Thursday, May 16, 2013

What We Learned From the Toronto Series

I haven't written about the NHL playoffs yet, because, until some of it actually happened, I didn't really have much to say. As has been the case for the last decade or so, the team whose goalie plays the best and who has the most healthy stars, will win. Just look back the last few years and you'll see. Because you cannot predict injury and because goalies sometimes just get hot in the playoffs, there is absolutely no way to know how those two key dynamics will play out. I wondered if the compressed season might have affected the teams making the playoffs because the normal attrition of an NHL season would not have winnowed the less deep teams, but in the end it was the Rangers, Senators, and Capitals and not the Jets. Only the Islanders (at least in the East) could be described as a “thin” team.

Before moving on to what we learned from Boston's series with Toronto, I do think it is fascinating that half, HALF the teams in the Eastern Conference playoffs were from the Northeast Division. Four out of the five teams and the fourth of those teams, Toronto themselves had the same number of points 57 as the Southeast Division winning Capitals. This is fascinating (vindicating) because the entire Northeast Division made changes in the off-season to be more like the Bruins. Last year only two Northeast Division teams made the playoffs. Clearly, the Bruins are on to something.

What We Learned from the Toronto Series
We actually didn't learn that much about the Bruins during the series. We already knew their power-play is awful and that they lack scoring and have struggled with inconsistency. We knew they are resilient, Tuukka Rask is a big-time goalie, and, in a just world, Patrice Bergeron would win a Hart Trophy some day. We knew their fourth-line is a huge asset and they have depth on defense. In short, we saw the same Bruins we'd been seeing, with varying results, for about three years. However, we learned a lot about the Leafs, some of which should be reflected this off-season.

James Reimer Won't Win a Cup Unless He Fixes His Re-Bound Problem
In games five and six, we saw that James Reimer has the potential to be a dominant goalie, because he was the only reason the Leafs were able to stretch the series to seven games. Both five and six were strange games; the Leafs spent a ton of time in the Boston zone and got a ton of shots. But while Boston did not play particularly well, most of the Leafs shots weren't dangerous and not only did the Bruins end up with more scoring chances, their scoring chances were generally better than the Leafs. Only Reimer's fantastic saves won the games for them. But his glove hand was weak and he gave up way too many rebounds. Most teams in the NHL use a shoot and crash goal scoring strategy and it doesn't matter how much talent you have, you cannot lead your team to any kind of substantial success if you give up rebounds. The good news for the Leafs and Reimer is that this is a very specific skill set that he can work on in the off/pre-season for next year. Control rebounds and improve his glove hand and he could be something special. But if another year passes and he doesn't improve, the Leafs could be waiting a long time for another cup.

Phil Kessel Cannot Carry a Team
This was actually a break out series for Kessel, in that he actually scored against the Bruins. More than once. In fact, for the first time against the Bruins, he was exactly what the Leafs pay him to be; a dangerous skater and opportunistic scorer. (Despite ultimately losing, there were a lot of positives in this series.) But, after Nathan Horton scored the make it 4-2 a little over halfway through the third period, Phil Kessel needed to take over the game. He needed to double shift, demand and receive the puck, run the Bruins ragged all over the ice, and score or set up the Leafs fifth and deciding goal. Lucic saw the need and imposed himself on the second half of the third period, and, as always, Bergeron stepped up and did exactly what needed to be done for the Bruins to win. And Kessel?

The problem, of course, is that Kessel is not and never has been a take-over-the-game player and the Leafs will be kicking themselves for years for acquiring him and paying him as if he were. This is not a knock on Phil Kessel. He, like Tyler Sequin is a piece-of-the-puzzle player, a weapon, a tool, an offensive compliment to a well-rounded team. He's not the player you build a team around, he's the player you fit in for an offensive burst. Which is not to say the Leafs should ditch him in the off-season, but that they need to rethink how their team is constructed and how Kessel should fit into it. Now, whether Kessel has the maturity to understand himself as a piece-of-the-puzzle and adjust his game to win as opposed to score remains to be seen.

Remember When Dion Phaneuf Was an All-Star
Dion Phaneuf was embarrassingly bad in the series. I don't know if he had one of those lingering, hidden injuries, or he just didn't have the physical strength to stick with Lucic and Bergeron or what, but as a first pair defenseman and captain, the Leafs needed a lot more out of him in that third period meltdown. He really didn't even have to play that much better; he just needed to be an emotional and mental anchor, especially after Lucic's goal to bring it within one, to keep the Leafs from panicking, to keep them making plays in the last minute of the game and he didn't. And Phaneuf's inadequacy highlighted a general lack of depth for Leafs defensemen that played a major role in the Bruin's comeback. As I pointed out before when talking about Reimer, the Leafs gave up a lot of quality scoring chances late in the series, and one big reason why is there defensemen as a corps just didn't have the skills and depth to prevent those chances. In contrast with the Bruins, who had two rookies in the game and lost their 2nd best defenseman :37 seconds into the game, and still managed to keep the game within reach. With a lead like that in the third period, the Leafs really didn't need to do much to win the series, but they did nothing of what they needed to do, and, at least, will get a jump start on improving their already improved team.

Series Wrap-Up
As much as I want this series to be about the Bruins winning, ultimately it was about the Leafs losing. Except for game one, and isolated stretches of play the rest of the series, the Bruins did not put on a playoff performance. They picked up right where they left off the regular season; solid team defense compensating for inconsistent offense enough to get the necessary wins. A more talented team, a Leafs mentally and physically capable of weathering the storm the few times the Bruins played as well as they could, Leafs without all the flaws we learned in the series, would've moved on.

On Round Two
One of two players will determine the winner of the Boston vs. New York series. The first, and I can't even see the edge from this statement, that's how far from it I am, is Henrik Lundqvist. (See above about goalies, etc.) Since last year's round one loss to the Capitals, the Bruins have developed a unique stonewallability. It's lead to a lot of 2-1 and 3-2 wins and losses. Lundqvist hasn't been his best this year, but if he ups his game to something close to how he played last year, I just don't think the Bruins will be able to score enough goals to win four out of seven games.

The second player is Tyler Sequin. Sequin quite noticeably struggled against the Leafs, but I wonder if that had more to do with the Leafs overall team speed than it did with anything in particular Sequin was doing poorly. Unlike most teams, Sequin can't just blast around all the Leafs. Even if he is still faster than most of them, he's not so much faster that he can create scoring opportunities just by skating by opponents. The Rangers are not as fast as the Leafs, so Sequin should be able to skate by opponents. He needs to hit the net more when he shoots, but ultimately his lack of scoring this season involved a lot of bad bounces and a lot of great saves. A bounce or two his way, a more relaxed approach to scoring, and/or a few momentary lapses from Lundqvist and Sequin could easily put up 10+ points in 6 or 7 games.

Of course, neither of those players might matter all that much if Seidenberg, Ference, and Redden are out for the series. Bartkowski and Hamilton have done fine so far, and Krug is definitely talented, but all three of those young defensemen bring a different skill set to the game than the three injured veterans, a skill set far less relevant in the playoffs. Every team has a critical mass of injuries after which, they just don't have the talent to win a playoff series. The Bruins clear depths means their threshold is higher than most and it's still there. And three of the six starting defensemen, including, in Seidenberg, a player who would be the number one just about anywhere else, might be it.

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