Winners and Losers of the 2013 NHL Playoffs Thus Far
The boys of winter have blossomed in the spring.
Well, some of them, at least.
And as the NHL gets ready for its showcase event, the Stanley Cup Final, it's time to take a look at the winners and losers of the just-completed conference finals.
Who did great and who did poorly is pretty self-explanatory, given how the series between the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings ended up.
And what can you say about Boston's absolute humiliation of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who played more like a junior hockey league team than the Stanley Cup champs from five years ago.
Heck, even the Hanson brothers of Slap Shot fame could likely have done better than the hapless Penguins.
And as a result, don't be surprised if you see some considerable offseason movement on the team, including possibly the firing of head coach Dan Bylsma.
But for now, let's look at the winners and losers—some bigger or worse than others—of the just-completed conference finals and look ahead to the big daddy of them all, the pursuit of Lord Stanley's prized and oversized silver chalice.
Winner: Joel Quenneville, Blackhawks
Joel Quenneville doesn't always get the credit he's due, but he's a master tactician and motivator. His gruff exterior belies a coach his players will skate through brick walls for.
Quenneville unquestionably deserves Coach of the Year honors, taking a team that had fewer than 10 days to mold and gel after the contentious lockout and then becoming the winningest coach in the league during the abbreviated 48-game regular season.
Quenneville sometimes makes moves that can be puzzling—like not playing Viktor Stalberg for two games against the Red Wings in the Western Conference Semifinal—but more often than not, Coach Q's moves usually prove prophetic and are on target for what he wants to accomplish.
The Stanley Cup Final is going to once again put Quenneville in the NHL's brightest spotlight, much like the 2010 final that earned Chicago its first Cup since 1961.
But given all that he and his team have accomplished in a very challenging season, there's no question that even if the Blackhawks lose to the Bruins, Quenneville will still emerge as a winner for the outstanding job he's done this season.
Loser: Darryl Sutter, Kings
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Were this year's Los Angeles Kings really the same team that won last season's Stanley Cup, or were they poor imitators?
Yes and no.
But there was just something about this year's team that didn't have the magic last year's club had.
Losing a key player like center Mike Richards for three games due to a concussion suffered in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final obviously hurt.
But there was also Kings coach Darryl Sutter. A former star player and coach with the Blackhawks in the 1980s and 1990s, Sutter seemed lost at how to prepare his current team against his old team.
In at least two periods during the five-game series, his players managed an anemically low number of shots on goals (four in one game, five in another). Granted, the Blackhawks played great defense, particularly goalie Corey Crawford, but the Kings' sticks appeared as if they had been eaten to shreds by termites.
While Sutter deserves kudos for the job he and his team did last season, to lose the way they did to Chicago this season was nothing short of sad.
Winner: Corey Crawford, Blackhawks
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I have to admit, I had my doubts about Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford when the playoffs began. I thought Ray Emery, even though he was recovering from an injury during the first part of the quarterfinals against Minnesota, would be brought back to take over at some point for Crawford.
But to his credit—not to mention head coach Joel Quenneville for sticking with Crawford even when things looked bleak—Crawford rose to the occasion to be one of the best goalies in the playoffs.
Will he be able to keep things going in the Stanley Cup Final? Obviously his teammates and Quenneville think he can. He'll have arguably the toughest competitor he's faced this season—or at least during the playoffs thus far—in Boston's Tuukka Rask.
But for the job he's done thus far, Crawford unquestionably deserves to be called a winner. And soon he could be called champion.
Loser: Jonathan Quick, Kings
Let's get this out of the way right at the start: Jonathan Quick was not the reason why the Kings lost to the Blackhawks in the Western Conference Final.
Quick spent much of the regular season and certainly the first two rounds of the playoffs as one of the best goalies in the league.
But the reason Quick's a loser is because he was part of what was a less-than-stellar performance by the L.A. defense.
For a team that came into this series as defending Stanley Cup champs, it didn't play like it. The offense was marginal and the defense, at times, was nonexistent.
It wasn't so much Quick giving up all the goals he did, but when you have little defensive support in front of you—even playing a team of the Blackhawks' caliber—you can't help but be lumped into that same losers category.
Winner: Tuukka Rask, Bruins
What a gem Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask was during the Eastern Conference Final, shutting down the vaunted Pittsburgh Penguins.
Many fans expected the Penguins, with stars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Pascal Dupuis and Kris Letang, to blow past the Bruins.
But it was Boston that got the better of Pittsburgh. No, scratch that, the Bruins didn't just get the better of the Penguins, they completely throttled—if not downright embarrassed—the Pens in four games, including two shutouts.
How else would you explain the way the NHL's most explosive and highest-scoring team during the regular season (162 goals, nearly 3.4 goals per game), managed just two goals in only four games in the biggest series of the season?
Here's an even more impressive number: Rask stopped 134 of Pittsburgh's 136 shots on goal during the series.
Rask and Chicago's Corey Crawford could be destined for one of the most memorable Stanley Cup Final matchups in recent history, and if the first three rounds are any indication, this best-of-seven series is likely going to be decided by which goalie plays better.
Loser: Tomas Vokoun, Penguins
It's hard to put Penguins goalie Tomas Vokoun down as a loser. When he was brought in after the first four games of the opening round against the Islanders after Marc-Andre Fleury faltered, Vokoun was impressive, if not outstanding in the net, winning six of the next seven games.
Then came the BOOM!—a.k.a. the Bruins.
And that's where the story takes a twist in a different direction. Vokoun may have given up 12 goals in four games to the Bruins—an average of three goals per game—but in actuality, he shone much of the time, stopping 111 of the 123 total shots he faced in the series.
Vokoun got very little support from his teammates both offensively and defensively in the series. And while I still don't feel he had an overly bad series, somebody has to go down on the final record as the guy who was in the nets when Boston romped to such a one-sided sweep.
Unfortunately for him and his fans, that somebody was Vokoun.
Winner: Patrick Kane, Blackhawks
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After almost having his face placed as "Missing" on the side of milk cartons throughout this land, Patrick Kane finally showed up in the Western Conference Final against the L.A. Kings.
Or, more precisely, Kane's hockey stick finally showed up.
During the regular season, Kane tied with team captain Jonathan Toews for the Blackhawks' goal-scoring lead, each netting 23 tallies.
But during the playoffs, one of the most potent goal-scoring duos in the league was virtually invisible. In fact, Toews still remains goal-bitten, having just one score in the Hawks' 17 games during the current playoff run.
Kane, who had zero goals in the first round series against Minnesota and two against Detroit in the conference semifinals, finally broke through in a big way against the Kings with four goals, including a hat trick and the game-winner in the deciding two-overtime fifth game of the series on Saturday.
Hopefully for Blackhawks fans, Kane's offensive outburst in Game 5 is a sign of things to come in the final against the Bruins.
Loser: Mike Richards, Kings
Much like teammate Jonathan Quick, I hesitate to call Kings center Mike Richards a loser.
After all, it wasn't his fault that he got creamed by Chicago's Dave Bolland in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final and missed the next three games with a concussion.
To his credit, Richards came back strong in the series' finale, including scoring a goal with 10 seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime and eventually double-overtime before Patrick Kane's winning goal.
Would the Kings have been a different team if they had Richards in the lineup for the three games he missed?
They did, after all, win Game 3 at home without him. But when you are missing a key player, some of the spirit can't help but evaporate within a team.
Winner: Claude Julien, Bruins
The New Jersey Devils' loss has definitely been the Boston Bruins' gain when it comes to head coach Claude Julien.
In the 2006-07 season, Julien didn't even last his first season with the Devils, getting fired with three games left in the regular season—even though he had managed to lead the team to an impressive 47-24-8 record up to that point.
The Bruins jumped when Julien became available and signed him almost immediately. And since joining the team for the 2007-08 season, Julien has taken the Bruins to the playoffs each season, including winning the 2011 Stanley Cup championship.
Julien is among the best coaches in the league. He's proven it in his six-season tenure with the Bruins. If the Blackhawks and head coach Joel Quenneville think they can match wits with Julien, they may have another think coming. Rather, Chicago will have to find ways around Julien's and the Bruins' strong points.
But with players like Krejci and Horton leading the way, along with outstanding goalie Tuukka Rask, it's going to be very difficult for the Blackhawks.
Oh, and by the way, since they fired Julien, the Devils reached the final once (2012, lost to the Kings), lost three times in the opening round of the playoffs and missed the playoffs entirely twice, including this season.
Maybe they should have kept Julien after all.
Loser: Dan Bylsma, Penguins
Let's see: If your team was just swept in four games, managed just two goals in total, never held the lead in any game, failed to score on the power play and was outscored 12-2, would you think you still have job security?
That could very well be the case for Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma…well, at least he's head coach for now.
Even though he took the Penguins to the Stanley Cup title in 2009, after being swept in this season's Eastern Conference Finals by the Bruins, there already is a report from Larry Brooks of the New York Post that Penguins owner and chairman Mario Lemieux may be considering firing Bylsma.
If he is fired, Bylsma, who still has a year remaining on his contract according to a report in Newsday, may not be unemployed for long, as the New York Rangers may be interested in him for their head-coaching vacancy.
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Big Winners: Hockey Fans Everywhere
It doesn't matter if you're a Bruins or Blackhawks fan. As long as you're a rabid hockey fan, you can't help but appreciate the upcoming Stanley Cup Finals.
The best team in the regular season against the best team in the playoffs.
Two of the league's best goalies.
Two of the best coaches in the league.
Also, some of the top goal scorers in the league on both sides.
Oh yes, and let's not forget that not only are the Blackhawks and Bruins two of the NHL's Original Six teams, but this will mark the first-ever meeting between the two clubs in the pursuit of Lord Stanley's Cup.
This series has TV ratings bonanza written all over it.
So, even if you're a fan of the Canadiens, Sharks, Penguins, Rangers, Avalanche or whomever, you owe it to yourself to watch this series.
It's a win-win for fans any way you look at it.
Losers: Defending Stanley Cup Champions
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I don't want to heap too much criticism on the L.A. Kings or kick them further down than they already are.
They suffered enough in losing to the Blackhawks.
But facts are facts. I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that the Kings continued a tradition that has now stretched to 14 seasons in which the defending Stanley Cup champion has failed to make it two titles in a row.
The last team to win back-to-back was the Detroit Red Wings in 1996-97 and 1997-98.
Biggest Winner: David Krejci, Bruins
Bruins center David Krejci should not be wearing a jersey with a "B" across his chest. Rather, he should have a huge "S" on that jersey, since he's been Superman thus far in the playoffs.
Krejci hasn't just led all scorers in the playoffs; he's dominated with 21 points (nine goals, 12 assists). The closest player to him is teammate Nathan Horton with 17 points (seven goals, 10 assists).
To put things in better perspective heading into the Stanley Cup Final, the highest-scoring players on the Blackhawks are Patrick Sharp (eight goals, six assists) and Marian Hossa (seven goals, seven assists), both tied with 14 points.
That means Krejci has one-third more points than his two closest opponents coming into this series, with the promise that he'll likely add to those totals in the final, providing Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford doesn't stop him.
Then again, no other goalie has up to this point.
Biggest Losers: Pittsburgh Penguins' Stars
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Against the Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final, the Penguins pulled one of the biggest disappearing acts this side of the late Harry Houdini.
How could the most celebrated scoring juggernaut during the regular season be completely taken out of its game? How could four players, who combined for 49 goals between them during the regular season, fail to come up with even one collectively against the Bruins? Yes, we're talking about Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Pascal Dupuis and Kris Letang.
Or, how about James Neal (21 regular-season goals)? Where was he?
The only regular-season stalwart that managed to find the net during the Bruins series was Chris Kunitz (team-leading 22 regular-season goals). Brandon Sutter scored the only other Pittsburgh goal against the Bruins.
The Penguins have such a high payroll, yet their top players looked like chump-change third-stringers.
They were, without question, the biggest losers thus far in the playoffs.