Updated Thursday May 28
Patrick Kane is the marquee star of the Stanley Cup playoffs. At 26 he’s already led the Chicago Blackhawks to two championships. He’s telegenic and acrobatic. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2013 as the playoffs MVP.
But in the National Hockey League’s Final Four, his dominance is challenged by Anaheim’s Corey Perry, whose Ducks are lined up to win one of the best-ever Western Conference finals, with Saturday night’s Game 7 on their home ice.
Perry plays Kane’s position, right wing, and he’s playing it at least as well. Perry has 9 goals, 17 points in 15 games, compared to 10 goals, 17 points in 16 games for Kane. The plus-minus figures: Perry +7, Kane +6.
Is this an aberration? Not really. Perry, 30, has been the more productive player ever since Kane entered the league, as the overall No. 1 draft pick in 2007 and won the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year. Kane has averaged 25.6 goals and 69.6 points per season, to 29.6 and 86.8 for Perry. For his NHL career Kane is +51, Perry +92.
But Kane is better known, one reason being he’s American, born in Buffalo, N.Y. Another reason being he’s played for two Stanley Cup champions in four years. Kane has played for just one, and that was eight years ago.
Another reason for Kane’s greater international fame is that he lives and plays in a city that breathes hockey. You can be climbing the stairs at an el-train stop and hear a backpack-wearing college student screaming the latest “Hocks” score.
There’s yet another reason Perry is underappreciated. He may be the greatest AND most hated player in the sport.
Asked what could be done to curtail Perry, NBC analyst Mike Milbury, former NHL player and coach, said: “If I were playing against Corey Perry, I’d probably want to hurt him in some permanent and painful way.”
Truth is others in the league share Milbury’s harsh sentiments. They consider Perry a bully. They don’t like the way he uses his stick, elbows and hands to make life miserable for everyone on the other team. He even makes his teammates uncomfortable. Will they suffer from some of the retaliation?
Center Ryan Getzlaf describes his linemate as “angry on the ice. He agitates, does things people don’t agree with all the time, and sometimes we don’t agree with.”
Perry was being Perry in Game 4. As feisty on the road as at home, he shoved Chicago’s Kimmo Timonen into goaltender Corey Crawford. This was after Crawford complained of being bumped and distracted by Ducks. The incident said as much about Timonen (and, perhaps Crawford) as it did Perry. Coach Joel Quenneville cut back on Timonen’s minutes, putting more strain on star defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.
As annoying as Perry is to everyone. Getzlaf says the team “loves him” because “he puts the puck in the net and goes to the dirty areas, plays hard and plays to win.”
He digs for the puck as bodies crash in the corner. Other times he plants himself in front of the goaltender to create a screen, so slap shots from the point find the webbing via ricochet or deflection.
He’s 6-3, 212 pounds, and he’s invented a new position in hockey: power forward. It sounds like a basketball term, and in a sense he’s a stretch-4, with his speed and range allowing him to rush end to end.
No NHL player combines the physical and the sublime the way Perry does. He concocted a postseason highlight in Game 3. He broke loose on a 2-on-1 with Pat Maroon, cracked his stick, and without losing stride grabbed a new one as he passed the bench, then scooped a pass from Maroon and fired a shot on goal that almost scored.
This series may be the best show on TV. Chicago’s Andrew Shaw deserves an Emmy. In Game 3 he crumpled, as if knocked out by Floyd Mayweather, when Getzlaf’s stick came close but did not touch his face.
Shaw theatrically threw back his head, fell to the ice. Then he tugged at his nose, hoping there would be some blood, but there was not.
The Ducks were incredulous when refs assessed a high-sticking penalty on Getzlaf. Chicago argued – and I agree — that whether or not Getzlaf inflicted pain with his blade, he should not have wielded it within inches of someone’s face. There does not have to be contact; the rules say the stick should not be above the shoulders. And in the NHL, there’s no rule against flopping.
So that’s the kind of series it’s been, rough-and-tumble, eye-for-eye, but clever. The Ducks are more physically dominant, with Perry setting the tone like a giant hornet, while 6-2, 202-pound center Ryan Kesler brings the muscle on the team’s No. 2 line. You sense strong feelings simmering on the ice, with four games decided by one goal, three in overtime, two in multiple OTs.
Anaheim led Game 5 by two goals with two minutes left in regulation. But then Jonathan Toews scored twice, with goalie Frederik Andersen napping. The Ducks won in OT, so the ’Hawks faced a must-win Wednesday night, which they won 5-2 to force a Game 7.
In this golden age of goaltending, Crawford and Andersen are barely above average. Anderson sometimes gets out of position. Crawford loses focus when the Ducks interfere with him, which the refs are allowing. Home ice should help Andersen’s nerves, while the poaching of Perry, Kesler and Jakob Silfverberg continue to rattle Crawford’s.
Meanwhile the Eastern finals, which also will go the full 7, are less fiery, more firewagon, Tampa Bay Lightning living up to the name. The Triplets — Tyler Johnson, Odres Palat, Nikita Kucherov – have scored 27 goals in 19 games this postseason.
And the Lightning strikes from other directions. Steven Stamkos scored 43 goals this season, started slowly in the playoffs but has connected six times in the past eight games.
The New York Rangers are fortunate to be even at 3-3, forced to rely too much on All-World goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who’s as fierce a competitor as there is. He hates to be scored upon even in practice; he will fire a puck at a teammate who beats him.
In this series he gave up six goals in back to back games. But otherwise he’s been the tidiest of goalkeepers. Along with Derik Brassard’s hat trick, he was the reason New York won 7-3 Tuesday to force a Game 7 in Madison Square Garden on Friday night.
As unlikely as it seemed when the week began, the Rangers are now favored to repeat as Stanley Cup Finalists. They’ve won seven straight Game 7s in the Garden.
After the Rangers lost 2-0 in Game 5 and were booed off the ice, Tampa Bay expected to close it out at home. But the hulking 6-7 goaler Ben Bishop contrasted sharply to Lundqvist. Bishop was never the same after a shot in warmups struck his protective cup and sent him sprawling face down on the ice. At one point in Game 6 the Rangers led 2-0 while being outshot 14-6.
Tampa led the league in scoring this season and ranked a respectable 12th in goals allowed. Still, it’s a team Barry Melrose and other hockey cognoscenti believe is not experienced or mean enough to win the Stanley Cup this year. Tampa Bay may be one player away: Corey Perry. Or Henrik Lundqvist.