The least likely Game 7 in the Western Conference and the most likely Game 7 in the Western Conference both materialized on Monday when Los Angeles won its third straight game to knot up San Jose, and Minnesota beat Colorado to extend that series to its final game.
Pittsburgh avoided such a fate by holding on in Columbus, but the Eastern Conference’s most anticipated series between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers could still reach that stage with a Flyers win Tuesday in Philadelphia.
GAME OF THE DAY: Pittsburgh 4, Columbus 3: It didn’t start out that way. For 50 minutes, this looked like a rout — a mismatch between a one-time Cup winner that had turned up its game and an inexperienced hopeful. But Columbus gave its fans a few brief moments of hope with three goals in a 4:52 span of the third period to pull within a goal late. The Blue Jackets just couldn’t get the last one to complete the story.
PLAY OF THE DAY: Minnesota’s game winner: It won’t go down as the prettiest goal of the day, but the goal that kept the Wild’s season alive was the epitome of teamwork between the team’s stars. Defenseman Ryan Suter made a nice play and pinch to keep a clearing attempt in at the blue line, center Mikko Koivu gave him good support, then wheeled quickly to throw a shot at the net that wing Zach Parise redirected past goalie Semyon Varlamov with defenseman Erik Johnson draped all over him.
1. C Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh: A hat trick (including the game-winner) in a series-clinching game on the road? Yeah, that will earn you the first star.
2. LW Zach Parise, Minnesota: Two goals, including the game-winner, and two assists in a career-high point night for the Wild’s top offensive offseason acquisition from two years ago. Dividends, people. We’re talking dividends.
3. C Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles: Two goals and an assist to help the Kings force an unlikely Game 7.
PITTSBURGH 4, COLUMBUS 3
Series: Pittsburgh won, 4-2.
Key stat: The Blue Jackets have never won a playoff series.
Key player: C Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh. Malkin won’t be hearing the cries for production anymore. The guy teammates affectionately call Geno — cause that’s so Russian sounding — broke a nine-game playoff-scoring slump with his second career postseason hat trick.
What we learned: What we suspected all along — that Columbus would put up a good fight and outwork the Penguins early in the series before Pittsburgh got serious and put away a team it beat all five times they met in the regular season. What is it that Columbus lacks? Well, that was obvious on Monday. They don’t have anybody in Malkin’s or Sidney Crosby’s class — not even close. All Pittsburgh needed was production from one of the two and some stability in net, which Marc-Andre Fleury gave the Penguins the past two games in wins. The competition ramps up a notch for the Penguins in the next round, but neither the Rangers nor the Flyers have an abundance of offense to concern Pittsburgh. It’s the later rounds that still call into question the Penguins’ all-around game, but that analysis will have to wait, as will Blue Jackets Nation’s hopes for a playoff series win. The Jackets have plenty of blue-collar players and a terrific goaltender. They just donât have the skill to truly compete. Welcome to small market hockey in the NHL.
Next game: Pittsburgh will play the Rangers-Flyers winner in the Eastern Conference semifinals, date and time to be determined.
MINNESOTA 5, COLORADO 2
Series: Tied 3-3.
Key stat: The home team has won every game in this series.
Key player: LW Zach Parise, Minnesota: Parise’s four-point night brought his playoff point total to 10, tying him with Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon for the league lead.
What we learned: This series had to go seven games after the way Game 5 ended on two controversial calls that went against the Wild. Like the Chicago-St. Louis series, this one has been full of drama, and more was added on Monday. Avs leading scorer Matt Duchene returned to the lineup, Colorado forward Paul Stastny became the latest player to spear someone in the unmentionables when he hit Cody McCormick and Parise showed why the Wild wanted him so badly in free agency two seasons ago with a money performance in the clutch. Not even coach Patrick Roy’s trademark move of pulling the goalie early could save the Avs. Instead, Minnesota scored a pair of empty netters to make the victory look far more convincing than it was after the Wild blew a 2-0 lead. Minnesota has not advanced past the first round since 2003. The Wild will have to win their first road game of the postseason to do it. With the Avs forward group almost at full strength, that is an enormous mountain to climb.
Next game: Wednesday at Colorado, 9:30 p.m. ET.
LOS ANGELES 4, SAN JOSE 1
Series: Tied 3-3.
Key stat: Only three times in 176 tries (1.7 percent) has a team come back to win a series after trailing 3-0 in the playoffs (Toronto vs. Detroit in 1942, New York Islanders vs. Pittsburgh in 1975 and Philadelphia vs. Boston in 2010). Are we about to witness No. 4?
Key player: G Jonathan Quick. After getting torched for 17 goals in the first three games, Quick has allowed just two goals in the last three games.
What we learned: Los Angeles has all the momentum as this series shifts back to San Jose for Game 7. That statement is hard to fathom. The Sharks looked so dominant in the first three games of this series, putting 17 goals past playoff-tested Quick. They were physical, they were fast, they were tight defensively and they were so clearly the better team that this series looked like it had no chance of advancing past Game 5. But the Sharks also have a dubious playoff history, while the Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012. While one team has remained poised, the other is clutching its sticks more tightly with each passing period. The Game 5 loss in San Jose was the key because it gave L.A. both momentum and belief, but Justin Williams’ go-ahead goal in Monday’s Game 6 was a stroke of good fortune for L.A. First, referee Chris Lee probably should have blown the whistle to kill the play after the puck appeared to be frozen under Sharks goalie Alex Stalock’s pads. He also could have called goaltender interference when Williams pushed Stalock in an attempt to force the puck across the line. The non-calls hurt, but San Jose put itself in this position and now the Sharks are on the hot seat. GM Doug Wilson opted to extend the contracts of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, two guys who were a part of all those past failures. Neither has a point in the last two games, and both will be under intense pressure to prevent the first 3-0 collapse in Western Conference history.
Next game: Wednesday at San Jose, 10 p.m. ET
Final thought: The NHL has a chance for four terrific semifinal matchups if Colorado can beat Minnesota on Wednesday in Game 7. Colorado and Chicago have arguably the two most skilled groups of fast forwards in the West, and it showed in the regular season with the teams combining for 31 goals in five games. No matter whether Anaheim faces L.A. or San Jose, the California rivalry will be intense. Montreal and Boston have one of the league’s oldest and most bitter rivalries, while both the Flyers and Rangers have a healthy hatred for the Penguins. Buckle up.