By Saqib Rahim
One delight of the NHL playoffs is that there are so many ways to win. Some teams play with a tenacious finesse, proving themselves so much tougher than you ever thought they could be. Some teams prefer to slow the pace of play, lulling their opponents into costly mistakes. Some teams just aren’t working with much, but they keep winning because their goalie is temporarily charmed.
This playoff, now in the third round, is proving especially delectable. We’re watching a transition from big, intimidation hockey to a zippy, racecar version of the game. And while the NBA Finals seem all but preordained, the NHL playoffs remain deliciously undecided. We’ve got a mix of the old school and new blood. What’s stronger, the pull of the past or the pull of the future?
To examine this question, let us apply a hokey analogy: cars. In the East, the Pittsburgh Penguins are playing the Ottawa Senators (1-1 series as of yesterday). In the West, the Anaheim Ducks are playing the Nashville Predators (also 1-1). All four teams were built at different times, for different purposes, in different ways. Let’s have a peek.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Porsche
This is the one everyone aspires to, isn’t it? The speed, the handling, the status. The Penguins are the premium sports car of pro hockey, evoking the same respect and awe that German engineering does.
We know why. There is some serious horsepower in that engine. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are the top two centers. This means Pittsburgh has an elite center on the ice for the majority of any game, and since they play in the middle of the ice, centers can exert an outsize influence on the outcome.
The engine is premium, and so are the wheels. Phil Kessel is a dynamite winger that Pittsburgh plays on its 3rd line, the better to humiliate other teams’ lower-tier defenders. Dude has been so keyed up he’s barking at everyone and no one:
But that’s the Penguins, right? A performance car that expects to perform. It’s the most established speed-and-skill team of the modern NHL, and that’s why they won the last Stanley Cup and are pretty well-positioned to repeat.
When you’re having this much fun, it’s easy to forget that you’re imbalanced.
Let’s look at that D: haggard, bro. Most elite teams have one or two top-flight defensemen. The Pens would have one, Kris Letang, if the dude hadn’t been on the IR since February. They’d have a passable substitute, Trevor Daley, if that dude hadn’t gone onto the IR a few weeks ago.
Injuries are part of hockey, and playoff hockey especially, but you’ve gotta wonder if the Pens’ emphasis on speed and finesse comes at the expense of muscle and intimidation. The Pens win in spite of their D, not because of it.
Then there’s Crosby, who got seriously bonked in Game 3 against the Capitals:
Crosby’s got a concussion history, so it’s great that he’s been able to come back and be somewhat effective. But we’re also reminded that he’s always one hit away from the long-term IR. If you love the supersonic play of the Pens, this is a risk you gotta live with. If you wanna drive 150 on the highway, just hope you don’t hit a pebble.
Ottawa Senators: Volkswagen GTI
Ain’t you so cute? And so easy to park, and the candy-apple red gets all kindsa compliments, and you just toot along, don’t ya, little fella!
And then you get a little taste of the torque in that diesel engine, and…OK, maybe I underestimated you a bit. Like when Bobby Ryan posterized Olli Maatta in overtime of Game 1 against the Stanley Cup fucking champions.
The Sens are here because they don’t realize that they’re not supposed to be here. They don’t have star power like Chicago. They don’t have a money goalie like Montreal. They don’t have a platoon of playoff-hardened vets, like Washington.
The Sens are here, going toe to toe with the champs more effectively than anybody has, because they keep it simple. They play a frustrating 1-3-1 setup that bogs other teams down in the middle of the ice. They get back on D and support each other. They’re fast, but more importantly they don’t fondle the puck excessively on offense; they get to the net and shoot the damn thing. They don’t have many marquee scorers, but they do have lots of sneaky talent up and down the lineup.
It also helps to have the Swedish musketeer, Erik Karlsson, revving the engine from the blue line. Karlsson (who, I trollfully note, has a promo deal with an Ottawa Porsche dealer) makes passes that are only possible in video games; this unnerves defenses and allows the Senators forwards to move up the ice with speed.
So that’s the Sens: fun, insubordinate, and young enough to drive a cherry-red car unironically! Also like a Volkswagen, you always wonder if they’re kind of a fraud.
Anaheim Ducks: Chevy Suburban
The parallels here are so satisfying I’m shaking at the keyboard. Behold the classic SoCal SUV: inefficient, unnecessarily large, built for another time but in such fervent denial about the new world that it’s still hanging around somehow.
That’s the Ducks: a team built for another time that is surprisingly relevant in 2017. The Ducks’ core players are from the age of “heavy” Western Conference hockey. Let’s look at some of the great teams that have come out of the West in the last decade: the Vancouver Canucks, the LA Kings, the San Jose Sharks. Notice something? They had a lot of players over 200 pounds, especially forwards. So for a lot of the last decade, Western teams accepted that to win in the playoffs, they needed to have the bulk to grind it out with the big guys. Hey, if you want to drive over rocks, don’t you want a Suburban?
But around the turn of the decade, teams like the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins started to win with speed and possession. Instead of packing their rosters with beefy alpha males (e.g. Ryan Kesler, Dustin Penner), they had spindly, creative dudes who looked like they could work at Best Buy (e.g. Jonathan Toews) or play drums (e.g. Kris Letang).
What is a heavy team to do? Kludge, improvise, and hope for the best. (Or lose, like my Sharks do.)
The result is that the Ducks are, like an SUV, top-heavy. Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Ryan Kesler led the team in scoring during the regular season. But none of them were ever known for their speed, and now they’re north of 30 going against young teams like the Oilers and Predators.
The Ducks do have skill lower in the lineup, and youthful speed in their defense. But this is, at bottom, an old-school team that is counting on its big-money pistons to power the machine ahead. They looked downright gassed in their Game 1 loss to the Predators, but Game 2 showed why we shouldn’t count them out. The game has changed, but maybe heavy Western teams can still get by on veteran canniness.
Also like a Suburban, the Ducks seem to have a lot of open seating? What the hell was going on in Game 1, Anaheim? Claiming a sellout of 17,174 is straight mendacious.
Nashville Predators: Tesla Model S
There are cars, and then there are pure, automotive sex panthers.
The Nashville Predators are the latter: performance, style, and unattainability all wrapped into one. Here’s how Wall Street Journal car critic Dan Neil reviewed the Model S in 2015:
The Model S is a daring public experiment in automotive vision that has the impudence to make the finest, fastest luxury cars feel like Edwardian antiques.
OK, maybe “experimental vision” is a bit much for the Preds, but “futuristic prototype that’s scary good” isn’t. The Predators, painstakingly constructed over the last decade by shrewd GM David Poile, have six defensemen who can move the puck neatly out of the zone and into the attack. They have two defensemen, P.K. Subban and Roman Josi, who take this concept to its logical extreme: They simply rush the puck up the ice, like John Wall going coast-to-coast.
As the other team hustles to keep up, Nashville’s forwards flare out into the offensive one. When it works, the puck carrier has multiple options to pass as well as the option to shoot. Look at how Nashville spreads the ice on this play:
That is what you get when you combine bracing speed with control. In the Predators, we glimpse a beautiful, fluent version of the game. If that’s the future of hockey, then the future of hockey is arousing.