HARD HITS: Battle for Stanley Cup a war of attrition


As the Conference Finals draw to a conclusion, the battle among the four elite teams left for the Stanley Cup has become a war of attrition.

It’s literally kill or be killed. The Pens, Sens, Ducks and Preds are in survival mode. Do whatever it takes to win each remaining game to reach their goal of 16 wins for the ultimate prize.

The ferocity with which these games are played is like anything ever seen. Sure. It’s always a battle for every inch on the ice at this time of year. But never have there been more players injured due to the intense physicality during play and post whistle.

One look at the defending champion Pens and it’s a miracle they’ve gotten this far. Already without indispensable ace blueliner Kris Letang, they’ve been ravaged by injuries. They still were able to get through the Caps despite missing several regulars. They can thank selfless teammate Marc-Andre Fleury, who was utterly brilliant in the seven-game second round victory over the choking Caps.

Fleury is the biggest reason Pittsburgh is still alive in search of a repeat. Something that hasn’t been done since the Red Wings in 1997 and ’98. With his team falling apart in front of him in a miserable blowout loss to Ottawa in Game 3, coach Mike Sullivan went back to 2016 playoff hero Matt Murray, who replaced Fleury after he allowed four goals. Coming off a groin injury that sidelined him since the start of the postseason, Murray made timely stops in a badly needed 3-2 win in Game 4 that got dicey in the final moments.

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The pesky Sens nearly pulled off another miraculous comeback after trailing by three. Only a huge Murray save pointblank on Erik Karlsson prevented overtime. A bad reminder for Rangers fans still watching. Their ineptitude protecting leads is why they’re home. Instead, Henrik Lundqvist tries to lead Sweden to gold at the World Championships against Canada.

Of the leftovers, Ottawa is the healthiest. Even with inspirational captain Karlsson at about 65 percent, he’s somehow still able to dominate games. The Sens also still boast all four centers featuring Kyle Turris, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Derick Brassard and Zack Smith. They also have rugged defenseman Dion Phaneuf wrecking opponents with nasty yet clean hits that have a impact. Just ask key Pens forward Bryan Rust, who remains out. You don’t have to remind the Garden Faithful about Phaneuf, who ended Mike Sauer’s promising career.

In Game 4, a controversial big hit by Bobby Ryan concussed Pens defenseman Chad Ruhwedl which forced Sullivan to rely on five D with Trevor Daley, Olli Maatta and Game 4 hero Brian Dumoulin seeing the bulk of the action. Somehow, they had enough to hold on with solid efforts from Ian Cole and Ron Hainsey.

It helps to still have the game’s best in Sidney Crosby, who at less than 100 percent since a concussion last round, elevated his game with a power play goal and assist. Number 87 hasn’t found much room against the airtight Senators. But he did fight through what little space there was to make a difference setting up a pivotal Game 5 this afternoon in Pittsburgh.

Evgeni Malkin has a goal and assist. Phil Kessel had the lone goal in a 1-0 Fleury shutout in Game 2. He’s continued to fire away and look dangerous.

The Pens can thank poised first-year man Jake Guentzel for blossoming into a lethal scorer. He has the look of a future star with nine goals and seven assists including a pair in Game 4. Tied with Anaheim’s Jakob Silfverberg for the postseason lead in goals (9), the 2013 third round pick who went 77th overall ranks fourth in scoring with 16 points. Only Malkin (20), Crosby (18) and Ryan Getzlaf (17) have more. Kessel also has 16 as did Oilers breakout star Leon Draisaitl before the Ducks eliminated them.

Pittsburgh is trying to do this with Justin Schultz out. They don’t get past the Caps without him. They’ve skated the last three minus pest Patric Hornqvist. Following a dismal Game 3, Sullivan pushed the right button moving grizzled vet Chris Kunitz up to the Crosby line. A move that resulted in more Pens attacking Craig Anderson’s crease making it more difficult. It resulted in Anderson leaving the short side post on two goals.

When Sullivan is going with fourth liners Scott Wilson and Carter Rowney more to balance out the lines, it tells you how urgent the situation is.

Given the shape the Pens are in, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Ottawa wins Game 5 and takes the series to make the franchise’s second Stanley Cup Final. The first coming exactly 10 years ago before falling to the Anaheim.

As for the Ducks, they are on the brink after losing a home Game 5 to the Predators 3-1. It was another brutal game full of huge hits and rough stuff. Both teams were without key players.  Most notably, Nashville who must do it the rest of the way minus top pivot Ryan Johansen. He was playing his best hockey with a team best 10 assists to go with three goals. Johansen posted four points in the first two games while helping stifle Getzlaf, who remains without a goal in the series despite three assists. He was also winning over 54 percent of draws. Hip surgery finished his season.

Captain Mike Fisher also missed Game 5 due to a upper body injury on a hit that forced the ex-Senator out of Game 4. His status remains uncertain. Even down two centers, the Preds overcame a one-goal deficit to post a hard fought come from behind 3-1 victory to get within one game of their first ever Stanley Cup appearance.

They got a power play goal from veteran Colin Wilson in the final minute of the second period. A goal which was off hard work when he sent a backhand rebound past Anaheim sub Jonathan Bernier. He was pressed into action following the first due to starter John Gibson suffering a lower body injury on a acrobatic but awkward save that hobbled him. Coach Randy Carlyle indicated that Gibson should be good to go for Game 6.

Anaheim also skated without dangerous finisher Rickard Rakell, who was a late scratch. That loss undoubtedly hurt their offense. Rakell has seven goals and six helpers for 13 points with a plus-13 rating. No coincidence considering his skill level and nose for the net.

The Ducks were still in good position when Chris Wagner finished off a rebound from rookie Brandon Montour and Silfverberg to go ahead by one at 12:28 of period two. They were stifling the Preds for most of the second until Josh Manson got nabbed for a crosscheck minor. Manson took a missed high stick prior putting the Preds on the power play. They took full advantage on a play set up by P.K. Subban with depth forward Colton Sissons helping in front before Wilson tied it with 41 seconds left.

In the third, first-year forward Pontus Aberg was able to get to a juicy rebound of a Filip Forsberg shot and bury it past Bernier into a open side with 8:59 remaining in regulation. Underrated top four defenseman Mattias Ekholm set the play up with a huge defensive play to help stop a Anaheim chance with Pekka Rinne in danger. Rinne was fantastic making 32 saves in a huge bounce back victory. A strong performance in response to Corey Perry’s historic overtime winner off Subban that made him the first ever player to score OT winners in each of the first three rounds.

The Preds’ top four D anchored by Roman Josi with Ryan Ellis along with Subban and Ekholm made the one-goal lead stand up. They got strong checking from a supporting cast that included Sissons, who went 8-and-9 on face offs with Frederick Gaudreau stepping into a pressure situation by going 10-and-4 on draws.

With Bernier off for a extra attacker, Silfverberg had the misfortune of his twig breaking on a pass. A Ryan Kesler turnover led directly to Austin Watson scoring an empty netter from his own zone.

That sealed it. Nashville finds themselves one win away from a first ever Stanley Cup Final. Considering how hard fought each game has been, it wouldn’t surprise if Anaheim wins Game 6 in Music City and forcing a do or die seventh game.

The way it finished with Nick Ritchie throwing down with Ekholm, don’t expect the Ducks to go down easily. They’ve been resilient all postseason. Game 6 should be worth the wait Monday night. Especially with the very loud Predators fans breaking records for decibel level. They are a rowdy bunch.

One thing is notable. If you’re unwilling to pay the price, you’re not winning the greatest trophy in sports. Whoever is the last team standing will truly have earned Lord Stanley.

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Cross Checks:

-It’s interesting how so many Rangers pundits are so sure they would’ve been able to beat the Pens. Under what pretense? Nobody would’ve injured any Pen like Phaneuf. Not one Ranger on the current roster can really make life miserable on goalies. Chris Kreider isn’t that guy. Rick Nash isn’t equipped. Only Mats Zuccarello plays a big man’s game despite his small stature.

-Imagine Lundqvist after the Pens speed and superior skill and grit chased him. Oh wait. It already happened. The same ‘experts’ who used tired rhetoric to blast Dan Girardi and Tanner Glass. Both were two of the team’s most effective players. It doesn’t say much for the current roster.

-Can you ever picture a fired up captain Ryan McDonagh getting in a teammate’s face on the bench the way Karlsson blasted Turris for some lazy turnovers in Game 4? So much for being that leader.

-The bottom line is the Alain Vigneault Rangers are a great group but way too vanilla. They lack a strong personality who can make a difference.

-Great job by NBC not having a pre or post game for Saturday’s Game 5. As long as the Preakness was over covered front and back with upset winner Cloud Computing stunning those horse experts including Ed Olczyk. He must’ve been Always Dreaming.

-I am no horse expert. But I’ve watched enough Triple Crown races to pick up on a few things. I noticed how well Cloud Computing was running in the first quarter hanging back in the fourth position. Sure enough, it made its charge beating Always Dreaming by a full nose. Maybe I should have been a horse analyst.

-It’s sad that even NBCSN didn’t have a post game of Preds-Ducks. It was only Game 5 of the Western Conference Final. Instead, they had some odd car thing on for two hours. Amazing how reliable the NHL partner is. No different than ESPN/ABC who have fallen apart due to big heads and greed.

-When one sees how good Filip Forsberg is, it’s a wonder Washington gave him away to Nashville for rental Martin Erat. Just imagine the Caps had they kept him. He has a scorer’s instinct and is more complete and younger than Alexander Ovechkin, who sure was a goat in Game 7. I don’t care how hurt he was. He played the whole series and too often wasn’t a factor.

-Nicklas Backstrom blamed the Caps’ early failure in the first four games for another second round ouster. So, after convincingly taking Games 5-6, Game 7 didn’t matter? The way they played, that’s how it looked. Backstrom is a terrific two-way playmaking pivot who had a great year and was his team’s best player in the postseason. But the lack of common sense is a disgrace to Caps fans. Great leadership.

-Barry Trotz has a lot in common with Vigneault. But at least Vigneault has guided two teams to Stanley Cup Finals. Trotz never had great teams in Nashville. What’s his excuse now? He got schooled by Sullivan in Game 7 in his own building. The game reminded me of Rangers and Lightning Game 7 Conference Final 2015. In that one, Jon Cooper outfoxed Vigneault.

-It’s been fun following Canadiens fans on Twitter. Many are supporting Nashville because they still love Subban. Who can blame them? They know the kind of character player he is. Too bad Michel Therrien and Marc Bergevin didn’t appreciate him. Nothing against Shea Weber, who was one of the Habs best players in the first round loss to the Rangers. Montreal’s failure had more to do with Bergevin than anyone. Star for star trades are rare. If Subban wins a Cup this year, it doesn’t determine who won the trade. He plays on a much better roster.

-It’s amazing the Preds are doing this despite Viktor Arvidsson in a scoring slump. If they keep going, he might score a big goal before it’s over.

-Rangers/Sabres Winter Classic is unappealing because they’re not rivals. Buffalo being the home team at Citi Field is asinine. At least Jack Eichel gets center stage. The game should be played in Buffalo at Ralph Wilson Stadium like the first one that remains the best of the lot. Crosby beating Ryan Miller in the shootout under Christmas snow on New Year’s Day.

 

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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