Hockey followers love to taut that not only is hockey the ultimate team game — everyone gets a shift after all — but that the playoffs highlight this. It’s somewhat true, though it’s usually a top-end player or goalie taking home the Conn Smythe as the playoff’s most valuable player when all is said and done.
But rarely in hockey do we get signature playoff performances from the league’s best that swing a series. One of the reasons for this season’s rise in scoring, especially later on in the year, and one I’ve glossed over while looking at it is the league’s crackdown on cross-checking and insistence on keeping the calls going during the playoffs. Three teams in the first round are averaging five power plays per game, while another two are averaging four. Last year, only two teams averaged four or more power plays per game, and both were out in the first round.
Piling up the power-play goals isn’t the first thing you think of to make the game more exciting, but it does two things that have the same result. One is it keeps the best offensive players on the ice for one team with more space, and it changes behavior at even-strength which also opens up space.
And with that space, we’ve seen some signature performances the past two nights for teams that desperately needed them. Johnny Gaudreau was magnificent for a Calgary team down 2-1 and on the road, burying a penalty shot that he earned and adding an assist. We’ve been over how Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar blitzed the Predators right back into the dumpster from which they came.
Last night, after a first period that saw the Leafs get completely punched in the pills by the Lightning and down two, Auston Matthews went supernova, scoring the winner and registering four shots in the final two periods. Vladimir Tarasenko had a hat-trick in the third period for the Blues as they took a 3-2 lead over Minnesota. And that was in response to Karill Kaprizov’s two goals in the first, including squeezing this snipe through a gnat’s ass to give the Wild a temporary lead:
But no one strapped their back to their team quite like Connor McDavid last night, who had a goal and two assists (and should have had a third), and had the Kings shitting bricks every time he touched the puck (and he seemingly never came off the ice for the last half of the game). You can hear a rip in the time and space for just about all of these. Here he sets up a chance that even Zack Kassian can’t fuck up with his hands and brain made of damp cardboard, which would usually just mean banking it in off his confused gape:
Here McDavid just takes matters into his own hands:
And then he drags Leon Draisaitl with him, or freezes the Kings en masse to find Draisaitl again:
Sadly, the one force McDavid can’t tame is his own goalie, Mike Smith, who let in three awful goals to undo all of McJesus’ work. First Smith lets Adrian Kempe’s shot that had all the power of a snot-rocket through his legs:
Then he bit so hard on Dustin Brown, who’s made of barely packed sand and Elmer’s glue these days, that he forgot about Andreas Athanasiou to his right, and had to lunge at him like he was diving over a hedge to catch his delivery guy and left the net wide open:
Smith performed the same feat for Phillip Danault’s goal in the third, this time forgetting to get up against his post with Danault standing there:
There is something poetic and fitting that in McDavid’s best playoff performance he was fucked over by his goalie, as that’s been the story of his entire career. Still, the NHL has struggled to let its stars make the biggest plays in the biggest moments. Turns out all they had to do was give them space.