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.
PITTSBURGH – Penguins center Nick Bonino attracts clutch goals like a human magnet. He entered Game 1 of his first Stanley Cup final with three career overtime winners, including a series-clincher against the Washington Capitals in this year’s Metropolitan Division final. Bonino had four game-winning goals in 48 career post-season contests. And in game No. 49, he puffed up the number to five.
With just 2:33 remaining in a 2-2 game, one in which the San Jose Sharks fought back from a 2-0 deficit after a blowout first period, Bonino added another memorable goal to his expanding collection. He took a gorgeous seeing-eye pass from defenseman Kris Letang, corralled the puck and roofed it past goalie Martin Jones. The Pens held on for a 3-2 win. A look at the goal:
Back to the magnet analogy. It fits, because Bonino doesn’t hunt for the epic moments. They just find him. And he knows exactly why.
“Just the biggest thing for me is to try and stay even keel and not change my game, whether it’s game 1 of the season or the Stanley Cup final,” Bonino said. “That allows me to stay in the moment there.”
PITTSBURGH – This thing is going six or seven games. That’s the consensus among hockey pundits. The Stanley cup final between the San Jose Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins is so evenly matched that few if anyone can imagine a short series.
Both teams have tremendous star power at forward. Both teams have steady, confident young goaltenders. Both teams get contributions from all four lines. Both teams have a Clydesdale No. 1 defenseman.
There appears to be one distinct edge in this matchup on paper, however. The Sharks have the deeper, more experienced defense corps. Paul Martin and Brent Burns have been among the NHL’s very best tandems all season. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun have formed a strong second pair. Brenden Dillon and Roman Polak are no slouches, either.
PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Penguins have become the schoolyard bullies of these Stanley Cup playoffs, and not in the traditional sense. You won’t see this team dropping mitts with reckless abandon. Their opponents don’t come down with the CONSOL Energy Center Flu, as traumatized teams used to every time they visited the Philadelphia Spectrum in the mid-1970s.
No, these Penguins are a different kind of bully. They tilt the ice to what feels like a 45-degree angle and cram puck after puck after puck down their opponents’ throats. They are the modern incarnation of an intimidator: the analytics version, pelting opponents with shot attempts.
Per war-on-ice.com, The Tampa Bay Lightning were one of the NHL’s best possession teams, ranking sixth in score-adjusted Corsi percentage, and the Penguins made Tampa look like the exact opposite. The Corsi (shot attempt) margins for Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference final:
Game 1: 71-40
Game 2: 69-44
Game 3: 78-50
Game 4: 65-48
Game 5: 54-56
Game 6: 55-60
Game 7: 64-42
The Penguins controlled the possession game five times in the series. They kept their foot on Tampa’s throat regardless of the score. Instead of going into a defensive shell with a lead in the third period of Game 7, Pittsburgh outshot Tampa 10-7. The margin was 39-17 overall.
How does Pittsburgh seemingly put every opponent, even the offensively elite Washington Capitals in Round 2, back on its heels? The straightforward answer is speed. The Conor Sheary-Sidney Crosby-Patric Hornqvist line skates. The HBK line, Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel, really skates. The Chris Kunitz-Evgeni Malkin-Bryan Rust line skates. Fleet-footed Rust put daggers in the Bolts’ hearts in Games 6 and 7. The D-corps, from Kris Letang to Olli Maatta, skates. But it’s more than that. This team’s personality changed completely Dec. 12, 2015, when coach Mike Sullivan took over. They ranked 20th in 5-on-5 score adjusted Corsi and 28th in goals per game at the time of coach Mike Johnston’s firing. Sullivan came in, and the Pens were second only to the Los Angeles Kings for the rest of the season in 5-on-5 score-adjusted Corsi. It seems Sullivan unlocked or unshackled this team.
The Tampa Bay Lightning didn’t quite match last year’s brilliance but, considering the obstacles they faced this spring, they should be darned proud of what they accomplished.
They won two playoff rounds and reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final without Steven Stamkos, their best player. They went 9-2 without their second-best defenseman, Anton Stralman, before getting him back in for Game 2 against Pittsburgh. They lost their franchise goalie, Ben Bishop, in Game 1 against the Penguins and still pushed them to the brink. With a little more luck on the health front, the Bolts easily could’ve matched last season’s Stanley Cup final appearance and maybe even won it all.
The 2015-16 season should thus be considered a resounding success. The Lightning also have a lot to look forward to going forward. Before we anoint them serious 2016-17 contenders, however, they have many problems to solve this off-season. Few if any GMs have a longer, more significant laundry list than Steve Yzerman. Tampa is the summer’s most interesting team. Here are five crucial storylines to watch.
Chris Phillips’ NHL career is over. The steady defenseman called it quits officially in a press conference Thursday after 17 seasons, all with the Ottawa Senators, the team that drafted him first overall in 1996. Phillips missed all of 2015-16, as he sustained a cracked vertebra rehabbing from off-season back surgery, but he still finishes his career as the franchise’s all-time leader in games. Phillips played his 1,179th and final one Feb. 5, 2015. It was enough to surpass Daniel Alfredsson’s team record by one.
Phillips said Thursday he made the decision to retire along with his family and doctors.
“I loved and will miss the competition of going up against the league’s best,” he told reporters. “I will miss everything the game has to offer and am grateful for everything it has given to me.”
Senators GM Pierre Dorion announced Thursday Phillips will stay on with the organization to work with alumni and in the community. Phillips’ philanthropic impact on Ottawa has been significant over the years. He and his family have assisted 22 charities in the community, Senators beat writer Bruce Garrioch reports.
When Ottawa kicked off the 1996 draft with Phillips in the top spot, then-GM Pierre Gauthier would’ve been thrilled if we emerged from a time machine and told him his new cornerstone D-man would spend his entire career in Canada’s capital and walk away second among active NHL blueliners in games. Phillips played in the 2007 Stanley Cup final. He received Norris Trophy votes in two of his seasons. But will he be remembered as the “right” choice at No. 1 overall in 1996?
All it took was a quarter century of blood, sweat and playoff anguish. Finally, the San Jose Sharks will play in a Stanley Cup final. They came home to the SAP Center for Game 6 of their Western Conference final Wednesday night against the St. Louis Blues. Whereas previous incarnations of the Sharks may have crumbled under the pressure, the 2015-16 version showed killer instinct right away. They took the lead on a Joe Pavelski goal 3:57 into the first period and never relinquished it, winning 5-2, weathering a mini-storm from the Blues in the third.
The San Jose Sharks arrived on the NHL scene in 1991-92, kicking off the NHL’s Sun Belt expansion. The early years were ugly as can be, with the Sharks winning 28 game over their first two seasons combined, joining the Mount Rushmore of awful hockey teams with the 1974-75 Washington Capitals and the 1992-93 Ottawa Senators. The Sharks awakened as a relevant team in 1993-94 under coach Kevin Constantine when they upset the Detroit Red Wings in the first round of the playoffs and have been a competitive franchise ever since, making the post-season in 18 their past 22 campaigns. But they were perpetually the so-close-yet-so far team, losing three times in the Western Conference final, twice during Jumbo Joe Thornton’s prime. Coach Ron Wilson couldn’t get them over the top. Todd McLellan couldn’t do it.
But, finally, the Sharks are Stanley Cup finalists. They toppled the St. Louis Blues in six games, shutting down St. Louis’ most dangerous forwards, especially Vladimir Tarasenko, whose lone goals game with the score 4-0 in Game 6. The Sharks’ elite players shone through, especially Pavelski, who scored his 13th goal of the playoffs in Game 6 and has to be the Conn Smythe Trophy frontrunner right now.
Let’s be honest: we could rhyme off several Conn Smythe Trophy candidates from the San Jose Sharks before we get to goaltender Martin Jones. It’s nothing against Jones. It’s just that he hasn’t been too busy. Entering Game 6 of the Western Conference final against the St. Louis Blues, Jones had faced 26 or fewer shots in every game, though he was pulled in one of those.
The Blues managed just five shots in the first period of Game 5 as they faced elimination, and they’d fallen behind 2-0 by the 5:02 mark of the second period. They gained momentum later in the second, however, managing 11 shots on Jones. They finally tested him, none more than center Jori Lehtera, who had a 10-bell chance in the slot on a one-time feed from Robby Fabbri halfway through the period. Watch Jones’ smooth pad save:
Who said we had to wait until draft day for major off-season trades to start happening? The Florida Panthers and Vancouver Canucks bamboozled us with a surprise trade Wednesday night, reported by Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston.
The Panthers sent defenseman Erik Gudbranson and a 2016 fifth-round pick to the Vancouver Canucks for center Jared McCann, a 2016 second-round pick and a 2016 fourth-round pick. No salary was retained as part of the transaction, Johnston reports.
It’s a curious, interesting trade from each team’s perspective. The Canucks needed veteran defensive help. Dan Hamhuis, Matt Bartkowski and Yannick Weber are unrestricted free agents this summer, and youngsters Andrey Pedan and Nikita Tryamkin aren’t shoo-ins to be full-time NHLers next year. Gudbranson, the third overall pick in 2010, certainly fills that gap. He’ll almost certainly slot into Vancouver’s top four.
At the same time, the Canucks and GM Jim Benning paid a pretty big price. That second-round pick going Florida’s way is 33rd overall, so it’s almost like a late first-rounder. Speaking of first-rounders: so was center McCann, chosen 24th overall in 2014. McCann had an up-and-down rookie season, but he’s only 19, he managed nine goals, and it was his first and only year of professional hockey. He jumped from the OHL to the NHL, with no stop in AHL Utica. He projects as a good two-way NHL pivot. The Canucks do have Henrik Sedin, Bo Horvat and Brandon Sutter up the middle, but Sedin will be 36 when next season starts, so Vancouver isn’t exactly rolling in long-term depth.