HARD HITS: Bunch of Jerks prove winning division overrated


Justin Williams celebrates his goal in Game Four as the Hurricanes eliminated the Islanders to reach the Conference Finals. AP Photo via Getty Images.

By show of hands, how many of you had the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final? Unless you live in Raleigh or maybe even Hartford, I’m guessing the answer is no.

The thing about underdogs like the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets- who look to take back momentum in a crucial Game Five in Boston following the Kentucky Derby- is they have less pressure. When you fight hard just to get in the playoffs, you’ve been playing the right way all along. There’s nothing to lose.

Maybe that explains the unpredictable postseason. Sometimes, overwhelming favorites don’t win at this time of year. The hockey playoffs are a lot different than the NBA where even the casual observer can predict the Warriors in the Finals. Even that is a bit more interesting than past years due to new blood.

Having new teams vying for the Stanley Cup is good. It can’t always be the same tired script. So, you get the world beater Lightning swept by the Blue Jackets in the first round. A team that people forgot went all in this Spring by rolling the dice on Matt Duchene. He’s delivered along with current stars Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. We’ll see how John Tortorella’s club responds in enemy territory tonight. If they prevail, you’re a game away from an All Wildcard Conference Final. I think it’s going seven.

The Islanders thought after sweeping Sidney Crosby and the Pens that they would face Barry Trotz’s former club. Instead, those Bunch of Jerks had other ideas. After trailing 2-0 in a dramatic first round series, the Hurricanes came back to win four of five to stun the defending champion Caps.

They did it by being resilient. Carolina won all three games on home ice including a do or die Game Six that had a little controversy. Alexander Ovechkin had a goal wiped out that would’ve tied the score. Instead, the Canes scored roughly a minute later to ice it.

It’s worth noting they still had to dig deep in the deciding Game Seven by rallying from 2-0 and 3-1 deficits to force sudden death. Jordan Staal scored the same goal older brother Eric did 10 years ago in another Game Seven situation. That’s one Devil fans would like to forget. The similarities are uncanny. The big difference being it took overtime for captain Justin Williams to hustle to a loose puck and send it in front for a Brock McGinn tip in past Braden Holtby to send the Canes to the big upset.

Known as Mr. Game Seven, Williams continues to lead the Canes, who are in their first Conference Final since 2009. Ironically the last time they were in the playoffs. He scored the crusher in last night’s 5-2 clincher over the Islanders. It was his 100th career postseason point. Asked by former teammate Brian Boucher if he ever expected them to sweep a good team in the Isles, he said, “No.” However, the very confident veteran added that he expected to win the second round series, which drew cheers from the home crowd.

Williams is one of those players who understands what it takes to win these big games. A three-time Stanley Cup winner who happened to be a key piece of the Hurricanes when they won it all in ’06, he once played with current coach Rod Brind’Amour. It’s fitting that it’s the former emotional leader of that championship team behind the bench with Williams as the current leader.

They never should’ve traded him. Sometimes, the best trades are the ones you don’t make. The ’03 Devils were this close to having Scott Gomez become a San Jose Shark at the trade deadline. But it was too late. Gomez helped them win the Cup. Williams was dealt by Carolina in ’09 to the Kings for Patrick O’Sullivan and a second round pick that became current Pens defenseman Brian Dumoulin. Even though the Canes went far that Spring thanks to the heroics of Jussi Jokinen and Eric Staal along with Cam Ward, they never saw the postseason again. O’Sullivan later revealed off ice issues that damaged his career. Williams became successful with the Kings winning two Cups and a Conn Smythe.

After a good stint with the Caps, Williams returned to what must feel like home. It was in Carolina that he blossomed by posting consecutive 30-goal seasons following the lockout. He had 18 points during the Cup run. It’s hard to believe the Flyers gave him away for Danny Markov. I knew what kind of player he was. So did Boucher.

Having that kind of veteran in the locker room is important. Especially when you haven’t had much success. But also replacing Bill Peters, who left for Calgary, with playoff hero Brind’Amour was a brilliant move by the organization. If you watch how they play, it’s like the career the former Selke winner had. They’re very well schooled defensively with their sticks down in the lanes. Something Trotz alluded to in why his team didn’t have success.

The Hurricanes outscored the Islanders 13-5 in the four games. The scores were as follows:

Game One: Hurricanes 1 Islanders 0 (Staal OT)

Game Two: Hurricanes 2 Islanders 1 (Foegle, Niederreiter in 3rd)

Game Three: Islanders 2 Hurricanes 5 (Williams GWG, Slavin assist, McElhinney 28 saves)

Game Four: Islanders 2 Hurricanes 5 (Teravainen/Aho: goal and assist each, Svechnikov goal, Faulk 2 assists)

In the four game sweep, the Islanders only scored twice at five-on-five. They led for only 29:14. Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee were held without a goal. Brock Nelson got his first with over a minute left when his wrist shot snuck past McElhinney. Josh Bailey had a goal and assist in Game Three, but was shutout in the other three games. Mat Barzal notched two power play goals, but had no even strength points in the series.

Even after losing starter Petr Mrazek to injury, the Canes got timely saves from 35-year old veteran McElhinney. His performance in relief of Mrazek during Game Two was crucial, stopping all 17 Islander shots to preserve a 2-1 comeback win. He made several clutch stops including robbing Bailey and Casey Cizikas in the clincher.

It was Carolina’s attention to detail that allowed them to win the series in four straight. In particular, the performance of young defenseman Jaccob Slavin stood out. A former fourth round pick in 2012, he’s been the Canes’ constant force pacing them with 11 assists in two rounds.

A very good skater, the left defenseman defends well and makes smart decisions with the puck. He’s not only good at breaking up plays in his end, but a good passer that can find open teammates. His speed allows Carolina to transition quickly. It’s astonishing that he wasn’t picked higher. Brady Skjei was a first round pick that same draft. They’re the same age and make similar money. Who would you rather have?

Slavin has plenty of help from Dougie Hamilton, Justin Faulk and the overlooked Brett Pesce. All are good skaters who can jump up into the play. Hamilton isn’t the best defensively, but Slavin covers for him. Faulk was seen as an afterthought due to Hamilton coming over with Micheal Ferland from Calgary for Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin. Almost everyone viewed that as a better trade for the Flames, who finished atop the West with the number one seed. Lindholm struggled and Hanifin didn’t establish himself in a first round loss to Colorado. They also turned Adam Fox into a second round pick and conditional third after dealing him to the Rangers. He was never signing with Carolina.

The Canes are doing it with contributions throughout their lineup. It’s not only stars Sebastian Aho or Teuvo Teravainen, who they stole from the Blackhawks. The veteran leadership from Williams and Jordan Staal have been instrumental. They’ve scored and set up big goals on a cohesive second line with Niederreiter, who got some revenge on his former team with three points. With Svechnikov back healthy and scoring the coup de grace last night, it gives Brind’Amour more balance. This is a lineup that’s managed to continue winning despite missing Svechnikov, Ferland, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Mrazek for some time. Only Svechnikov recently returned.

When they can get contributions from the fourth line with Greg McKegg scoring a huge goal on a rebound to chase Isles starter Robin Lehner, it speaks volumes.

They’re a total team. That’s why they are where they are awaiting the Columbus/Boston winner. The way that’s going, it might go to double overtime in a seventh game with the teams beating each other up.

The irony this Spring is all four division winners were eliminated in Round One. With the exception of Tampa, none of the other three were overwhelming. Even the Caps needed to squeeze out some wins late to seal the Metro Division, edging out the Isles.

Calgary won with offense by outscoring opponents. They didn’t play much D, which proved to be the biggest explanation for why Mike Smith had a bad year. All you had to do was watch his performance in that first round series to see why. I foolishly took them out of the West to face the Lightning in a ’04 Cup rematch. Oops.

Maybe this postseason is proof that you don’t have to win your division. Just finding a way in and playing well at the right time can go a long way. Home ice doesn’t mean a whole lot. Just ask Washington, Nashville and Winnipeg. It didn’t help the Blues on Friday night in what amounted to a tough 2-1 Game Five defeat to the Stars due to Ben Bishop.

When you have evenly matched teams, anything can happen. I won’t be shocked to see St. Louis go into Dallas and win tomorrow. The Sharks better hold serve tonight against the dangerous Avs.

BODY CHECKS

Jack Hughes came within a point of tying Nikita Kucherov’s record for the U18 World Junior Championship. Despite Team USA disappointing by losing to Russia in a big semifinal upset, they recovered to take bronze in a convincing 5-1 domination of Canada. Hughes and rising finisher Cole Caufield were brilliant.

As many as five players from that team could go in the top 10. That includes Alex Turcotte, Trevor Zegras and defenseman Cam York. The pool of American talent is the best it’s ever been.

So, who will the Devils take? Hughes or Kaapo Kakko. I still think it has to be Hughes, who is so fast and creative that he has the potential to put up 90 points. Size isn’t as important as high end skill and speed. Today’s rules make it easier for smaller players to have an impact.

Caufield reminds me of current Blackhawk 40-goal man Alex DeBrincat. They’re the same size (5-7). The only difference is Caufield will go in the top 10. Not slip to the second round like DeBrincat, who went number 39 in 2016. Players that went ahead of him in Round One include Alex Nylander, Logan Brown, Mike McLeod, Riley Tufte and Trent Frederic. In case you’re wondering, Tampa grabbed current Ranger Brett Howden at number 27.

One more Dallas victory and the Rangers pick up another first round pick in the upcoming Draft. It was a conditional second and conditional third for Mats Zuccarello, who has six assists against the Blues. Zucc hasn’t missed a beat. He is 3-6-9 so far in 11 games. Expect him to re-sign as the Stars are a great fit.

Jason Spezza has three goals for the Stars versus the Blues in a fourth line role under coach Jim Montgomery. Give Spezza credit.

Has there been a more physical series than the Blue Jackets and Bruins in recent years? These teams are going at it physically during play and scrums. The hitting is ferocious. It’s last man standing.

I wasn’t a proponent of signing Panarin. But his postseason has proven he’s worth the risk if the Rangers convince him to come. A puck possession beast, the gifted playmaking Russian is a smart offensive player who knows how to create space for his linemates. He makes everyone better and has been clutch. They’ll need some more from him to advance.

If Panarin and Bobrovsky leave, what happens with Duchene? He definitely fits in well under Torts. But would you re-up if your best teammates go?

Speaking of Bobrovsky, I think he’s erased his bad reputation that he can’t perform in the Spring. He was unbelievable against the Lightning and continues to make big saves against the Bruins. Look how long it took Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand to get going.

The Isles should make Lehner top priority. He’s gonna win the Masterton Trophy and finish in the top three for Vezina. He didn’t even make $2 million. What a bargain. Get him done and then concentrate on key UFA’s Lee, Nelson and Eberle. I think they’ll re-sign Lee and Lehner with Nelson 50/50. Eberle will leave. His playoff showing helped him.

If they want to build on this year, GM Lou Lamoriello needs to spend the money. He should be in on Jeff Skinner, who can finish some of the plays the Isles couldn’t convert on. Maybe even take a gander at Duchene. But that’s a long shot.

According to Elliotte Friedman, the Pens are expected to explore trade options with big names Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel possibly available. I would keep Letang, who’s so valuable to that blueline. He’s a top six defenseman who could be up for the Norris. They all had bad playoffs including Sidney Crosby. The problem with moving guys like Malkin and Kessel are how much they’re still owed. Plus the unenviable NTC. It’s not like they’re gonna rebuild with Crosby. You can’t.

What I said regarding Skjei in the post above compared to Slavin is more than fair. Skjei has a similar skill set. Starting this October, it’s time for him to show it. He’s being counted on by the Rangers. His play took a step in the right direction after the trade deadline. It’s about finding consistency. His skating is good enough to become a 30-35 point player who can affect more play in all three zones. We’ll see if he delivers.

If Slavin has raised eyebrows with his postseason, so has Seth Jones. The unquestioned anchor of the Columbus back end, he logs big minutes and an play in any situation and do it well on both sides of the puck. The more the trade of him for Ryan Johansen goes by, the better it looks for CBJ. No disrespect to Johansen, who had a big 2017 playoffs to help Nashville reach the Stanley Cup Final.

It would mean everything to see Joe Thornton play for the Stanley Cup. This could be his last chance. San Jose lost to Pittsburgh in 2016. Jumbo Joe is one of the classiest and best players the game has seen. He is someone to root for.

Nobody goes from Point A to Point B like Nathan MacKinnon. He is so fast in transition, it’s scary. What makes him even more daunting is his uncanny ability to maneuver around D and fire that magic bullet of a shot past goalies. Yikes.

Count me in as one of the few who think Marchand deserved to be included for the Hart Trophy. Nothing against Connor McDavid. But his team didn’t make the playoffs and Leon Draisaitl hit 50 goals and also 100 points. Marchand hit the century mark for the first time in his career and accomplished it with Pastrnak and Bergeron missing games. Say what you will about The Rat’s antics. He got hosed.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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