It was a week ago that there was a lot of excitement for fans of 16 NHL teams. Now, we’re down to 14 with two more teams facing elimination tonight.
The Avalanche are already waiting for the Golden Knights, who host the Wild for Game Five later. If they win, it’ll be four in a row after losing Game One. Mark Stone’s big goal in Game Three and celebration pumped up Vegas, who have took over even without Max Pacioretty. With Marc-Andre Fleury playing brilliantly in net, there hasn’t been much Kirill Kaprizov can do. Cam Talbot hasn’t had a bad series either. His team has been severely outplayed by a serious Stanley Cup contender intent on providing an appetizing second round match up that’s highly anticipated. We’ll see if they end it.
There’s a pretty big Game Five between the Islanders and Penguins. The series is all even at two apiece with the pivotal game at Pittsburgh. The question is after unravelling in a lopsided Game Four loss before a raucous atmosphere at Nassau Coliseum, can the Pens answer the bell tonight? Sidney Crosby has no points in three straight and Jake Guentzel has been very quiet. Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang showed frustration against the gritty Barry Trotz coached Islanders, who have done this before to these Pens. It can’t only be Jeff Carter and Brandon Tanev providing the offense for Pittsburgh. For the Isles, rookie Ilya Sorokin is now the man in net. Having won both starts while Semyon Varlamov has struggled, he’s been cool like Fonz. Brock Nelson, Josh Bailey and Anthony Beauvillier are leading the way while Mat Barzal sets up teammates and rookie Oliver Wahlstrom is proving he belongs. Is it again advantage Long Island or can the Penguins answer back?
The other team now patiently waiting for the second round to begin are the much improved Bruins. A week ago, they were beaten in overtime by the Caps and nearly fell behind two games to none. However, a huge tying goal from Taylor Hall changed things. Brad Marchand provided his usual overtime heroics followed by a game tying power play goal in Game Three before Craig Smith took full advantage of Justin Schultz’ laziness after Ilya Samsonov dropped the puck for him behind the net. It was all too stunning. Washington never recovered. Boston dominated Game Four and led by David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Tuukka Rask, ousted the beat up Caps yesterday to advance in five. Honestly, it looked like several Washington players were not themselves including Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and the ghost of John Carlson. Despite a lot of nastiness in the first three games, even Tom Wilson, Garnet Hathaway and Nic Dowd couldn’t save the defeated Capitals from a third straight first round exit. Ovechkin is a free agent. I think he’s loyal and will stay. But expect changes in DC including Evgeny Kuznetsov likely shopped for his carelessness.
As far as the Oilers go, the less said, the better. How do you lead a must win Game Three 4-1 with under nine minutes left and then totally meltdown in a shocking 5-4 overtime loss at Winnipeg? Take nothing away from the Jets, who never gave up. Helped by an awful interference penalty on Josh Archibald, they quickly scored on a power play. But then got goals 16 seconds apart to tie it up. They did it without the great support of their fans. That should’ve been advantage Edmonton. Instead, they imploded. This was the Miracle On Manchester. It was the same Kings stunning the Red Wings. Insanity. You’d figure with both Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl coming to life, it would be enough. Not so fast. And in sudden death, a crucial face-off loss led directly to a bullet from Nik Ehlers stunning Mike Smith for the fourth unanswered goal to give the Jets a 3-0 stranglehold. They also can wrap it up later due to the ridiculous NHL schedule that has both North Division series playing back to backs. That includes an intriguing Game Three between the Maple Leafs and Canadiens, who will finally dress Cole Caufield.
There’s a lot to dissect in the first round. While Boston has moved on, the Pens are in a life and death struggle with the Isles. You have the Hurricanes knowing they must hold serve tomorrow in Game Five against the resilient Predators,who beat them twice in Nashville thanks to double overtime heroics. Do they miss Jaccob Slavin? Injuries are always part of the best Playoffs. That one should be intriguing to follow.
That’s what makes the Stanley Cup the hardest trophy to win in sports. It takes so much sacrifice and commitment to get to 16 wins. Better known as 16W if you rooted for the Devils in the glory days when they played at The Meadowlands. There are so many more stories and subplots coming. That includes Nazem Kadri seeing his playoff shadow. Will he ever learn? It could cost Colorado if that second round happens against Vegas.
There’s nothing going on in Rangers Town. Unless you’re following a weakened Worlds that features Colin Blackwell and Kevin Rooney on Team USA along with Zac Jones. Exactly. Take a look at the Canadian roster that’s 0-2. It’s pointless. Usually, I have a mild interest in the tournament. Not this time.
And finally, has there ever been a worse trade made by the Rangers than the one that sent future power forward Rick Middleton to the Bruins for a washed up Ken Hodge? Who do you think wanted that one? Maybe Phil Esposito, who for as great a player as he was, was a total disaster as Coach and GM after retirement. Sure. He gets credit for leading the underdog ’79 Blueshirts to the Stanley Cup Final before they lost to the Canadiens’ dynasty. Even Carol Vadnais was instrumental during that run built around John Davidson, Ron Greschner, Dave and Don Maloney, Anders Hedberg, Don Murdoch, Ron Duguay and Walt Tkaczuk. Why did they trade Mike McEwen in a package for Barry Beck? I know Beck was All-Star caliber. Ultimately, injuries finished his career. “Shoot The Puck, Barry!”
Regarding Middleton, he totaled 46 goals and 90 points his first two seasons on Broadway. Hodge didn’t even reach that total in his two years before hanging up the skates. Middleton with the Bruins scored 40 or more goals five consecutive years including a career high 51 (19 PPG) in ’81-82 for Boston. He topped the 100 point mark twice including a career best 105 in ’83-84. Middleton spent 12 years in Beantown producing at over a point-per-game clip. Over 881 games as a Boston Bruin, he finished with 402 goals, 496 assists and 898 points. He also was a plus-220.
For his 14-year NHL career, Middleton wound up with 448 goals, 540 assists and 988 points in 1,005 games. Why isn’t he in the Hockey Hall Of Fame? Those numbers are certainly good enough. Is it due to him not reaching 500 goals and 1,000 points? That didn’t stop them from inducting popular Bruins power forward Cam Neely. Middleton had a postseason where he put up 11 goals and 33 points in ’83. He went 45-55-100 in 114 playoff games. They lost to the great Islanders Dynasty. In his final season back in ’87-88, Boston reached the Stanley Cup Final before falling to another dynasty in the Oilers. He shared the captaincy with Ray Bourque. In 19 games, Middleton had five goals with five assists. Boston played 23 during that run. They were swept. Game Four was the infamous Blackout at Boston Garden. They stopped play and instead replayed the game at Northlands Coliseum where Edmonton completed the unconventional sweep.
I’m old enough to remember Neely. He came over from Vancouver in another great trade and evolved into a dominant power forward who hit 50 goals three different times. That included the memorable 50 in 49 during ’93-94 before injuries derailed his 13-year career. Neely finished with 395 goals and 299 assists for a total of 694 points in only 726 games. He went 344-246-590 with 921 penalty minutes and a plus-137 in 525 games as a Bruin. Was he better than Middleton? I know what my father’s answer would be. He liked Neely as did my brother and I. It stands to reason that if Neely is in, so should Middleton.
I had wanted to do something about Rick Middleton for a while. That’s a regrettable trade in Rangers’ history. They’ve had many. Name one worse.