The most remarkable part about Erik Karlsson's unexpected return from a lacerated Achilles tendon Thursday night is how Ottawa Senators coach Paul MacLean almost predicted exactly how it might unfold.
Babe Ruth, move over.
On the morning of the game against the Washington Capitals, MacLean suggested he had a plan and it called for Karlsson to see 35 minutes of playing time and ultimately be named the game's first star. Hah. It produced laughs all around. But as Senators fans know by now, the message was delivered in MacLean's usual deadpan way – where there is a grain of truth mixed in with something uttered mostly tongue-in-cheek.
That is MacLean's personal style and one of the many reasons he is the odds-on favorite to win the NHL's coach-of-the-year award in 2013, the best of a number of worthy Jack Adams candidates.
MacLean is part strategist, part motivator and part stand-up comic, which seem to be the three primary criteria for a successful NHL coaching these days. You need players adhering to a system – which can change, depending upon how many times you lose a key piece of your organizational puzzle.
The easiest way to get the full buy-in is to keep things as light as possible. Hockey is still, after all, a game. Hockey is still supposed to fun. In the playoffs, pressure so often derails a team faced with high expectations – and, generally, the most accomplished coaches find ways to take the pressure off their players. Some do it in the manner of John Tortorella, the New York Rangers coach – by being so outrageous that he becomes the focal point. Of course, Tortorella also believes in calling his players out and that eventually wears on the psyche of the group. How much of New York's troubles this season could be blamed on the possibility that the Rangers were finally tuning him out? The playoffs will likely provide the answers, although a couple of half-hearted efforts this week against opponents from the Southleast Division, with a playoff berth on the line, make you wonder.
Meantime, back in Ottawa, you could just tell how much trust Karlsson had in MacLean and his methods and his bench coaching abilities. Speaking of MacLean, Karlsson noted how, "coach has a good understanding of the game and he's going to realize what needs to be done. I know that he's going to take good care of me and the rest of the team and if it ends up that I'm playing 10 minutes, then I'll do that as long as it's a good 10 minutes."
What an endorsement - and it likely provides a clue as to why the Senators, against long odds, managed to stay competitive through all the challenges of their injury-filled season.
Think back to last year, when the Senators qualified for the postseason, in a year when some thought they might fall to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.
Their three leading scorers were Jason Spezza (84 points), Karlsson (78 points), and Milan Michalek (60 points, including a team-leading 35 goals). That's 222 scoring points from three years on a team that was reasonably good offensively and managed 249 goals, the same as the President's Trophy winners, the Vancouver Canucks. From there, however, the production dropped way off – and their No. 5 scorer last year, Nick Foligno (47 points) ended up getting traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Spezza, Karlsson and Michalek collectively missed only eight games last year. This year, in just a 48-game sprint, Michalek missed 25, Karlsson 31 and Spezza is at 41 and counting, recovering from back surgery that hasn't come around as quickly as he, and the Senators, had hoped.
But with defenceman Jared Cowen unexpectedly playing again and Karlsson having such an impact in his first game back – two points, a game high 27 minutes of ice time, and yes, according to the game sheet, a first star selection – the Senators could be a handful for any team they'll run into in the opening round. Last year, Ottawa gave the first-place Rangers all they could handle in the first round – up 3-2 in the series, before losing a couple of nail-biters, 3-2 and 2-1. They swept the season series from the Capitals, and even if Washington appeared to be going through the motions a little in Thursday night's loss, after clinching a playoff spot two nights earlier – they have to be wary of the threat the Senators pose.
And that will be especially true if Karlsson's seamless reintegration into the Senators lineup continues.
THE PLAYOFF RACE (1): There are two playoff spots remaining to be decided in the Western Conference and three teams in contention – the Detroit Red Wings, the Minnesota Wild and the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have 53 points in 47 games, after managing just 65 in 82 games last year, by far the poorest record in the NHL (Edmonton was next at 74 points). Unhappily for the Blue Jackets, they are no longer in control of their own playoff destiny. Minnesota has two games remaining and the same number of points as Columbus, but the Wild have the edge in the tie-breaker (regulation and overtime wins, 21 compared to 18), which means one victory of any kind puts the Minnesotans in.
Detroit is up a point on Columbus and has the tie-breaker in its favour, meaning the Blue Jackets need Detroit to lose in regulation in their final game against the Dallas Stars, which would allow Columbus to slip past them in the standings with a victory. Seems improbable, except for the fact that two years ago, a similar sort of scenario unfolded, Chicago getting the final playoff spot, because the team chasing them – Dallas – unexpectedly lost on the final Sunday to a Minnesota team that had already been eliminated from the playoffs. Given a second chance, the eighth-seeded Blackhawks pushed No. 1 Vancouver to seven games and only lost in overtime of the deciding game. What is it they say? Stranger things have happened.
THE PLAYOFF RACE (2): Jockeying for position in the middle of the Western Conference standings will go right down to the wire, with the surging St. Louis Blues in control. If the Blues win their final game, they'll get the fourth seed and home-ice advantage. The Los Angeles Kings could finish anywhere between fourth and sixth, while the San Jose Sharks could finish anywhere between fourth and seventh, depending upon what Minnesota does. If the Kings fall to sixth, they'll meet the Canucks again in a rematch of last year's opening round.
THE PLAYOFF INJURY WATCH: Getting accurate injury information is problematic at the best of times, and virtually impossible as the playoffs approach. But it looks as if the Pittsburgh Penguins might have all of their injured personnel – Sidney Crosby (broken jaw), James Neal (concussion) and Paul Martin (broken hand) – back for the start of the playoffs. The challenge, for coach Dan Bylsma, is to get them all up to speed as quickly as possible, but avoid the sort of first-round stumble that has characterized each of the team's past two seasons. The Penguins are built to go deep into the playoffs, deeper than any team in the league thanks to the additions of Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Jussi Jokinen and Douglas Murray – but depth doesn't get you out of the first round, where upsets so frequently occur. Bylsma was trying some different things at practice Friday, Neal and Chris Kunitz back with Malkin, Iginla with Pascal Dupuis and Jokinen, which would allow them to slip Crosby into that spot eventually, if they chose to do so. It looks as if the third line will feature Brandon Sutter, with Morrow and Matt Cooke. If Crosby returns, then Jokinen drops to the fourth line, with Tyler Kennedy and a wealth of other options: Craig Adams, Tanner Glass, Dustin Jeffrey, Beau Bennett … The St. Louis Blues expect to have spark plug winger T.J. Oshie ready to go for playoffs as well. He's been out week-to-week recovering from ankle surgery … Chicago too is likely to be up to full strength, with just the perennially injured Dave Bolland recovering from a groin strain, and goalie Ray Emery bothered by a lower-body injury.
AND FURTHERMORE: As for Marc Staal, he did get a chance to play in Thursday night's Staal-a-thon in Carolina (where his three brothers, Eric, Jordan and Jared all started the game on a single line – nice touch by coach Kirk Muller there.). Marc, the Rangers defenceman recovering from an eye injury, is expected to be ready when the playoffs begin. The Rangers looked anything but playoff-ready against Carolina – a lucky tying goal forced the overtime that allowed them to win and get in – but many believe they can crank it up in the postseason, which might help people forget how average they've been this time around. With three teams, the Rangers, the Islanders and the Senators all tied with 54 points (Ottawa has a game in hand), playoff seedings in the East will likely not be settled until Sunday's finale between Boston and the Senators, a game that was rescheduled as a result of the Boston Marathon bombings. A few weeks, it was ventured here that the first round could feature three Original Six match-ups. With 48 hours to go, it's still within the realm of the possible. Wouldn't a Chicago-Detroit series be fun to watch? Detroit is on a bit of a surge now and a big reason is the Mule, Johan Franzen, is heating up, with seven goals in his last seven games. In the two years Detroit went to the Stanley Cup final against the Penguins, Franzen was on fire – scoring 25 goals in 39 games.
AND FINALLY: The NHL's draft lottery will take place Monday night, with one minor tweak. Unlike past years, where a team that won the lottery could only move up a maximum of five places in the draft order, this year, each of the 14 non-playoff teams have a chance to go to No. 1. The Florida Panthers, at 34 points, and the Colorado Avalanche, at 37, have locked up the bottom two rungs of the NHL standings – and since they can only fall a single place in the draft lottery, are both guaranteed to draft in the top 3. It's closer after that, with two points separating five teams: Tampa (40), Edmonton and Nashville (41) and Calgary and Carolina (42). As of Friday morning, Carolina and Calgary have identical records (14-24-4). The tie breaker at the bottom of the standings is the same as at the top – regulation and overtime wins, which gives Calgary the edge if they remain tied with the Hurricanes after 48 games, but not in a good way.
The extra ROW, which would help the Flames at the top of the standings, hurts them at the bottom – and if nothing changes during the weekend, would see Calgary draft seventh, pending the lottery outcome. Edmonton has had the last three first overall picks – before that, it was the Islanders (John Tavares), Tampa (Steven Stamkos), Chicago (Patrick Kane), St. Louis (Erik Johnson, and Pittsburgh (Sidney Crosby). Among the bottom seven, Florida last had a No. 1 with Ed Jovanovski (1994), and Colorado technically had one back in 1991, when the franchise was based in Quebec, and the Nordiques selected Eric Lindros. Neither Nashville nor Calgary/Atlanta have ever drafted first overall. Nashville came closest with David Legwand (No. 2 in 1998 behind Vincent Lecavalier), while the Atlanta Flames got Tom Lysiak No. 2 back in 1973, behind Denis Potvin. Since the team moved to Calgary in 1980, the highest the Flames have drafted was sixth overall in back-to-back years, 1997 and 1998, disastrously selecting Daniel Tkaczuk and Rico Fata respectively.