As the Stanley Cup Final takes a break for a few days, the Los Angeles Kings lead 3-1 over the New Jersey Devils as the series goes back to NJ. Our hockey correspondents Stephen Mapes and Jay Kumar discuss the last week of action as well as some other recent developments in the NHL.
Jay: So when we left off last week, the Kings had beaten the Devils in overtime in game 1 of the Stanley Cup final. It looked like it would be a tight and long series. Looks can be deceiving. The Kings took the next two games, 2-1 in OT in game 2 and then 4-0 in game 3 and looked ready to sweep last night. But the Devils showed some life and won it with a few clutch late goals to send the series back to NJ. Were you surprised that they were able to take a game?
Stephen: You know I really wasn’t once I saw how NJ came out early. The Kings have had a hard time putting away game 4s, and thinking back on the first two games, after maybe being a bit too high on the Kings’ 4-0 win in Game 3, the Devils are really a few bad bounces or missed shots away from being tied in this series or even ahead. It’s been far closer than the current series split shows.
Quick has still been amazing, but you knew he had to let up at some point under the Devils pressure. And the flailing Kings PP let them down yet again. I don’t think the Kings are in trouble yet, but I think I wrote off NJ a little early.
Jay: I think everybody wrote off the Devils early, except maybe the Devils. Game 2 was super tight; I was actually in New Jersey watching the game at a party and they had plenty of chances to win that game. Ilya Kovalchuk sent a shot off the crossbar that could have ended it. In game 3, the Devils had a 5-on-3 that they couldn’t cash in on and the Kings eventually wore them down. But last night, they played tough and desperate. Their best players scored–Kovalchuk (into an empty net, but still), Henrique and Elias–and Brodeur came up with some big saves late in the game. So…do they win another game to send it back to LA?
Stephen: I think it’s possible if they can carry that momentum forward and the team continues to play desperate. But that said, they’d be the first team this post-season to beat the Kings on the road. They just seem unbeatable away from LA. Like they feed off being the underdog.
Jay: Yeah, it’s been unreal. The Kings are 10-0 on the road and going into last night’s game, they were 15-2 and had a chance to tie the 1988 Oilers for the best playoff record in the modern era at 16-2. Not bad for a team that barely squeaked into the playoffs. Although for those who say this just shows that anybody can beat anybody, the Kings are no ordinary #8 seed. They definitely had the talent, it was just a matter of it all coming together at the exact right time. I hope the Devils win tomorrow so the series can be extended, but I wouldn’t bet money on it.
Stephen: Neither would I. And before it sounds too much like I am saying “The Devils are beating themselves” in reference to the missed shots and bounces, a lot of that credit has to go to Sutter’s defensive play calling, which is forcing the Devils into those weird angle shots and not giving them many clean looks at the net. Which makes the one or two whiffs when those looks come all the more heartbreaking. Honestly, other than the PP, there isn’t a lot you can criticize this Kings squad for.
Jay: And when the Kings have made mistakes, Quick’s been there to bail them out. It took a perfect shot by Henrique to beat him last night. So we’ll see what happens Saturday night in Newark. But there has been other news in the hockey world in the last week as well. First off, Nicklas Lidstrom retired after a 20-year career that established him as one of the greatest defensemen ever to play the game. He wasn’t as flashy as guys like Bobby Orr or Ray Bourque, but in the end, he won seven Norris trophies as best d-man and racked up a ton of points while anchoring probably the best team in hockey over the last two decades.
Stephen: I heard someone jokingly call him the longest running video game character in history. Because he’s been playable in every iteration of the NHL games since the Genesis. He really was a legend, and a staple of that dominant Red Wings team of the past two decades.
And like you said, while he wasn’t flashy, he knew positioning, he knew how to read a play, and he knew how to skate. I’d take that over a bruiser any day.
Jay: Just consistent excellence from beginning to end. And really, even if you hate the Red Wings, how can you hate a player that good? Class act. Now for a player who has undergone an amazing transformation over the last year. A year ago, Tim Thomas was beloved in Boston, a blue collar guy who spent years in the minors and Europe before breaking into the NHL at age 32 and becoming a number one goalie. He led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup and won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP and could do no wrong. And although he and the Bruins had that Cup hangover for the first month of the season, by January they had righted the ship and were kicking butt again. Then came the White House visit that Thomas skipped because of his political opposition to Obama and it just seemed to be a distraction for the rest of the year. Even though he played well right through to the end, the B’s lost to Washington in the first round and just didn’t have the same focus as last year’s team. And now he comes out and says he’s sitting out next season to spend more time with his family. Smart move for a 38-year-old goalie? My feeling is at his age, why waste what little time he has left as a dominant goalie? Makes no sense to me.
Stephen: Yeah. I have heard some arguments that because of his age, the Bs would have been on the hook for his salary even if he retired. But to me, it just seems like a slight to the entire team. He’s eating the $5 million salary cap, taking up a slot on the roster, but not providing anything in return. It just comes across as selfish. And before you jump on me for saying he deserves his priorities, I totally agree. But also agree that if your heart is not in the game, you owe it to the team to step down. I have never heard of sabbaticals in hockey. It’s not been a good PR year for Thomas.
And you’re right. When he comes back, he’s 39, and if the B’s are smart, he’ll be replaced. You can’t plan the future on him anymore.
Jay: Yeah, nobody’s said as much, but I’ve gotta think his teammates just want him to shut the hell up. He’s certainly entitled to believe whatever he wants, but to make these pronouncements on Facebook and then refuse to address them when reporters ask him about it is just bush league. Plus it’s just stuff that takes away from the focus on the actual game they play. Supposedly he’s already moved his family from Massachusetts to Colorado. The Bruins are on the hook for his salary and they’re hamstrung when it comes to trading him; if they want to deal him somewhere he doesn’t want to go, he could just retire and screw them over. Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli must be uber-pissed right now. At least they’ve got Tuukka Rask to step in. Let’s not forget that Rask was the number one goalie in ’09-’10 when Thomas was coming off hip surgery and played every game in the playoffs. Interesting to see how the Bruins deal with this situation. So another goalie move was made this week, by your favorite team, the Pittsburgh Penguins. They traded for goalie Tomas Vokoun, who played last season for Washington. What’s your take on this trade and what it means for Penguins starter Marc-Andre Fleury?
Stephen: I think it’s nothing but a positive. Fleury was one of the most overworked goalies this year and it showed come playoff time. He started, I think, 67 games, and had to come in to bail out back up Brent Johnson on more than one occasion. The Pens are never going to get back to the Cup working a goalie that hard; they need a reliable back-up. Ideally Vokoun, a solid if underwhelming vet, can take over 30 or so starts this season, giving the team a fresh starter for the playoffs.
I definitely don’t think it’s a vote of no confidence by Shero even after his poor showing vs. Philly. The club is behind him.
Jay: Yeah, Fleury’s an elite goalie. He didn’t exactly get a lot of help from his team in that series, but he didn’t play well, either. Fatigue was likely a factor. Smart move by Shero to get a quality backup. Do you see the Pens doing anything when free agency starts on July 1?
Stephen: I think they need to do some serious overhaul of their defense. The crew was in shambles during the playoffs this year, and guys like Paul Martin were consistently out of position and letting up huge plays the other way. I don’t know who they get, but we need to shore up the blue line before the new season.
And I’ll flip the question your way now: what would you like to see the Leafs do in the off-season this year in preparation for a better season in 2012-13?
Jay: The Leafs are definitely looking for a veteran goalie to split duties with number 1 guy James Reimer, who struggled this season after dealing with a concussion. They definitely need a top-line center to play with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. There’s plenty of speculation that they may try to trade up in the draft (they already have the #5 pick) to get a stud prospect. All I know is if they don’t make the playoffs for the NINTH straight year, Brian Burke will be chased out of town with torches and pitchforks.
Stephen: Yeah, there’s got to be some discontent settling in. The goalie issue is a big one, but if I’m not mistaken, a lot of the pieces for the bit of success the Leafs saw early are still around (namely Kessel). I think if they can resolve it, either by draft or by trading or acquisitions, they’ll be on the right track.
And by discontent I mean barely contained rage.
Jay: Yeah, I’m amazed I don’t break more stuff around the house when I watch games. Although my wife will attest that there is much profanity in the air when I watch the Leafs play. Of course, it’s been a few months now…Well, I guess we’ll see if the Devils can keep this thing going. It’ll all be over by next Wednesday night, since that’s when game 7 is scheduled. I still think the Kings win it, in 5 or at the very most 6.
Stephen: I agree. Though the hockey fan in me would love some game 7 action.
Jay: That would be awesome and unexpected.