Rampant speculation and unmitigated giddiness are hallmarks of the NHL Closer (along with gratuitous, yet strangely relevant photos of scantily clad Ice Girls). So with Carolina winning convincingly and the Penguins beating the Flyers (a Georges Laraque/Riley Cote brawl for your viewing pleasure after the jump), let's begin the puckhead squealing: The chances for an Ovechkin/Crosby battle in Round One of the playoffs are looking pretty dang good. Finally, a Stanley Cup Playoff series even ESPN couldn't ignore...unless, of course, there's some breaking news in Arena Football on the same nights.
The Penguins clinched the Patrick Division last night with a 4-2 win over Philadelphia; a nasty little affair featuring Gonchar butt-ends to the face and a Jarkko knee-on-knee on Danny Briere. They're first in the conference with 102 points and one game left, and a tie-breaker for the moment against Montreal (100 points, 2 games left). Washington enters tonight's home game against Tampa Bay trailing the Flyers by a point and Boston by two points, holding tie-breakers against both in wins. So whether it's a No. 1 v. No. 8 or a No. 2 v. No. 7 series, there's a very decent chance the Penguins and Capitals could meet in the first round. And as the Mensa candidates on the HF Boards agree: "Does anyone NOT want to see a Washington vs Pittsburgh first round match up?"
Well, yeah, there's one guy who might not: Evgeni Malkin, who recently endorsed Ovechkin for the Hart Trophy. Statistically, he's been the second-best player in the NHL this season, four points behind Ovechkin for the league lead, and he carried the Penguins after Crosby's ill-advised baseball slide into the end boards. But since Sidney Christ's return, he's a co-star, a contributor; he's Scottie Pippen again, and will certainly be third-banana if Ovechkin and Crosby meet in the playoffs. The headline by CBC News for last night's victory: "Crosby leads Penguins to Atlantic Division title." Guess who actually had the game-winner. Hint: His name rhymes with "Balkan" or, if you prefer, "falcon."
But for the rest of us, a Penguins/Capitals match-up would be — and pardon the phrase, because we try to maintain a certain, almost literary standard in our prose here — the fuckin' tits. We're talking two former division rivals (who should still be division rivals) that have some of the most intense postseason history together in the conference — from Petr Nedved's OT goal in 1996 that came 44 seconds before an eighth period to Ted Leonsis restricting sales of Caps playoff tickets to Penguins fans. This wouldn't just be a meeting of the League's biggest stars; it would be a bleeding for everyone else involved.
In my angst-ridden younger days, I would have expected the NHL to fix things so Crosby/Ovechkin could happen in the first round. That was before I realized they're only good at predetermining draft lotteries and snark-free calls to Gary Bettman's radio show. In reality, it's the Penguins who might determine if we see this series happen: They face the Flyers on Sunday afternoon in the season finale. Hopefully Mr. Laraque and Mr. Cote can give us another show like this over the weekend:
In Other Life-Altering Action Last Night. The video goal judges in Toronto gave the Bruins a huge break last night in their loss to the Devils, denying a Dainius Zubrus goal that could have won the game in regulation for Jersey. Instead, the Bruins earned a vital charity point and lost in the skills competition, 3-2. By the way: Does anyone really think the Sabres can still make the playoffs? Yeah, neither do we. Carolina bounced back from a curb-stomping at the hands of the Capitals in an impressive way: a 6-2 trouncing of Tampa Bay. Chad LaRose had the hat-trick, along with a youth hockey card that made him look like an attractive lesbian.
Finally, the Blackhawks scored three in the first period on their way to a 6-3 win over Detroit last night in what was the first playoff hockey game in Chicago since Eric Daze was their leading scorer. Here's what they need to make the playoffs: A Nashville regulation loss to St. Louis tonight, Blackhawks wins over the Predators and Red Wings, and one bed-shitting of their choice for the Canucks against the Oilers or Flames. Hey, even if it falls short, at least Chicago's won something: Puck That Hit's Hottest Ice Girls of the 2007-08 season, with 30 percent of the vote. Congrats, four-year veteran Kelly.
* The Top Five Hockey Snacks. Am I alone in standing behind the Cool Ranch Doritos in their endless war against the other flavors? [NHL Arena Program]
* Remembering one of hockey's greatest impromptu figure-skating routines. D.B. Sweeney is teh jealous. [Joe Pelletier]
* According to this editorial, hockey violence and Don Cherry using the phrase "little pantywaists" are harbingers of future sexual assaults by young male hockey players. [Globe & Mail]
* Speaking of hockey's ever-increasing positive image in the media, a kid was just charged with assault for an "unprovoked brutal attack" during a minors' hockey game. [Welland Tribune.]
* Finally, I posted this photo on FanHouse yesterday but feel the need to share it here. Happy retirement, Mick McGeough; I hope there's a giant cane and a well-trained golden retriever somewhere in that cake...