Why the Kraken may have a better shot at reaching Stanley Cup Final
March 8, 2023 Updated Wed., March 8, 2023 at 8:32 p.m.
Forget about the Kraken striving to make the playoffs.
For those not paying close attention, that part is effectively done. Even after a sub-.500 record in February, the Kraken expanded their lead over Calgary from five points to nine and hold a game in hand with 17 left for a Flames squad desperately seeking the final Western Conference playoff spot.
There are also multiple teams between the Kraken and Flames, so this isn’t really about making the playoffs any more. Given a relatively soft remaining schedule, this should be about the Kraken trying to win the conference and secure home-ice advantage until the Stanley Cup Final.
Kraken defenseman Jamie Oleksiak has been there, done that, reaching the 2020 Final with Dallas.
Oleksiak understands how the playoffs differ from the regular season.
“It’s a little more physical, guys are finishing checks a little bit faster,” Oleksiak said. “I think the main thing as a D-man to be aware of is that you have to kind of know what to do with the puck before it gets to you.
“I mean, you have a split second to make a decision, and you have to kind of be aware of where guys are on the ice.”
So the Kraken will spend the final weeks honing such areas and bettering their playoff position to gain any edge.
Tuesday’s win over Anaheim, the team’s fifth in a row, left them two points behind Vegas and Los Angeles for the conference lead. The Kraken finish the season with two games against the Golden Knights and have three remaining these next two weeks against Dallas – one of seven or eight squads vying for said conference title.
With apologies to those preferring slow, steady builds to an undefined future contention date, the Kraken’s road to a Cup Final may never be as wide open as now. If they played in the Eastern Conference they’d be 23 points out of the lead and trailing three other teams by six or more. But in the West, unlike the Colorado Avalanche compiling 119 points last season before winning the Cup, the Golden Knights entered Wednesday on pace for only 105, compared with 104 for Dallas and 103 for the Kraken and Kings.
The injury-slowed Avalanche, who the Kraken went 2-0-1 against this season, are on a 101-point pace. Colorado’s backslide has created opportunity: Namely, the home-ice advantage winning the conference would secure.
Now, studies suggest home ice matters less in the NHL than in other leagues – that there’s usually only a slight boost between a team’s regular-season home record vs. the playoffs. But there are rule advantages, such as gaining the final line change to match defensive stalwarts against top scoring lines.
Also, if the Kraken reach a Game 7, home teams win 58% of those, according to puckreport.com.
Plus, you’d think home-crowd energy in a debut playoff campaign would benefit the Kraken more than teams in markets that have seen it before. And a hyped-up crowd could fuel the Kraken’s physical play.
That physical playoff component is why contenders bulked up at the trade deadline: From Edmonton snagging 6-foot-4, 215-pound defenseman Mattias Ekholm, to Los Angeles nabbing forward Vladislav Gavrikov (6-3, 221) and Vegas acquiring physical scorer Ivan Barbashev (6-1, 195).
And that’s just within the Pacific Division.
Eastern Conference teams had an “arms race” at the deadline, stockpiling pieces in preparation for running a gauntlet of perceived Cup contenders just to survive the opening three playoff rounds.
Teams in the West – who won’t face any Eastern powerhouse until those beat each other down to just one finalist squad – have a less-arduous path through an unexpectedly wide-open conference window.
And the Kraken match up well, already sporting a big-bodied, playoff defense. There’s 6-7, 255-pound Oleksiak, Adam Larsson (6-3, 209), Carson Soucy (6-5, 208) and Will Borgen (6-3, 204), who all play with a board-banging temperament.
They are balanced by offensive-minded, puck-moving Vince Dunn and Justin Schultz – with Borgen also bringing some of that style to his heavier game.
“I think it’s huge,” OIeksiak said of the blue-line size. “Like I said, playoff hockey is pretty physical, and you want guys to kind of wear other teams down and make it difficult to get open ice and get to the net. And I think we’ve got some guys on the back end that can definitely facilitate that.”
It’s Kraken forwards that don’t always measure up – at least, with a tape measure and scale. But they play a hard-digging style, from the trio of Jared McCann, Matty Beniers and Jordan Eberle, down to a third line anchored by Yanni Gourde, who won two Cups with the Lightning team that beat Oleksiak’s 2020 squad.
“I think for our group it’s got to be a little of a ‘hard to play against’ mentality,” Gourde said. “That means playing hard, tracking the puck, giving them no time and space and finishing your hit whenever you can.
“We know we don’t have the biggest, most physical offensive group. But we need to do those little things to make us successful, because in the playoffs team toughness is big, and for us team toughness is doing the right thing every single shift.”
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