Welcome to Hockey After Dark, a nightly recap of the NHL playoffs made possible by insomnia, playoff anxiety, and my BFF caffeine. Come for the topical social commentary, and stay for the sporadic in-depth analysis littered with obscure pop culture references. If you enjoy the snark, feel free to follow me at @DXTraeger
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Pittsburgh Penguins are primed for a productive playoff push.
Consonance aside, this iteration of the Penguins surprised virtually everyone by finishing first in the…
…MassMutual NHL® East Division.
It’s safe to say that all divisions were NOT created equal by the NHL brass. And so it was that while the Penguins were caught in a regular season blender alongside the Islanders, Capitals, Bruins, Flyers, and Rangers…
…the fans of the insufferable Toronto Maple Leafs were gifted the rest of the NHL’s Canadian franchises. (Yes, yes, this was because of border issues created by Covid-19 testing, but it’s more fun to dream in Canadian Conspiracy Theories).
Perhaps not coincidentally, facing only the Great White North’s version of the Washington Generals, the admittedly uber-talented Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers scored 104 points in a measly 56 game schedule, while Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs scored 41 goals.
Toronto media conclusion: obviously, Auston Matthews is a better player than Mario Lemieux.
I’m sure that it’s pure coincidence that in a sport run by Canadians, a Canadian franchise is guaranteed to be in the
Conference Semi-Finals, and there’s an excellent chance that the franchise representing America’s Hat will be the Toronto Maple Leafs.
When all of the smoke of the regular season cleared, the– oh, what’s that? the regular season isn’t over because of the Canadian franchises but the playoffs started anyway?– the Penguins have a date with their 2019 nemesis, the Barry Trotz led New York Islanders.
I’ll get to this rematch in a moment, but the MassMutual NHL® East Division kicked off the 2021 NHL postseason with Tom Wilson’s Capitals playing host to Brad Marchand’s Bruins.
This wasn’t exactly the meeting of the minds; this was, instead, a scene stolen straight from The Muppet’s Christmas Carol. Where else but puppet world would a human trash can (Wilson) face-off against a rat on skates (Rizzo)?
The Washington Capitals had themselves a weird night, but emerged from their Game 1 kerfuffle victorious, 3-2, when Nic Dowd tipped home a T.J. Oshie shot from the point early into the first overtime.
To get to that point, the Capitals had to survive the dreaded “lower-body injury” to starting netminder Vitek Vanecek, Alexander Ovechkin leveling his own teammate, and backup goalie Craig Anderson doing full-on Vitruvian Man in his own, dislodged net.
This game also featured the only time I can ever remember Alexander Ovechkin being cross-checked/worked over by two of the opposing team’s players. How tragic that Ovechkin had to experience, for one night, what Sidney Crosby has endured oh-let’s-see VIRTUALLY EVERY GAME OF HIS CAREER.
Anyway, noted pee drinker Tom Wilson (citation needed) opened scoring with a corner snipe off of the rush. Wilson would also assist on Dowd’s game-winner, finishing with two points and the ire of Bruins fans.
The physicality was evident from the drop of the puck, with both teams willing to take the extra stride to deliver a hit, which in turn yielded multiple odd-men breaks for both sides. Tremendous back-checking efforts to negate these opportunities served perhaps the best notice that the playoffs had indeed arrived.
Craig Anderson entered the game after Vanecek’s injury, and put his second best playoff save percentage in NHL history to work by playing confidently, showing the patience to stay up in his stance instead of panic butterfly. Given that Anderson’s last playoff overtime game ended…
…his ability to just play gave the Capitals a spark on a night where they did not play their best hockey.
Metropolitan Division MassMutual NHL® East Division foes will take the ice for Game 2 on Monday night.
PENGUINS VERSUS ISLANDERS THOUGHTS
While the essential Penguins/Islanders breakdown has already been composed by the incomparable Jesse Marshall, here are a few ways the 2021 Penguins are better constructed to play the Islanders than their 2019 former selves:
- Jack Johnson is no longer rostered by the Pittsburgh Penguins. This elegant example of “addition by subtraction” is perhaps the most immediate difference between this year and 2019.
- The 2021 Penguins have more speed and more depth up and down their lineup. This is especially true on the blue line. This extra speed will play into zone entries, puck retrievals, and offensive zone activation. Absolutely none of these options were available to Pittsburgh as their roster was constructed in 2019.
- Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang seem to have gotten the memo about trying to play “hero hockey.” Everybody understands what this is, right? “Hero hockey” is looking at a three-man trap and envisioning yourself splitting the defense and scoring the game-winning goal. “Hero hockey” is also being stripped of the puck and not being able to get back to defend the 2-on-1 break that you created for the other team. Letang and Malkin are incredibly talented and capable without having to try and win the game all by themselves.
- Dominik Simon is no longer rostered by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Simon’s greatest contribution to the game of hockey was being a possession and analytics darling that unequivocally did not live up to his data. Simon shall be a cautionary tale until the end of time.
- Mathew Barzal of the Islanders is probably my favorite non-Penguin player. His possession skills, coupled with his hunched over skating style, reminds me of Pavel Datsyuk.
- Jordan Eberle is to the Pittsburgh Penguins as Sidney Crosby is to the Philadelphia Flyers.
- Tristan Jarry will experience the full weight of being a playoff goalie for the first time today. Jarry may have once invoked comparisons to Marc-Andre Fleury because of his athleticism, but a more fair comparison may be former Penguins netminder Tom Barrasso. Jarry may not shut the opponent out, but all he has to do is allow one fewer goal than what the Penguins score. That’s it. That’s the standard of excellence.
And now…your moment of Hockey After Dark Zen: