The problem with the Stanley Cup Playoffs, in a way, is they focus greater attention on a smaller number of teams. This means writers who were previously writing things about the Avalanche or Flyers, for instance, are now writing about the Blackhawks or Rangers. National writers in particular, who have been paying attention to the various comings and goings of teams league-wide, descend on cities throughout North America like a plague of locusts and analyze everything with the most powerful microscopes known to man.
This, in and of itself, isn’t strictly a bad thing all of the time. National writers tend to be the very best in the business, well-connected and intelligent and insightful and knowledgable, much more so than, say, someone who just covers the Bruins all year long. But the problem is that in the ongoing pursuit of angles from which to view such-and-such a series necessarily leads to some rather silly observations, from national and local writers alike, to take hold and become part of the national hockey conversation to the point where it can dominate the zeitgeist.
Take the San Jose Sharks. They are good this year. Well, they’re good every year. But they’re good this year too. This in and of itself is no real surprise, especially because they’re not, like, exceptionally good. They finished sixth in the West, not great or anything, but up one spot from last year. That’s also down from winning-the-division-every-year. But the media’s narrative is that this year’s Sharks are different, likely because they swept the Canucks. The reason for this difference seemingly had very little to do with half of Vancouver’s roster being out injured, but everything to do with The Coming Of Age Of Logan Couture.
The number of times you’ve heard “The Sharks are Logan Couture’s team now” is near-astronomical and it must be said that he is indeed very, very good and probably, at age 23 and a multiple-year veteran, becoming a more vocal leader. But the way people talk about this team, you would think Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau — LOSERS WHO STINK AND CAN’T WIN — have been left by the curb with the bottles and cans to be picked up by the local sanitation department. This was only reinforced when Couture was the one who happened to score the overtime game-winner in Game 3 to help the Sharks avoid going down 3-0 in their series. This was one of 25 goals Couture has scored since the season began in late January, but this more or less random event, the result of a lengthy power play opportunity in overtime, lent credibility to the idea that he’s The Leader now. Thornton and Marleau, meanwhile, shuffle around in the background, mere point-a-game players in this postseason because, again, they are losers. And Couture is not, no matter how many games his team is down in this series with Los Angeles.
I guess it boils down to the playoffs being when the nebulous and probably bunch-of-baloney idea of Leadership becomes the most important. Thornton is no longer considered by the media to be a leader for the Sharks probably only because he’s no longer the unequivocal best player on his team, not because the guys just stopped listening to him when they realized Couture could score a lot of points too.
One leader who isn’t scoring a lot of points, though — and if he was Thornton, he’d be crucified for it — is Jonathan Toews. People are only just now starting to realize that Toews has three points and as many goals as I do for the Blackhawks in this postseason, and really hasn’t produced much or won anything of significance since that time he captured the Conn Smythe. “Huh,” everybody said all at once after the Blackhawks looked like garbage at home against Detroit, “Isn’t that a funny old thing?” As if his team bowing out in the first round in the last two seasons was in some way not on him as the team’s captain in the way it would have been had he been Thornton or Iginla or the Sedins. Winning a Cup makes you pretty Teflon, I suppose, and I guess that’s the same reason why people are still calling for Marc-Andre Fleury to get another chance in these playoffs despite the strong play of Tomas Vokoun and the fact that he leaves a puddle in the crease every time someone takes a shot from below the dots.
Meanwhile, when the Hawks do lose, and Toews is held without a point for the sixth time in eight games in the playoffs, he spends the entire postgame scrum whining about how the refs screwed his team. You know, because that’s how respected winners, guys who should be up for the prestigious Mark Messier Leadership Award Presented by Things Leaders Do, are supposed to behave, according to the narrative. Alex Ovechkin gets mocked league-wide for doing the same thing, and no one says a word about Captain Crybaby who can’t put a puck in the net and can’t beat a team with Kyle Quincey getting top-four minutes on home ice.
It must be said in Toews’ favor, though, that despite not scoring goals, he has been dominant in terms of corsi (plus-35 in three games!!!!!) and suffering from a PDO of 970 for the playoffs. Somehow, though, this hasn’t stuck to him like it did poor Rick Nash for New York, who was likewise dominant in these playoffs in terms of possessing the puck and getting it to the net. The Rangers “were able to withstand” his lack of goalscoring in the quarterfinals and the first game of the Bruins series, even though there were about 17 other guys on the team who were also not scoring. The reason it came into such stark focus, and didn’t for Toews, is that Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa are all bringing some serious heat in these playoffs, and Ryan Callahan, Derek Stepan and Brad Richards (especially Brad Richards) have been largely absent from proceedings. This somehow reflects poorly on Nash, but then he doesn’t have Toews’ leadership, which is why the Blackhawks are scoring without him. Probably. I guess.
You can say the same thing about James Neal. Poor James Neal, who scored 56 goals is 120 games over the last two regular seasons, but just 1-2-3 in seven games. Only 17 shots as well. That’s not enough for an elite goalscorer with a lethal release like Neal. You know whose fault this is, though? That’s right: Jarome Iginla’s. Neal moved from the right wing, where he played with Evgeni Malkin, to accommodate Iginla, and back to the left wing, where he played all the time before he was put on Malkin’s line. Iginla can have as many points as he want in this postseason (and for the record, he’s on 2-8-10 in nine games), but the fact that he’s covering for — excuse me — taking opportunities from Neal is inexcusable. This might be the most absurd length to which a writer has gone to explain away the lack of execution of a star player, but at this point, it also shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.
This is a hockey world in which the narrative still somehow states that Pavel Datsyuk is underrated in terms of his skill and god-given talents, and the Red Wings are workmanlike in their approach against the ultra-talented Blackhawks. So really, any dumbass thing anyone says at this point can’t come as much of a surprise any more.