rebounded valiantly from a malicious Carl Hagelin elbow to score Ottawa’s lone Game 7 goal.

Like any evenly-matched series, it came down to bounces. In Game 1, the Senators didn’t show up to play. In Games 2 and 4, Ottawa came back, both physically and on the scoreboard, and won each minutes into overtime. Games 3 and 5 hinged on single snaps of the puck, set up by an unlikely ricochet and a dexterous saucer pass, respectively. Game 6 turned on a questionable penalty call, Game 7 on two defensive lapses, and the series lead was extinguished and then wrenched from Ottawa’s hands at the final horn.

The sadistic nature of sports is that it inevitably declares winners and losers based on cold numbers, maintaining the right to strike down a team’s season on the grounds of one series, one game, one bounce. The numbers exist to validate and regulate the Senators’ accomplishments, but not to define them; numbers should have no significant place in any proper eulogy. If there’s any lasting message that should be extracted from the 2011-12 Ottawa Senators season, it is this: the season cannot be defined by seven games or two goals or even 36 seconds. This season, of any, was never about the final result. This season was about identifying holes, topping expectations, refusing to yield to the NHL’s elite or accept what was postulated as inevitable. It was a season in which the unheralded became heralded, and on that note, I’d like to leave Jesse Winchester with the last word.

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