The Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins will square off in a best of seven series for the right to earn those final four wins against a western conference foe.

For the Pittsburgh Penguins, Malkin, and Crosby will try and aid newcomer Neal, and grizzled veterans Iginla, and Morrow in earning there way into the history books. The offence of the Penguins is without a doubt the best left in the playoffs. The Penguins can ice three lines of players who on many teams would be the top threat. Iginla is likely a first ballot hall of fame inductee, and no one is going to name him first as the teams premiere offensive player.

The Boston Bruins are strongest at the other end of the ice. Zdeno Chara a former Norris trophy winner remains the NHL’s measuring stick for shutdown defense, and all others come up lacking. He’s aided by Seidenberg who’s journeyman career took the step up to mastery when he pulled on the spoked B. Behind them are rookie sensations Bartkowski, Krug and Hamilton, and the often overlooked Masterson Nominee Adam McQuaid, and veteran Boychuk of the booming shot and shot blocking. The likely starting defense of Chara, Seidenberg, Boychuk, McQuaid Bartkowski, and Krug is intimidating enough having dismantled the Rangers, behind them are Ference who one a Cup with the Bruins, and Reddem who was with Chara part of that smothering Senator’s defense a few years ago.

The point where both teams are likely to fail is in net. Neither netminder has played this deep in the playoffs. Last season, and the season before neither was a number one goaltender. Rask had a meltdown against the Flyers that will forever live in infamy. Vokouns previous most winning post season campaign had grand and sweeping total of two wins. Neither goalie has proven anything. If you are ranking each teams strengths from greatest to least the Penguins will have scoring, defense and goaltending in that order. The Bruins will list defense, offence and goaltending. Worse for each team is the unreliable nature of their backups. Khudobin has performed admirably as a backup for Rask, but the only reason Vokoun is playing at all is the goalie he normally backs up had a complete meltdown against the New York Islanders. The bottom line: don’t expect many 1-0, 2-1 games.

The San Jose Sharks are once again on the outside looking in. Despite years of solid regular season performances, tons of hope, lots of trades and stars who are paid quite well, they no longer have a chance of lifting Lord Stanley’s Cup, and the finals haven’t even started. The core of this team has spent half a decade proving they can’t win when it counts. Worse, unless ownership and management decide to resort to methods that’d earn disapproval from the UN committee on human rights, it is unlikely to be something that is fixable by moving those players who have failed longest.

Twenty million of the clubs sixty four million in cap space is tied up in just three players. Joe Thornton, former league MVP and team captain sits at the top of the food chain. With a cap hit over seven million, him moving out could open the door for lots of possibilities. The UFA market this year has quite a few guys with their name on the Cup who could give the team star power, depth and winning experience. With one more year on his contract, the soon to be thirty four year old is more valuable to a team like the Nashville Predators or Saint Louis Blues who need an injection of offensive flair, than the San Jose Sharks who need depth and balance.  Unfortunately he has a no movement clause.

Patrick Marleau has the all time lead in pretty much every statistic the San Jose Sharks keep, including games played without winning a Cup and being called gutless on national tv by a former teammate. For another year, he failed to justify it. Fourth in post season scoring, and well under a point per game. He was third in scoring in the regular season and failed to register a point in five of the seven games against the Los Angeles Kings. If there is any man in the western conference in more dire need of relocation than Marleau, I don’t know who he is. With a year left on his contract, Marleau who can play center, or wing successfully, at least in the regular season, might just thrive on a team like The Islanders, Devils, Canadiesn, or Red Wings where he’d be about the six or seventh best known forward. Also soon to be 34, he too has a no movement clause.

It might just be time for rumors to meet reality in the case of Dan Boyle. He’s shown he can contribute under pressure, unfortunately he’s on a team that wilts when spring arrives. He’s he’s played internationally, on good NHL teams and bad, he was part of the last Olympic win. Unfortunately at 37, he’s unlikely to play much more than three or maybe four more seasons if he stays healthy and motivated. Based on what Douglas Murray brought the Sharks this year, he ought to easily fetch a first round pick and two solid prospects.

One, two or perhaps even all three of these players might believe they have unfinished business and want to stick around and win one with the guys they know and have played years with. Unfortunately, that just isn’t true. The Sharks don’t have the depth or the chemistry to win a Stanley Cup. If they want to repay the fan base for ill spent  support the best thing the core of the Sharks can do is waive their no movement clauses and allow themselves to be traded for the best package for the team and fans.

With the long delay between the ends of their respective second round series and when they throw down for the Eastern Conference title, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins have the opportunity to rest a lot, and do some other things the teams haven’t gotten to do much of. With the series likely to start Saturday night, the two teams will have the longest uninterrupted stretch of gameless, travel-free days since the lockout ended.

Rust:

The Penguins have to be worried that Tomas Vokoun who has played some pretty strong hockey since relieving Fleury, might go cold. The 36 year hold has lost just one game since making his Penguins playoff debut. Fans have to be equally worried about James Neal, who had a six game goal scoring layoff before netting five goals in the final two games against the Senators. Given that all of his goal lighting has been done in just six of his last twenty five games, clearly his on or off status will have a big impact on the coming series.

For Boston, concern for Tyler Seguin’s goal scoring prowess has to be near the top of the list. He has exactly one goal in the playoffs, and that ended a fourteen game drought. The former #2 draft pick has just four points in his twelve playoff games. For the young defenseman filling out the Bruins blueline, the question isn’t as much rust, as having time to think and not simply play the way they have. Matt Bartkowski and ToreyKrug came straight from a long regular season in the AHL and were called up in the middle of the Providence Bruins own playoff run, since then they’ve been involved in some breathtaking and dramatic games.

Rest:

For the Bruins, there are more than a couple players who haven’t made it quite to full effectiveness. Dougie Hamilton is the unlikely only Bruins defenseman who has yet to score a goal in the playoffs. Carl Soderberg has not seen a single playoff game after making his long awaited NHL debut, and might be needed down the road. Then there are the injuries to Redden and Ference. Neither the Rangers nor the Leafs have the offensive stars of the Penguins, and the shut down ability of Ference and Redden is something that could be sorely missed.

On the Penguins front, Iginla, Cooke, Morrow, Adams, Dupuis, Murray, Eaton, and Vokoun are significantly on the shady side of thirty. For them the extra rest, especially guys like Iginla, Dupuis and Murray who can play big minutes in close games, rest after a highly compacted season might be the tipping point. In particular, Iginla who’s well know for staying in Calgary long past when they had hope of winning the Cup for family reasons, for Morrow who played years in Dallas before being moved east, both an probably due with a little regenerative time with their family.

For these teams the question isn’t rust or rest, both will occur. The team that wins this series will likely be the one with the best health when the last horn sounds.

The Rangers have been eliminated short of the Cup again. The time to look at why is now, and as is frequently the case in sports the first place that gets looked at, and all too often the last is the coaches office. The case against Tortorella is seemingly damning. Last year he had a Eastern Conference finalist a bounce or two from the Stanley Cup finals.  The Rangers roared through the regular season and played strong hockey until getting beat by a slightly more cohesive team of wily veterans. This year with some significant changes in the forward group, they struggled all of the abbreviated season to even make the playoffs. They got into a slugging match with the Washington Capitals, and were just short of run out of the building in successive games by the Bruins. Not because, aside from game three, the team didn’t show up. Not because of overhyped problems with the powerplay, but because they lacked that winning attitude, you can call it elan, machismo, or swagger and not be wrong.

The Rangers as a whole have too many nice guys and creme puffs to own their own space. They aren’t quite the Speed Bag Sedin twin seen in the finals not so very long ago, but they are close. For all that Hagelin’s willing to play with an edge here and there, its not consistent, and I really doubt he’d make a list of the top 50 most intimidating forwards in the eastern conference. Derek Dorsett is a bad dude, he’s quite capable of ruining someones whole week when the gloves come off. But he’s not playing first or second line minutes. Derick Brassard played his heart out, he was a point per game player on a very defensive minded team. But let’s not kid ourselves, this was his first taste of the NHL playoffs, and while his contribution was heartening, in six NHL seasons he’s never even cracked 60PIMS.

When you look at the biggest names, you begin to see the problems. Rick Nash is not, and has never been a power forward. He’s not Alex Ovechkin in either skill or willingness to hit or be hit to make plays. He’s not got the snarl of David Backes, or even the much smaller Wayne Simmonds. Rick Nash is a big, skilled forward. But he’s exactly as much a power forward as Erik Karlsson is an elite shutdown defenseman. Brad Richards is ordinarily a pretty good player. This year he was awful. Maybe it was the lockout throwing off his training schedule, maybe there were some off ice issues he was dealing with that sapped his energy.  Whatever it was that caused him to deviate from being a nearly point per game post season player, it is unlikely to last.

Clearly the construction issues of this team are paramount, but before pushing a coach out the door you have to ask a couple vital questions:

  1. Is the coach a bigger problem than the construction of the team?
  2. Is the coach the right coach for the team we intend to have after changes?
  3. Is there a better coach available for the we have or want to have than the one we have now?

For the first questions, that’s an unequivocal no. This team lacks the bloodlust to win. That is not a problem with a fairly combative coach, it is one that can be covered up by it in some regards, but no in this case, the coach isn’t a bigger problem, unlike say Alain Vigneault who always had an excuse for his teams failure.

For the second, you have to decided what team you’re building. The Kings are hardly the most combative team in the league, but they will still hit you every chance they get. The Bruins have to play highly combative teams like the Flyers and Leafs and were equipped to win playing that style. The Kings won with an ultra-balanced, ultra-deep team we’re unlikely to see a reprisal of anytime soon. They Kings and Bruins aren’t that dissimilar from the Rangers except in depth. If the direction going forward is to more strongly emulate one of them, then removing a coach doing most of what they do with a far smaller toolbox is probably foolish. If however they choose to go in the opposite direction and play a more smooth skating, high end passing, offensively overloaded style like the Penguins, he might not be the best choice

For the third, there are some similar coaches like Guy Boucher, and arguably Mike Keenan, but are they actually going to be better? After those two you’ve got Lindy Ruff, an then you’re dipping into the AHL and looking at guys like Bruce Cassidy of the Providence Bruins, or Gordie Dwyer of the PEI Rockets of the QMJHL, a guy who has been there and done that. There is a good case for bringing in someone who isn’t an NHL retreat, especially with a team that has a lot of youngsters, but the questions remains; are they better? The answer is maybe.

For me, if I’m the team owner, dropping the coach isn’t going to fix the problem, and if that’s the general manager’s solution, he’s not the man to fix the problem either.

Lots of people have opinions on Torts, including pretty much everyone who has ever read a quote, watched him coach, or possibly stood in line behind him at the coffee spot.

Former Boston Bruin, New York Ranger, and Atalanta Thrasher Marc Savard took the opportunity to speak his mind.

 

While it is unlikely Savard will ever play hockey again, he has been a part of coaching his kids teams.

The New York Rangers have to get better performances out of some of their key players if they are going to even make a series of it much less win. Lots of players haven’t shown up. Lots of players have failed to execute, but there are three players who are crucial to the success of the team who haven’t executed at the level they should.

Step Up:

Will the real Dan Girardi please show up? Game two against the Boston Bruins as possibly the worst game of his playoff career, in game two. Yes he picked up an assist in game two, but that isn’t why Girardi is in the NHL. Dan Girardi, the draft leftover is the best damn shutdown defenseman no one talks about. He needs to revert to his normal excellence or he’s going to be golfing with the rest of the team in less tan a week.

Show Up

Derek Stepan.

He was the leading scorer in on the Rangers in the regular season, and yet in his last five games he’s put up just one point. In that his last three games he’s had faceoff percentages over 50% just once, with the other two being 25.32% and 30%. There isn’t much more to say about Stepan, he proved he can be their best player for almost 50 games in the regular season, and in the last five he’s been invisible.

Stop Sucking.

Henrik Lundqvist has been shaky at best and Marc-Andre Fleury like the rest. Yes some of the goals he’s let in there were screens, but at least four of the eight goals he’s allowed this series have been soft. Even when he’s making saves, he’s bobbling pucks. This isn’t the King Henrik that Rangers fans, and NHL observers are used to seeing. He doesn’t look confident. He may not be healthy in the post season (again), if he isn’t that’s partly his fault, and partly the Torts for playing him too much in the regular season (again). What ever it is right now he needs to help his team find a way to win four of the next five games.

The Bruins and Rangers played a game that was a study in two teams with very similar styles and a lot of respect for the other teams ability. The Rangers limped into the playoffs just ahead of The Islanders and the teams that didn’t make the cut. The Bruins coughed up a hairball and fell out first place. The Bruins are missing their second best defenseman in Seidenberg, and the Rangers are missing Marc “Hit Me In The Head” Staal.

We know the Bruins young lions belong in the NHL, Hamilton, Bartkowski and Krug all filled their roster spots at least adequately.

We know Torts has to be thinking of banishing”Broadway Brad” to the pressbox who played less than 10 minutes through regulation.

We know Marchand is feeling more like himself.

We know Dan Girardi is still the most underrated defenseman in the eastern conference.

We know Tyler Seguin’s shooting and passing ablities are still on sabbatical, not having been seen or heard from in weeks.

We know Rick Nash is very, very confused about what is supposed to happen for “elite” players in the post season.

With nearly 39 dominant minutes played in game one we know Chara probably won’t be retiring anytime soon.

We know it is unlikely we’ll see Lunqvist fight the puck as much the rest of the series as he did in Game 1.

We know Adam Mcquaid’s head still has a powerful and unnatural attraction to the Garden endboards.

We know the officiating was equally awful through the game.

We know the Bruins are not as committed to blocking shots as the Rangers.

We know the Rangers are not as fast as a group as the Bruins.

We know that Patrice Bergeron is the best center on the ice.

We know that Brian Boyle is the only Rangers center to have an even or winning faceoff record against Bergeron in game one.

We know game one might prove to be the highest scoring game of the series.

The NHL playoffs always seem to feature some players who have good even great performances and still lose. This year is no different. Who the unfortunate losers are this year is a bit different. Many are either playing in the post season for the first time, or playing with a new team since the last time they saw the second round.

Vladimir Sobotka was a certified force for the dearly departed St Louis Blues. He tied for the team lead in points, he leads the entire western conference in hits, went 55.8% in the faceoff circle, and despite being on the losing team was a +4.

Travis Hamonic had a job that no NHL defenseman looks forward to without serious concerns about how best to accomplish it; facing down Sidney Crosby. When that NHL defenseman has to take on Sidney Crosby in their very first taste of professional playoff hockey, and their first taste of playoff hockey since the 2009-10 Memorial Cup tournament, they’ve got a big job. Hamonic kept Crosby from scoring a goal in three of the five games he played in and helped leave Crosby a minus player while averaging 25 minutes a night.

P.K. Subban, love him, hate him, you damn sure should respect him. The first time Norris Trophy finalist is one of those players who draws the eye and even those new to hockey notice his play instantly. He played over five minutes of special team time per game, had two each of goals and assists, along the way. No matter how dismally his depleted squad played he didn’t give up.

Cody Franson, smooth skater, great passer and went into game seven against the Bruins ready, willing an able to kickstart a team that was in its first playoff round in a decade. He waltzed onto the ice and scored two goals in that game, and finished the playoffs with six points,. The 6’5  defender was part of a trade of some very forgettable pieces back in 2011, and will likely be the only player in that trade anyone an name in two years.

Emerson Etem, you have to wonder how the series would have ended if Etem and the rest of the young guns were allowed even another two minutes a night. Etem was a +4, had three goals, two assists and did it all in just 12:50 a night.

 

Kevin Bieksa has been around a long time. Eight NHL seasons, a lockout year lost, and six seasons playing in the NHL playoffs. He’s earned some respect. Let’s face it, the NHL officiating being awful in about 60% of games is the one thing you can get fans from all 30 NHL franchises to agree on. Individual calls are a bit harder to nail down, because therein lies the difference between the hometown devil and the foreign evil, but hell even the NHL can’t get that straight. We all know about the “Avery interpretation”. We’ve seen suspensions for clipping calls when the contact was to the hip, and we’ve seen hulking defensemen slam their opponents heads into the glass and get off scottfree.

So when he calls out two players in particular and doesn’t paint the enire locker room with the same brush, it should give you pause. Joe Thornton is big dude. He’s strong, he’s tougher than he’s given credit for, and yet his glove seemed to go down faster than a drink in Patrick Kanes hand as he shook it off to get a referees attention the other night. Logan Couture too is capable of soaking up big hits and playing on. And of all the things the Sedin’s are not, strong and physical lead the list. A stick that scrapes his chin should not to my admittedly limited knowledge of anatomy cause what looks like either a spinal spasm or what looks like the result of shock therapy and a collapse to the ice.

Further, Bieksa plays with some of the guys in the NHL who’s reputations for playing the game the right way are bullet proof. There just isn’t a player in the league who owns a reputation for integrity with more bite than Alexandre Burrows. Ryan Kesler too is someone who could fall on his sword and his integrity would protect him from any injury that last longer than it took for the referee to look away. Max Lappierre of course spent long enough in that university of fair, morally (and physically) upright play in Montreal to earn a PhD in playing the game the right way.