Hockey fans like to emphasize that not only is hockey the ultimate team game—after all, everyone gets a shift—the playoffs underscore that. It’s somewhat true, although it’s usually a top-end player or goaltender who takes Conn Smythe home as the playoffs MVP when all is said and done.
But in hockey, we rarely get signature playoff performances from the league’s best swinging a streak. One of the reasons for the increase in scoring this season, especially later in the year, and one that I glossed over as I watched, is the league’s crackdown on cross-checks and its insistence on maintaining calls throughout the playoffs. Three first-round teams average five power plays per game, with two others averaging four. Last year, only two teams averaged four or more power plays per game, and both were eliminated in the first round.
Accumulating powerplay goals isn’t the first thing you think of to make the game more exciting, but it does two things that lead to the same result. For one, it mistakes the best offensive players for a team with more space on the ice, and it changes behavior at even strength, which also creates space.
And with that space, we’ve seen some stellar performances over the past two nights for teams that desperately needed them. Johnny Gaudreau was great for a Calgary team that was 2-1 down and on the road. He buried a deserved penalty and added an assist. We talked about how Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar flashed the Predators right back into the dumpster they came out of.
Last night, after a first period in which the Leafs were completely pilled by the Lightnings and two went down, Auston Matthews went supernova, scoring the winner and registering four shots in the last two periods. Vladimir Tarasenko scored a hat-trick for the Blues in the third period as they took a 3-2 lead over Minnesota. And that was the reaction to Karill Kaprizov’s two goals in the first, including the fact that he pushed that snipe through a gnat’s ass to give the Savages a temporary lead:
But nobody turned their backs on their team quite like Connor McDavid last night, who had one goal and two assists (and should have had a third) and made the Kings shit bricks every time he touched the puck (and he apparently never came). not on the ice in the last half of the game). You can hear a rift in time and space for almost all of these. Here he sets up a chance that even Zack Kassian can’t screw up his hands and his damp cardboard brain, which would normally just mean taking it from his confused gaze:
Here McDavid just takes matters into his own hands:
And then he drags Leon Draisaitl with him, or freeze the kings en masse to find Draisaitl again:
Unfortunately, the only force McDavid cannot tame is his own goalie, Mike Smith, who conceded three horrific goals to undo all of McJesus’ work. First, Smith runs Adrian Kempe’s shot through his legs with the force of a snot rocket:
Then he bit down on Dustin Brown, which these days is made of barely packed sand and Elmer’s glue, so hard he forgot Andreas Athanasou on his right and had to lunge at him as if jumping over a hedge to catch his supplier, leaving the net wide open:
Smith performed the same feat for Phillip Danault’s goal in the third, this time forgetting to stand against the post while Danault was there:
There’s something poetic and apt about McDavid’s best playoff performance He was screwed by his goalkeeper, because that was the story of his entire career. Still, the NHL struggles to let its stars play the biggest games in the biggest moments. Turns out they just had to give them space.