Parity plus low scores equal postseason drama in NHL

The NHL went 29 years, starting in 1972 and including 2000, with only two Stanley Cup Finals going the full seven games. Ten times in that span, the title series was a four-game sweep, including four consecutive following the Rangers’ epic seven-game battle with Vancouver in 1994.

Since Colorado defeated New Jersey in 2001, however, six of the 13 Stanley Cup Finals have been seven-gamers — and none have been sweeps. Even Los Angeles’ victory over the Rangers last spring was an ordeal, with three of the five games decided in overtime — after the finalists had endured five seven-game series and one six-gamer in the first three rounds.

So if you think watching your favorite hockey team in the playoffs is more stressful than it used to be, you’re right. As Mike Emrick might say while calling another nail-biter on NBC, this sport is not for the faint of heart.

This is an era of parity in the NHL. Partly because of the salary cap, there is neither a dominant team nor a transcendent scorer.

Goaltenders are bigger. Gone are the days when Bernie Parent and Billy Smith, both 5-foot-10, could lead their teams to multiple championships. Today’s game belongs to tall goalies such as Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop, who at 6-7 is the latest obstacle in the Rangers’ road to the Cup, and Frederik Andersen, the 6-3 Dane who stopped 32 of 33 shots as Anaheim beat Chicago in Game 1 of the Western Conference final.

As if the goaltenders’ height and reach weren’t enough to make scoring a challenge, their pads are bigger than they used to be, too. Rules prevent netminders from ballooning the way Garth Snow did in leading the Flyers to the 1997 Stanley Cup Final, but some observers (including yours truly) believe that goalie equipment needs to slim down to 1970s or ’80s dimensions. There simply isn’t enough net to shoot at when big goalies are wearing big pads.

All game long, forwards scratch and claw to deflect a shot from the point, block the goalie’s vision, lure him out of position, or knock in a rebound. When the shooter faces a goalie who is not screened, it takes a perfectly timed shot taken with uncanny accuracy to score — such as Ondrej Palat’s one-timer for Tampa Bay in Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Rangers.

No wonder that in the last two years, only one player (Sidney Crosby, with 104 last season) has been able to register more than 87 points over a regular-season schedule. Yet while scoring is down, comebacks are commonplace, in both series and individual games.

The Rangers in the last round became the first club in NHL history to rally in consecutive years from 3-games-to-1 down. And of the four comebacks from 0-3 series deficits in league annals, two have come in the last five years — Philadelphia over Boston in 2010, and Los Angeles over San Jose last season.

The Ducks led wire-to-wire today, but in four of their first eight playoff wins this spring, Anaheim trailed after two periods. That’s nothing compared to what Boston did to break Toronto’s heart two years ago, when the Bruins — who trailed 4-1 in Game 7 five-and-a-half minutes into the third period — scored two goals 31 seconds apart with the goalie pulled, then completed the stunning rally in overtime.

Those Bruins ultimately fell victim to another kind of frantic finish — the last-minute goal that breaks a tie. In Game 6 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final, Chicago scored the tying and winning goals just 17 seconds apart, evening the score with the goalie pulled and adding the Cup clincher with 58.3 seconds remaining. Just like that, a 2-1 win to force a Game 7 became a 3-2 loss and a handshake line before a shocked Boston crowd.

During this year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, Tampa Bay scored with 1.1 seconds remaining in regulation to beat Montreal, less than a week after Washington had scored with 1.3 ticks left to stun the Rangers. The score of both of those games was 2-1. In fact, 10 of the Rangers’ last 15 playoff games have ended 2-1, part of a league-record stretch of 15 consecutive one-goal playoff games spanning two years. This is in stark contrast to the Islanders’ stretch of four straight Cups from 1980-83, when they played just three 2-1 games and 16 decided by one goal — over a span of 78 playoff games.

And I haven’t even mentioned what it’s like to watch overtime, when there are no commercial breaks for the first 10 minutes and play continues for such long stretches that you can’t take your eyes off the ice. This isn’t basketball, where the last two minutes of a close game are usually interrupted by fouls and timeouts. When the game is on the line in hockey, coaches let the players play.

So if you have a heart condition, keep your cardiologist close at hand. Every goal is huge because these games are low-scoring, but no outcome is predictable because this is the NHL of the 21st century.

Filed May 17, 2015

Sources:;; Total Stanley Cup: The Official Encyclopedia of the Stanley Cup; 60 Moments That Changed the Game (special edition of The Hockey News).


Amazing numbers favor Rangers in Game 7 vs. Capitals

Any hockey fan — even a disappointed Islander fan like me — can see that the Rangers and Capitals have played one heck of a series and that their playoff rivalry is the hottest the NHL has produced in the last 10 years. This is the fifth time in seven seasons the Blueshirts have faced Washington in the playoffs, and the fourth time the series has required seven games to determine a winner. Amazing.

In fact, this series is loaded with amazing numbers. Start with this: the Caps are on the verge of losing a series they led 3-1 for the fifth time in their star-crossed playoff history. And the Rangers, who won Games 5 through 7 to oust Pittsburgh last season, are on the verge of becoming the first team in NHL playoff history to overcome 3-1 series deficits in consecutive years.

The blown leads and playoff comebacks are naturally reflected in the teams’ records in elimination games. When it has a chance to finish a series, Washington is a miserable 3-10 in its last 13. When facing elimination, the Rangers are a sparkling 13-3 in their last 16. So while the Caps have built a reputation as a team that can’t seal the deal, the Blueshirts have become known as a team tougher to kill than Rasputin.

Those reputations have tarnished or polished the legacies of the series’ biggest stars — “The Great 8” for Washington and the man who wears No. 30 for New York.

Alex Ovechkin and Henrik Lundqvist both broke in as NHL rookies in the fall of 2005. Ovechkin has never played in a conference final; Lundqvist is one victory away from his third conference final in four seasons.

Historical trends say he’ll get it. Lundqvist is 9-0 in elimination games at Madison Square Garden, and the Rangers have never lost a Game 7 there. New York has won a league-record five consecutive Game 7s overall, including two against the Capitals, with Lundqvist allowing just four goals in those five games. Although he has yet to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup, Lundqvist ranks among the greatest postseason goaltenders in history. His career goals-against average in the playoffs (2.18 in 103 games) is better than that of four-time champion Patrick Roy (2.30 in 247 games).

Much was made of Ovechkin’s victory “guarantee” Monday, but the Caps’ captain was only giving his teammates a vote of confidence while placing more of the spotlight on himself. His comment to Lundqvist after scoring in Game 1 — when an on-ice microphone picked up his “All series, baby” — was much more of a taunt. Since his highlight-reel goal in Game 2, however, the NHL’s leading goal scorer during the regular season has not been able to back up his boast.

The Capitals’ main scoring threat recently hasn’t been Ovechkin but Joel Ward, who used to be the other wing on Ovechkin’s line. That was until Game 6 Sunday night, when Washington coach Barry Trotz created a new unit with Ward and Jason Chimera between center Evgeny Kuznetsov. Each of those players scored, accounting for Washington’s three goals in a 4-3 loss. The Caps fell behind by three goals in the third period but dominated thereafter — they had 34 shot attempts in the final 14:56, while the Rangers had none. Lundqvist finished with 42 saves, but made just 10 in the third period as his legion of shot blockers bravely put themselves in the way of the Caps’ barrage.

The end of Game 6 also included a 6-on-4 power play, as the Capitals benefited from the officials’ incorrect call of delay of game. Unable to lure the Rangers’ patient penalty killers out of the shooting lanes, Washington failed to capitalize on the break, wasting valuable time with passes along the perimeter. Their hesitance to shoot and lack of movement inside the Rangers’ zone marked the standstill Caps as a power play that’s struggling with its confidence; they looked more dangerous playing 5-on-5 than they did 6-on-4. Part of the problem is Nicklas Backstrom, the center on Ovechkin’s line, who has made an impact on the ice only during those GEICO commercials that appear on NBC Sports Network telecasts far too frequently.

In Game 5, Braden Holtby was looking impenetrable and the Capitals were 101 seconds away from clinching the series. Since then, Holtby has allowed Chris Kreider’s tying goal, Ryan McDonagh’s goal on the Rangers’ sixth shot of overtime, and four goals on just 28 shots in Game 6. With today’s temperature in New York reaching the high 80s, the Capitals can only hope their cooled-off goaltender heats up again — fast.

Filed May 12, 2015

Sources:, NBC Sports Network