More proof that the regular season – stats, performance, trends, whatever – can mean so little when the playoffs roll around is evident nightly on the face of the frustrated and struggling Jonathan Toews, captain of the Chicago Blackhawks.
Chicago had one of those seasons for the ages – 24 games without a regulation defeat to start the year, a league-high 77 points to win the President's Trophy and home-ice advantage for as long as they play in the postseason – and Toews was a big part of what went right for the Blackhawks this year. He was 13th in the league in scoring, an eye-popping plus-28, received some MVP support and generally helped make Chicago the darlings of the shortened NHL season.
All of it is threatening to go – poof! - up in a puff of smoke in the second round against a pesky, rebuilding-on-the-fly Detroit Red Wings team that is teaching Chicago a thing or two about how the playoffs differ from the regular season.
Though known primarily as a skilled, puck-possession team, Detroit has more than its share of bangers, and some of them – notably, the defence pair of Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson, forward Justin Abdelkader and Toews's personal shadow, Henrik Zetterberg – have been consistently getting under Captain Serious's skin in these playoffs.
Toews had 23 regular-season goals, tied with Patrick Kane for the Blackhawks' team lead, but he has zero in nine playoff games – and his frustration boiled to the surface in what may turn out to be the decisive game in the series, a 2-0 shutout victory for Detroit Thursday night, which gave the Red Wings a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference semi-final.
Toews didn't like the way the Red Wings were working him over physically and he showed it in the second period, where he was flagged for not one, not two, but three consecutive minor penalties.
Toews is normally the epitome of cool, the perfect captain in many ways, but the combination of the Red Wings' checking and his inability to break a lengthy goal-scoring drought finally got to him. On the second infraction, a high-sticking call in which Toews thought Abdelkader was guilty of embellishment, the Red Wings scored the only goal they'd need, on the power play, off Jakub Kindl's stick, with one second to go in the man advantage.
Toews went to the penalty box immediately after for getting his stick up on Ericsson and long-time teammate Brent Seabrook actually went into the penalty box to put his arm around him and settle him down. That sort of composure loss is close to unprecedented and proves again that sometimes, a little regular-season adversity can pay dividends in the playoffs.
Detroit certainly had its share early on.
They were terrible at the start of the year, losing a 6-0 decision in the season opener to the St. Louis Blues, but gradually found their way, integrating young players, and living with Jimmy Howard's inconsistent moments in goal.
Meanwhile, Chicago lost just seven games in regulation in the regular season; at no point did they lose three in a row the way they have against the Wings. Chicago swept the season series against Detroit – meaningless now, with the Blackhawks on the ropes and threatening to become yet another President's Trophy-winning team unable to close the deal in the postseason. It proves once again that in the NHL playoffs, if it's your week, it could be your year. Detroit wasn't great for long stretches of the season, but they got it together in time.
So when Red Wings coach Mike Babcock was asked if he could have imagined this turnaround happening, he was candid: "If you had asked me two months ago, I'd be shocked. A month ago, we started playing better. Once we got through the Anaheim series, you go in thinking you have an opportunity. Our big thing was just to prolong the series and maybe the pressure gets up on them and in the end, you get through it. But we're competing at a high, high level. We don't do things right all the time. But I think we're doing things hard all the time. We're trying hard. There's a lot to be said for effort and compete and battle, and our penalty killing's been outstanding."
It was a game that could have gone either way, but went to Detroit – one of those times when a one-goal game (the second Red Wings' goal came into the empty net) wasn't an exercise in drudgery, but a close, tight, competitive contest. The Blackhawks rattled two shots off the goalpost behind Howard, making it five goalposts hit in the last two games. For Howard, the Red Wings' goalie, who recorded his second career shutout, he has now surrendered just two goals in the past three games to the Blackhawks, who were No.2 behind only the Pittsburgh Penguins in scoring this year.
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville went out of his way not to be critical of Toews's game, and said his captain brings more than just scoring to the table: "He does a lot of things – production, effort, puck possession, how he plays in his own end, how he plays without the puck, how he kills penalties, how he is in the face-off circle. There are a lot of elements to his game that help our team. So we don't measure just his contribution offensively. Right now, tonight, it was across the board."
Only once in the past nine years has the President's Trophy winner gone on to win the Stanley Cup. That was Detroit back in 2007-08.
KINGS OF THE ROAD (NOT)
The defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings played easily their best game of the playoffs in defeating the San Jose Sharks 3-0 in the late game Thursday. It was as tight as the Blackhawks-Red Wings' game – and went to L.A. largely because of the contributions of their big three. Anze Kopitar, their perennial scorer leader, finally broke out a lengthy slump (just one goal in his past 26 games) and it stood up as the winner. Defenceman Drew Doughty was a dominant force on the boards; San Jose won the previous two games because the Sharks spent most of the time in the offensive zone during their wins at home. Doughty, and to a lesser degree, Matt Greene and Slava Voynov, kept the Sharks from getting out of their own end, with aggressive pinches down the wall, making the breakouts far more difficult than in the previous two games.
And at the other end, the reigning Conn Smythe trophy winner, Jonathan Quick, recorded his second shutout of the series and third of the playoffs – and was excellent when the Sharks' last-gasp push came. Quick has now stopped 313 of 330 shots in the playoffs for an eye-popping .948 save percentage (which is ahead of the numbers he produced last year during the Cup run).
For L.A., it was their 13th consecutive win at home, sixth in a row during the playoffs – and the only issue is going to be if that pattern stops Sunday night in San Jose where the Sharks are 4-0 in the playoffs after losing just twice in 24 games during the regular season. The Kings recorded 51 hits in the game (compared to 24 for San Jose) and re-exerted themselves physically. It too was a fun and entertaining game to watch, though the Sharks didn't think much of their overall performance.
"We weren't very good and moving forward, maybe that's a good thing because we have a lot to improve on and need a better effort from a lot of people," said San Jose coach Todd McLellan.
How would you like to be in Tuukka Rask's head for the next few days? You can be sure that everyone will remind the Boston Bruins netminder that he was in goal for one of hockey's most epic collapses – the Bruins losing a 3-0 series lead to the Philadelphia Flyers back in the 2010 playoffs, one of only three times in league history that a team has rallied from a three-game deficit to win. The Bruins were all set to sweep the Rangers out of the playoffs, comfortably ahead 2-0 last night when two gaffes by Rask permitted New York to tie the game.
On the first, Rask stumbled and splat – was lying flat on the ice, when a harmless-looking backhand from Carl Hagelin curled over the goal line. Later, he and Zdeno Chara miscommunicated behind the net, permitting Derek Stepan to swoop in and score a goal. Eventually, the Rangers pulled it out in overtime, on a Chris Kreider deflection of a Rick Nash centering pass, marking the sixth time in the past two years that New York won a game in which it was facing playoff elimination.
New York still has a long way to go to get back on even terms, especially with the series shifting back to Boston, but given the Bruins history a few years back – and how they almost lost a 3-1 lead to the Toronto Maple Leafs – nothing is for sure until they definitely put the Rangers out of their misery … Yes, Rangers' coach John Tortorella invited reporters to "kiss my ass" Thursday, which he did in the midst of a passionate defence of a player, Brad Richards, that he benched for the pivotal game against the Bruins. Richards, who was the playoff MVP of Tortorella's Stanley Cup-winning team in Tampa in 2004, has struggled in these playoffs, and Tortorella has opted to go with Stepan and Derick Brassard as his top-two centres. Richards, he believes, is not cut out to play fourth-line minutes, so rather than use him in a role he wasn't accustomed to, he took him out of the lineup altogether.
Tortorella called Richards "a hell of a player having a hell of a time" but said his priority was to win a single game and he felt the Rangers had a better chance of doing it with other players in the line-up. "I'm not blaming Brad Richards," said Tortorella. "He's a guy I love as a person and as a player." So there.