Anybody outside of Montreal remember Steve Penney? Or the early Rogie Vachon? Or Ken Dryden? Vachon was such an unknown that the opposing coach, Punch Imlach, scoffed that he had little fear of a “Jr. B” goalie. Dryden was an unknown quantity, a Cornell University grad, promoted to Montreal from the AHL Voyageurs, and helped the Canadiens knock off a 121-point Bruins team, the heavy favorites after finishing 24 points ahead in the standings. Probably 31 out 33 prognosticators picked the Bruins that year too.
The history of the NHL playoffs since 1994, when the current conference format was introduced shows a lot of No. 2s taking out No. 7. I agree with my old friend Bob McKenzie when it comes to making picks – I hate doing it; if I really knew for sure how it was going to turn out, I’d begin by sharing that knowledge with a friendly sports book or two in Las Vegas. But if I’m obliged to do it, I’m not just going to pencil in eight favorites and settle for the predictable 6-2 record that you can almost certainly get if you do that. I always pick a No. 7 over a No. 2. Philadelphia over New Jersey two years ago worked out just fine (and really enhanced my fantasy team that year). In fact, I was tempted to pick two No. 7s over No. 2s this year, because to me, San Jose-St. Louis is pretty much a pick-em series as well.
Also: I see many similarities between this year’s editions of the Sharks and the Capitals. Both were considered legitimate Stanley Cup contenders back in October, because they had rock-solid line-ups specifically tweaked in the summer to enhance their playoff chances, Washington by adding a veteran goalie, San Jose by adding Brent Burns’ offence from the blue line and swapping out Dany Heatley for Martin Havlat. Both were coming off a string of 100-point seasons and theoretically possessed a hunger inspired by last year’s playoff stumbles. Moreover, neither the Sharks nor the Capitals could do anything in the regular season this year that wouldn’t be erased by another playoff pratfall anyway, so the motivation to play hard wasn’t there, and found themselves stuck between “coast” and “cruise” for much of the season.
The fact that things didn’t go all that well between October and April shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise. Nor does it change the fact that the Sharks and Capitals are still two pretty good teams that had off years. The Caps even had a decent excuse – Nicklas Backstrom’s half-season absence because of a concussion, which really permitted teams to concentrate on stopping Ovechkin.
So Backstrom is back, Ovechkin is playing pretty well, and Mike Green is something of a wild card, which means we circle back to goaltending. Holtby had a decent NHL cameo two years ago; was solid in the final week; seems to have the respect of his teammates; is confident in his own abilities, and by the way, probably knows that he wouldn’t be the first unknown goalie to make a splash out of the gate.
Sure the Caps can win, although I would have liked their chances better this morning if they’d found a way to steal Game 1 on the road. But they have enough elements to suggest they can play a hard competitive series against the Bruins, and if they earn a split in Boston, well, we’ll see what happens.
Why bother playing Ted? Maybe just to see if that tired ‘us against the world’ rallying cry really works, even in the world of professional sport.
THE GOALIE WARS: It’s two days into the playoffs and there isn’t a single goaltending crisis anywhere on the NHL landscape. Something’s gotta give, right? Maybe tonight in Vancouver, where the Canucks lost the opener through no fault of Roberto Luongo’s. Instead, they were just flat-out, outplayed by the Los Angeles Kings, which should provide a wake-up call for tonight’s second game.