By Steve Silverman
At the start of the playoffs, the Presidents' Trophy-winning Nashville Predators and the Winnipeg Jets were on a second-round collision course.
The Jets finished with the second-best record in the league, and since both were situated in the NHL's Central Division, they were destined to meet in the second round as long as they didn't slip on a banana peel in the first round.
While the Preds had a bit of a problem with the Colorado Avalanche, they survived and advanced. The Jets looked overpowering in dismissing the Minnesota Wild.
This second-round series between the two Western Conference powers has been a classic, worthy of being played in the Conference Final, or, gasp, the Stanley Cup Final.
That would require the NHL powers-that-be to change the Stanley Cup format, and there may not be enough support for that to happen any time soon.
So enjoy Nashville and Winnipeg for what it is. These two teams will meet in a seventh-game finale Thursday night in Nashville, and winning on the road has been a regular occurrence in this series. The Jets trounced the Preds in Games 1 and 5 in Nashville, while the Predators had their two best performances in Games 4 and 6 before the wild-eyed fans at the MTS Center in Winnipeg.
Neither team has won consecutive games in this series, and if that pattern holds, the Jets will survive Game 7 and advance to the Western Conference Final against the no-longer-surprising Vegas Golden Knights.
The Jets can string goals together in abundance when they are on their game, and they have a powerful foursome in Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien and Paul Stastny leading the way. Scheifele has 14 points (nine goals and five assists), but Wheeler (13), Byfuglien (12) an Stastny (11) are right behind.
In addition to those primary scorers, the Jets have explosive Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor in supporting roles – at least for now.
Laine may have the second hardest shot in the league behind Alex Ovechkin and Connor showed off his magic with his three-point night (two goals, one assist) in Game 5.
The Preds got a shutout from Pekka Rinne in Game 6, and that was an admirable performance for last year's Stanley Cup Finalists.
They had just been taken apart at home, and they needed to come up with a superior effort to stay alive. Head coach Peter Laviolette got just that as the Preds played brilliant defensive hockey and two goals each from Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg.
You can easily see either team winning this game. The Predators seem to be a bit better at the all-around game, have home ice and are motivated by getting to the Stanley Cup Final a year ago and losing.
The Jets are explosive, hungry and have proven they can win big games on the road.
The prediction here is that the upstart Jets throw the hockey world on its ear and win the seventh game on the road. It may take overtime, but the Jets will survive and advance.
Misery finally ends for Ovechkin, Capitals
The fate of the franchise was Evgeny Kuzentsov's stick Monday night.
He had just taken a pass from Alex Ovechkin in overtime, split the Penguins defense and was in alone on Matt Murray. This was the opportunity that the Caps had waited on for so many years as they had a chance to get to the Eastern Conference Final and eliminate Pittsburgh.
All Kuznetsov had to do was make one move to his backhand, and then bring the puck to his forehand. He slid the disc past Murray and into the back of the cage for the 2-1 overtime winner that allowed the long-beleaguered Caps to win the series in six games.
There were howls of primordial joy emanating from the Washington lockerroom after climbing Mount Everest, and the loudest came from Ovechkin. The Stanley Cup playoffs have always been a tortured journey for this franchise, but there is true relief for Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson and head coach Barry Trotz.
"We beat the Pittsburgh Penguins. They're a hell of a hockey team," Trotz said. "We're only halfway. We haven't done anything yet. It's a good feeling getting by the Penguins but there's more to do."
The Caps begin a fresh climb Friday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
While the Caps have already been through the emotional ringer in winning two six-game series against the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pens, the Lightning have cruised in five-game wins over the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins.
The Lightning have pointed to their own deficiencies in suffering the only losses in both series, and they have not been beaten in any game where they have played well.
Will the emotionally relieved Caps keep on riding their crest and get to the Stanley Cup Final, or are sharp and efficient Lightning prepared to continue their ride by dispatching the Caps?
Look for Washington to stumble early in this series, but raise their game when they return home for Game 3. They will find a way to engage the Bolts the way neither the Devils nor the Bruins could.
Washington gets to the Stanley Cup Final, and prepares for even more drama.
The tongue wags no more
Brad Marchand is one of the best left wings in the league, and he excels at agitating opponents and putting the puck in the net.
He has scored 110 goals in the last three season along with 121 assists, he kills penalties and is featured on the Bruins power play. When it comes to scoring game-winning goals, he had eight in each of the last two seasons.
He is also an agitator of the first order. Non-stop trash-talking is his signature, and that's fine.
However, the league has suspended him six times for offenses like elbowing, clipping, low-bridging and spearing. He was suspended five games earlier this year for delivering an elbow to the head of New Jersey's Marcus Johansson.
Then came this year's playoffs and a pair of licking incidents involving Toronto's Leo Komarov and Tampa Bay's Ryan Callahan.
He wasn't suspended for either, but the league issued a cease-and-desist order prior to the latter part of the Boston-Tampa Bay series.
The question is why the Bruins didn't act on this one themselves. The leadership in the lockerroom – meaning captain Zdeno Chara and superb center Patrice Bergeron – needed to quash Marchand's lick-first tendencies.
If those two couldn't have done it, it was up to head coach Bruce Cassidy and general manager Don Sweeney to quit the wet-willy maneuver.
This is supposed to be one of the league's flagship franchises, the team that was graced by Bobby Orr, Johnny Bucyk, Gerry Cheevers and Ray Bourque. There are literally dozens of other classy players to mention, and Marchand did not bring glory to any of them. He pretty much disgraced them.
Marchand appeared contrite as the Bruins held their exit interviews following their series defeat to the Lightning. Perhaps he means it, or perhaps he doesn't. However, he needs to take a long look in the mirror and realize that great players produce in the biggest games, and don't spend their energy trying to give their opponents a tongue bath.
It's time for Marchand to walk the walk of a superstar, and put his weasel ways behind him.
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