I'm so happy the honeymoon is over in Toronto.
Things were getting a little weird. It was like in "The Truman Show," where everything was so uncomfortably idyllic, you knew the houses had to be made out of cardboard. The Toronto Maple Leafs should not be greeted with unironic optimism and blue-and-white journalistic pom-poms, but with a lingering sense of dissatisfaction and with an activist media poking and prodding the organization until it squirms in agony.
The reasonable response to the Leafs losing in seven games to the Boston Bruins is that they're in the absolute final year of their education process as a playoff team; that they're two or three defensemen away from being a serious contender, lest one believes they can win a Stanley Cup by allowing that tonnage of shots from opponents; that it was remarkable there even was a Game 7, considering the Leafs played three games minus Nazem Kadri due to his hair-trigger idiocy; and that an injured Auston Matthews saw roughly 37 minutes more of Zdeno Chara than did Mitch Marner, and had one goal and one assist to show for it.
Since they were eliminated, the following has happened:
Marner, a native of Markham, Ontario, has been praised to the stratosphere, while Matthews, a native of a U.S. desert state, has been widely criticized for, among other things, "hiding in the trainer's room" instead of meeting the media. This dynamic between the Canadian and American was, perhaps, the most predictable thing in the history of things, but we didn't expect it to manifest in Year 2.
The realization that Frederik Andersen, who had an underwhelming Game 7 but whose effort was perhaps the sole reason there was a Game 7, may not be the player to provide a solution in goal.
And in the chef's kiss of postseason postmortems, an incredible statement from Nick Kypreos of Sportsnet about Matthews and coach Mike Babcock: "Last year, and going into this year, Matthews was the guy, and toward the end, Babcock lost Matthews. I don't know what happened, but he lost him, and there was no trust anymore. And then, Matthews can't start a hockey game, and he can't start a period, he can't start a power play off a TV timeout, and for whatever reason, Babcock lost Matthews, and that played a key part. Now he's injured, and that, of course, you have to consider, but I just watched his body language throughout the last few games here and going into the regular season, and you're sitting here going, 'Uh, that's more than the injury; something is not right here with Matthews,' and I think that needs to be addressed as well."
Matthews said during the Leafs' breakdown day that his relationship with Babcock is "fine." He also said he'd like to play more with Marner, which Babcock is loath to do, and added, "But I'm not making the lineup decisions." Yes, yes, yes ... more of this.
Look, I don't want the Maple Leafs to tumble down the mountain in a heap of futility as the Edmonton Oilers did this season. I genuinely feel that they're on the right path and that the world is a more interesting place with a team that hasn't won in 50 years contending for a Cup. They're a burgeoning Chicago Cubs World Series moment for the NHL. It'll be yooge.
But I'm here for the Leafs' soap opera. Give me the media setting up Matthews vs. Marner. Give me "Game of Thrones" maneuvering in the front office for the GM spot. Give me heated criticism of Mike Babcock's lack of accomplishments. ... Oh, who am I kidding, he's a great quote with two Canadian Olympic gold medals, so he's a protected species in the Toronto media.
I don't think we're quite at "Kasperi Kapanen visits the same hot dog vendor each day" yet, but give it time ...
Jersey Foul of the Week
From Nick C.:
While I'd never suggest I'm a scholar on Arthurian legend, I'm fairly certain that "Sir Drinks-a-lot" was not a member of the Round Table. Although in fairness, perhaps he was under it.
Guentz of Honor
A couple of things about Jake Guentzel, who had a point on all three Pittsburgh Penguins goals in their Game 1 rally against the Washington Capitals, who at the very least can raise that "First 40 Minutes of Game 1" championship banner next season.
He talks fast. Likereallyfast. Talking to Guentzel is like playing a recap podcast of "The Bachelorette" at 1.5x speed through a speaker made out of cans of Red Bull. As one Pittsburgh writer mentioned outside the Penguins' locker room last night: There are times when the last word of his sentences is actually a combination of three words, and you have to just sort of Google Instant Search his complete thought.
He also has a pretty solid playoff beard for a fair-haired boy, which, as Corey Perry and Steven Stamkos can attest, isn't always the easiest thing to accomplish. The trick is to start the beard as early as possible. Sifting through the video evidence, we'd say he started his foliage about two weeks before the postseason. That's a veteran move. Wonder if Sidney Crosby taught him that, too.
To watch Sid and Guentzel is to watch a master magician share his tricks with an apprentice. He does this because Guentzel has provided Crosby with a dependable, offensively creative winger who does what Crosby values more than anything. "He competes hard. That's the biggest thing. And he's got a ton of skill and hockey sense and all the things that come with it. But he goes to different areas to score. He battles hard in front of the net. He wins puck battles. He's able to generate in a lot of different ways, and it's great to see him get rewarded," said Crosby.
Guentzel has learned from Crosby, on the ice and in practice. "You just see his focus. It starts in practice, and his attention to details. He sets the tone for us," Guentzel said.
It's the little things, too. Like when Evgeni Malkin missed Game 1 with an injury, and Guentzel knew that he'd see more power-play time. So Crosby took him aside and explained to him what was expected from him on that unit with Geno out. It's that level of mentorship.
There have been a lot of things that have gone very right for the Penguins in winning two straight Stanley Cups and challenging for a third. Having the No. 77 overall pick in 2013 from Nebraska-Omaha turn into a top-line winger on a rookie contract is chief among them. Guentzel tied Crosby and Mario Lemieux for most points through the first seven games of a playoff season (16) in Penguins history. His 20 goals in 32 playoff games is the fastest any Penguin not named Mario Lemieux has reached 20 postseason goals. It took Crosby 38 games and Malkin 40.
As Jake Guentzel might say, he'sreallygoodathockey.
Listen to ESPN on Ice
Thanks to everyone who tuned in this week for our exclusive interview with Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon. We learned a lot about his decisions and his process, including why he isn't looking to spend big bucks on team executives. Plus, the Penguins' musings of Rob Rossi, including a look at the Evgeni Malkin book he's working on. Stream it here and grab it on iTunes here.
Learn the right lesson from Vegas
Somewhere in between the slack-jawed awe over the Vegas Golden Knights' incredible regular and postseason runs ("...but their PDO!!!") and the constant yammering from critics about how rigged the expansion draft was in their favor (which ignores the incredible job GM George McPhee and AGM Kelly McCrimmon did in selecting players and leveraging opponents) lies the real lesson from this record-shattering inaugural season:
My old Puck Daddy colleague Justin Bourne of The Athletic touched on it in a recent column (paywall): "When you get healthy-scratched for weeks on end before finally dressing, the ideal situation isn't playing 10 minutes with no special teams alongside fourth liners. That's been the biggest difference for all those Vegas players who could barely crack a lineup -- suddenly they're getting the same opportunities as the league's best players, and boy howdy, don't your stats look better when you get time on the power play and log 17 minutes."
To use some old hockey clichés, everyone in that Vegas room feels like he's "pullin' the rope" or "rowin' the boat" or whatever. "We roll four lines, we play all six defensemen, everyone is a big part of our group, you know?" said coach Gerard Gallant. He said that after they smoked the San Jose Sharks 7-0, but it could have been from any game this season.
Seven different Golden Knights scored goals in that game. Seven different Golden Knights scored goals in their first-round sweep of the Los Angeles Kings. I can't recall another team that sported as dominant a top line as the Jonathan Marchessault trio and yet wasn't over-reliant on it to bail them out with frequency. The Golden Knights are getting different heroes every night.
Play everyone. That's the lesson.
What if the Golden Knights never lose? [Deadspin]
Pittsburgh funeral home celebrates Flyers' playoff exit with custom prayer cards. [PHT]
The nastiest rivalry you don't know about: Toledo vs. Fort Wayne in the ECHL playoffs. [Blade]
Leksand's Leon Reuterström publicly comes out as transgender, retires from women's hockey. [Ice Garden]
Snail Mail, a.k.a. Baltimore singer-guitarist Lindsey Jordan, has an incredible new video that features her playing hockey. She's played since she was 8. [Pitchfork]
The Hanson Brothers deal with the decline of fighting: "We're not promoting fighting. But if a fight breaks out, so be it. That's the way the game is. I think we've lost that a little bit. I liked that style of play." [Gold Digest]
- p-Nashville Predators (@PredsNHL) April 25, 2018
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn't read)
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
Lineup decisions that are going to impact the second round bigly. [Rob Vollman]