Scott Taylor

Rinne the Star of 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

The number sits out there like a shining beacon on the hill: .951.

That’s Pekka Rinne’s NHL-leading playoff save percentage, the day after he led the Nashville Predators into the Western Conference final.

Of the goalies remaining in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Rinne is clearly the hottest goalie of the bunch. Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers is next at .930 while Marc-Andre Fleury of the Penguins is third at .929. The Oilers’ Cam Talbot is fourth at .924 and then Ottawa’s Craig Anderson is a mediocre .909.

Frankly, the goaltending in the second round of this year’s post-season hasn’t been particularly sparkling. Heck, even Lundqvist gave up five in his last start. However, Rinne has been the exception.

After Jake Allen of the St. Louis Blues took out the Minnesota Wild in the first round – and make no mistake, Allen was the ONLY reason St. Louis upset the Wild – it appeared as if the second round matchup between Nashville and the Blues would be a thriller. Two hot goaltenders and two underdog teams were going to make this series memorable.

Neither occurred. All thanks to Rinne.

After taking out Chicago in four straight and then beating the Blues in six, Rinne is now 8-2 in the post-season with a league best 1.37 goals against average and that eye-popping .951 save percentage. He’s playing his best hockey and the league’s best hockey at exactly the right time

“He gives us the confidence we need,” defenseman Roman Josi told NBCSN. “I think every game he’s been our best player. He’s so confident back there. He’s confident in making saves. He’s confident in passing the puck. And he’s been unbelievable for us.”

He is the reason the Predators will face either the Anaheim Ducks or Edmonton Oilers in the Western final.

And make no mistake, he had to be good to be better than Allen, the goaltender he beat in the second round. After all, despite all the media analysis you might have seen or read about the Blues’ first-round victory over Minnesota, the real reason – and the only reason – St. Louis won that series was the play of Allen.

“I don’t know how we could have been better,” said Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau after Minnesota was removed in five games by the Blues. “Their goaltender stopped 40 shots a game. And it’s not like the shots didn’t come from everywhere. They came from in close, from between the circles and from the perimeter. We took shots from everywhere. Tip your cap. He was just better than we were.”

For those Minnesota fans and followers who still want to blame (a) Boudreau, (b) Parise and Suter, (c) Devan Dubnyk or (d) all the other players Chuck Fletcher ever brought to St. Paul, just check out these numbers: Jake Allen had a 1.47 goals-against average and a .956 save percentage in Round 1 against the Wild. That was monstrous.

After the first round against Minnesota, Allen was No. 2 in the running for the Conn Smythe Trophy. Of course, he was well behind Pekka Rinne.

Rinne is a 6-foot-5, 34-year-old goaltender from Finland with 11 years of NHL experience. He has long been one of the two or three best netminders in the NHL. In 64 games with the Preds this season, he had a 2.42 goals against average and a .918 save percentage to go with a 31-19-9 record. It wasn’t his best season in the NHL, but it certainly wasn’t his worst.

Right now, however, he’s in the midst of his best playoff run ever. Period. He led the Preds when they swept Chicago in the first round and he made Jake Allen look like, well, Jake Allen again, in Round 2 against St. Louis. Now, he has a chance to take the Predators to a place the franchise has never been before – the Stanley Cup final.

Don’t be surprised if he pulls it off…

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Thomas U. Tuttle

Wild ghosts of days gone by…

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by Thomas U. Tuttle

 

When I was a young guy, there was a youth hockey team called the Minor Hawks that played out of Chicago and traveled around playing the best teams that could be found. Unlike the famous NHL Blackhawks, indoor ice time was at a premium and outdoor rink hockey was at the whim of the weather spirits. Still, this early traveling all-star team was about as good a squad as any in the Midwest.

Or should I say “lower” Midwest. Because of a fair amount of local-area success, the coaches decided to play some more serious competition late in a 1970’s-era season, so up we went to Madison, Wisconsin, where the competition ramped up and the losses, while consecutive, were fairly competitive.

Then it was on to tournaments in the Twin Cities and Duluth, and soon a whole new understanding of the  game of hockey was brought to our attention – along with fast skating, solid checking, tape-to-tape passing, wicked wrist-shots, solid slap-shots and serious goaltending. There was a group realization by the Chicago kids that not only were we overmatched and outscored – we really really didn’t belong in the same building with the guys from Minnesota. They might have been 13 and 14 years old, but the dudes from the State of Hockey schooled us big-time and the numbers on the scoreboard reflected that.

I’m not sure this reminiscence has much to do with the Minnesota Wild’s demise in the first round of the NHL playoffs, although the Wild ended up being schooled in five games by the St. Louis Blues and coach Mike Yeo. Yes, goalie Jake Allen was stellar in the nets – particularly in the first game when he stood on his head in making 51 saves on 52 shots – and the Blues were timely on offense, but it seemed like Mike Yeo knew what needed to be done for victory and executed his plan perfectly.

While Allen certainly deserves all the credit for the victory in game one, Yeo ramped up his defense for the rest of the series, using his knowledge of Minnesota and its players to turn up the heat on the Wild scorers. The Blues played a super-physical brand of hockey and made the Wild work hard to get any scoring opportunities, using guys with names like Bortuzzo and Bouwmeester, Pietrangelo and Parayko to clog up the middle and make sure the W’s offensive threats knew what they were up against.

And actually, this reminded me of our best guys on the Minor Hawks, Ray and Eddie and Big Al, being shut-down in the Twin Cities and Duluth on our trip up north. Every time our top players started to move up the ice, looking for some space to execute, here would come two or three big kids ready to bust things up. In our case, we had never seen pressure like that, and it didn’t let up. Just scoring a goal was a cause for major celebration (I think we scored six during our week in Minnesota).

The Wild have been in tight checking games, and they are not young kids. But take a look at the production of Minnesota’s top offensive threats in the playoffs versus the regular season. Leading scorer Mikael Granlund was almost invisible, with no goals in the playoffs. Nino Niederreiter and Zack Parise were largely neutralized, as was the power play – and the normally strong blue line contribution was minimal. Hey, Minnesota scored just five goals in the first four games of the series – a mere 1.25 goals a game. When they finally busted loose for three goals at home in game five, it fell short again in a 4-3 overtime loss.

Bruce Boudreau’s history of getting knocked off in the playoffs continues (this was his ninth playoff exit, four with the Washington, four with Anaheim, and now the Wild) and the pressure on the coming season will be intense. Part of his problem is the perception that he’s a great coach (leading the Mighty Ducks to first place each year of his tenure; the Wild to their best record ever) who simply can’t win in the playoffs – a leader who is unable to  “win the Big One,” if you will.

You have to know this dilemma will carry over to next year and, unfortunately, lead to the regular season being a kind of tune-up for the “real” season: the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It really is a different deal in post-season hockey, with the top-seeded Blackhawks vanishing in four straight against the Nashville Predators and the number two Wild departing to the Blues – sayonara to Montreal as well.

Us old Minor Hawks kids know the feeling of getting beat, if not by close scores. Ray and Eddie, our leaders and most talented players, never quit (unlike accusations that Parise and Ryan Suter cost Mike Yeo the locker room prior to his exit from Minnesota) and I don’t believe the Wild gave anything less than their best. But it simply wasn’t enough against a tough defensive team that knew how to play the Wild and executed a solid game plan. And it is hard to argue that Yeo wasn’t the better coach in the series.

Mike Yeo was genuinely classy in victory, as many of us in the media knew he would be. Minor Hawks coach Atkinson was classy, too, when we succumbed to defeat by big numbers. We never won the big one (or any big game), but we learned a great deal and still had fun.

Unfortunately for coach Boudreau, he needs to win a big one badly, and that rough road is going through Chicago or St. Louis or somebody tough – that just how NHL hockey goes in the springtime. Fun only accompanies winning.

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Scott Taylor

Wild Set to Open Stanley Cup Playoffs

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

Photos by James Carey Lauder and Jeff Miller

New York Rangers professional scout Tom Thompson has been around the game of hockey for more than 40 years. By his own admission, he’s probably seen it all.

However, if there is one thing that still stokes his fire every season, it’s the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Pittsburgh Penguins forward Sidney Crosby (87) ,in NHL action at the MTS Centre,April 3 , 2014. JEFF MILLER PHOTO

“There is absolutely no doubt that the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs is always the best,” said Thompson. “You have teams that finished high in the standings expecting to win against teams that were lucky to make the playoffs and now they have nothing to lose. The first round is always the toughest, the fastest, the closest and the most exciting. The first round is where the upsets happen. This is always hockey at its very best.”

And when we get started on Wednesday night, the 2017 Stanley Cup tournament should not disappoint. Especially here in Minnesota.

Devan Dubnyk (G) will be a key to the Wild’s playoff fortunes

The Wild have one of the best teams in the post-season tournament – despite that March swoon – and if they get the goaltending they need from Devan Dubnyk, should find themselves through to the second round and a date with their long-time nemesis, the Chicago Blackhawks.

This should be a terrific two weeks. The defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins are back. The three-time Stanley Cup-winning Jonathan Toews version of the Chicago Blackhawks are favored in the West. The Alexander Ovechkin-led Washington Capitals just might be ready to snare their first Cup. While the aging San Jose Sharks will take a solid veteran lineup into the biggest tournament of the year against the upstart – and exciting – Edmonton Oilers.

The 2017 Stanley Cup Tournament begins on Wednesday, April 15 with 16 teams. In two months, only one will be standing.

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty fired up….

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NHL Playoffs: Washington Capitals vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Series A: Washington Capitals (55-19-8, 118 points) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (40-27-15, 95 points).

The Caps have a team that is built to win right now. Granted, the President’s Trophy champion doesn’t often win the Stanley Cup, but with the Capitals talent and Coach Barry Trotz, this could be the year.

Nicklas Backstrom led the Caps in scoring with 23 goals and 86 points while Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie each had 33 goals. The key for Washington, however, is goaltender Braden Holtby. He had a 2.07 goals against average and a .925 save percentage. Goaltending is probably the most important element in the playoffs and the Caps might have the best goalie in the NHL.

Toronto has the feel good story of the season, making the playoffs for the first time since 2013 and making the post-season for only the second time since 2004 under Coach Mike Babcock. Likely NHL Rookie of the Year, Auston Matthews, led the Leafs with 40 goals and 69 points while Matthews, James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, William Nylander and Mitch Marner all had at least 60 points, the only NHL team with five 60-point scorers.

However, the key for the Leafs will be goalie Frederik Anderson. He had a 2.67 goals against average and a .918 save percentage and he will have to be at least that good against Washington.

Players to Watch:

Washington: Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby,

Toronto: Auston Matthews and Frederik Anderson

Season Series: Washington won 2-1.

Our Choice: Washington in five games.

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NHL Playoffs: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

Series B: Pittsburgh Penguins (50-21-11, 111 points) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (50-24-8, 108 points)

The defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins didn’t have a great year but they sure had a good one. Led by captain Sidney Crosby who had 44 goals and 89 points, the Pens got 33 goals from Evgeni Malkin and 70 points from Phil Kessel. They also have a nice, young defense and a sound (if not spectacular) goaltender in Matt Murray.

Blue Jackets winger Matt Calvert carries the puck up ice...

Blue Jackets winger Matt Calvert carries the puck up ice…

Columbus is led by Coach of the Year lock, John Tortorella, who made the Blue Jackets one of the toughest teams in the league to play against. They only had one player with 60-plus points, 35-goal scorer Cam Atkinson but the key to their success was goalie Sergei Bobrovsky who went 41-17-0 with a 2.06 goals against average and a .931 save percentage.

Pittsburgh won the last meeting 4-1 on April 4 and that might be more indicative of this matchup than Columbus’ 7-1 win back on Dec. 22.

Players to Watch:

Pittsburgh: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Matt Murray

Columbus: Cam Atkinson, Brandon Saad and Sergei Bobrovsky

Season Series: Series tied 2-2.

Our Choice: Pittsburgh in six games.

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NHL Playoffs: Montreal Canadiens vs. New York Rangers

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

Series C: Montreal Canadiens (47-26-9, 103 points) vs. New York Rangers (48-28-6, 102 points)

The Rangers have one thing nobody else has: Henrik Lundqvist in goal. However, they also have scoring spread all over the lineup. Mats Zuccarello led the team with a mere 15 goals and 59 points, but they have three 20-goal scorers in Rick Nash (23), Chris Kreider (28) and J.T. Miller (22) and 10 players who scored at least 11. Ultimately, King Henrik is the key.

Of course, Montreal has Carey Price who went 37-20-0 with a 2.23 goals against average and a .923 save percentage. Max Pacioretty led the Habs with 35 goals and 67 points and had 10 players who scored at least 10 goals. These teams appear, on paper, to be evenly matched (103-102 points), but Montreal won all three meetings and won the last outing on March 4, 4-1 in New York.

Players to Watch:

New York: Rick Nash, Mats Zuccarello and Henrik Lundqvist

Montreal: Max Pacioretty, Shea Weber and Carey Price

Season Series: Montreal won 3-0.

Our Choice: Canadiens in six.

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NHL Playoffs: Ottawa Senators vs. Boston Bruins

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

Series D: Ottawa Senators (44-28-10, 98 points) vs. Boston Bruins (44-31-7, 95 points)

The Senators obviously match up well against the Bruins. Ottawa won all four meetings with Boston this season – 3-1 on Nov. 24, 4-2 on March 6, 3-2 on March 21 and 2-1 in a shootout on Apr. 6. The last two games were played in Boston recently.

The Senators don’t dominate the Bruins but they find ways to win. The Sens are led by defenseman Erik Karlsson (17 goals and 71 points) and forwards Mike Hoffman (26-35-61), Kyle Turris (27-28-55) and Mark Stone (22-32-54). Mike Condon will likely get most of the playoff work in goal.

Boston is a typical Bruins workhorse team and with two of their scrappy leaders – Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron – they can be gritty, chippy and tough. This club had two 30-goal scorers in Marchand (39) and David Pastrnak (34) and two more with 20 in David Krejci (23) and Patrice Bergeron (21). It’s a good club, but not a great club although, with a strong post-season from goalie Tuukka Rask, they could scare some people.

Players to Watch:

Ottawa: Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman and Erik Karlsson

Boston: Zdeno Chara, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron

Season Series: Ottawa won 4-0.

Our Choice: Ottawa in six games.

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NHL Playoffs: Chicago Blackhawks vs. Nashville Predators

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Series E: Chicago Blackhawks (50-23-9, 109 points) vs. Nashville Predators (41-29-12, 94 points)

When the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, they started their run by eliminating the Nashville Predators in six games. They’d certainly love to do it again and likely will. The Hawks got better as the season went along and by the time the final game was played, this was the best team in the West.

Led by veterans Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Marian Hossa and goalie Corey Crawford, this is a professional hockey team that loves the post-season. This was Toews 10th season in the NHL. The 28-year-old captain has won three Cups with Chicago since 2010 and he’s favored to come out of the West again this year.

Nashville forward Colin Wilson

Nashville, a team that dealt Shea Weber to Montreal in order to acquire P.K. Subban, had a really solid year. The key to the Preds success is stopping the opposition from scoring and with goalie Pekka Rinne (2.42 GAA and .918 save percentage) between the pipes, there is always a good chance that will happen. Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg each had 31 goals and led the offense.

Players to Watch:

Nashville: P.K. Subban, Pekka Rinne and Viktor Arvidsson

Chicago: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith

Season Series: Blackhawks won 4-1.

Our Choice: Chicago in five games.

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NHL Playoffs: Minnesota Wild vs. St. Louis Blues

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

Series F: Minnesota Wild (49-25-8, 106 points) vs. St. Louis Blues (46-29-7, 99 points)

This is a series between a team that finished second in the Central and third in the Central and yet the team with seven fewer points won the season series 3-2. St. Louis is led by a strong offense that includes veterans Vladimir Tarasenko, Patrik Berglund, Alexander Steen, Jaden Schwartz, Paul Stastny and David Perron, a crew that scored between 40 and 75 points.

Tarasenko had 39 goals while Berglund (23), Schwartz (19), Stastny (18) and Perron (18) all had at least 18. Alex Pietrangelo leads a strong defense.

Minnesota Wild winger Nino Neiderreiter

Nino!

The Wild, meanwhile, is the highest-scoring Western Conference team in the playoffs, but Minnesota was the class of the league in February and a complete bust in March. They did right the ship in April, but this is a team that really struggled for four weeks right before they clinched a playoff berth.

Minnesota is led by defenseman Ryan Sutter and four 20-goal scorers – Mikael Granlund (26), Eric Staal (28), Nino Neiderreiter (25) and Jason Zucker (22). However, the key is Devan Dubnyk in goal. If he’s good, the Wild can win the Stanley Cup. If he’s not, the Wild could lose in the first round.

Players to Watch:

St. Louis: Vladimir Tarasenko, Alex Pietrangelo and Alexander Steen

Minnesota: Devan Dubnyk, Mikael Granlund and Ryan Suter

Season Series: St. Louis won 3-2.

Our Choice: Minnesota in six games.

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NHL Playoffs: Anaheim Ducks vs. Calgary Flames

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

Series G: Anaheim Ducks (46-23-13, 105 points) vs. Calgary Flames (45-33-4, 94 points)

These two teams finished 11 points apart in the standings and while Anaheim won four of the five games between the two clubs, a couple of the outcomes were close and Calgary’s only win, back on Dec. 4, was 8-3. Still, the The Ducks have been superior all year and won the last two meetings on April 2 and April 4, by 4-3 (in Calgary) and 3-1 (in Anaheim) scores.

The Flames aggressive forecheck did not stop the Ducks from scoring this season (at least three goals in every game) and in all five meetings, the Flames goaltending was suspect. If Calgary expects to win this series, it will have to find a way to shut down Ryan Getzlaf, Richard Rakell, Ryan Kesler and Corey Perry and that might be easier said than done.

For Calgary, the star in Johnny Gaudreau, who had 18 goals and a team-high 61 points. Sean Monahan (2&) and Mikael Backlund (22) were the big goal scorers. Tough guy Micheal Ferland (15 goals and 25 points) had a solid year offensively and his grit will be a key in the post-season.

Goalie Brian Elliott, 2.55 goals against average and .910 save percentage, will have to be good. Rakell led Anaheim is scoring with 33 goals while Getzlaf led in scoring with 73 points. Jakob Silfverberg (23), Kesler (22) and Perry (19) were also big offensive threats. With two No. 1 goalies – John Gibson and Jonathen Bernier – the Ducks have lots of talent between the pipes. This series is Anaheim’s to lose.

Players to Watch:

Anaheim: Corey Perry, Ryan Kesler, Richard Rakell and Ryan Getzlaf

Calgary: Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Micheal Ferland 

Season Series: Ducks won 4-1.

Our Choice: Anaheim in five games.

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