Into the Boards: Lacing ‘Em Up with Tom Williams from Stray From the Path
Hello, hello, ITB readers! The season is coming to a close which means we are thinking playoffs. It’s time to start discussing who is in, who is out, and who is going to play who. This week out East, Scott takes a look at the playoff picture for Toronto and Ottawa. We’ll go out West with Vin to see the overall position of the teams and then hear his Stanley Cup prediction. Last, Scott sits down with Tom Williams, guitarist of Stray From the Path, to talk about the New York Rangers and their postseason hopes. To those who have been reading since the beginning, thank you for staying with us all this time! Now, let’s get to it.
Toronto is Truckin’
With the Western Conference playoff picture mostly set with the exception of some minor position jockeying, we are relying on the East to provide some excitement down the stretch. The first wild card spot out East is more or less a lock for the Rangers, but it’s the second one that we are keeping our eye on. The Bruins, Leafs, Islanders, and Lightning are fighting for territory, but it’s Toronto that is slowly pulling away (for now, of course).
The Leafs have managed to actually temporarily remove themselves from the wild card picture by overtaking Boston, effectively nudging the Bruins down into WC2 and boosting themselves back up into the Atlantic Division bracket, where they currently sit in third place with 85 points, a three point lead on the Bruins with one game in hand. This puts the ball in Boston’s court and makes them the new team to chase for Islanders and Lightning fans. I’ve been thinking over the last two weeks that whichever team is able to string together a stretch of multiple wins in a row will find itself in the playoffs, and right now that’s Toronto. The Leafs have gone 4-0-1 in their last five games and are certainly rolling.
However, as hockey goes, the Leafs’ three point cushion could evaporate in record time and I could be singing a completely different tune here next week. The Islanders picked up a seismic and momentous win against the rival New York Rangers on Wednesday night and sit just two points behind Boston for possession of WC2, so a week’s worth of games could have all of these positions scrambled up. For now though, Auston Matthews and company are rolling and pushing for the Cinderella story. Either way, fear not Maple Leafs fans: if not this year, then next, and many more years to come.
Laying Down the Law
The Atlantic Division hasn’t been nearly as strong as its Eastern Conference divisional counterpart, which has fared well for the Ottawa Senators. The Sens have been nested in second place in the Atlantic for much of the year and are continuing to do so with their 88 points, but they have a game in hand on the Montreal Canadiens who are in first place with 91 points. So, let’s break down the potential playoff scenarios for Ottawa.
If the playoffs started tomorrow, the Senators would play the Toronto Maple Leafs in a battle of Ontario full of young talent. Ottawa would be firing at Freddie Andersen (2.64 GAA, .919 SV%) and an inexperienced defense. The likes of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Willie Nylander would be firing right back at them, so I’d expect a firefight in that potential series. On the other hand, if Ottawa makes up the three point gap on the Habs, the Sens would end up in first place and play the New York Rangers, which I don’t think would be smooth sailing. Like the Leafs, the Rangers have more than questionable defense, but the difference here is that the Sens would be facing a world class goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist and we all know that Lundqvist can steal a game, or even a series, that maybe the Rangers wouldn’t have won without him. The Blueshirts have a ton of speed up front and would push the pace on the Senators, so Erik Karlsson and company would have to be at their best to not allow the Rangers forwards to get behind them. This isn’t to say Ottawa can’t defeat the Rangers, but if I’m a Sens fan, I’m perfectly fine with sitting pretty in second place and taking my chances against Toronto or Boston.
Set in Stone
Fans in Chicago rejoiced this week as they found out that their beloved Blackhawks had clinched a playoff spot. I can only predict that this will most likely not end well for the team that has to play them in the first round. The second place Minnesota Wild should have their spot locked in very soon, even with their recent skid of losing eight of their last ten games.
This brings us to the Pacific Division where the team in the lead lets big beards run wild and where they play their Metallica super loud. I’m talking about the San Jose Sharks. Burns and Pavelski have done a stand up job this season and have kept their team on top for a while now. In the early weeks of the season, I caught some slack from a few commenters because I said that the Anaheim Ducks would be the first seat going into the postseason. I still stand by that prediction as the Ducks sit just two points behind in second place, and I think it’s about time for Corey Perry to turn it on and start playing to his true potential. Also, with two healthy Johns in net (Gibson and Bernier), this team has the talent to really do some damage.
The battle for a wild card seems to be coming to an end out West. The LA Kings have fallen and their chances to reach the playoffs are all but dead and waiting to be buried. Vladimir Tarasenko and the Blues have been killing it and have all the momentum going 9-1-0 in their last 10 contests. St. Louis has fought back from the slums and now sits in the third seat of the Central Division.
Taking the drop into the wild card is the Nashville Predators who have been playing solid hockey despite the plunge in rankings. Nashville sits behind the Calgary Flames with just a point between them. The rest of the herd is lagging behind and will soon fall off. With a 10 point differential, this race is almost entirely wrapped up. Unless something drastic happiness, it’s early golfing for the Kings, Jets, and everyone else to follow. This is hockey though, and miracles on ice can definitely happen.
Vin’s Stanley Cup Favorite (so far..)
Since the start of the year I’ve been saying the Penguins will repeat. However, half of their team is out with injury, so as of right now I’m going with the Washington Capitals. They’ve been doing everything right this season and I think that this could be their year to finally take it home. When this team is hot, they are virtually unbeatable. The power play unit is utterly disgusting with Nicklas Backstrom (who is easily one the of best playmakers in the game) feeding the puck to snipers Kevin Shattenkirk, T.J Oshie and of course Alex Ovechkin. We all know when the puck’s going to Ovi — he’s in the same spot ready to slap it home, and it’s as predictable as clockwork — and yet it works every damn time. They have depth in all positions, including their defense which has veteran Brooks Orpik and Shattenkirk holding down their third line. Goaltender Braden Holtby has been superb in net all season and is closing in on 40 wins this year. The Capitals are talented, confident, healthy, and most of all, hungry. The entire city is behind them and if they can’t take it home with this lineup, it will just prove that God is definitely a Blackhawks fan.
Scott: Connor McDavid. The kid has not taken his foot off the gas since the beginning of the season and is making his case for being the best player in the world. Connor has posted a hot 10 points in his last five games with three goals and seven assists. I never get tired of watching McJesus make the highlight reel.
Vin: My top star is going to the homie in Toronto, netminder Freddy Andersen. Along with Auston Matthews and coach Babcock, Freddy has been a huge factor in the turnaround of the Maple Leafs. Andersen had three wins this week, including a shutout against the Tampa Bay Lightning. He also stopped 37 of 39 shots in a great effort against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Top Plays of the Week
Scott: You can hate him all you want, but I gotta go with Sid the Kid. Crosby receives a pass from Schultz at his own circle, speeds though the neutral zone, and takes advantage of the penalty killers who cheated off to each side of the blue line, anticipating that Sid would dish off to the side and drive the middle. Instead, he takes matters into his own hands and goes north-south before roofing it on Robin Lehner with one hand. The amount of strength it takes to get that much torque on a puck with one hand is nothing short of incredible. Also, before someone mentions it, Crosby dished out a hell of a nut shot to Ryan O’Reilly in this same game. Yikes.
Vin: We’re heading to New Jersey for my top play. Watch this filthy goal by Taylor Hall as he just slides the puck past the skate of Philly goaltender Steve Mason. Hall is giving Devils fans hope for next season and a bright future in New Jersey (I’m looking at you Julia and Will).
Hitting the ice with Stray From the Path’s Tom Williams!
I (Scott) always enjoy talking hockey with Tom Williams because he is equal parts intelligent and infuriating, mostly because he is a Rangers fan and I am an Islanders fan. That being said, Tom is the best, so big shout out to him for taking time out of his busy tour schedule to answer a few questions for ITB! Catch Stray From the Path on tour right now with Architects and Make Them Suffer and keep an eye out for a new album.
ITB: Let’s start from the beginning here. It’s no secret that you’re a Rangers fan, so how did you become one and what sparked your love for hockey?
TW: Well, I was born in ‘87 which means that I started becoming aware of and into sports around ‘93-’94 when the Rangers had the sickest team ever. The Richter split save on Bure sealed the deal for me. I used to do my hair like Mike Richter before I went to school.
Why is hockey better than every other sport on Earth?
Because of the passion, the tempo, the culture, and the overall impressiveness that they have to learn how to be the best ice skater AND THEN learn the game. [There are] so many elements. A 0-0 baseball game can be hell, a 0-0 football game can be hell, [but] a 0-0 hockey game can be best of the season. There’s always something going on and there is so much psychology within the game.
At this year’s trade deadline, your Rangers opted to make a few small moves instead of pushing for the big name like they usually do. Why do you think they went with this approach instead of making a huge splash again?
The defense is what needs to be addressed. McDonagh is a stud. Brady Skjei is a future stud. Nick Holden is a fucking steal. The rest gotta go. I love Kevin Klein, but his best days are behind him. Girardi and Staal… well, no need to go further. Shattenkirk was the fix, but he’s a UFA next year and they can’t afford to give up any more kids for a playoff run, especially when the NYR can win games now. They may be climbing uphill against MTL and PIT, but they can beat them. I think next year Girardi is out, Staal is out, and Shatty will be in and probably Graves from the AHL.
With Jimmy Vesey, Pavel Buchnevich, Michael Grabner, and a few other new faces suiting up for the Blueshirts this year, who has been your favorite new Ranger this season?
I love Vesey and Buch, I got a Vesey jersey this year, but they still need to grow. Micha… I mean… Wayne Grabner has been an angel. The fact that he will have 30+ goals is insane. Fun player to watch too and he brings what the Rangers lost in Hagelin.
What team do the Rangers match up best against for the first round of the playoffs?
The Caps. [The Rangers] always beat them and it’s always fun. Hate the idea of MTL, but they can beat them, just going to be the underdog.
Is there any merit to the idea that the NHL needs to increase scoring to draw in more fans or is hockey fine the way it is?
Refer back to what I said about 0-0 games being the best sometimes. There is so much scoring now from all four lines of most teams. If they make the nets bigger, I’d probably stop watching as much.
What was the best hockey game you’ve attended while on the road with Stray From the Path?
Went to Lightning vs Winnipeg in Tampa. Soooooo quiet there. I was yelling at the goalie, I think it was Matt Garon, and at one point he looked right at me. I kinda felt bad, but it was funny.
Who is your favorite player in the NHL and who is your LEAST favorite player in the NHL?
Besides Lundqvist? I’ll be a poser and say my favorite is Connor McDavid. Guy is so fun to watch.
Least favorite – Jason Chimera
Lastly, predict the Stanley Cup Final and its outcome.
Rangers baby. $100 bet on them before the season started at 25 to 1. Let’s go!!