We see the same scenario play out every post-season: With the league’s best teams going head-to-head, the difference so often comes down to details — and that means special teams are on full display.
That was a huge theme of Saturday’s NHL action, and no one put on a better power-play performance than the Colorado Avalanche.
Colorado had five power-play opportunities in Saturday’s Game 3 against Nashville and scored on four of them. After the Avalanche struggled to solve Connor Ingram in Game 2, they clearly found the key in Game 3 to take a commanding 3-0 series lead with a 7-3 win that puts them in position to complete the sweep Monday night.
Without the strength of special teams, you can’t help but wonder if this game might have ended quite differently, considering an injury to starter Darcy Kuemper saw the Avalanche need to use backup Pavel Francouz — especially considering Nashville’s own power-play success in the second period saw the Predators put two PPGs past Francouz in the span of less than three minutes midway through the frame.
Controversial calls put goalie interference back in the spotlight
Another prominent storyline popping up early and often this post-season? Goalie interference controversies. Less than a week into the playoffs, we’ve already seen several closely contested goalie-interference calls that could’ve gone either way. Two in particular took the spotlight on Saturday, drawing sharp similarities.
In the late stages of the second period between Colorado and Nashville (a 3-3 game at the time that could’ve still gone either way), Gabriel Landeskog put one past Connor Ingram as Artturi Lehkonen stormed the crease. Lehkonen made contact with Ingram, who himself was not entirely in the blue paint at the time.
The call on the ice was a goal, but Nashville coach John Hynes issued a challenge in an attempt to reverse it — a risky move that ultimately swayed the momentum and the score back in Colorado’s favour. The call on the ice stood, giving Hynes now an 0-2 record on the season when challenging goalie interference, and the Avalanche scored on the ensuing power play that resulted from Hynes’ error.
Later Saturday, we saw a similar situation occur in Calgary. Here’s how the Hockey Night in Canada panel broke it all down:
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Bednar hopeful Kuemper can return after “unfortunate” eye injury
Saturday afternoon brought a frightening scene in Nashville when Darcy Kuemper took a stick to the eye area and was rushed to the locker room.
“We’ll get him further evaluated, but he’s got some swelling there,” said head coach Jared Bednar after the game, clarifying that the injury was indeed to his eye. “Obviously he was unable to return, but hopefully he’s doing good and is able to get back in the net.”
Bednar said Kuemper was able to remain at the rink, and didn’t require a trip to the hospital. Asked if we could see the starter back in the crease for Game 4, Bednar said: “Possibly.”
In what appeared to be a fluke play, Ryan Johansen’s stick slid between the bars just beneath the cat’s eye of Kuemper’s goalie mask during a net-front battle for position with Nathan MacKinnon and was pushed into the face of Kuemper. Kuemper appeared to be in immediate distress, removing his mask and going down on his way to the bench. He was quickly helped off the ice and ruled out for the remainder of the game shortly after.
“I think their guy’s going to the net, he’s trying to cause a little chaos,” Bednar said of the Johansen play. “I don’t think that he intentionally tried to hurt him … I think it’s a hockey play, whether his stick’s in his face or not, he’s trying to cause some confusion and distract him a little bit. I don’t know exactly what happened or how it gets in there, but it’s unfortunate is what I think. It’s an unfortunate play.”
Panthers’ power play continues to sputter in another uncharacteristic loss
When Jonathan Huberdeau opened up the scoring less than three minutes into the first period Saturday afternoon, it felt like we might witness a Game 3 blowout in Washington.
Turns out, we did — only, it wasn’t in Florida’s favour. Huberdeau’s goal wound up being the Panthers’ lone marker of the day as the Capitals controlled this one all the way. Washington scored six unanswered goals — including two in the second period and three in the third — while once again successfully shutting down Florida’s potent offence for a 6-1 victory to take a 2-1 series lead at home.
Similar to what we saw from the Presidents’ Trophy winners in Game 1, the Panthers were never really able to get into their flow in this one, instead allowing frustrations to get the best of them resulting in overall undisciplined play.
Speaking with reporters about his team’s performance following the loss, Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette said he sees a squad that is putting a lot of pressure on themselves.
“It’s something they’re going to have to go through,” he said. “Obviously, I understand, but we’ve got to find a way to be free and maybe getting pounded here will kind of loosen us up a little bit.”
It can be hard to pinpoint one particular issue when you’re dealing with a team that’s just not looking like themselves but in the case of the Panthers, one glaring culprit has been — you guessed it — the power play. (We love a theme here.)
Florida finished the regular season with the league’s fifth-best power play, having converted 24.4 per cent of the time. But in nine opportunities through three games so far this post-season, including three on Saturday, we have yet to see the Panthers tally a power-play point. Washington, meanwhile, had six opportunities Saturday and converted on two of them — the first of which came immediately after they killed off a penalty, bringing a huge momentum swing to the game at the end of the first period.
Samsonov captures Capitals fans’ hearts in win
Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette turned to Ilya Samsonov to start Game 3 after Vitek Vanecek started the first two, and the decision certainly paid off. Samsonov made 29 saves on the night for his first career playoff win as a starter. (He went 0-3 in three post-season starts last spring.)
The 25-year-old netminder’s stellar performance had fans chanting “Sammy! Sammy!” at the end of the game — an act that he told reporters afterwards nearly had him in tears.
Penguins’ precarious play nearly loses them Game 3
The Pittsburgh Penguins had about as good a first period as you can get in Game 3 against the New York Rangers on Saturday night. Evan Rodrigues headlined the action — he was only on the ice for 3:13 in that first frame, but certainly made the most of it with a pair of goals and an assist. The hot start, which saw the Penguins jump to an early 4-1 lead and chase star netminder Igor Shesterkin out of the crease, was key in allowing third-stringer-turned-starter Louis Domingue to settle in, get comfortable, and gain a little confidence after Thursday’s loss.
But then the second period happened. The second frame brought a full-on reversal of momentum with the Rangers rallying back thanks to two quick goals, followed by a short-handed Andrew Copp marker. Heck, even Rodrigues almost got in on the Rangers’ goal-scoring action when a cross-ice blooper saw him come this close to an own-goal that would’ve completed an unconventional, unfortunate hat trick.
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Luckily for the home crowd — well, most of the home crowd — the Penguins ended the game how they started, with a trio of goals to take the lead. And this time, they kept it for a 7-4 victory and 2-1 series edge.
“Phew.” – all of Pittsburgh, probably.