What a time to be a hockey fan.
My daily routine for Phase 4 has been something like this: wake up, handle the usual summertime chores and errands, exercise ... then watch, report, and write until I go to bed. Thanks to the NHL.TV app and YouTube TV, I’m seeing all of some games, and some of all the others. I pop into Zoom calls and do phone interviews. I eat (mostly) healthy snacks.
Of course, I would rather be there live. On the other hand, this has been the most enjoyable week of hockey I can remember.
The lockouts were bummers, but nothing compared with five months of a pandemic, when everything ground to a halt. It has been wonderful having the games back. And not a positive playoff test registered (yet).
Superlatives from the first of several weeks on the couch:
▪ Team of the week: This looks like a new breed of Hurricanes. No, the Rangers were not quite playoff-worthy, but in becoming the first Stanley Cup Qualifier winner (i.e., first to advance via the play-in), Carolina showed a whole lot of growth from last year’s surprise Eastern Conference final run.
They broomed the Rangers without Norris Trophy candidate Dougie Hamilton and fellow regular Brett Pesce. Top-line center Sebastian Aho took over (3-5—8 in three games). The Andrei Svechnikov-Aho-Teuvo Teravainen line grew a collective playoff beard. Aho’s sharp stick swiped six pucks from opponents, more than anyone through three games. Svechnikov, fifth in the league in hits (12), produced the first hat trick in Whalercanes franchise playoff history.
That line, and this team, is as hard-working as tone-setting coach Rod Brind’Amour. They will be a tough out.
▪ Best redemption: Seven years ago, James Reimer was face-down, on his belly, as Patrice Bergeron and his linemates leaped away from his crease. He was the lasting foil in one of the Bruins’ most unforgettable days: Three goals down in Game 7 of the 2013 first round, they scored four times in 16:47 to rip out Toronto’s hearts in overtime.
Reimer, the backup for San Jose’s run to the Cup Final in 2016, hadn’t made a playoff start since that Game 7 debacle. He stopped 37 of 38 shots in Tuesday’s clincher over the Rangers. As the clock ran out, it was 4-1. That score will no longer haunt him.
“We all love hockey, but playoff hockey is the best,” a glowing Reimer said. “Nothing can touch it.”
▪ Best response: In Game 2 against Toronto, cantankerous Columbus coach John Tortorella screamed at top-line center Pierre-Luc Dubois on the bench. By the end of Torts’s tirade, Dubois was yapping back. The former No. 3 pick (2016) took it out on the Leafs in Game 3, finishing a hat trick with an OT winner.
“Stuff like that happens,” Dubois said. “Coming into today, if you’re lacking motivation, you’re playing the wrong sport.”
▪ Wildest swing: In the final minutes of Game 4, Toronto-Columbus, online fans were blasting the Maple Leafs for lack of heart. They had blown a three-goal lead and lost in Game 3, and here they were, getting bounced out of the playoffs in Game 4. And yet, Toronto became the first playoff team to follow a three-goal choke job with a three-goal comeback, capped by Auston Matthews’s OT winner in Game 4. Even if they were to lose Game 5, there was a pulse in T.O.
▪ Biggest market-setter: Islanders star Mathew Barzal, just too much for the Panthers to handle, will be in a tough spot this offseason: take a bridge deal, hoping the flat cap ($81.5 million) rises in the next few years and the NHL’s upcoming TV deal pays off; or lock in the security of a lower-figure deal for more years? Barzal, who went 19-41—60 in 68 games, is at the end of his rookie contract.
▪ Least consequential games: No surprise the fourth-ranked Flyers looked great to start the round-robin. Young, skilled, and well-coached, the Gritty Gang is plenty capable of making a deep run if Carter Hart continues to look like a young Carey Price.
Entering the weekend, Colorado, Philadelphia, and Tampa Bay were stout. Vegas won its first two games, but had to score a combined seven goals in those third periods to win. The Blues, Bruins, Capitals, and Stars were still sleeping.
▪ Dubious historical achievement: The No. 1 finishers in both East (Boston) and West (St. Louis) will not be No. 1 seeds to start the playoffs. Yet another thing the NHL has never seen before.
▪ Best speech: Matt Dumba, speaking from the heart about racism before the Chicago-Edmonton series. Hope more players join him.
▪ Worst injuries: Toronto (Jake Muzzin) and Washington (John Carlson) were hurting on the back end last week, but Winnipeg’s fate was all but sealed when forwards Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine went down.
▪ Toughest scratch: James van Riemsdyk, the former UNH star, lost his spot in the Flyers lineup, coach Alain Vigneault tapping ex-BU winger Joel Farabee for his playoff debut in Thursday’s game against the Capitals. Do not be surprised if Philadelphia makes Van Riemsdyk, 31 and due $7 million a year through 2023, available to expansion Seattle.
▪ Most uncomfortable end: Everyone I polled last week thinks franchise icon Henrik Lundqvist is done in Manhattan. He has another year left on his contract, and the Rangers have two better goaltenders. If no one wants his $8.5 million cap hit in a trade, the Rangers could buy out the 38-year-old likely Hall of Famer at a meager savings ($5.5 million cap hit next year, $1.5 million in ’20-21). Wonder if GM Jeff Gorton can find someone in need of a stopper (Edmonton?) to trade some tasty chips for promising backup Alexandar Georgiev. He’s a pending RFA.
▪ Longest wait: Monday the day finally comes for Alexis Lafreniere, the sublime left wing from Quebec long presumed to go No. 1 in the draft. A reminder: The play-in losers will drop into the second draw of the lottery, each with a 12.5 percent chance of landing him, because a placeholder team won the first drawing on June 26.
Lafreniere put up a 35-77—112 line in 52 games with Rimouski of the Quebec Major Junior League, was Player of the Year in Canadian junior hockey, and “will be an excellent player in the NHL,” promised NHL Central Scouting director Dan Marr.
▪ Most appropriate use of yard tools: Anthony Jusino, a Toronto-based production manager with the NHL, deals with logistics and budgeting, “but at the end of the day,” he said, “we’re just creative problem solvers.”
▪ Biggest upset: Carey Price (32) and Shea Weber (34) were looking their age. The Canadiens didn’t have enough firepower up front. After selling at the trade deadline, there was talk during the pause that they didn’t even want to resume the season. But they got the Price of old, upped the compete level, and sent Pittsburgh toward another reload in an impressive 12-over-5 upset. In doing so, Montreal became the lowest regular-season finisher in NHL history to make the playoffs. As if Habs fans needed another reason to crow about No. 24.
Most sobering realization: After the (12) Blackhawks beat the (5) Oilers Friday night, the playoffs will continue without Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. We’ll take that if the Nos. 22 (Arizona), 23 (Chicago) and 24 (Montreal) seeds advancing means there’s chaos ahead in the Round of 16.
▪ Best fit for Lafreniere: Of the teams already out (Rangers, Jets, Panthers) or in danger of being eliminated (Leafs, Oilers, Predators, Wild) by close of business Friday, let’s go with the Leafs, given the playoff pain they’ve endured lately.
Of the above teams, the longest drought without a high pick is Pittsburgh, which has chosen once inside the top 20 (in 2012, when former GM Ray Shero took Derrick Pouliot eighth — since drafting Marc-Andre Fleury (1), Evgeni Malkin (2), Sidney Crosby (1), and Jordan Staal (2) from ’03-06. Current GM Jim Rutherford has traded five of his last six first-round picks. He presumably would keep this one.
▪ Best quarantine hair: Ivan Provorov. The Flyers’ back liner became Ivan Flovorov during the pause.
Best quarantine beard? That would be Sportsnet insider (and 19th-century whaling captain) Elliotte Friedman.
▪ Worst reputation: Matthew Tkachuk plays on the edge, but it’s hard for me to buy the accusation lobbed by Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice, who said the Calgary agitator tried to injure Jets forward Mark Scheifele by targeting him in the back of his leg with his skate. Cannot see a pro thinking about doing that intentionally, much less pulling it off.
▪ Cheekiest bubble: From its Jumbotron announcements (“please leave your couches safely” after the game and “tonight’s attendance: 0,” and banning the wave), to having an employee toss hats on to the ice for Connor McDavid’s hat trick, Edmonton was having a good time.
Raycroft handles a few hot topics
Five questions with Andrew Raycroft, Calder Trophy-winning former goalie and NESN Bruins analyst.
1. Expectations are high for this Bruins team, and this looks like one of this core’s last best kicks at the can. How will Tuukka Rask handle this kind of pressure?
“First off, I think because of the personality and his ability to get away from the game in the summer, that makes him better. He’s comfortable not being on the ice every day for a few months. He believes in his game and that he can get his game back really quickly. I’m sure he feels ready to play already. He’s always in shape. He’s always ready.
“And to have Jaro [Halak] right there, they can figure this thing out together. Sit down and have a coffee in the morning, how’d you sleep, talk about the little things, work off each other.
“I look at it, it’s such a disadvantage for all the players in the play-in round, and the goaltenders. You don’t have to worry about that first game. You’ve got an extra seven days in the bubble to get comfortable. It’s a massive advantage for the teams playing for seeding.”
2. What would winning a Cup this year do for Rask’s legacy, and this team’s legacy?
“I truly believe that whenever we look at the legacy, I think we’re going to look back with more appreciation than we had at the time. I think we’re going to realize how great he was. Winning a Cup would cement that. There’s going to be no question.
“You’re looking at the goalies in the league right now … only a few guys have made it to three Finals. This would be his fourth, and I understand he was Timmy [Thomas’s] backup [in 2011], but he was there, he was a part of that team.
“To be in the Final four years, for all of these guys, I think that kind of puts them over the top when it comes to legacy and how we look at this group of players — as possibly the best group of all-time Bruins.
“They have a great opportunity. It’s going to be much different than what they thought it was going to be on March 12, but they still have as good an opportunity as any other team.”
(Those who slapped their first puck before 1972 will argue for the Bobby Orr-era Bruins as the greatest to wear Black and Gold. But this current core has been in place for longer than a decade. A second Cup, and we may have a new No. 1.)
3. How different will bubble life be for these players?
“I think it’ll be a little more similar than people think. If you think about what guys do come playoff time — in the regular season everyone’s still taking their kids to school. Once playoff time comes every year, you hear guys talk about how tired they are, how they can’t wait to hang out with their family again, that they haven’t been able to take kids to the park because they’ve been so tired every afternoon.
“I think in those things, the bubble will be similar to a Stanley Cup playoff feel for these guys. They’ll have fewer distractions. They won’t have to come home and having to tell their kids, ‘Listen I have to get some rest, we have another game tomorrow,’ or ‘I have to study video.’
“With the testing, going into the building, if you’re not in the right mental state, those things can aggravate you. Those are the things that can add anxiety. Guys will need to figure out how to get those things out of the way, and get to their routine.”
4. You were in net for Game 4 of the 2004 Montreal-Boston series, when Alexei Kovalev took a slash and let Glen Murray score in overtime. What are your memories of that sequence?
“Crystal clear. It’s still perfect in my mind. The play, that [Travis] Green slash, [Sheldon] Souray slamming into Kovy, the shot, I can see exactly how it went in on [Jose] Theodore. I remember Danny McGillis was about 250 pounds and I was about 150, and he was picking me up over his head.
“To go up, 3-1, in Montreal … obviously it didn’t go as well the next six days for me. But that’s as good a memory in hockey as I have.
“Back in the day, that slash happened five times a shift. [Kovalev’s reaction] caught everybody off guard. We were going into the locker room saying, how did that just happen? He got angry after that. He was sleeping on us to that point.”
5. In your year in Colorado (2008-09), you played with a 39-year-old Joe Sakic. What was he like as a teammate?
“Ultra-competitive. Loved to score goals on Tuesday morning in practice. That wrist shot, everyone talks about it, and it’s true. He loved to score.
“He loved fantasy football, too. He was commissioner of our league. It’s not surprising he became a GM. He won that year, and made us all T-shirts of his team. I still have it. It was some kind of duck name, so the shirt had cartoon ducks all over it, with the roster. He was the guy who was on the waiver wire every morning.”
Orr has a hand in memorabilia
Mike Phillips, Upper Deck’s executive vice president for sales and marketing, is in the nostalgia business. It is a powerful force for a sports fan.
“It’s especially powerful in times like this,” Phillips said. “People long for something that will bring them back to a better time, a more positive time.”
Upper Deck’s high-end, museum-type memorabilia items are selling well because work-from-home fans want to brighten up their homes (and show off for Zoom calls), Phillips said. “The Last Dance” documentary has put a jolt into Michael Jordan merch. A LeBron James rookie card from 2003-04 recently auctioned for $1.8 million, a record for a newer card.
Here’s something for Bruins fans: a Bobby Orr Tegata.
Last spring, Orr stuck his left hand in black ink and pressed it on a fine piece of paper, in the Japanese memorabilia tradition, then signed the sheet. Upper Deck surrounded the print with a collage of images from Orr’s career. Fifty were made — each selling for a cool $14,999.
“That is our cornerstone piece from Bobby,” Phillips said. “No one else does anything like that.”
Friday’s six-team elimination-game bonanza wasn’t the league record for do-or-dies in a day. Seven teams faced postseason exits on April 13, 1985. The Flames, Islanders, and Sabres won, while the Blues, Kings, Rangers, and Red Wings lost … In a must-win Game 3 against the Islanders, old pal Noel Acciari skated 22:09 for the Panthers, the first time he’s led all forwards in ice time during a game. The record since 1998, when the NHL began tracking time on ice, was Sergei Zubov, who played 63:51 for the Stars in a 2003 game against the Ducks … While waiting for his next opponent, what did Carolina defenseman Jaccob Slavin have planned? “Board games, Catan, golf simulators, Spikeball,” he said. “A little bit of everything, just trying to stay sane in the bubble.”