The advent of the NHL playoffs provides much for the sports fan to delight in, with what might be the apex of sustained athletic drama on this particular continent.
Teams wage battle with each other for a fortnight, fostering respect in the process, before one of them advances to repeat this process with the next squad of now tougher, more driven competitors. And who does not like that feeling of sitting there at two in the AM, finally seeing an epic overtime thriller come to a middle-of-the-night close?
These playoffs are often about trends. Some of them carry forward from the regular season, some start with a surprising goalie performance in a first round game, and some go in reverse. The playoffs last that long, about half of the NFL's regular season, as this beautiful wintertime game makes inroads upon the early days of summer.
The recently wrapped 82-game regular season campaign provides its own set of trends that we might look back on, contemplating what they augur for what is about to take place, with some key players. What will continue, what will surcease, what will continue faster, and what will result in the groans of early elimination.
Let’s have a look upon whom we ought to direct our attention, based off the trends they’re currently riding:
The all-but official knock on Jumbo Joe is that he has been a maddening playoff performer, this being the chief blight of his career. Other blights including faltering leadership—having been stripped of the San Jose Sharks’ captaincy a few years back—and an unwillingness to shoot the puck.
The latter point still holds—unless it’s a rebound, a deflection, or a down-low finish where there is no option but to shoot, Thornton prefers to dish. As he always will, being 36 now.
Few kicks at Lord Stanley’s can remain for Thornton, which is perhaps why he had, quietly, a bounce-back year that was among the best he’s had in the last half dozen, registering 63 assists and 82 points, second and fourth in the league in those categories respectively.
The last time Thornton cracked the top 10 in scoring was 2009-10, and the last time he was in the top five was two years before that.
So the man’s stepping up, and establishing himself as one of those Ray Bourque or Jaromir Jagr types: a top 10% of the league performer, for close to two decades.
Basically no one does this. Messier was another. And obviously Gordie Howe. But while Thornton is a rung below those guys, his rung is nonetheless studded with Hall of Famers, even first ballot HOF’ers.
The Sharks play that “heavy” game we associate with some Western Conference teams, and Thornton is a part of that, though we usually view him as Mr. Finesse, a man who excels at the feathery pass that floats over one defenseman’s stick, under another's, and to the blade of a waiting teammate’s for a tap in.
He’s excellent in his own zone, though, and if you don’t know how much a center is tasked with defensively—provided he’s not a fly-the-zone player like Sidney Crosby—just watch how much Thornton does in his own end down low and in the slot.
As time advances, Thornton gets closer to being a part of a discussion that all great players wish to avoid—that is, who were the best ever who never won the Cup—but if Thornton is the same player in the postseason that he was during the regular season, seeing the Sharks in the Cup final will bring with it all the surprise of the big pivot electing to pass rather than shoot first. Which is to say, none at all.
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Crosby had a second half that scrubbed him clean of all of those “Hey, has Sid lost it?” conversations. That he's now in the Hart Trophy conversation can make you feel ashamed that you were in on the premature demise chatter.
For a long time, it looked like the Hart would go to Patrick Kane, and it probably still will, or else Washington's Braden Holtby (we are talking the first U.S. player to lead the NHL in scoring, and a goalie who just tied the single season wins record of 48) but give it to Crosby with his 85 points. He’s been that valuable, that utterly necessary.
The Penguins look like that dark horse team that is really not a dark horse. They have been there before, and on many nights they have the best player in the world. Their goalie has a knack for getting hot (or else, alas, soiling himself; it can go either way with Marc-André Fleury), and if they get Evgeni Malkin back by, say, the second round, the Pens can reap. A Penguin with a little scythe.
Crosby needs another Cup or he could go down as the best player in league history to win just one. (Cue the debates.) Generational players must win more than one. Going back a few decades, your generational guys are Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Eric Lindros, Sidney Crosby. Malkin was more of a factor when the Penguins did win it all, but Crosby showed a ton of grit and mental strength while being patient this season, knowing his game would get to where it has always gotten to. People think he is a diva. Fine. But if he is, he’s one with total awareness of what he can do, and now he just needs to do more of what he’s been doing since the All-Star break.
Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews
Two-fer here, with the players who, more than any, make the Chicago Blackhawks the ultimate “winning time” team in North American sports. For this century, anyway.
When the game is on the line, or when the series is 3-1 and a loss sends the Blackhawks home, Kane and/or Toews tends to do something that assures victory. They are both as clutch as can be, the ultimate in “gotta have it” guys. They are the double-notched key, too, who will open the door on the possibilities of just how dynastic these Blackhawks can be.
But there are reasons for concern. Kane had a fabulous season, but it was first half heavy. That is, he looked like a player who was going to pop for 120-plus points,in a performance that would stand out in the history books (within the context of this low-scoring age) but he finished at 106. He’ll probably get the Hart. But if he does, it will be in large part for the first half and not the second, and the former’s American player record 26-game points streak.
As for Toews: is something wrong with him this year? Something physical, maybe, that he won’t be able to shake until next season? Toews is more important to the Hawks than Kane, which is like saying Bryan Trottier was more important to the dynastic Islanders than Mike Bossy.
Some people will feel differently, of course, but on balance, with his very plus game—call it plus plus—in three zones, Toews is the guy. He is like a poor man’s Bob Gainey defensively, and a poor man’s, well, Patrick Kane, offensively, which makes him, as both, one of the finest all-around players in the league. And a future Hall of Famer, if he never plays another game.
But this season, offensively, Toews was a poor man’s Patrick Bergeron, with the worst offensive production of his nine year career. He’s 27, so this should be his prime, and yet Toews, on this team, with this level of talent, this much up-and-down-the-ice offensive flow, didn’t even hit 60 points.
Then again, the Hawks have rookie Artemi Panarin to make up for the dip in Toews’ production, and Toews is such a utilitarian player—meaning, he’ll find what needs doing, and do it, at a super high level, even if that is not stat sheet stuff—and who knows, maybe he’ll be the shut down center who ices Thornton in the Western Conference playoffs and then has Sid the Kid cursing him every time he hops the bench for a face-off, and we’ll have a whole new set of trends to contend ourselves with in the off-season. But for now, these are the directions the ice chips are a’spraying in. Now we watch where they fall.