Well, it’s finally here: the time of year hockey fans long for, when memories are made and legends built. Every series has played one game so far. Here are some first impressions from around the league as the first round of the playoffs are underway.
League Right to Sit Carcillo
The NHL did the right thing by suspending Philadelphia forward Dan Carcillo for one game after his blow to the head of Max Talbot with just seven seconds left in the contest and the Penguins ahead 4-1. Carcillo was not penalized on the play.
Colin Campbell, the league’s “Discipline Czar,” explained the logic behind the decision to suspend the Flyers’ forward for one game. “We held a conference call Monday with the general managers and coaches of playoff teams and told them explicitly we would not tolerate attempts by clubs to ‘send a message’ late in a game when the outcome had been determined,” Campbell said. “Organizations—players and coaches—will be held accountable for such actions.”
The decision is a good one. The league does not need the end of playoff games being marred by unnecessary fights or cheap shots that do nothing to change the outcome of a game. This ruling is consistent with the NHL’s new policy against “staged” fights and blows to the head. It also prevents unnecessary injuries and keeps the end of games from becoming a circus.
It also benefits the league in other ways. Too often after an exciting and well played game, all Sports Center would show would be the fights at the end, not the game changing goals or good hits that dominated the first 59 minutes of action. The NHL is struggling for attention from outlets like ESPN and major newspapers and if all the casual fan sees is brawl or cheap shots at the end of a game, it will hardly help hockey’s image.
One instance I can recall involved the Rangers and Islanders in 1990. The Rangers had wrapped up game 1 at Madison Square Garden and in the final seconds, Isles’ Coach Al Arbour sent out enforcers Mick Vukota and Ken Baumgartner out onto the ice. One of them ended up beating up on Rangers defenseman Jeff Bloemberg, a born-again Christian who had already made it clear he did not believe in fighting. Bloemberg just went into a shell to protect himself from the repeated blows and the entire thing became an ugly spectacle. On the evening news, we saw one brief clip showing a goal and then the entire melee in it’s entirety.
Again, nobody is advocating the elimination of fighting here. Fights goes down dramatically in the playoffs anyway, since nobody can afford to take bad penalties and it makes less sense to have a player on your bench who is only going to play four or five minutes in a game and can’t contribute much in other ways to your team. But staged fights and cheap shots should have no place in the game of hockey, especially in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Bylsma’s Success Boosts Pens
It’s great to see Dan Bylsma doing well as coach of the Penguins. It just seems that he is the right man at the right time to lead the club. When he took over as head man in Pittsburgh, Bylsma said he wanted his team to remember to “play hockey,” not “work hockey.” For whatever reason, the Pens had stopped responding to the tougher persona of Michel Therrien and a change was needed. GM Ray Shero certainly hit the jackpot by selecting Bylsma, who was then the head coach of the Pens’ minor league affiliate.
Bylsma also urged his team to be more aggressive offensively and to use their team speed and skill to create scoring opportunities. This makes sense when you have some of the most talented players in the league on your roster like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. When you’ve got it, use it.
The Penguins are now 19-3-4 under Bylsma. Certainly, he got some help that Therrien never had this season like the return of the injured Sergei Gonchar and the acquisition of players like Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz. Still, Bylsma appears to be a great fit in Pittsburgh and it is clear that this season at least, the Pens would be nowhere near where they are now without the addition of their new coach.
Mike Green Is Not Superman
Caps’ Coach Bruce Boudreau may want to be careful how he utilizes star defenseman Mike Green. Green played more than 30 minutes against the Rangers in game one and usually stayed on the ice for all of the Washington power plays.
The star defenseman was still out on the ice after a Caps’ power play expired and was caught flat-footed on the play that resulted in the game winning goal. When his partner, Jeff Schultz fell down, Green was too tired to make any adjustments and the Rangers had an easy path to the net.
Cutting his ice time to 27 or 28 minutes a game may make a difference. A better idea would be to have Green only play 1:30 or even 1:45 of a 2:00 power play so he isn’t exhausted and forced to hustle back on defense once the man advantage is over.
Sharks Fragile Psyche
Perhaps no team could afford a game 1 loss less than the San Jose Sharks. San Jose has been a prohibitive favorite of experts to reach the Stanley Cup Finals each year since the lockout. Each year, they have exited in the second round of the playoffs, losing a series they had every opportunity to win.
This year, the Sharks brought in a new coach from the Red Wings’ organization in Todd McLellan and new players with Stanley Cup experience like Dan Boyle and Rob Blake. McLellan preached that the team be aggressive and go to the net more. The system worked and the Sharks cruised through the regular season and won the President’s Trophy with the league’s best record.
Last night, the playoffs began and San Jose looked just like the teams that lost in the second round during the past three seasons. Team Teal outshot the Anaheim Ducks 35-17, but nearly all of San Jose’s scoring chances were from the perimeter and the team stopped crashing the net. Ducks’ goalie Jonas Hiller played well and the Ducks minimized the Sharks’ second chances. The result? A 2-0 Anaheim victory.
From a psychological standpoint, the Sharks have to win game 2 and do so in impressive fashion. It’s just one game, but already, you get the feeling there are grumblings in the San Jose locker room about the “same old Sharks.” McLellan has to put a stop to such talk right away and keep his team focused on the task at hand. San Jose still has the ability and depth needed to go deep into the playoffs. Now they have to prove to themselves they can do it.
Hawks Rely on Khabibulin
The Chicago Blackhawks have a talented but young hockey club. Most experts feel they are a year away from being serious contenders in the Western Conference. The Hawks can still surprise a few people this season, however, as long as they continue to get solid goaltending from Nikolai Khabibulin.
Don’t underestimate what “The Bulin Wall” could mean to his team this season. Khabibulin has won a Stanley Cup and the Hawks’ young players will look to him as the playoffs progress. Last night’s big overtime win in game 1 will help the Blackhawks gain confidence. Even just winning a round this season would do a lot for this franchise’s future. While everybody was talking about the importance of Miikka Kiprusoff to the Flames, don’t underestimate the value of Khabibulin to the Blackhawks.