WATCH: Wild force Game 7
With all the overtimes and fireworks we’ve seen in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, it would have been a crying shame if we didn’t get to see at least one series go the distance. The books on five of the eight opening-round series have already been closed after six games or fewer, but on Wednesday night, we finally received the promise of a Game 7.
Prepare your oxygen tanks for Friday because it’s safe to say that things are going to get SPICY in Vegas. I mean, we all know that the Golden Knights like to make things as difficult and dramatic as possible in these situations, right? A do-or-die finale in the Stanley Cup playoffs is always worth tuning in for, but there’s plenty of reason to believe that this one could be a classic.
And while I can’t fast-forward time to get you to that Game 7 against the Minnesota Wild, what I can do is help recap some takeaways from Wednesday's Game 6 while also looking ahead to what we’ve got Thursday night. Baby steps.
Minnesota survives in Game 6
Of the three teams facing elimination on Wednesday, only one of them survived to fight another day ... and that honor goes to the Wild. To no surprise, Game 6 was a defensive battle that was tightly contested most of the way through, but Minnesota took a 3-0 shutout victory at home to force a winner-take-all finale in Vegas on Friday.
The biggest moment of Wednesday’s game came when the Golden Knights appeared to get on the board with a game-tying goal about halfway through the third period. However, officials ruled “no goal” on the ice due to goaltender interference from Alex Tuch, who was camped right in front of Wild goalie Cam Talbot.
Vegas elected to challenge the ruling, but it was upheld. Have a look for yourself.
Honestly, I don’t really know how to feel about the ruling. I can understand the arguments from both sides. Tuch was clearly in the blue paint and affecting Talbot’s ability to play his position, but Tuch isn’t really initiating contact with Talbot. Also, Matt Dumba is preventing Tuch from going anywhere else. The Wild have also received some questionable interference calls in this series. And let’s be honest: None of us really know what goaltender interference is these days, right?
In any case, the ruling led to a major, game-altering swing. Because of the failed challenge, Vegas received a penalty for delay of game, and Minnesota went on to score on the ensuing power play. Instead of the game being tied 1-1, the Wild doubled their lead to make it 2-0. They added another goal with about five minutes left to ice the game and book their ticket back to The Strip.
We continue to see some big-time goaltending performances in this series and, on Wednesday, Cam Talbot outshined Marc-Andre Fleury. Talbot and Minnesota’s awesome defense did a great job of keeping Vegas’ offense frustrated and fruitless.
Fleury has come back down to earth a little bit over the past couple of games, and now there’s some debate over who the Golden Knights should turn to in the series finale, MAF or Robin Lehner.
Personally, I’d stick with Fleury. For as good as Lehner is, he hasn’t played in this series and I don’t know if I want to take the chance of giving the keys to a guy so far removed from meaningful action, especially in a winner-take-all situation. Fleury has been outstanding all year and was incredible in the front half of the series, so I think he has earned the opportunity to go out there and help finish what he started.
Jarry sinks the Penguins
Our first second-round matchup is set, as the New York Islanders are moving on to face the Boston Bruins in the East divisional bracket. The Isles finished off the Pittsburgh Penguins with a 5-3 win in Game 6 and it was a familiar story for the Pens in the loss.
Here’s what I had to say about Pittsburgh ahead of Wednesday's game:
“The biggest reason the Penguins find themselves on the brink of elimination is because of (goaltender Tristan) Jarry, who has arguably cost his team two games due to his poor play. His brutal gaffe in double OT of Game 5 handed the Islanders the win on a silver platter, and he’s since become a punching bag for much of the hockey community, including his own fan base. If he plays well and helps the Pens force a do-or-die Game 7, he’ll do himself a big favor and help take the target off his back. If he continues to be a liability, this series may haunt him for a long time.”
Welp, it turns out this one may indeed haunt him. Jarry once again looked mighty rough in Game 6 and, again, it was extremely costly for his squad. Even as someone who believes that goaltenders often receive too much blame and are easy scapegoats for lazy armchair analysts, I’m willing to argue that Jarry single-handedly cost Pittsburgh a chance at winning this series. That’s how poorly he played.
The Penguins’ expected goals rate was almost double that of the Islanders in Games 5 and 6, and yet Pittsburgh didn’t win either. Hmmm, I wonder why that might be ...
Wednesday’s game started off quite chaotic and featured nonstop end-to-end action with plenty of scoring on both ends. The Penguins took a lead on three separate occasions in the first 22 minutes, but the Islanders managed to counter each time. New York finally took the lead and started to pull away in the second period when they scored three goals in a three-minute span — including two in 13 seconds.
You’re probably gonna want a stop on a few of these.
The Penguins didn’t play poorly in this series, and they didn’t play poorly on Wednesday night. They were largely sunk by the performance of one player — it just happened to be someone at a position of utmost importance, playing arguably the worst hockey of his career, with no real viable backup plan behind him.
Had the Penguins gotten even average goaltending, they might be preparing for a Game 7 ... or they may have even advanced through already. Who knows? Instead, they got one of the worst playoff goaltending performances I can remember, and now they’re headed home for the summer, eliminated in the first round for the third straight year.
Tampa Bay takes first-ever Battle of Florida
For some reason, a lot of people seemed to doubt the Tampa Bay Lightning heading into the first round. Sure, they didn’t finish the regular season particularly strong, and they walked into a tough matchup against a good Florida Panthers team. But did we forget that the reigning Stanley Cup champions were getting back two of their best offensive players — Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos — for the postseason run?
And if there was any concern about those two guys being rusty or limited in their returns, they put any such concerns to bed during this series. Kucherov and Stamkos were key contributors all the way through, and they had two points each in the Bolts’ 4-0 win to finish off the Panthers in Game 6.
As the score line would suggest, Andrei Vasilevskiy was great in net, stopping all 29 Florida shots he faced.
I’ll be honest, it’s a bit of a bummer that this one didn’t go the full seven games just based on the chaotic ride this series took us on. I know there are no moral victories in the playoffs — especially when you haven’t won a series since 1996 — but the Panthers deserve to be proud of the way they battled, even with some instability in net for a good chunk of the series. The Lightning are a powerhouse, and there’s not a lot of shame in having your season end by their hand.
It was a good season for the Cats. They just had the misfortune of running into one of the league’s best teams. Hopefully, there's a Battle of Florida sequel in the near future.
What to watch for Thursday
Predators try to stay alive at home: The Hurricanes-Predators series has been a lot better than I anticipated, and I have to give Nashville a ton of credit for the way it has been able to battle. The Preds managed to erase a 2-0 series deficit and very nearly took a 3-2 series lead on Tuesday before losing in overtime of Game 5.
Now, Nashville has another chance to showcase its never-say-die attitude in Game 6 (9:30 p.m. ET, Bally Sports South). The Predators have the power of a raucous Bridgestone Arena behind them, and I think it’s safe to say the atmosphere in that building is going to be absolutely electric.
Will the Canadiens score a goal tonight vs Leafs? Probably not! (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN)
Best highlight of the day: Look at Brayden Point showing off his sick hands and playmaking abilities in tight space to drive the nail into the Panthers’ coffin.