Five things we learned from Tuesday

May, 19, 2010

1. OK, four goalies are left in the hunt for the Stanley Cup, and is there one whom you would have considered a top-notch goalie at the start of the regular season?

Jaroslav Halak was the backup in Montreal, Michael Leighton was the backup in Carolina, Antti Niemi was No. 2 in Chicago and Evgeni Nabokov was coming off another lackluster playoff performance for San Jose. While Nabokov put up outstanding regular-season numbers (again), his play early on in the conference finals suggests he remains a goalie who cannot win the big game.

As for the other three, it's hard to know where they fit in the pantheon of the league's best goalies. Conversely, the regulars, the goalies you automatically throw into the Vezina Trophy discussion, have once again distinguished themselves by playing poorly in the playoffs. Can you really consider Vancouver's Roberto Luongo among the top goalies in the NHL after his second straight second-round meltdown against Chicago? How about Martin Brodeur, on the Vezina ballot again this season, who has failed to lead the New Jersey Devils beyond the second round since 2003?

Ask 100 folks to name their top five goaltenders in the league right now and we're guessing those lists would look a lot different than they might have even a year ago.

2. Speaking of the floundering Sharks, it's not too early to wonder what they might look like if their implosion continues. Yes, they did take a step forward in eliminating a weary Detroit Red Wings team in five games in the second round, but the Sharks have failed to win a conference finals game in front of their home fans (so far). The hungry Blackhawks now lead the West finals 2-0 thanks to their seventh straight road win Tuesday night.

People have been talking about how this spring is a defining moment for players like Patrick Marleau and Nabokov, both of whom can become unrestricted free agents July 1. We think this summer will be a defining moment for ownership. Is the team content to maintain the status quo, allow likable GM Doug Wilson to continue to steer the ship, bring back Nabokov and Marleau because they are good citizens, and regularly put up heady regular-season numbers? Who's to say that's a bad strategy?

But if ownership is truly about winning the big prize, it will have to do some real soul-searching if the Sharks continue on their current path to playoff flameout. It seems clear that Nabokov is not a big-game goalie. He allowed four goals on 22 shots Tuesday. And while Marleau did score twice in Game 2, the second with the game well in hand for Chicago, the goals were just his fourth and fifth of the postseason. Those numbers just aren't going to cut it, assuming ownership is really interested in winning it all.

3. We had a chance to talk to Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau before Tuesday's Game 2 of the Philadelphia-Montreal series. He was in Manchester, N.H., to take in the AHL playoff game between the Los Angeles Kings' affiliate from Manchester (the Monarchs) and the Capitals' top farm club from Hershey, Pa.

He was talking about the matchup between two of the top AHL goalies, the Kings' Jonathan Bernier and the Caps' Michal Neuvirth. Both look to be vying for starting jobs in the NHL next season. Bernier shut out the Bears 1-0 for his third shutout of the postseason, helping the Monarchs even their conference finals series with the Bears 2-2. The two young netminders are a combined 18-6 in the AHL playoffs.

You have to imagine that incumbents Jonathan Quick (Los Angeles) and Semyon Varlamov (Washington) will be starting their offseason workout regimens a little earlier in anticipation of the challenge they'll face in the fall. There had been some discussion during the first round as to whether Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi would promote Bernier for their series against Vancouver, but he was steadfast in wanting Bernier to experience a playoff run as a starter in the AHL. It looks like his strategy is paying off.

4. We remember talking to an NHL GM in the days after Dale Tallon was replaced by Stan Bowman as Chicago GM. The respected hockey man said he thought Tallon had done the best job of assembling talent in the league since the lockout. It's hard to argue with that logic since the Blackhawks are tearing through San Jose en route to their first Stanley Cup finals appearance since 1992 and maybe their first Cup win since 1961.

A lot of things are going to have to fall into place for Tallon to replicate those successes in South Florida. He's going to get the third overall pick at the draft in June, so that's a start. And he has to have a commitment from ownership to build a winner, and that will mean trying to lure free agents at some point, assuming the team evolves into a playoff contender. In Chicago, that meant overpaying for free agents after the lockout and after the team started to blossom ahead of schedule. You can quibble with the contracts extended to Cristobal Huet and Brian Campbell; but, like it or not, they played a significant role in the Hawks' making last season's playoffs and advancing to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 1995.

One of the reasons the Blackhawks matured so quickly was because of the designation of Jonathan Toews as the team's captain. Like Steve Yzerman in Detroit, Toews has become the face of the franchise at an early stage. He has proven to be wise beyond his years, and it's hard not to see him as an elite player for years to come after watching his play at the Olympics and through the playoffs.

Which brings us back to Tallon and his task in Florida. Is there such a leader among the group of young players the Panthers have stockpiled, guys like Nathan Horton or Stephen Weiss? The failure of the team to get over the hump of going through prolonged slumps en route to annual finishes out of the playoffs suggests the answer is no. Tallon will have some tough decisions ahead of him.

5. Funny how, at least from the outside, the view of the Boston Bruins seems somehow different even though they delivered one of the great collapses in pro sports by blowing a 3-0 series lead against Philadelphia and a 3-0 lead in Game 7. While the way in which they went under wasn't particularly pretty (a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty led to the winning goal by Simon Gagne in the third period of Game 7), the Bruins seem to have set themselves on a path to relevancy in Boston for years to come.

GM Peter Chiarelli was scolded by fans for not making a significant move at the trade deadline, although he did acquire useful defenseman Dennis Seidenberg from Florida. But perhaps the greatest moves Chiarelli made were the ones he didn't make. He stayed away from Ray Whitney, as did all NHL teams, because he didn't want to give up a first-round pick. Chiarelli will get one of the top two prospects at the draft, Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin, thanks to the Phil Kessel deal with Toronto (the Bruins own the second pick). The Bruins have also stockpiled a nice array of other picks for 2010 and 2011.

Although they were racked by injury, they still managed to knock off favored Buffalo and go the distance in the second round. Tuukka Rask may have faltered against Philly, but he has shown he has the tools to be an elite netminder. Plus, the Bruins still have last season's Vezina Trophy winner in Tim Thomas, who may draw some trade interest at the draft. There are plenty of assets, and there is room for optimism despite the disastrous way the season ended.

Scott Burnside

ESPN Senior Writer




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