Going into Sunday night’s Game 6 between the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks, 10 Stanley Cup playoff series had already finished. San Jose's season-saving 2-1 triumph means there are still six teams standing in contention for the Cup in 2013.
Out of the 10 finished first- and second-round bouts, three of the victorious teams have scored a goal within the final minute of the first, second or third period of the clinching game. Three of the eight conference quarterfinal series ended with an overtime strike.
Those moments never fail to compel and are often directly decisive, but there are also developments in the middle of a game and series that warrant equal credit for altering the course of a series and/or a team’s outlook.
Critical postseason plays bear a bonus when they come in a visually pleasurable fashion, but that aspect takes a backseat to the immediate and long-term implications of a goal or other momentous accomplishment.
Whether they officially or unofficially marked the completion of a series victory or have set a team on a more promising path than it originally appeared, here are the defining plays (so far) for each NHL team left in the hunt for the Cup.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics and other game information for this report were found via NHL.com and are through games of Sunday, May 26.
Through the first five years of the Claude Julien era, the Boston Bruins went 6-10 when they had a chance to finish off a postseason adversary. On the flipside, they accumulated a 9-4 record when they needed a win to stave off elimination.
Boston’s bane and boon each had a turn at center stage during the first round of Julien’s sixth playoff run behind its bench. First, the Bruins whiffed on two chances to abolish the Toronto Maple Leafs, letting a 3-1 series lead devolve into a 3-3 deadlock and thus dropping to 6-12 in closeout games during the Julien era.
In the resultant Game 7, naturally a joint closeout/elimination contest, the host Bruins slipped into a 4-1 deficit over the first two periods. They nibbled back to within a two-goal range via Nathan Horton shortly before the halfway mark of the third, and the 4-2 difference stuck for nearly 10 minutes.
However, after exactly nine minutes and 20 seconds of existence, that 4-2 Toronto advantage devolved into a 4-4 tie in a matter of 31 seconds.
That was all the time that separated a front-porch connection from Milan Lucic and a homeward-bound straightaway point shot from Patrice Bergeron with 51 regulation ticks to spare.
With their resilience and valiance rewarded, the Bruins went on to improve to 10-4 in elimination games under Julien with Bergeron wristing home the winner in the overtime stanza he had effectively set up.
In Chicago’s first set of three consecutive regulation losses at any point in 2013, captain Jonathan Toews appeared to have met his match in the upset-minded Detroit Red Wings. He went pointless on 13 shots on goal and brooked a minus-one rating along with three minor penalties while an initial 1-0 series lead devolved into a brittle 3-1 deficit.
But in the subsequent do-or-die outing this past Saturday, Toews broke through to personify the Blackhawks’ resolve. With Game 5 deadlocked, 1-1, courtesy of a Danny Cleary connection for Detroit at 9:37 of the middle frame, the Chicago captain drew a hooking penalty on Drew Miller at 11:39.
The Blackhawks put the stamp on their prompt retaking of the momentum by converting the power play Toews had drawn.
Less than three minutes later, the individual and the team switched roles with Chicago affording itself another man advantage and Toews breaking his playoff-long goal drought at 15:47 for a 3-1 cushion.
Over the next 24 minutes and 13 seconds, the Hawks outshot the Wings, 18-8, weathering an initial 5-1 run by Detroit and later expanding its edge on the scoreboard to 4-1 via Andrew Shaw.
Depending on how Game 6 and, if necessary, Game 7 unfold, Toews’ two key plays from the second period could render Game 5 a microcosm of the series. If Chicago is to complete the comeback, it will need to build on the momentum it regained in the series just as it did within Saturday’s single game.
It was a tad eerie the way USA Today columnist Kevin Allen all but foretold Johan Franzen’s influence on the Red Wings’ surprise surge against the top-dog Blackhawks. On the eve of Game 2, the lead paragraph in Allen’s column read, “There’s nothing wrong with the Detroit Red Wings that an ornery ‘Mule’ couldn’t fix.”
Beforehand, Chicago had claimed a convincing Game 1 victory, 4-1. The Blackhawks had thus improved to 4-0 on home ice in the playoffs and a combined regular-season and postseason record of 5-0-0 against Detroit in 2013, with a cumulative 16-6 scoring differential.
Detroit initially trailed Game 2, 1-0, at the first intermission, but then usurped the upper hand in the middle frame.
What it needed next was a follow-up in the final stanza, and Franzen supplied that by absorbing a long-range feed from Jonathan Ericsson and thrusting home an insurance strike to spot his club a 3-1 lead.
The Wings subsequently landed seven unanswered shots on net and drew a roughing penalty on Dave Bolland in between. The aforementioned Toews broke up that one-sided string of shots at the 11:53 mark, but Detroit augmented its advantage to 4-1 on its next registered stab a mere 10 seconds later.
With timely, newfound momentum in their clutch going back home, the Red Wings proceeded to claim a commanding 3-1 advantage in the series. They did that, in no small part, with the help of Franzen giving them an identical 3-1 edge in Game 2.
In their first potential closeout game since clinching the Cup last year, the Los Angeles Kings saw an initial 1-0 lead vanish after 12 minutes and two seconds of play. The 1-1 draw in Game 6 with St. Louis stood pat for the next 15 minutes of action, deep into the final minute before the second intermission.
That was when Dustin Penner evoked one of the top specimens of killer instinct. Picking up the puck at center ice as L.A. regrouped on a St. Louis clear, he strolled back onto opposing property and slugged home a laser from the point with 0.2 seconds on the clock.
As hinted in the title slide, those last-minute tallies can hold a heavy sway on the complexion of a contest, let alone when they come within the final seconds.
For the Kings, this was a reward for leaving nothing unturned while sniffing out St. Louis’ seams in hopes of ending the series as soon as possible.
Granted, the Blues bounced back to outshoot L.A. in the third period, 8-3. But celestial netminder Jonathan Quick answered everything for his decisive fourth victory in a low-scoring, low-shooting series that featured six one-goal decisions in as many installments.
It is hard to imagine that Quick, like the rest of the Kings, did not play that closeout period on a bonus boost of conviction courtesy of Penner’s all-around memorable go-ahead goal.
James Neal’s hat trick in the ceremonious Game 5 throttling of the Ottawa Senators was certainly dazzling from a visual and statistical perspective. So, too, was Sidney Crosby’s three-goal night earlier in the series.
But it was Neal’s helper this past Friday night that left the biggest imprint on Pittsburgh’s no-nonsense, beat-them-now persona.
The Penguins entered the game having garnered a commanding 3-1 series advantage courtesy of a 7-3 downpour on Ottawa in Game 4. They sculpted a 3-0 lead over the first 32:48 of the potential closeout contest, but the Sens restored their livelihood via Milan Michalek three-and-a-half minutes later.
Pittsburgh, however, was apt to counter that counterstrike and did so in that ever-influential final minute of the middle frame. Only 3:12 had passed since Michalek hatched Tomas Vokoun’s goose egg and exactly 30 seconds remained until intermission when Evgeni Malkin converted a feed from Neal.
The partial breakaway, which Neal made possible with his steal in neutral ice, renewed the three-goal advantage. From there, Neal sandwiched a rather meaningless Kyle Turris connection with the second and third installments of his hat trick, cementing a 6-2 series-ending victory.
Going into Tuesday night’s Game 7 against the Kings, the San Jose Sharks have cultivated 47.8 percent of their playoff offense (11 of 23 goals) on the power play, easily leading the league in that regard. Pittsburgh is a distant second with 13 out of 47 goals (or 27.7 percent) coming on the man advantage.
Fittingly enough, special teams aided three out of four San Jose strikes during its back-to-back 2-1 wins over Los Angeles to draw a 2-2 knot in the conference semifinals. Earlier, the Sharks converted six opportunities to hasten their dismissal of the Vancouver Canucks in the opening round.
Of all those five-on-four tallies so far, none stand out with as much authority as Patrick Marleau’s sudden-death series clincher in Game 4 against the Canucks.
It came on the other side of a bonus intermission that teammate Joe Pavelski necessitated with his own power-play goal to draw a 3-3 knot late in regulation.
Pavelski’s goal was already the team’s fifth on the man advantage through four postseason outings, and in tandem with Marleau's conversion, it sealed the message that San Jose would not give an inch to a reeling Vancouver squad.
In turn, San Jose flaunted a not-so-secret established strength by coaxing the Canucks into more penalty trouble and pouncing to bring on the swiftest possible finish to a series.