Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News. He's been part of the THN team since 2011, but he's been married to hockey since he got beat up for collecting NHL sticker books in the mid-1980s. If you like strong opinions on the game itself, fantasy hockey tips and a hefty dose of pop culture in your readings, he's your man. And yes, the eyebrows are real.
It was “Wow” and “It figures” rolled into one. Game 7 of the St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars’ Central Division final matchup was surprising and unsurprising.
The Stars, eating a 6-1 drubbing at home after winning Game 6 on the road? Hm. Not sure anyone saw such a lopsided defeat coming. But the way they lost summed up their season, as a festering problem never got resolved. It came down to goaltending.
Kari Lehtonen was a nightmare in Game 7, allowing three goals on eight shots. One game earlier, he was sensational, stopping 35 of 37 Blues attempts and almost singlehandedly extending the series. Lehtonen appeared in 11 playoff games, posting a save percentage of .946 or higher in four and an SP below .900 in six. He got pulled mid-game twice.
Antti Niemi entered Wednesday’s Game 7 in relief after the first period and wasn’t much better, allowing two goals on 10 shots. He, too, was inconsistent in the post-season, posing a .933 SP or better twice and sitting below .800 in his three other appearances, two of which came in relief.
No one should act overly shocked to learn the Stars’ goaltending undid them when it mattered in the post-season. General manager Jim Nill believed it was prudent to spell Kari Lehtonen because of Dallas’ brutal travel schedule and committed a $4.5-million cap hit last summer for three years of Niemi’s services. Coupled with Lehtonen’s $5,9-million AAV, that meant a $10.2-million commitment for two goalies who weren’t top-15 commodities in the NHL. Lehtonen and Niemi ranked 38th and 40th in 2015-16 with SPs of .906 and .905, respectively. Among the 49 goalies with 1,000 or more minutes played 5-on-5 this year, Lehtonen was 47th, Niemi 29th. Poor regular-season play translated into unreliable post-season play in the end, and coach Lindy Ruff’s occasional wavering between starters from game to game couldn’t have helped either netminder’s confidence.
Expressions like “team of destiny” or “peaking at the right time” get thrown around every Stanley Cup playoffs but exist for a reason. The franchise that blooms when it counts sometimes goes go all the way and wins a championship. The 2012 Los Angeles Kings crusaded to a Cup as a No. 8 seed. The 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins looked lost in February and hoisted the chalice four months later. The 2000 New Jersey Devils slumped badly enough to fire their coach while in first place, then put it all together in time for post-season glory.
And the 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins have that same positive juju going. It doesn’t seem to matter what obstacle pops up in front of them. They bowl right through it at breakneck speed.
The Pens sat 15-10-3 Dec. 12, the day they fired coach Mike Johnston. They ranked 28th in scoring. They were 20th in 5-on-5 score-adjusted Corsi. Captain Sidney Crosby had a disastrous six goals and 19 points in 28 games. Hyped off-season acquisition Phil Kessel had nine goals and 17 points in 28 games. He somehow couldn’t seem to make magic with Crosby or Malkin, the best two scoring centers of this generation. Pittsburgh had no first-round pick in the upcoming draft for the third time in four years. It had mortgaged the future for a Stanley Cup push as Crosby and Malkin approached the end of their primes, and it appeared the championship window was closing.
The San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues’ fates have felt linked throughout the 2016 playoffs. They each were said to have exorcised demons in Round 1, with San Jose defeating the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis toppling the Chicago Blackhawks. The Sharks and Blues had the chance to finish off their respective series Monday night and book a date with each other in the Western Conference final…but it wasn’t to be. The Blues fell short at home to Dallas, and San Jose dropped a thriller in Nashville.
The Sharks and Preds started the third period at Bridgestone Arena tied 2-2. A Logan Couture power play goal had San Jose tasting victory, but red-hot Colin Wilson answered less than two minutes later. It was off to overtime, where Viktor Arvidsson took the stage, roofing this remarkable backhander past Martin Jones:
It doesn’t get any more top-corner than that. At first glance, it looks like a shot Jones should’ve had, but the backhander is the hardest shot for a netminder to track off the stick, even if it’s a clean look, and Arvidsson’s couldn’t have been placed any better. It also looks like it changed directions a bit off the blade of Sharks D-man Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s stick. It was his first career post-season goal and, because of it, the Predators are now deeper into the calendar than they’ve ever been in their history. They’d never won seven playoff games in one year until now. A road victory in San Jose in Game 7 would punch Nashville’s first Western Conference final ticket ever, though no road team has won a game in this series yet.
The Sharks still have to be viewed as favorites in Game 7, as they’ll play in their own barn and their power play continues to absolutely sizzle. But they have plenty of reason to quake in their skates a bit. The Preds really put the pressure on them in the third period and overtime of Game 6, and they’ve had the possession stat edge in 5-on-5 Corsi four times in the past five games this series. The Sharks will have to limit their shot attempts allowed in Game 7 – and find away to contain the dynamite line of Colin Wilson, Mike Fisher and James Neal.
But guess what? The Blues still lost. They couldn’t find the tying goal, not even when Jaden Schwartz got a 10-bell chance in the dying moments, which Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen turned away with an epic pad save. St. Louis looked like the better team for much of Game 6, but it wasn’t enough. Now the Blues head back to Dallas for Game 7 with the possibility of Stars sniper Tyler Seguin returning from his Achilles injury.
The San Jose Sharks were a win away from eliminating the Nashville Predators entering Game 6 of their second-round series Monday night, and the Sharks started out strong on the road with two goals. But Preds defenseman Roman Josi scored to get his team back within a goal before the end of the first period. And, in the second, center Ryan Johansen pulled out a dandy of a goal…sort of.
The move itself: a thing of beauty. But, wow, this has to be one of the slowest dekes ever, a silky skate lift to fake out Sharks defenseman Justin Braun, a power move into the slot and a low back-hander past goaltender Martin Jones. Check it out:
Well, that didn’t quite go as planned for the St. Louis Blues. The stage was set for a Game 6 triumph against the Dallas Stars. The Blues were at home, up 3-2 in the series and on the brink of advancing to their first Western Conference final since 2001.
But Blues goaltender Brian Elliott, who had a .932 save percentage in the 2016 post-season before Monday, was not himself. He fought the puck early and simply couldn’t make a save.
Left winger Mattias Janmark struck with a seemingly harmless wrist shot 4:53 into the first period:
We listened and waited for Jaromir Jagr to finish laughing.
There should be no sweeter sound to a Florida Panther fan right now. Jagr spoke to reporters, including THN, on a conference call Friday a day after signing a one-year, $4-million extension with the Florida Panthers, and he had a case of the giggles. He couldn’t take seriously the concept of his body breaking down. That’s how good he feels physically, at 44, after completing his 22nd NHL season. Aging is so far off the radar that he perceives the idea almost as a joke if asked about it.
To most North Americans he’s Jori Lehtera, St. Louis Blues center, fine puck distributor and habitual Vladimir Tarasenko linemate.
To his native Finns, Lehtera is more. What Chester Cheetah is to Cheetos…Lehtera is to a chip brand? In Finland?
Yes, according to this zany TV commercial that surfaced on YouTube Wednesday:
Lehtera stars as himself, being pitched by a scenery-chewing American to be the spokesman of Linkosuo Ruislastu chips. Cut to fantasy sequence including: Lehtera getting cozy with a blonde woman and showing off his ripped physique, a-la jeans model; Lehtera as an action movie hero; Lehtera as a governor? Lehtera as an astronaut? Yes. And he sells it all pretty well.
The chips are actually from a Finnish bakery. Linkosuo specializes in rye-based snacks. The mysterious woman Lehtera snuggles and later carries away from wreckage? His wife, Lotta Lehtera, a fitness model. As Finnish broadcaster Antti Makinen explained to me, Lotta’s father, Timo Janne, just happens to be GM of Linkosuo. And it all makes sense now.
A little over the top for a rye chip company? Nah. It’s fun. It would be nice the see more North American ads going this far. Connor McDavid, leading man? Why not? And we might as well say what we’re all thinking: couldn’t the World Cup ads be more like this?