2016/17 Stanley Cup playoffs down to the final two

We’re down to the final two teams in the 2016/17 NHL playoffs as the Pittsburgh Penguins will be battling it out with the Nashville Predators for Lord Stanley’s Cup. The Penguins are the defending champions while the Predators will be playing in the finals for the first time. Nashville made the playoffs this year as the bottom seeded team with 94 points while the Penguins had 111. History will be made either way. Pittsburgh will become the first franchise to win back-to back cups in the salary-cap era with their fifth championship or Nashville will become the first 16th-seeded team to hoist the trophy. The last team to win two straight Stanley Cups was Detroit in 1997 and 1998.
The Predators enter the series as the NHL’s best defensive team, but they’re without one of their top offensive players in centre Ryan Johansen as well as fellow forward Kevin Fiala. They’re also hoping forwards Mike Fisher and Craig Smith will return from their injuries. Meanwhile, the Penguins will be missing one of their top defenceman as Kris Letang is sidelined, but forward Patrik Hornqvist should be back soon. The teams met each other just twice during the regular season with Nashville winning 5-1 at home in October and the Penguins doubling them 4-2 in Pittsburgh in January. This is the first time they’ve met each other in a playoff series.     
Matt Murray has now taken over from Marc-Andre Fleury in net for the Penguins and has posted a 94.6 save percentage in his four starts. Pekka Rinne has started all 16 games for Nashville with a save percentage of 94.1 so this has the potential to be quite a goaltending duel. This may be the first appearance in the finals for Nashville, but their coach Peter Laviolette has already won a Stanley Cup with Carolina back in 2005/06 and he also led Philadelphia to the finals in 2009/10. He’s just the fourth coach in NHL history to take three different teams to the finals.
Pittsburgh has made it this far by eliminating Columbus in five games in the first round and then beating both Washington and Ottawa in the seventh and deciding games. Nashville swept Chicago in four games in their opening series and then took care of both St. Louis and Anaheim in six contests. The Penguins have the edge on the power play during the postseason as they’re success rate is 23.6 per cent and Nashville’s is just 14.9 per cent. The Predators have the edge in penalty killing though at 88.1 per cent compared to Pittsburgh’s 84.9  per cent.

Pittsburgh has scored 2.89 goals per game in the postseason and allowed 2.21 goals against while Nashville has a league-best 2.89 goals for per game and 1.81 goals against. The final series gets underway on Monday, May 29th with games scheduled for May 31st, June 3rd, 5th, 8th, 11th and 14th. All games are set to face off just after 8pm Eastern Time. The two teams have met 25 times in the past with Pittsburgh holding the edge with a record of 12-10-2-1.   

One-goal games and comebacks rule in 2016/17 NHL playoffs

It’s never hard to tell when NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is in the house during league events as he’s always greeted by a chorus of boos. However, it’s a little hard to figure out why since Bettman has brought parity to the world’s best hockey league and its unpredictability is one of the reasons fans are so addicted to it. You never know who’s going to win from night to night and this year’s playoffs have been a great example of that.
One-goal victories and comeback wins have been a highlight of the current postseason and it appears no lead is safe anymore. Fans saw one of the greatest come-from-behind wins in playoff history during the second round of the Western Conference when the Anaheim Ducks erased a late 3-0 deficit to win 4-3. The Ducks trailed the Edmonton Oilers with just 3:16 remaining in the third period in game five and managed to score three times with goalie John Gibson pulled for an extra attacker.
Rickard Rakell tied the game with just 15 seconds to go and Corey Perry won it for the home team at the 6:57 mark of the second overtime period. It was the second time in this year’s playoffs that Anaheim has erased a tree-goal deficit to win. They also trailed the Flames 4-1 in Calgary in game three of their first round series and won it 5-4 in overtime. Anaheim has fought back five times from multi-goal deficits this postseason and won four of those games.
The Ducks are now tied with four other teams for four multi-goal comeback wins during a postseason while the Philadelphia Flyers hold the record with five, set in the 1986/87 campaign. There have been 14 multi-goal comebacks in the this year’s playoffs which is just one shy of the record of 15 set in 2013/14. Edmonton was also involved in the only other NHL playoff game which saw a team wipe out a three-goal deficit with just four minutes to play in a game.
They found themselves trailing the Dallas Stars 3-0 at home with four minutes to go in the third game of the Western Conference quarterfinals on April 20th, 1997. The Oilers banged in two goals in 12 seconds and three in 1:56 to tie the game with 2:04 on the clock. They then won it at 9:15 of overtime. There has been 31 comeback wins in the 2016/17 playoffs in which a team has won after trailing by at least a goal. The record is 45 which was set in 1989/90.
The Nashville Predators have also excelled in comebacks this postseason with five come-from-behind wins.  As for one-goal victories in this year’s playoffs, there has been 48 of them up until May 22nd. The all-time record is 51 in 81 games which was set in 2006/07. There was a single-round record of 18 overtime games this season in the first round of the playoffs with the Washington vs Toronto series going past regulation time in five of their six contests.
Four games went to an extra period on the same night on April 17th. It was the third time in history that four games needed overtime on the same day and the first time it happened since 1984/85. The first time it occurred was in 1979/80. There’s also a chance the record for overtime games in a single playoff season will fall this year as there has been 26 of them so far with the record being 28 which was set in 1992/93. The Conference Finals still aren’t over yet and we then have the Stanley Cup Finals to go.

So whatever it is Bettman is doing to the NHL, fans should appreciate the closeness of the league these days. Yes there has still been a few blowouts in this year’s postseason, but the salary cap has definitely helped with the parity issue. We could also see this year’s 16th-seeded playoff team the Nashville Predators in the Stanley Cup Final.     

Washington Capitals to watch Stanley Cup Final on TV once again

They may not be chokers or losers, but whatever you want to call them, the Washington Capitals disappointed their fans once again during the 2016/17 NHL playoffs. They were eliminated at home in the seventh and final game of their second round playoff series 2-0 by the Pittsburgh Penguins on May 10th. The loss came exactly a year to the day since last year’s playoff letdown, which also came at the hands of the Penguins.   
This is the third time the Capitals have won the President’s Trophy as the NHL’s best regular-season team and have been eliminated from the playoffs before the third round. That in itself shouldn’t come as much of a surprise though since the top regular-season team has only won the Stanley Cup twice since 2004/05. That represents just a 16.7 per cent success rate for the league’s President’s Trophy winners over the past 12 seasons, including this campaign.
At least Washington made it out of the first round this season as four of the past 11 President’s Trophy winners were eliminated in the first round. The Capitals had their hands full in the opening round though as it took them six games, with five of them going into overtime, to eliminate the Eastern Conference’s eighth-seeded Toronto Maple Leafs. A few of Washington’s key players were playing through injuries, including captain Alex Ovechkin Karl Alzner and Marcus Johansson. Fans didn’t really want to hear about the injuries though since all teams have to who play through pain in the postseason.
The fact is Washington has now failed to reach the Conference Finals in their last 12 playoff appearances. Their only conference title came in 1997/98 while Ovechkin joined the club in 2005/06. Some fans are blaming the five-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner for the team’s lack of playoff success and point to the fact that the Russian star has missed the playoffs or been knocked out in the first round in six of his 12 seasons. The team made it as far as the second round in the other six years.
But it’s hard to pin the blame solely on the 31-year-old Ovechkin since the future Hall of Famer has scored 90 points in 97 career playoff games. Yes, injuries may have been a factor this season and there’s no doubt goaltender Braden Holtby struggled with a 90.9 save percentage and 2.47 goals-against average in this postseason. Holtby posted a 94.2 save percentage and a 1.72 goals-against average, but ultimately suffered the same fate.
Some critics of the Capitals will be calling for a complete rebuild which means firing coach Barry Trotz and trading Ovechkin. However, that will partially come down to Ovechkin since he has a modified no-trade clause in his contract. In all probability, the only way fans will see him leave town is if he feels his career needs a boost and he feels a new start somewhere else will benefit him. Ovechkin has the option of listing 10 teams he won’t accept a trade to which means there are 20 clubs the Capitals could work out a deal with.

It’s always possible that Ovechkin may be dealt, but he’s the centerpiece of the franchise and let’s not forget that NHL hockey is first and foremost a business. Since he’s still under contract for another four years and the Capitals posted the best record in the league over the 82-game regular season, it’s a good bet that Ovechkin hangs around for at least one more year.  

Phil Kessel once again proving to be a key playoff performer

Pittsburgh Penguins right-winger Phil Kessel is proving that last season’s excellent playoff performance definitely wasn’t a fluke. Kessel arguably should have won the Conn Smythe Trophy last campaign after leading his team in playoff scoring race with 10 goals and 12 assists in 24 games and guiding the Penguins to the Stanley Cup. He’s at it again this season with five goals and eight assists in his first 10 postseason contests to rank third in league scoring. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise since Kessel has now posted 56 points in his first 56 career playoff outings with 28 goals and 28 assists.
Kessel earned the ridiculous and undeserved reputation of being a coach killer while being the Toronto Maple Leafs best player for six seasons, but Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said nothing could be further from the truth. Sullivan said Kessel is able to lift the level of his game once the playoffs arrive, but also does an excellent gob for the team in the regular campaign. Kessel scored 26 goals and 59 points for Pittsburgh last season in his first year for the club and improved to 23 goals and 70 points in 2016/17. While he may not be scoring at a 30-goal pace in Pittsburgh, Kessel’s an extremely underrated passer and playmaker and was tied for 10thin the league in assists this season.   
There are currently just two active players who have scored points at a better pace in the playoffs in their career over a minimum of 40 game. These are Kessel’s Pittsburgh teammates and future Hall of Famers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. And when it comes to goals per game in the playoffs, the 29-year-old Kessel ranks second in active players behind forward Vladimir Tarasenko of the St. Louis Blues. But unlike Crosby and Malkin, Kessel produces more points-per game in the playoffs than he does during regular seasons while those two players see their totals drop slightly.
Kessel’s no slouch in regular-season play though as he’s scored 296 goals along with 649 points in 832 games. He averages .78 points per game and .36 goals per game, but raises that number to one point and .50 goals per outing in the playoffs. Kessel has always been a clutch postseason performer no matter which team he suited up for. He scored three goals and for points in four games for Boston against Montreal back in 2007/08 in his playoff debut ad then added six goals and 11 points in 11 games for the Bruins the following year.

Kessel even managed to produce for a weak Leafs team in his one playoff venture with Toronto by scoring four goals and six points in seven games against Boston in 2012/13. The Penguins have already reaped the rewards by acquiring Kessel from Toronto. They have a Stanley Cup championship under their belt with the skilled right-winger in the lineup and coach Sullivan said he’s no longer surprised at Kessel’s outstanding play. Pittsburgh currently have their hands full with the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference semifinals, but there’s a good chance Kessel could win his second straight Stanley Cup this season to forever silence his critics.    

New Jersey Devils win 2017 NHL Draft Lottery

This year’s NHL draft lottery in Toronto came and went on April 29th without much fanfare due to the fact there’s no clear number-one prospect this summer. The last two drafts have featured stars Connor McDavid and Auston Mathews as the top picks respectively with an excellent supporting cast including Jack Eichel, Mitch Marner, and Zach Werenski in 2015 and Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujärvi and Matthew Tkachuk in 2016. This year’s top pick two picks could be centres Nolan Patrick of the Brandon Wheat Kings and Nico Hischier of the Halifax Mooseheads who are ranked one and two by NHL Central Scouting.
Teams will have to do their homework prior to the seven-round June 23/24 draft in Chicago though since there are no sure-fire franchise players available. There will certainly be some skilled youngsters up for grabs with solid NHL potential, but most experts view this as an average draft, much like 2012 when forward Nail Yakupov went first overall to the Edmonton Oilers. Winnipeg native Patrick is considered to be a good two-way forward, but missed much of the season due to an injury. He still managed 20 goals and 46 points in 33 games though.
Hischier of Switzerland is more offensive-minded than Patrick and finished the season with 38 goals and 86 points in just 57 games to finish 10th in scoring in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He was also named the league’s rookie of the year. Other top-10 ranked players include high-school player Casey Mittelstadt of Minnesota as well as forwards Klim Kostin of Russia and Elias Pettersson of Sweden. As for the lottery itself, the big winners were the New Jersey Devils as they entered the proceedings with the fifth-best odds of 8.5 per cent and will now draft first overall next month.
The Philadelphia Flyers and Dallas Stars also lucked out as the Flyers jumped from 13th to second in the draft and the Stars hopped from eighth to third spot. The Flyers’ upward move of 11 draft spots was the highest jump since the lottery was first introduced back in 1995. On the other side of the coin, the new expansion franchise the Vegas Golden Knights fell from third to sixth and the Arizona Coyotes, who had the same odds as Vegas, fell to seventh. In addition, this season’s worst team, the Colorado Avalanche, fell to fourth spot after entering the lottery with the best odds of 17.9 per cent.
The Avalanche became the 11thlast-place team with the best odds of winning the lottery to miss out on the number-one pick. It’s also the second time New Jersey has hit the jackpot as they won the 2011 lottery with just a 3.6 per cent chance to do so. The Devils didn’t draft first though since they entered the proceedings with the eighth pick and the rules at the time allowed a team to move up only four spots. New Jersey could use the help as they’ve missed the playoffs for the past five seasons.

The lottery settled the order of the top 15 draft picks, which go to the 15 teams that failed to make the playoffs. The remaining 16 draft positions depend on the results of the current postseason. The top 15 picks are as follows: 1-New Jersey, 2-Philadelphia, 3-Dallas, 4-Colorado, 5-Vancouver, 6-Las Vegas, 7-Arizona, 8-Buffalo, 9-Detroit, 10-Florida, 11-Los Angeles, 12-Carolina, 13-Winnipeg, 14-Tampa Bay and 15-the New York Islanders.