Connor McDavid has been the best player on the planet for several years now, and the sports world doesn’t know a whole lot about him. Some great athletes shirk the spotlight. McDavid conducts interviews with the vigor of someone grouting their bathroom tile.
So it was quite refreshing to see him sprint, scream and shake his fists after ending the Battle of Alberta with a signature OT goal. After a lackluster postseason record with mediocre teams, he finally had a reason to celebrate — and he’s not done.
McDavid, after dragging the Oilers past the Kings in the first round and teaming with Leon Draisaitl to take down the Flames in five games, is the most compelling story line of these playoffs. Draisaitl has been fantastic, matching McDavid’s 7-19—26 stat line while skating the last series on an injured right ankle. They are the only two players to average more than 2 points per game (2.17 each) since Mario Lemieux (2.27 in 15 games) in 1992. Beyond that, we’re talking about Wayne Gretzky (2.00 in 1989, 2.26 in 1988, and so on).
But McDavid vs. the Mountaintop is what will have casual fans tuning into what has been a fantastic Western Conference playoffs.
In a wild Oilers-Flames series — the clinching Game 5 featured a seven-goal second period, including a record four goals in 71 seconds — McDavid provided moments that had viewers (hand up here) bug-eyed and yelping. He sliced through Calgary’s lockdown defense time and again, fully in control despite playing at breakneck speed. For those of us watching from this coast, he is a primary reason the West has been worth the bleary-eyed mornings.
That he will meet the Avalanche in the next round — Colorado eliminated St. Louis in Game 6 Friday — promised a dream conference final of McDavid and Draisaitl vs. Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar. Given how Game 5 of the Avalanche-Blues series finished, what could be better?
Late in Game 5, the crowd in Denver rose like they were watching Bobby Orr as MacKinnon galloped over the red line, then exploded in delirious disbelief as he slipped through Nick Leddy and flipped the puck past Ville Husso. With 2:46 left, the Avalanche were going to the West Finals.
Only they weren’t. Robert Thomas scored into an empty net, and Tyler Bozak finished it in OT.
Contrasted with a slog of a Carolina-Rangers series, and a Tampa sweep of Florida, and it’s obvious for entertainment, West is best.
Besides, only one conference has Mike Smith.
Edmonton’s 40-year-old goalie owns a stellar .927 save percentage and two shutouts through 11 games, while being pulled in Game 1 against the Flames and later surrendering one of the worst playoff goals in history. In Game 4, Smith didn’t see Rasmus Andersson’s shorthanded slapper from his own zone, which floated 132 feet into the net. It tied the game at 3, midway through the third. The Oilers scored the next two, saving him.
“I can laugh now, right?” he said.
It’s easy to root for stickhandling-happy Smith, who has given up several goals from the red line in his long career. This is a goalie who, as a Coyote in 2013, scored a game-winner on himself when he backed into the net without realizing an airborne puck had settled into his pants.
If you like helter-skelter hockey, Smith has that in spades. He’s as liable to give away the puck as he is to slap a long outlet to McDavid, whom he calls “McJesus.”
Mistakes? “Buddy, I’ve made plenty,” he told Sportsnet earlier this month. “Hey, you don’t become a puckhandling goalie by doing everything right.”
Yet another reason the Oilers have become must-watch TV.
Marchand surgery is common, yet worrisome
Early offseason thoughts on the Bruins, who entered the weekend waiting on word from Patrice Bergeron on his future while dropping news that Brad Marchand could be out until Thanksgiving …
▪ Without knowing the details of Marchand’s specific case, D.C.-area hip surgeon Derek Ochiai said surgeries such as Marchand’s (double hip arthroscopy and labral repair) are exceedingly common in hockey players, and that many eventually return at close to their previous level. We have seen NHLers (Tyler Seguin, most recently) take a year-plus to get right. Hip issues have also caused many early retirements (salute to Tuukka Rask). Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom, age 34 like Marchand, is openly pondering his future. Marchand has made a career of overcoming doubts, but double hip surgery is a beast.
▪ Even with Bergeron’s $6.875 million salary cap hit expiring, belts are tight. Before making any moves, like putting Marchand on long-term inured reserve, they have a projected $2.84 million in cap space for next season, according to CapFriendly.
The eight-year extensions for Charlie McAvoy ($9.5 million, up from $4.9 million) and Hampus Lindholm ($6.5 million) will add $8.5 million in cap commitments to the ledger.
▪ The Bruins would have to trim even if Bergeron returned at a steep discount. They could sign him to an over-35 contract and carry over performance bonuses to next season, when they have four current regular forwards under contract — Marchand, Taylor Hall, Charlie Coyle, and Jake DeBrusk.
▪ It makes sense for the Bruins to pay off Nick Foligno when the buyout window opens July 1. It would trim Foligno’s $3.8 million cap hit to $1.933 million next year, and just over $930k after that. Solid citizen, but not enough room.
Other cap-clearing ideas: trade a left-shot defenseman (Mike Reilly or Matt Grzelcyk, who have overlapping skillsets), or one of several middle-of-the-lineup forwards with one year remaining on their deal (the most obvious choice: Craig Smith, cap hit $3.1 million, who plays the same wing as prospect Fabian Lysell and NHL hopefuls Oskar Steen and Jack Studnicka).
▪ Jeremy Swayman had a .969 save percentage and two shutouts in his first five games for Team USA at the World Championships, including a blanking of a top-seeded Swiss side that came into the quarterfinals averaging 4.8 goals per game.
“His demeanor on top of his elite athleticism make him an elite goalie. He’s got an unbelievable future in the National Hockey League,” US coach David Quinn said. “When you’ve got a goalie like that, you play a little bit differently. You play with a little more swagger.”
Swayman also stuffed a few David Pastrnak one-timers against the Czechs in a 1-0 round-robin loss. The US played tournament host Finland in the semifinals Saturday, while Pastrnak, David Krejci, and the Czechs took on Canada.
Panthers were overwhelmed by Lightning
The Panthers were smothered by the Lightning, who permitted them no transition, no in-zone offense, and no chance of Andrei Vasilevskiy allowing a soft one.
Vasilevskiy allowed three goals in four games. He remains the best goalie in this universe, and of this generation. The man has six shutouts in his last seven elimination games, stopping 181 of 185 shots (.978). Sick stuff.
Tampa brings a total commitment to defending (77 blocked shots in four games), a few game-breakers on offense (even without the injured Brayden Point), and gets all the big stops in net. It’s the way most teams try to play — the Bruins, when healthy, did a decent job of it this year — but no one does it better than the Bolts.
The last team to win 10 playoff series in a row was the 1980-83 Islanders, who won 19 in a row amid their four straight Cups.
The Panthers were fun to watch during the regular season, but the trapping Capitals showed how to shut off that free-flowing offensive spigot. Ultimately, Washington might have upset Florida if it got a few more saves. Tampa was a different beast entirely.
What’s next for the Panthers? They went all-in with splashy trade deadline additions (Claude Giroux, Ben Chiarot) who may or may not return. They will find a way to bring back gritty scorer Mason Marchment, whom they missed in the postseason. It’ll be difficult to convince someone to take on $10 million (AAV) of good, but hardly great Sergei Bobrovsky netminding.
They also have to make a call on Andrew Brunette. The interim coach won a Presidents’ Trophy but invited second-guessing in the postseason. The Cats looked out of answers, especially on the power play (1 for 31).
In an elimination game, Brunette dressed a 42-year-old Joe Thornton (nice nod, but …) and played him seven minutes. In the final minutes of Game 4, down by a goal with the season on the line, the Panthers burned more than a minute of power play time before going six on four.
Their big brothers across Alligator Alley held them at arm’s length, one hand on their foreheads, laughing at their windmill swings.
Kadri didn’t back down in response to threats
Stick tap to Colorado’s Nazem Kadri, who put up one of the all-time stick-it-to-’em performances in Game 4 against the Blues.
Kadri’s collision with Jordan Binnington had Blues fans barraging him and his family with racism and death threats online. Some of the messages, shared by his wife, Jazzy, were demented.
Kadri’s response: a hat trick, and three goal celebrations that showed he knew exactly who he was shutting up, and why. Shame if anyone doesn’t respect that.
“Some of those messages I got [don’t] reflect every fan in St. Louis,” Kadri said on TNT afterward, “but for those that hate, that one’s for them.”
Finally on the right side of a playoff outburst, the former Maple Leaf seems to have found himself in Denver. If he hits the open market, should the Bruins pursue him? Put it this way: there’s a lot of wingers here who would like to be on the side of an 87-point guy who’s unafraid of the heat.
Kadri might command seven years at $7 million per. For any team, term would be the issue. He turns 32 in October, and cleared his previous single-season bar by 26 points playing on a stacked team. But a case can be made that Kadri is maturing, that he is using his fire to affect his team positively on the biggest stage. He may be authoring a Marchand-like finish to his career.
Unless Bruce Cassidy really opens up his offense, Kadri’s point totals would dip in Boston. He wouldn’t be Bergeron defensively, but why couldn’t he put up 70-plus points with Marchand or Hall and Pastrnak? Again … the Bruins wait on Bergy.
Women’s pro leagues will not merge
Forget a merger between the two leading women’s hockey organizations. The Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association, the barnstorming outfit that includes the top women in the world, and the Premier Hockey Federation appear to be true competitors.
The PWHPA is reportedly launching a pro league within the next year, promising to once again reshape the women’s hockey landscape. The PWHPA was formed after the 2019 dissolution of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, which was a rival to the PHF (then known as the National Women’s Hockey League).
Former tennis star Billie Jean King and Los Angeles Dodgers chairman Mark Walter are behind the push, which gives the PWHPA some big-money connections and ties to NHL franchises in addition to their most obvious selling point: they have the best players. Nearly all of the top Olympians for the United States and Canada are affiliated with the PWHPA, and many have turned up their noses at playing for the former NWHL.
Tentative plans, as reported by the Associated Press, include six teams and average salaries of $55,000. The PHF, which is expanding from six to eight teams (Montreal and Providence are reportedly the newcomers) in its upcoming eighth season, upped its per-team salary cap from $300,000 to $750,000. The PHF’s Buffalo Beauts set a high-water mark for women’s hockey when it signed former Toronto Six league MVP Mikyla Grant-Mentis to an $80,000 contract.
Despite its recent successes, including a streaming deal with ESPN+, the PHF has been unable to break through on a national level, and has gone through three commissioners and a name change in the last two seasons. The PWHPA, the AP wrote, has backing from “major sponsors,” including 11 unnamed NHL franchises.
The Bruins have been outwardly friendly with the three-time champion Boston Pride, who play at the Bruins’ practice rink in Brighton. It is unclear if they will be involved with the PWHPA venture.
With Dallas throwing its 10-gallon hat in the ring after Rick Bowness stepped away, five teams (Detroit, Philadelphia, Vegas, and Winnipeg) entered the weekend looking for coaches. It’s possible Edmonton (Jay Woodcroft), Montreal (Martin St. Louis), Chicago (Derek King), and Florida extend their interim coaches … Quite a late-career surge for feisty St. Louis winger David Perron, who has scored at nearly a point-per-game clip (287 in 321 games, or 0.89 points per game) the last five years after putting up 378 in 652 (0.58) in his first decade in the league. Part of the reason for Perron’s slower start was a concussion delivered on a Nov. 2010 blindside hit by Joe Thornton, one of the reasons not every corner of the hockey world views Thornton as a lovable old teddy bear … When Perron was on his first of three stints in St. Louis, in 2009, the Bruins and Blues discussed a deal that would have swapped Perron and Keith Tkachuk for Phil Kessel. The B’s brought in Mark Recchi to be their wise old salt, and the Kessel trade with Toronto paid dividends for years … New BU coach Jay Pandolfo is rumored to be adding Bruins skating and skills coach Kim Brandvold as an assistant … Though Shane Wright is the favorite to go No. 1 overall to the Canadiens in the July draft, Juraj Slafkovský is turning heads. The big Slovakian winger put up 3-6—9 in eight games at the Worlds, the second-most all-time by an under-18 player at the tournament … Former Canadian national team captain Jessica Campbell became the first female assistant coach at the men’s Worlds, standing behind the bench of Team Germany. According to Finnish outlet YLE, a female Slovak TV reporter asked Campbell what it was like to be a beautiful woman coaching a team of handsome men. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you’re trying to say,” Campbell replied. Yikes ... Denmark’s historic win over Canada at the Worlds was a little payback for 1949, when the Canadian powerhouse beat the fledgling Danes, 47-0, in Stockholm. That was the most lopsided international game for decades, but it has since been surpassed. At the 1998 Asian Oceana U18s, South Korea beat Thailand, 92-0. The leading scorer from that game, Song Dong-hwan, put up 30 goals and his jersey hangs in the Hockey Hall of Fame. In that tournament, the winners won by a combined score of 395 to 11 (not a typo) … More from the archives: In 2001, execs at TD Garden thought about adding a summertime pool and winter skating rink on the roof. Imagine those views … Has to rankle NHL execs that one of the sights most often seen during playoff commercial breaks is winking NFL quarterback Matthew Stafford. To understand the AT&T ad, hockey fans are supposed to know that Stafford spent most of his career in Detroit before winning a Super Bowl after a trade to the Los Angeles Rams. Suppose “Alex Pietrangelo, of the NHL” wasn’t a compelling enough pitchman.