Stanley Cup Playoffs: Are Contributions from Captains an Underrated Factor?

Al DanielCorrespondent IIMay 20, 2013

PITTSBURGH, PA - FEBRUARY 13:  Daniel Alfredsson #11 of the Ottawa Senators handles the puck in front of Kris Letang #58 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the game at Consol Energy Center on February 13, 2013 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

When Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson deflected a last-minute equalizer en route to a dramatic 2-1 overtime win Sunday night, he capped a Stanley Cup playoff weekend dense with unexpected achievements.

The opposing Pittsburgh Penguins were not necessarily supposed to sweep the Sens, but they were in a prime position to put Ottawa on the precipice. They were clinging to a 1-0 advantage in a classic goaltenders’ duel with a chance to impose a 3-0 series stranglehold.

The 40-year-old Alfredsson nullified all of that by breaking Tomas Vokoun’s shutout and his teammates followed up by slapping Vokoun with his first loss out of five outings in the 2013 NHL postseason.

In turn, the Senators have usurped a hefty share of breathing room from the top-dog Penguins, cutting the second-round series deficit to 2-1.

All of that unfolded at the Scotiabank Place within hours of the injury-riddled Boston Bruins augmenting their series lead over the New York Rangers to 2-0. That was barely 24 hours after the Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa’s seventh-seeded counterpart out west, drew a 1-1 knot with Chicago in convincing fashion.

One of the key storylines out east: Boston’s defensive brigade is carrying on without the likes of Andrew Ference, Wade Redden and Dennis Seidenberg. But the Bruins do still have the services of captain Zdeno Chara, and it is hard to imagine his guidance has not played a substantial role in the suitable substitutions by Matt Bartkowski, Dougie Hamilton and Torey Krug.

In the Midwest, the topmost takeaway from Detroit’s 4-1 win on Saturday was Henrik Zetterberg handily winning the head-to-head matchup with counterpart captain Jonathan Toews.

Unless you are an uncompromisingly faithful fan of the Bruins, Red Wings or Senators, there is next to no way you step back from all of this and not say, “This wasn’t supposed to happen.”

But it did, and the common thread could not be clearer.

All three of the teams in question are building on a variety of rather unexpected first-round thrillers. Two of the captains in question―Chara and Zetterberg―each have a Cup to their credit while Alfredsson has endured enough tough losses in his career to know what it takes.

The opposing captains are not so shabby, either. Chicago’s Toews and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby are both just 25 years of age and have each won a title of their own. Ryan Callahan of the Rangers earns perennial praise for his leadership and all-around game.

But if the Blackhawks, Penguins and Rangers prevail in their respective series, a multitude of other factors will inevitably garner hefty credit. Although, at this point, those other factors will likely need to share a little more of the spotlight with exemplary leadership than was originally forecast.

Chicago and Pittsburgh are the top seeds in their respective conferences. The Blackhawks have flaunted an incredible killer instinct throughout 2013 as they clinched various regular-season accomplishments and stomped the overmatched Minnesota Wild in the first round.

The Penguins have generally played to match the ambition of general manager Ray Shero and his host of late-season acquisitions: Jarome Iginla, Jussi Jokinen, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray. They also have elite star power in Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang and appear to have cleared some bumps in the road after Vokoun supplanted Marc-Andre Fleury in the crease.

When they play characteristically and win, the Blueshirts have their blue-collar, blue-line ensemble and otherworldly goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, to thank.

In other words, there is visibly much more to those three teams than those wearing the “C” over their hearts. And even though their leadership is pivotal to the team’s success, those captains will be merely meeting expectations with the rest of their colleagues if they reach the penultimate stage of the playoffs.

The better the team, the less visibility exemplary leaders earn during successful stretches.

On the other hand, when those teams are trailing a series or not putting away the adversary as readily as expected, that opponent can emerge with cohesion around the captain.

NHL fans saw that for the first of three times in two days on Saturday. That was when Zetterberg was on the ice for the opposing icebreaker, which dropped his Wings to a cumulative 5-1 scoring differential through the first four periods of the series.

Detroit’s response was an equalizer at 2:40 of the middle frame, after which Zetterberg set up a go-ahead goal and then the last insurance strike for a 4-1 victory.

Those two helpers were Zetterberg’s ninth and 10th points through nine playoff tilts. Some of the others include a three-point effort followed by a two-point night, when Detroit faced elimination in back-to-back bouts with the second-seeded Anaheim Ducks.

Chara did not stand out on Sunday afternoon, performance-wise. But Bartkowski, Krug and Hamilton combined for a 1-3-4 scoring log.

This comes after last Monday’s Game 7 comeback versus Toronto, when Bartkowski opened the scoring and Chara was on the ice for each of four unanswered strikes to surmount a 4-1 deficit. Carry-over confidence has since clearly come with some credit owed to the captain.

Alfredsson’s Senators are at this stage by virtue of one of the hardest of hard-earned playoff passports. The Cup-less, career-long Ottawa forward resisted relocation throughout a season marred by key injuries to his team, which has since annihilated the Northeast Division champion Montreal Canadiens in the first round.

The fact that the Sens won that series is not necessarily stunning, but the fact that it took only five games was a tad startling. That is, until you consider they were decidedly cooler-headed in that series, which in retrospect is little surprise for a team captained by Alfredsson.

Had Sunday’s status quo stuck for another 29 seconds, Ottawa’s inspiring valiance would have been as good as moot. They would have trailed 3-0 to a potent Pittsburgh team that appears to have learned from past shortcomings as well as a scare it survived at the hands of the New York Islanders.

Instead, Alfredsson sniffed out a seam and buried the equalizer at the 11th hour of regulation―during an Ottawa penalty kill, no less.

Just like that, both of the No. 7 seeds have life in the second round.

That sort of development is not inherently unusual. Last year’s Stanley Cup Final featured a No. 8 seed from Los Angeles vanquishing a sixth-place New Jersey team.

But the journeys of those teams were highlighted in no small part by goaltenders Jonathan Quick and Martin Brodeur, among other factors. That was enough to take some of the pie from the fact that Dustin Brown and Zach Parise co-led their teams in goal and/or point production in that tournament.

Conversely, entering Monday’s action, Alfredsson and Zetterberg top their respective teams’ point charts. Chara leads all playoff blueliners with 10 points through nine games.

None of the opposing captains in these three series are statistically leading their teams. Perhaps that is because their teams are so stocked and committed that they have not needed to.

At least, not yet, they haven’t. Not as much as Alfredsson, Chara and Zetterberg have needed to.

But maybe Callahan and Toews, in particular, do finally need to contribute more tangibly in the wake of what their captaining counterparts have done for their upset-minded foes.


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