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Playoff Hockey: Underdogs, Upsets and Staying the Course

(Originally published at Sports Radio Service)

It has been a busy few days in playoff hockey. Thursday, the Montreal Canadiens pushed back to stop the New York Rangers from taking a 3-0 series lead. That show starred Montreal’s rookie goaltender Dustin Tokarski. Friday, the ECHL’s Bakersfield Condors won their first Conference Final game at home. Saturday night, the Los Angeles Kings took a 2-1 series lead over the Chicago Blackhawks.

Now that the Kings have taken a lead in a series, and scored dozens of goals against the daunting Blackhawks (actually only 11 so far), is it safe to say that maybe the 2013-14 Sharks were not that far from their goal, if they were able to beat Los Angeles three games in a row? No. The Kings have proceeded at an erratic pace but they built up momentum in each progressive series. A strong start does not make up for a weaker finish, so the Sharks can’t take too much comfort in the Kings’ success thus far. The Kings are making a habit of giving up leads only to take them back, but that doesn’t mean there were not a lot of holes in the Sharks roster and strategy. Can the Sharks seal up those holes?

The good news, the biggest and best news from Shark territory so far, is that Larry Robinson has agreed to stay on. His new title is Associate Coach and Director of Player Development. If his title was “Guy Who Does Whatever He Feels Like Doing Today In The General Vicinity San Jose” it would still be a good deal. He is that helpful. It can also be seen as a positive indicator for the team: if Robinson thinks that staying on will not be a futile waste of his time, perhaps fans should have a little faith too.

Thursday on Yahoo! Sports Talk Live, Doug Wilson said that he does not have specific plans to acquire a big name free agent this summer. He did not rule it out but he did not say it was a goal. He also said that missing the playoffs for several seasons starting next year was not his plan. He does not plan to move his best young players. This makes me think that, despite pressure from the fan base and many sources of common sense, he could be planning very little in the way of major roster moves. I do not think that is a bad thing, but I am sure it would be unpopular.

Popular or not, moving big names to shake the team up is an enormous risk. How do you trade away Joe Thornton and/or Patrick Marleau, and avoid slipping badly in the standings, unless you pick up another very high-end forward to replace them? Do you get that player via trade? Who do you get them for if you want to keep your young roster? Do the Sharks have the picks to land such a player? As Wilson mentioned Thursday, however you bring someone in, you need to consider the impact that player will have on your younger players. He needs to not only be productive in his own right but supportive of your development plan.

Do Thornton and Marleau not fit that mold? There is no indication that either one of them undermines or stifles growth in their teammates. Their presence may be growing stale but change for change’s sake rarely pays off.

James Mirtle and Justin Bourne had a Twitter conversation about the high number of minutes being given to fourth lines in the Eastern Conference Final. It makes perfect sense, especially when teams have played a seven game series already, or more, to spread minutes around. But this means that you do need versatile players on that fourth line. You need guys who are reliable in the faceoff circle, tough along the boards, good shots, and reasonably able playmakers. As I said last week, you don’t need Mike Richards on that line but you do need someone who brings a lot more than energy and toughness.

Not so long ago people recognized that space on the bench could no longer be spared for designated fighters who could not do more than fight. Now the bar has been raised still higher: you need four lines that can play more than ten minutes and be better than “not a liability.” Your top six should not need more than 25 minutes per player to get the job done, and your fourth line should merit more than ten. Energy efficiency is about more than Gatorade.

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Dustin Tokarski. Folks who actually follow the Habs probably were not very surprised to see him chosen over Peter Budaj. Putting a rookie goaltender in a high pressure playoff situation is not unheard of, it just doesn’t often work out so well. A rookie comes in with some intangibles in his favor. Even if he has been scouted as much as possible, he simply has not played enough to be thoroughly scouted so the opponent won’t know how to beat him right away. That advantage fades fast. Another benefit can be that his team will rally around him, tighten up on defense to protect him. Or they might let him get shot to pieces like the Habs did in the first period of Game 3. That is where the real surprise was lurking, when Tokarski held the Habs in the game despite a 14-4 shot advantage for the Rangers. Tokarski may not be ready to steal a series but he certainly silenced the death knells in Montreal for now.

I find the Eastern Conference Final much more compelling than the Western, but I like upsets and underdogs. Both the Canadiens and the Rangers are sort of underdogs who achieved upsets. They are good teams, but the Canadiens were not supposed to beat the bestest team ever, aka the Bruins, because winners are supposed to play a big bruising game like the Bruins do. The Habs won anyway, and they did it their way.

The Rangers were not supposed to beat the Penguins because the Penguins have high performance superstars like Malkin and Crosby, while the Rangers had so many underperforming superstars like Nash, Richards and St. Louis. On top of that, the Rangers had to muscle through a brutal schedule to get where they are, and they did so anyway. Personal tragedy is getting a lot of credit for their turnaround, but they had all of these pieces from the get go. It is satisfying to see them go ahead like a dark horse people forgot about.

Speaking of dark horses, the Condors’ Friday win gave them a 2-1 lead in the series against the Alaska Aces. Saturday, the Aces thumped them 4-1 and tied the series back up. That is not very surprising. The Aces are aces. Nonetheless, the Condors are making a little Central Valley history this weekend. That the Condors ever took a lead in the series is impressive and inspiring. This is their first appearance in a Conference Final, and they have held their own. They have earned the nickname “Cardiac Condors” with numerous comebacks thus far and the Aces would be foolish to back off now. If the Aces come back tomorrow and stomp them like they did tonight, Condors fans have still gotten their money’s worth from a team that made an amazing turnaround in a season. After so many years of being perpetual playoff also-rans, this is a mighty accomplishment for Bakersfield.

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