Hockey is a truly vicious sport, in that the team that wins the Presidents’ Trophy — i.e. the team that is best over the largest sample size — rarely “justifies” that achievement in the playoffs. You have to go all the way back to the Hawks in 2013, another shortened season, to find a team that was the best in the regular season and then underlined it in the playoffs. The last team to do it in the full 82-game season was the 2008 Red Wings, only 13 years ago. There are just too many things that can go wrong, too many things out of control, for any team to keep their fingers on everything.
Hockey is so weird, that any bounce or call or slip can turn a series. The Colorado Avalanche were undone in Game 6 by some bad bounces and Phillip Grubauer having his one off night of the playoffs, as they really did control the game. Just as they did in Game 5, but then shot themselves in the dick three times to blow it. Navigating the NHL playoffs is something even Indiana Jones would wave off and just go home. The margins are so thin.
But when one of your own players blows up your entire infrastructure because he just can’t help it, well, that’s a different pain.
The Avs have been built the past two years on the fact that they have Nathan MacKinnon, but also Nazem Kadri backing him up. The reason Kadri is so infuriating is that because in all the moments his brain doesn’t blow a circuit and make him think he’s in a Fast & Furious movie is that he’s a truly unique player. He’s a nails checking center who also can put up 50-60 points. There’s like five of those guys around, maybe.
But when Kadri took himself out of this series, by yet another selfish, boneheaded quest to prove he could have been an extra in Braveheart or something (how many movie references am I allowed?), he snatched a pillar out from under the Avs’ building. When playing Vegas, you know that it’s likely one of the top two lines is going to go off for them. The Knights were happy to fight fire with fire and constantly match their top line against Colorado’s, and decidedly won that matchup as Nathan MacKinnon didn’t put up the same production as Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, and Chandler Stephenson. But the Avs also had no answer for the Knights’ second line of Reilly Smith, William Karlsson, and Jonathan Marchessault, who piled up 18 points in the three games. That’s exactly who Kadri would have been combatting. Or he would have been slotted against Stephenson, giving MacKinnon an easier time against lines that didn’t have Mark Stone around to do everything. Instead, Tyson Jost was slotted up and will be digging the tire marks out of his chest all summer.
And that’s the knife’s edge the series hinged on. The Avs got their asses dented in Game 3, but still held a lead with minutes to go. Would Kadri’s presence have mattered there? They held a two-goal lead heading into the third period of Game 5, and had many chances to stretch it. Would it have mattered there? They dominated Game 6 for long stretches but couldn’t get a lead. Would it have made a difference there? Only one of these needed to be answered yes for the series to at least be heading for Denver for Game 7.
But this is the contract you sign, and the guy holding the pen has a bifurcated tail and a knowing grin on his face. When you acquire Kadri, you tell yourself you can be the team who will convince him to not go off the deep end this time, that you’ll only get the good stuff from. And then you’ll convince yourself you have enough cover that you’ll be fine if he does lose his rag again. And then you end up with your thumb in your ass just like the Leafs did.
The Avs signed on the dotted line. And now they’re paying.
Bucks win ugly
The Bucks got a game in their 2nd-round series with the Nets, and they should be commended for the defense they played to keep the Nets to 36 percent shooting and just 86 points. But is it normal for a team with a two-time MVP to have said MVP go 0-for-2 in the last five minutes with no assists in a game that is as must-win as it gets? Or to actively avoid giving him the ball in the same window because the Bucks don’t trust him to be able to score? Maybe Khris Middleton can go for 35 points every night while James Harden remains injured. But it’s not exactly the sturdiest plan.