While this year’s NBA Finals is a clash of titans, the third installment in an immensely successful summer blockbuster franchise, the 2017 Stanley Cup Final is set up like Rocky. Coming out of the Eastern Conference is the Pittsburgh Penguins, the defending champions captained by the NHL’s biggest star. Coming out of the Western Conference is the Nashville Predators, the second wild card team (A.K.A. the #8 seed in a playoff format the gives me such a headache I find myself looking for my glasses only to find out I’m already wearing them while staring at the standings on NHL.com trying to make sense of it during the season) and a late-90s expansion team that had never been past the second round of the playoffs prior to this spring. While I will be surely be pulling for the Preds in this series, regardless of outcome, these teams bring out the best hockey has to offer.
The Penguins are hockey royalty at this point. Sure, there were some lean years in the time after the departures of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr and before the arrivals of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but they are going for their fifth Stanley Cup win and are in their seventh trip to the Final in a 26 year span. With a win in the upcoming series, the Crosby/Malkin Era Penguins will have more Cups than their Lemieux/Jagr Era predecessors, and young goaltender Matt Murray will be well on his way to becoming this generation’s Ken Dryden.
While the Penguins are the well-established franchise looking to become the first to win back-to-back Stanley Cups since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings, the Predators have spent the last 20 years trying to prove they belong in this league. David Poile built this Nashville franchise patiently and methodically, and to borrow a take from Greg Wyshynski, embraced the role of being “Nashville’s Team” and not just a team in Nashville. That patience and that commitment to representing the community in a non-traditional hockey market such has Nashville has endeared the Preds to their fans and transformed Nashville into a sneaky-great hockey city. After this playoff run, Nashville is sneaky no more.
For years hockey fans and media members, primarily in Canadian and Original Six markets have bemoaned NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s strategy in the 1990s of moving teams from the north to the south, and popping up expansion franchises in mostly non-traditional hockey markets. The Quebec Nordiques were moved to Denver and became the Colorado Avalanche, and won the Stanley Cup in their first season in their new city. The Minnesota North Stars became the Dallas Stars, and won the Stanley Cup a few years later. The Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes within their first decade in Raleigh. The Florida Panthers and San Jose Sharks made appearances in the Stanley Cup Final, and the Anaheim Ducks and Tampa Bay Lightning won the Cup. While they have not had much playoff success to speak of, the Arizona Coyotes can justify their existence because last year’s #1 overall draft pick, Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, is a Scottsdale, Arizona native, and got into the sport from going to Yotes games. In each of these victories, both actual and moral, I can see Bettman wanting to scream “I told you so!” to all that thought putting hockey in the south was a terrible idea. Before this playoffs, Nashville was a great hockey city with great hockey fans, but now the rest of the hockey world is finally starting to notice.
The Predators’ incredible playoff run began in earnest by shocking hockey fans across North America when they swept the formidable Chicago Blackhawks and inspired my favorite Reddit post of all time from a dismayed Hawks fan, but it really began with a franchise-altering trade last summer. The Preds sent All-Star defenseman and team captain Shea Weber to the Montreal Canadiens for a younger All-Star defenseman in P.K. Subban. It was a phenomenal trade for Nashville. Weber is a very good player, but Subban is better, younger, and on a better contract. The trade could have been justified for Montreal if replacing Subban with Weber led to greater success in the short term, but one year later, the Habs were eliminated in the first round by the New York Rangers, and the Preds are already deeper in the playoffs than they have ever been.
Subban is one of the most exciting and charismatic players in the NHL, and as a Boston Bruins fan, I was thrilled to have him off the Canadiens. He is so likable. Even when he was in Montreal, I had such a hard time hating him the more I learned about him. Adding P.K. to a Predators team that was already trending in the right direction made them one of the NHL’s most intriguing teams this season. Even through their struggles, I thought they were better than their seeding, and I was not totally shocked by the way they disposed of Chicago.
On one hand, Nashville is not Rocky Balboa to Pittsburgh’s Apollo Creed because they have more than a puncher’s chance once the puck drops on the series tonight. They are a deep defensive team even beyond Subban, and they are getting great goaltending from Pekka Rinne, who seems to have turned the clocks back a couple years during this playoff run. While the Preds have suffered their share of injuries, most notably Ryan Johansen and team captain Mike Fisher (A.K.A. Mr. Carrie Underwood), the Pens have been without their best defenseman, Kris Letang, for the duration of the tournament. The injury induced mismatches could make for a very interesting series with Pittsburgh’s great forwards going against Nashville’s great defensemen.
On the other hand, Nashville is Rocky Balboa because Rocky did not need to win the first fight with Creed to build a seven movie franchise out of it. Rocky didn’t win the first time. All he had to do was go the distance to make a name for himself. The Preds are a young team, and their window to compete is wide open. They have already exceeded the expectations anyone had for them two months ago. While the Stanley Cup is about actual victories and not moral ones, the Preds have already won on some level. If nothing else, they have proven that they belong in the Stanley Cup Final, and their fans belong in the NHL.
They have a great goalie in Braden Holtby. They have a great coach in Barry Trotz (Trotz Trotz Trotz! As Tony Kornheiser is fond of saying). They have one of the greatest goal scorers in the history of hockey in Alex Ovechkin. The Washington Capitals are the class of the NHL’s Eastern Conference and should be the the favorite to reach the Stanley Cup Final, if not win it, yet in the Ovechkin Era, they have never gotten out of the second round. It’s at the point where you have to ask about the Caps: if they can’t do it this year, will they ever?
This has been the history of the Washington Capitals for some 40 years. They are often good, occasionally great in the regular season, but that greatness almost never translates for more than a round in the playoffs, with the exception of the 1997-98 season when they made the Final, but lost to the defending champion Detroit Red Wings. They are the “choking dogs,” as Kornheiser likes to call them, of the NHL. Some of it is bad luck, some of it in recent years has been running into Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington’s personal kryptonite.
Jokes are often made that the San Jose Sharks are the Capitals of the Western Conference, or that the Caps are the Sharks of the East, but even San Jose broke through and made the Final last season. If the last 12 months have taught us nothing else, we have certainly learned that the unexpected can and will happen, and sports curses are made to be broken. The Sharks broke through the same year as the Cubs, and the Caps could be next.
That is why they are one of the biggest winners of the NHL trade deadline, acquiring defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk from the St. Louis Blues without having to give up anyone from their NHL roster. Shattenkirk not only bolsters their strength at the blue line, he is perhaps better prepared for what the Washington Capitals need than anyone on the trade market. Shattenkirk made a name for himself as a power-play quarterback in St. Louis, being the guy to set up Russian-born sniper Vladimir Tarasenko, so it should be an easy transition dishing the puck to Russian-born sniper Alex Ovechkin in D.C.
Best of all for the Capitals, Kevin Shattenkirk is the opposite of a choking dog: he is a prevailing Terrier. Shattenkirk was a member of the Boston University Terriers team that won the NCAA National Championship in 2009, and he assisted Colby Cohen on the overtime game-winner in the National Championship Game against Miami University. That game, it should be noted, was played at Verizon Center in Washington D.C., so Shattenkirk may have experienced better postseason success at Verizon Center, albeit in college, than anyone on the Capitals’ roster.
Nothing is guaranteed in hockey. Nothing is guaranteed in any sport, but that is especially true in hockey because it is on ice, and everything that happens is based on another mistake. That being said, on paper, the Caps should be the best team at the end, and that was true before adding Shattenkirk. Bur history also tells us the team that should win and the team that does win are often not the same. This trade helps their chances of a better outcome, though. We will see how it plays out.
It finally happened, and in the most predictably Boston Bruins way possible. The Bruins fired head coach Claude Julien this Tuesday, in his tenth year in Boston, during the Patriots’ Super Bowl championship parade. Of course they were going to try and bury the fact that they were firing the coach who led them to their only Stanley Cup championship in the last 40 years on a day when the region was celebrating the greatest comeback in NFL history and a fifth Super Bowl victory that cemented Bill Belichick and Tom Brady as the greatest coach and quarterback in history. Besides illustrating the Bruins’ antiquated public relations strategy that has not at all adapted for the age of social media, it also shows that from a hockey operations standpoint, that they still have no idea what they are doing. Sad.
The thing is, I was not against firing Claude Julien. I thought it was going to happen a year and a half ago when they fired Peter Chiarelli. Claude is a very good coach, but coaching turnover in hockey is higher that the other sports. For some perspective, last week, the St. Louis Blues fired Ken Hitchcock. Having been the head coach in St. Louis since 2011, Hitch was one of the longer tenured head coaches in the NHL, but Claude had been on the hot seat in Boston for years before Hitch even got to St. Louis. Winning the Stanley Cup in 2011 certainly helped Julien, but it felt like the Bruins might have fired him had they lost Game 7 to Tampa in the Conference Final that season.
Even going deep in the playoffs does not buy you much time in the NHL. Michel Therrien took the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008, and got fired midway through the next season, only for Pittsburgh to get back to the Cup Final in 2009 and win it that time. Last season, when the Penguins again fired their coach midseason and won the Cup, it reminded people that teams typically get their act together a little bit when that kind of urgency is placed upon them, but I was not in favor of firing Claude for the sake of firing Claude. It’s one thing to fire your coach and win the Cup when you have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. That will not be happening with Zdeno Chara turning 40 next month when he turned into a statue on the ice sometime in the last 18 months. Getting rid of Julien turns the page on an era in Bruins history, a successful era that I have eulogized multiple times at this point when I thought he was going to get canned, but it does not change how flawed the roster is, and I am not convinced the people in charge have a plan to fix it.
Team president Cam Neely and general manager Don Sweeney now have one less person to blame besides themselves for the mess the Bruins are in right now. After missing the playoffs in the spring of 2015, Neely pinned the team’s failings on then-GM Peter Chiarelli, and Chiarelli deserved his share of blame for sure, but it never totally made sense why they kept Claude around when they promoted Sweeney to GM, except for the purpose of self preservation on the part of Neely and Sweeney. Why did they not fire Claude in the spring of 2016, when they missed the playoffs for a second straight year in an eerily similar manner? The only reason I can think of as a cynical Bruins fan is that they still did not have a plan, and they decided to put off firing Claude longer to distract from that fact. It’s behavior like that from the team that has bred institutional cynicism from Bruins fans that inspires signs like this alternative fact laden one I saw on Reddit this week from Thursday’s game against the San Jose Sharks:
I am not sure if this sign, starring White House Press Secretary and Melissa McCarthy character Sean Spicer, says more about the state of America or the state of the Boston Bruins, but either way, I do not feel good about where we are or where we might be going.
Regardless of how they go here, the Bruins are now in the Bruce Cassidy Era, and so far are 2-0, including today’s win over the Vancouver Canucks, and would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. Maybe replacing Julien with Cassidy, who was the head coach for the Providence Bruins of the AHL before joining Julien’s NHL staff this season, and previously served as head coach of the pre-Ovechkin Washington Capitals, will provide enough of a spark for the Bruins to get into the playoffs this year, but I do not expect them to do anything once they are there. Changing the coach will not change the fact that Zdeno Chara is a million years old, that Tuukka Rask has played more than he should because the backup goaltending situation is not as good as it traditionally has been (Remember when the Bruins had the tandem of Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask in net for three straight years? That was awesome.), that Patrice Bergeron is not getting any younger, and that Brad Marchand’s goal scoring prime is being wasted on an inferior team that has blown a chance at the playoffs in two straight seasons.
I might not feel as down on the Bruins as I do if the other three teams in Boston were not regarded as “smart teams” in their respective leagues. The Patriots are the smartest team in the NFL, as evidenced by their five Super Bowl wins in an era when that is not supposed to happen, and the Red Sox and Celtics were early to embrace the analytics movements in baseball and basketball. The Bruins? They are trying to win a style of hockey that no longer exists, or they are trying to change with the times, depending on the day and who you ask, but in trying to remain competitive, they are not rebuilding, and I am not convinced they know how even if they are trying to.