The second round is nearly over but Emmet had a couple of wild weeks travelling, so belatedly here’s Zoe Coleman McNair’s round-up of round one and analysis if round two of the NHL playoffs which Emmet hastens to add she sent in on time and it’s all his fault.
So the first round of the playoffs are done and dusted, and for the most part, there were few surprises.
The Boston Bruins handily dispatched the Detroit Red Wings in five games. Boston winning the series was always the consensus prediction, but many would have expected Detroit to put up more of a fight. But with Jimmy Howard out with the flu (either the real flu or the mysterious flu you get after a head injury) and many of their top scorers either injured or only recently recovered, there was little Detroit could do to hold on. Detroit lead for barely more then fifteen minutes across the five games, and gave up the first goal in three games, and had no answer for heavy-hitting, hard-cycling Boston. Detroit have always been a good team and have an excellent record for making the playoffs, but the last couple of years have shown where their weaknesses as a team lie, and until they manage to address those, they’re not going to be a match for any of the league’s powerhouses, even in an easier divison then they’ve previously had.
The Montreal Canadiens steamrolled the Tampa Bay Lightning, sweeping the series. Definitely a disappointing end to their season for the team and the fans, as many had been hoping Tampa’s better possesion record in the regular season would keep them alive longer. I still think that with Bishop healthy this series would have been much closer, but it’s not easy to just replace a Vezina-candidate goaltender. Lindback’s regular season numbers were barely servicable for a back-up, and he had no answer for the Montreal offense when it was firing on all cylinders. With Tampa’s possession taking even just the slight dip it did, and Montreal’s getting a boost at the right time, Tampa couldn’t do anything to match Carey Price, and we got our only sweep of the round.
The round two match up between Boston and Montreal promises to be tense, at least. Anyone hoping to get through Boston is going to have to not only be on top form themselves, but also rely on being able to knock Boston off their game. Luckily for Montreal, knocking people off their game is a speciality of theirs. The teams and their fan bases have one of the olders rivalries in the league, and it didn’t even take a full game for us to see how ugly it can get, at least among the spectators. On the ice though, both teams have strong goaltending working for them, but Boston plays a strong puck-possession game, and Montreal were barely able to crack 50% against Tampa Bay. Montreal have some productive forwards, but the Boston defense has been able to smother much more potent scorers already this year, and Montreal are going to have to work hard to get pucks anywhere near Rask, let alone past him.
Expectations for Pittsburgh are always going to be sky high, just because of who they have on their team, and this wasn’t any different. Columbus, on the other hand, were in the opposite position, with only their second trip to the post-season in the team’s history. Pittsburgh played their usual style of hockey, which can alternate between flashes of brilliance at times and a complete mess at others, and there were definitely moments that had fans of the team (which, full disclosure, I am) covering their eyes. After going 5-0 in their regular season meetings, the biggest question over Pittsburgh’s head was goaltending, with Marc-Andre Fleury’s reputation for disintegrating in the playoffs thought to be Columbus’ biggest chance to gain a foothold in the series. Fleury kept it together though, posting numbers that were lower than his regular-season play but still enough to keep them ahead. Columbus’ advantage in goaltending didn’t prove the boost they may have hoped, with Bobrovsky posting almost identical numbers to Fleury, but facing a higher volume of shots. Despite Crosby not scoring any goals himself, he controlled play to a huge degree whenever on the ice (despite whatever many national reporters were saying about him being “shut down” by Dubinsky) and Pittsburgh out-possessed Columbus to a huge degree. When their bottom six started to click and contribute goals, one of the big issues with Pittsburgh’s play was lessened (though it’s still not gone) and they managed to dispatch Columbus in six. The series was very close though, with five of the six games being decided by a single goal and both teams giving up multiple leads at various points, and Pittsburgh were easily a couple of bad bounces from having to play a seventh game, or losing the series entirely.
For whatever reason, the New York Rangers haven’t won a playoff series in less then seven games since 2008, and this year was no different. They traded wins with the Philadelphia to the end, but managed to pull it out in game seven. Philadelphia are another team with depth issues, and when New York’s defence was able to shut them down, they struggled with secondary scoring. Without their top forwards scoring, they managed the second worst volume of shots on goal of the playoffs, and had nothing to counter with. Even though Philadelphia were the better team on the power play, the Rangers controlled the ice at even strength, and their speed was enough to have Philadelphia on the back foot. Their defence struggled consistently throughout the series, with many turnovers and defensive-zone mistakes giving the Rangers enough room to manoeuvre their way to victory.
Both Pittsburgh and New York will find round two a tough match-up. New York have the clear advantage in goaltending, and while Pittsburgh in theory have the edge in scoring, New York have their share of goal scorers as well. New York spent the regular season as a good possession team, and managed to fight their way back into contention after a severely disappointing start, so they already know what it takes to battle hard. Neither teams’ top scorers from the regular season – like Crosby and Nash – have a goal yet, which that probably won’t continue, and the teams are generally matched well across the board, with New York not having quite the same top-level scoring talent as Pittsburgh, but greater depth, and a stronger and more experienced defensive core. If Pittsburgh can put together 60 minutes of their best hockey then they’re one of the best teams in the league, but for some reason they rarely manage to do that, and with the lapses they’re prone too, there’s plenty of room for a strong New York performance to knock them out.
Dallas managed to put up more of a fight then Tampa or Detroit, but still fell short. There were a lot of positives for Dallas to take from the series – they outpossesed Anaheim at even strength and many of their top players were productive, but some key issues kept them from succeeding. Far too many penalties gave Anaheim enough chances to stay ahead, with game five in particular proving disasterous. While Dallas’ big stars all contributed, they just don’t have enough depth to answer Anaheim, who got key contributions from their depth players. I always hate to put too much stock in intangibles, but there is something to be said for the benefits of big game experience, and Dallas is for the most part a very young squad. For a team that started the year with very low expectations though, there’s a lot for their fans and management to feel good about, and with the right additions they could prove even more dangerous next year.
San Jose have developed a reputation for choking in the post season, and for those that are inclined to narrative this series isn’t going to change anything. After winning the first three games, they ended up losing the series in one of only four reverse sweeps in playoff history. Everything that could have gone wrong seemed too, with LA’s goalie regaining his touch seemingly overnight, and San Jose losing one of their top defensemen for the remainder of the series. Their scoring seemed to disappear and when LA finally managed to figure themselves out after the first three games, San Jose had no answer. LA are an incredibly good team with some of the best possesion in the league, and in theory losing to them in seven games isn’t something that should cause panic, but after several years of failing to convert strong regular seasons to playoff success, there’s a chance changes could be in store for San Jose.
The LA and Anaheim match-up is another good rivalry for the second round, with the teams’ first playoff meeting shining a light on Southern California hockey, one of the fastest-growing areas of interest for the sport. On the face of it, it doesn’t look like an easy road for Anaheim. They got out posses by Dallas in the first round, and while Dallas are a solid enough possession team, LA have pretty much the best possession in the league as a matter of course. LA’s had trouble scoring of the course of the season, but they took steps to address that at the deadline (and we all know what happened the last time they traded for a winger from Columbus) and it’s going to be a struggle to keep them off the scoresheet for very long. It could come down to another battle of the goalies, with Quick on one side and whatever combo of Hiller/Anderson/Gibson Boudreau decides to go with, but even with that, this is going to be a hard fight for Anaheim.
The St. Louis and Chicago match up proved to be the hard fought series it was looking like, with four of the six games being decided by a single goal (three of which were overtime wins). The start of the series it looked like it might finally be St. Louis’ turn, with them taking the first two games, but Chicago rebounded sharply to take four in a row. Injuries to key players didn’t help, with St. Louis’ captain David Backes suffering an injury after an illegal hit to the head that almost certainly left him concussed, regardless of what St. Louis’ reported his injury as. With Backes off-form, and several other players only recently returned from injury, there was little St. Louis could do to hold Chicago off. Their blockbuster trade deadline acquisition – goaltender Ryan Miller – didn’t wind up being the final piece they needed, with his save percentage plummeting over the course of the series. Much like San Jose, St. Louis is a team that often struggles with the playoffs after a strong regular season, though they’ve mostly managed to avoid the ‘choker’ label, and it’s going to be interesting to see what changes they make this summer to get their team in the right direction.
In theory, a wild card team defeating the team that came top of their division would be an upset, but that’s not really the case with the Wild’s defeat of the Avalanche. Everyone’s been waiting for the Avalanche to crash back down to earth, and when they managed to put up even worse possession numbers in the playoffs then they had in the regular season (a pretty hard task) the anticipation only grew. With Varlamov still on form, the Avalanche managed to pull out wins despite their abysmal possession, and took it to seven games. They have some super dynamic forwards, but they’re all very young and pretty inexperienced, and once you get past them the team is very thin on scoring depth, and rendered even thinner by injuries to key offensive players like Duchene and Barrie. The Wild may not have that kind of super dynamic player in abundance, they have more solid depth, and all four of their lines contributed to their scoring.
Chicago are a very good team. If you’re a fan of Chicago, this is great. If you’re like me, and think that the sustained success of any team that isn’t yours is terrible, then this is terrible. The Wild are a team on the rise, and much like Dallas have a lot to be proud of in their showing so far this year, but Bryzgalov is their fourth starting goaltender this year (he only started 12 games for them in the regular season), and that’s a really difficult situation for a team to be in for the playoffs. Bryzgalov has a very contentious history as a goaltender, he plays the position more conservatively than their previous goaltenders, and the playoffs are really not the time for a team to try and learn a different style of defence to support that style. They’re a team with a lot of talent, and I don’t think this is going to be a walkover, but when Chicago are firing on all cylinders, there isn’t much that can stop them.