It’s not supposed to be that easy, Connor

Connor McDavid barrels past Alec Martinez.

The NHL playoffs like to revel in its celebration of depth and the unsung. Everyone gets a shift, so everyone had better do a job or more, and the puck can bounce onto anyone’s stick or off anyone’s ass to change a game, a series, a whole spring. It is not always a stage for the leading men to provide the theater like the NBA playoffs usually are. But sometimes, the game’s best take that stage by the throat and provide the moments that no one else can, and you’re reminded why they’re still the game’s currency:

Alec Martinez is hardly a pylon, though the odometer is starting to get pretty heavy on his legs. And he gets utterly horsed by Connor McDavid. Which is no shame, because most every D-man in the league will have this happen to them at some point.

The poke check at the blue line would be more than enough for any other player on a penalty kill. The puck has been exited out of the zone, the power play would have to regroup, and time would be killed off the penalty.

Martinez is still in good position after losing the puck initially, or at least he would be if he wasn’t about to enter into a race for the puck with a humanized F1 car. You can see it in Martinez’s body language as he goes back for the puck. It’s past panic. He knows he’s fucked. Even getting there first, which he does, is utterly pointless, and really just scene-setting. McDavid is going to lift his stick and by the time Martinez can get it back to the puck, McDavid will already be gone. There must be nothing worse than knowing your ill fate and yet still having to go through with it on the infinitesimal chance that McDavid, like, falls down, or something.

After McDavid seizes the puck, Martinez is nothing more than one of those four elephants perched on the shell of a giant turtle that Terry Pratchett was always going on about. He’s irrelevant. McDavid is too fast and too strong. His only hope is Laurent Brossoit bailing him out. That’s a financial plan built on a lottery ticket.

You can’t defend this

Once McDavid gets Martinez on his back, Brossoit is expecting him to go backhand-forehand as he sweeps around the crease. It would be the only option for mere mortals. Martinez would love to keep McDavid on his backhand, but he’s basically fighting a fire with a glass of water. Brossoit is not expecting McDavid, at full Mach 5, and with Martinez at least claiming to be pestering him on his back, to just flick a wrist to push the puck past Brossoit before the latter can even conceive of what is happening.

This goal is so stupefying because McDavid makes it look like he’s on the ice by himself. The other two didn’t even matter. Once the puck got loose at the red line, they were immaterial. It’s the antithesis of playoff hockey, where space is constricted to the point of suffocation, shots much less goals are supposed to be hard to come by, and everything has to be earned by crawling through a muddy, barbed-wire festooned trench. And through that, McDavid played his own game, uncaring or unaware of anything, or anyone else.

It also ended Game 2 as a contest. Put the Oilers up 3-0 after two more power-play goals, which the Oilers are pouring out like a defective slot machine. Leon Draisaitl has six goals in this series already and has 13 in eight playoff games. Hockey may be the ultimate team sport and more often than not a test of the bottom of the roster. The Knights are an outfit to be seen as 1-12 among their forwards. But McDavid and Draisaitl are the show and the difference most nights, rising above hockey adage, and thought. Night after night this spring, both are doing things that their opponent is helpless to do anything about. Alec Martinez is hardly alone.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate.

The Stanley Cup will be lifted by the Oilers-Golden Knights victor

The winner of this series will win it all

Among a final eight that feels like a changing of the guard in hockey more than most years, with old standbys proving their age by exiting the ice until the fall, the duo of the Las Vegas Golden Knights and the Edmonton Oilers stand out like a sore thumb. Not necessarily because they don’t also represent the new guard of the NHL, but because a franchise that started six seasons ago is now an old head, combined with a team that hasn’t been consistently relevant in the NHL for three decades, just after Wayne Gretzky was traded away. And now, the Oilers star power, combined with an amazing start to the franchise in Sin City makes their Western Conference semifinal the can’t-miss series of the round. And I’ll take it a step further.

Winner takes all

Whoever emerges victorious from the best-of-7 series is winning the Stanley Cup. You can count out every team from the Eastern Conference, as great as they are, because New Jersey, Toronto, and Florida don’t have the deep-round experience. And Carolina, the only team that could be considered an old head from the East, will fall on its face eventually. In the other Western Conference semifinal are Dallas and Seattle, which both don’t have the depth to keep up with the rest of the remaining teams. So, the only logical choices left are the Golden Knights and Oilers. Let me tell you why.

Vegas, baby!

The Golden Knights didn’t have a player finish the regular season with more than 66 points. That’s typically a sign of an awful team with no stars and a dreadful offense. Combine that with winning the Pacific Division and being the only team to advance to the conference semifinals in less than six games and the concoction is a mystery. Yet with Jack Eichel, Jonathan Marchessault, and Chandler Stephenson, Vegas is loaded and has been for much of its existence. Stephenson has been involved with Vegas since its opening season when he was on the Capitals, who defeated the Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final to end the latter’s inaugural season. He’s the young, up-and-comer that made sense for Washington to get rid of in re-tooling for another run at the Cup. Stephenson has turned into the exact kind of player that makes the Capitals’ front office look dumb for not choosing someone else to throw overboard.

Excellence in Edmonton

Now onto the anthesis in the team with the most top-level star power in the NHL, the Oilers. Four players had more than 82 points on the team. The fifth-highest-point getters on Edmonton — Darnell Nurse, and Tyson Barrie — both had 43 points. Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Zach Hyman will as a quartet decide the series one way or another. If the Golden Knights can’t stop them, have fun at the Bellagio. If Vegas can slow them down at all, there’s a chance for it to advance despite plenty of momentum behind how Edmonton looked to close out its first-round series against the Kings. Either way, the combination the Oilers or Golden Knights present to the other six will be too much. Congratulations to Las Vegas for winning its first Stanley Cup in franchise history or it’ll be a return to the mountaintop for one of the franchises that brought hockey to a greater audience. 

When did the NBA playoffs become the NHL playoffs?

That’s one way to stop LeBron.

The first round of the NBA playoffs usually isn’t all that good, which doesn’t stop people from complaining about it. The difference between the top seeds and lower seeds is large enough that those series should result in nothing more than dress rehearsals for the true powers and the later rounds. Which is what we’ve seen in Denver-Minnesota, Boston-Atlanta, Philly-Brooklyn. Memphis and Milwaukee’s injuries have made those series far more complicated, along with Memphis’s just general weirdness. The games mostly have been stinky, except for Golden State and Sacramento, which is just about what everyone expected. Only when the really good teams get in a lock up in the later rounds do the NBA playoffs take off.

On the flipside, the NHL’s first round can be mayhem, though not the good kind. The lower seeded teams, who really aren’t nearly as separated from the top seeds as they are in the NBA, can only stick around by playing ugly, trapping hockey and trying to goad the more talented teams into some form of Muskogee on a Saturday night on a payday weekend, to paraphrase one of the great orators of our time. Games become unsightly slogs.

These NBA Playoffs have been different…

Except this year’s first round has been particularly different. Look around, and the major stories of the opening week of the NBA playoffs have been who’s hurt (Giannis, Kawhi, Embiid, George), who’s been suspended or not (Draymond yes, Brooks no), and perhaps most curious of all, who’s been getting rocked in the pills (LeBron, O’Neale).

Suspensions? Injuries? Dudes hitting each other in the rocks? Hey assholes, that’s the NHL’s job!

Normally when mid-April rolls around, the chasm in popularity between the two winter leagues and the reasons for it are laid bare. The NBA throws up just interesting games with its established stars around and starting to pop off or makes new ones, while the NHL is mired in endless debates about the small woodland creature that Brad Marchand decided to eat at center ice or whatever garbage Tkachuk son is around and his attempts to fight a building. There are headshots aplenty, missed calls as refs try to ingest their whistles in overtime, and a lot of TV analysts losing their pants and mud over highlights of some 4th line jackwagon trying to fight a goalie as his team trails 6-2 with a minute left.

And make no mistake, there’s been more than enough of that in the NHL this spring as well (Matthew Dumba come on down! And Matthew Tkachuk did try to fight a goalie). But it’s all taken a backseat to the NBA’s descension into the hockey-gear smelling muck, however temporary.

Hasn’t been much else there there

Part of that is that the NHL has had good games where the NBA hasn’t had a lot. This weekend had four overtime games, including both the Leafs and Oilers getting saving themselves from franchise turning disasters and the Devils making it a series (at least briefly) in the biggest market. There were plenty of goals, and star power as Auston Matthews, Jack Hughes, Jack Eichel (huh?) Nathan MacKinnon, Leon Draisaitl all scoring meaningful goals.

And the NBA…not so much. Only the Kings-Warriors was a close, exciting game in a series in the balance and both teams basically at full-strength. We’ve had Dillon Brooks with the best media conspiracy of all-time, as all the NBA scribes made him punch LeBron in the balls (the imagine of Woj being that kind of puppet master is delightful). Both sides of the debate of Green’s suspension, and all the other controversies that haven’t had a lot of on-floor drama to distract.

Certainly the NBA is suffering from their referees doing their best to steal the show, and decrying that the refs are ruining the playoffs are also hockey’s claimed territory (there are Leafs fans who have made a career out of it). Harden’s ejection was something of a joke, Jordan Poole got a technical for stretching out his shoulders, and other Ts have been handed out by hair-triggered refs. Making it up as you go along is definitely the domain of the stripes in the NHL. We’re seeing the designated guy in a closet on NBA coverage to explain every review and call far more often than TBS or ESPN have to wake up whichever former ref they also have to keep from getting two his 12th Bud Light before the 3rd period (as if NHL refs are still drinking Bud Light).

Villains unconcerned with actual play, cheapshots, and referees on their own planet has reversed the two spring playoffs in a dizzying fashion. There’s still plenty of time for both sports to straighten this out, and they assuredly will. But for the moment, we’ve gone Bizarro. No wonder Chuck is watching hockey while on the clock.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate as he tries to conjure actual playoff performance from Dougie Hamilton.