Hockey playoffs are in full swing and players of color are at the center of the action.
From the National Hockey League to Canada’s major junior leagues to the alphabet jumble of various minor leagues, players of color are providing heroics and highlights in the early rounds.
Washington Capitals right wing Joel Ward further enhanced his reputation as a clutch playoff performer with his game-winning goal against the New York Rangers with 1.3 seconds left in the third period in the first game of a second-round series opener at Madison Square Garden.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Ward’s buzzer-beater against Rangers all-world netminder Henrik Lundqvist marked only the third time that a winning goal had been scrored in an NHL playoff game with less than two seconds remaining.
Game-ending heroics are becoming old hat for Ward. He’s got three playoff walk-off (or skate-offs) goals, the most dramatic being a Game 7 overtime winner that vanquished the Boston Bruins from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2012.
Anaheim Ducks left wing Emerson Etem is yet to score an NHL playoff game-ending goal. But he did recently notched a highlight reel goal in the Ducks’ opening round series against the Winnipeg Jets that melted the “White Out” of Jets fans inside the MTS Centre and drew oohs and aahs from amazed teammates.
Born in Long Beach, California, Etem wasn’t much of a scorer during the 2014-15 regular season, tallying only 5 goals and 5 assists in 45 games for the Ducks. But he has 2 goals in five games in the still-young playoff season – and loads of confidence after undressing the Winnipeg Jets.
A few rungs below the NHL, forward Connor McDavid is getting his share of snazzy playoff goals for the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters. The likely Number One pick in June’s 2015 NHL Draft is the Main Man in Erie, the straw that stirs the Pennsylvania-based franchise.
But folks lucky enough to catch the Otters’ playoff series against the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds on the NHL Network couldn’t help but notice Erie forward Nick Baptiste. He potted 4 goals in a crucial Game 4 against the Greyhounds, a team that featured defensemen Darnell Nurse, the Edmonton Oilers’ 2013 first-round draft pick, and Anthony DeAngelo, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2014 first-round draft selection.
“It was one of those nights where you just try to shoot as much as you can, and they go in,” Baptiste said after the game. “Fortunate enough to get the goals, but more importantly, the win.”
Erie won the game 7-5 and eliminated the Soo from the playoffs four games to two. The series was a high-scoring affair that offered a glimpse of the future for the downtrodden Buffalo Sabres.
Sure, a bad Ping-Pong ball bounce or two in the NHL Draft Lottery cost the Sabres – the league’s worst team in the 2014-15 season – the first-overall pick and a shot at McDavid in June’s draft.
But with the Number Two pick in the upcoming draft, Buffalo is poised to get a great player in Boston University forward Jack Eichel. And more help is on the way talent-wise to Buffalo in the near future in the form of players like Baptiste.
The Sabres chose him in the third round of the 2013 NHL Draft. In the 2014-15 regular season, Baptiste tallied 32 goals and 32 assists in 53 games with the Otters and the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves. He has 11 goals and 9 assists in 15 OHL playoff games thus far.
Baptiste was one of the last players cut in tryouts for the Canadian team that went on to win the Gold Medal in the 2015 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship.
The Greyhounds also featured a future Sabre in right wing Justin Bailey. A Buffalo second-round pick in 2013, Bailey scored 34 goals and 35 assists in 57 games with the Greyhounds and the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers. The Western New York native tallied 7 goals and 7 assists in 14 playoff games for the Greyhounds.