Blake’s Takes: Conference Finals and the World Championships

The might be the best time of the year to be a hockey fan. We are in the midst of the Conference Finals and the World Championships have started. I dive deep into both tournaments and bring back my award predictions.

1. Meier is the Key for the Sharks

The playoffs are officially down to four teams after the St. Louis Blues closed out the Dallas Stars in Game 7 last week. The Blues and San Jose Sharks faced off on Saturday night for Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. The Sharks skated circles around the Blues and capitalized on their mistakes. The worst of them all might have the mistake by Colton Parayko, shown in the above video. 

You can see Timo Meier embarrass Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Binnington to put the Sharks up 4-2. This goal proved to be the dagger as the Sharks won the game 6-3.

Meier has been the X factor for the Sharks these playoffs and is tied for sixth in playoff scoring with 13 points. Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl have received most of the attention from the media for their great play but Meier has been rock-solid all playoffs. I think Meier will continue to be the difference-maker for San Jose just as he was in Game 1 against St. Louis. If he keeps playing like this, the Sharks will have any issues advancing to their second Stanley Cup Final in four years.

2. The Hurricanes are Getting Winded

Tuukka Rask has allowed four goals in two games against Carolina. [Photo credit: Lisa Gansky]
As of today, the Boston Bruins lead the Carolina Hurricanes 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Hurricanes have become one of the most fun stories in hockey this year and have surprised everyone with their deep playoff push. Unfortunately, it looks like they have run out of gas. Boston has beaten them handily in Games 1 and 2, getting great production from their less-heralded guys like Matt Grzelcyk and Charlie Coyle.

Coyle, who was traded from the Wild at the deadline, has been a fantastic addition to the Bruins. He had a rough regular season with Boston but has really stepped it up this postseason. He has scored six goals, including an OT game-winner, and added six assists these playoffs. If Ryan Donato ends up begin a bust in Minnesota, my take that the Wild won that trade will be very wrong considering the way Coyle has been playing, especially if the Bruins win the Cup.

Arguably, the main reason for Boston’s success has been goalie, Tuukka Rask. Rask has been unfairly ripped in the media for his past postseason play. He has complexly flipped the script this playoff run. Rask is 10-5, with a 2.02 GAA, a 9.37 sv%, and one shutout. Rask’s playoff shortcomings are often compared to Tim Thomas’ dynamite postseason run of 2011, where Thomas led the B’s to the Stanley Cup and won the Conn Smythe Trophy. For reference, Thomas finished the 2011 postseason with a record of 16-9, with a 1.98 GAA, .940 sv%, and four shutouts. Rask’s numbers this season are obviously on par with the run Thomas had in 2011. If the Bruins do go on to win the Cup, Rask will no doubt slay his playoff demons and will force people to rewrite the book on his postseason career, especially if he wins the Conn Smythe.

3. Award Prediction: Conn Smythe Trophy

Now that they’re only four teams left in the playoffs, the race for the Conn Smythe Trophy has become clearer. I figured it would be a good time to bring back an award prediction. I’ll pick one player from each team that I think deserves to win the award as the playoff MVP.

Boston Bruins: Tuukka Rask, Goalie

Tuukka Rask

I won’t go into too much detail here because I just gushed about how great Tuukka is in my take above. Not only has Rask been unreal this postseason, but Boston’s first line has also sputtered out of the gate. The line of Bergeron, Marchand, and Pastrnak haven’t played poorly, they just haven’t played to the standard we are used to seeing. Marchand has the best numbers of the three, leading Boston in scoring with five goals and 10 assists. Pastrnak is tied with David Krejci and Coyle for second in team scoring with 12 points. Bergeron is sixth with 10 points. The award is still Rask’s to lose if the Bruins go on to win the Cup.

Carolina Hurricanes: Jaccob Slavin, Defense

Jacob Slavin

The odds that Slavin will end up winning the award become slimmer by the day as Boston holds a commanding 2-0 lead in their series. That being said, Slavin has had a breakout postseason. He is tied for the team lead with 11 points, all assists. He is also a +7 and has played great defense. Forwards Sebastian Aho and Jordan Staal have had great postseasons too, but Slavin has been a bit more impressive.

San Jose Sharks: Logan Couture, Forward

Logan Couture

The Sharks have had the most dynamic scoring roster this postseason. Six players have at least 10 points and four have at least five goals. Couture is no doubt having the best postseason of any forward left in the playoffs. He leads all skaters in points with 17, scoring 11 goals and tallying six assists. He has dominated stretches of games and has put San Jose on his back when needed. Hertl has also been great for San Jose. He is third on the Sharks in points with nine goals and five assists. He also scored both goals in a huge 2-1 win in game five over the Avalanche. Couture is my pick to win, but Hertl still has an outside shot if he keeps putting pucks in the back of the net.

St. Louis Blues: Jaden Schwartz, Forward

Jaden Schwartz

The Blues were the hardest team to pick from. I wanted to pick Binnington as he has been their backbone all playoffs, but his numbers aren’t stellar on paper. He is 8-6 with a 2.57 GAA, .908 sv%, and zero shutouts. That’s great for a rookie goalie, but compared to the numbers Rask has put up he doesn’t compare. Schwartz has been stellar all playoffs for St. Louis. He leads the team with eight goals and 12 points. He is also a +5 and has scored two HUGE game-winning goals for the Blues. The Blues haven’t been as dynamic as the other three teams so no one else really stands out. 

4. World Championship Standouts

Kaapo Kakko of Finland is projected to go 2nd overall in the 2019 NHL Draft.

The IIHF World Championships are officially underway in Slovakia. After two days, there have been a few heavy offensive performances by teams and players. That’s bound to happen when you consider the talent drop-off between the top eight and bottom eight nations. Below are a few performances I thought were notable.

Kaapo Kakko, Forward, Finland

Kaapo Kakko

I believe Kaapo Kakko will be the most exciting storyline of this tournament. For many, including myself, it will be the first time we see him play before he is most likely taken by the New York Rangers as the second pick in June’s draft. I think Kakko will be more fun to watch a than the likely first-overall pick, Jack Hughes because Hughes is playing on the third line for a good American team. Kakko will play most of the major minutes for Finland and hasn’t disappointed thus far. Through two games, Kakko leads all players in goals with five and is tied for first in points with five. Kakko looks to be on a mission to force the New Jersey Devils to consider taking him first overall.

Filip Hronek, Defense, Czech Republic

Filip Hronek

I wrote a bit about Hronek a few months ago when I compared his rookie season to the likes of Miro Heiskanen and Rasmus Dahlin. Hronek has established himself as one of the best players in the opening weekend. He leads all skaters with a +6 rating, is tied for first in points with five, and has scored two goals. If Hronek keeps this up, he could be named the best defenseman of the tournament. That will be exciting for all the Red Wings fans out there.

Anthony Mantha, Forward, Canada

Anthony Mantha

Another Detroit Red Wing playing well, Mantha was held scoreless in Canada’s first game on Saturday. Sunday was a different story, as Mantha scored five points against an inferior Great Britain team. He fits right in with his line mates Kyle Turris and Jared McCann. Mantha unleashed a great saucer pass to Turris for his first assist of the game. He scored three of his five points in the third period alone. He is also tied for the tournament lead in points with five. I’m excited to see if the Mantha/Turris/McCann line can power Canada to their first gold medal in the World Championships since 2016.

Nikita Kucherov & Evgenii Dadonov, Forwards, Team Russia

Nikita Kucherov

I enjoy pointing out when I’m right and I will do so here. Last week, I commented that Russia had more firepower than any other team and I thought they would win the tournament. Through two games, they are making me look very smart. The Russians did away with Norway in their first game, winning 5-2. They scored another five goals in a shutout win against Austria in game two. They don’t seem to be challenged in the slightest. Evgeni Dadonov and Nikita Kucherov have led the way for the Russians with nine combined points between the two of them. Russia’s next game will be against the Czech Republic who will be their first real competition of the tournament. The Czech Republic has also had a great tournament so that game should show us if Russia is for real.

5. Putin Scores Big

Just in case you forgot, Russian President Vladimir Putin plays in an exhibition game each year with former NHL players to show off his hockey skills. In this year’s rendition, Putin scored a whopping eight goals alongside a few former superstars Slava Fetisov and Pavel Bure. This exhibition seems to offer a similar gimmick as when US Presidents fill out their bracket or host championship winning teams. The most memorable moment of Putin’s big day was when he skated into the red carpet and tripped and fell.

This was just a reminder of the ridiculousness of Putin that happens to slip into our hockey universe. ■

Blake Isaacs is a die-hard Red Wings fan that doesn’t go to as many games as he should. He is also a big fan of 7-Eleven Slurpeees, Chipotle, and all things Michigan State. Follow him on Twitter @bisaacs1995.

2 thoughts on “Blake’s Takes: Conference Finals and the World Championships”

  1. Leading off with a fantastic photo of Rask is sure an attention getter.

    If I would have responded to your post yesterday, I would have been in full agreement with the Sharks looking like they’d have a cake walk to the Finals against the Blues. After last night’s game, that might not be the case. Timo has been great for San Jose this entire year. We’re seeing more of him now that the Playoffs are ongoing and getting to see the skill set he brings to the game. The kind of play all teams hope when nabbing a top ten draft pick.

    Matt Grzelcyk is another less heralded player as you had said but, even though undersized, his play has been stellar. Especially at controlling each blueline and he led the entire NHL in breakup percentage. Coyle who didn’t really impress during the regular season has stepped his game up immensely during these Playoffs. The exact player Sweeney was hoping he’d get when he traded Donato to Minnesota. For too many years Rask has been ripped apart for his post season play and yet nary a mention of how outstanding his regular season play has been for the last decade or so. The funniest part of all this is Rask’s save percentage and goals against averages are all at the very top for all goalies who have fifty or more post season starts since the year 2010.

    Solid choices for your Conn Smythe picks. Tough to argue any of them but, there is still a lot of hockey that remains and you never know if a dark horse will come out of nowhere.

    Kakko is an exciting story line, not just that we finally get to watch him at the Worlds but along with the upcoming NHL draft. I believe someone will get him before the Rangers do. He’ll go number one overall.

    1. Thanks for reading, Marc!

      All great points. I agree and think Rask gets a lot of unnecessary criticism, especially after he played so well in the 2013 Cup Finals. Had the Bruins won that series the narrative around him would have changed immediately.

      I still think Hughes goes number one. It will be interesting to see if that pick has anything to do with Taylor Hall’s extension!

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