The NHL playoffs are well underway and the quality of play throughout Round 1 has been almost universally high. We've been treated to some very exciting hockey so far and that shows no signs of changing. Here are some insights and observations from each of the eight first round playoff series:
N.Y. Rangers vs. Washington
The Capitals showed that their transition to a defense-first team has truly taken hold. They won what became a tight-checking, low-scoring battle of a series with timely goals and superb team defense that limited the Rangers chances and prevented young goalie Michal Neuvirth from being tested very often. Washington's talented offensive players like Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Niklas Backstrom came through with big plays at key times without playing a run and gun style. This bodes well for Washington going forward in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Rangers failed in two critical areas. As the less talented team, the Rangers needed to be successful on the power play to keep things close, but they went only one for 20 with the man advantage in the series. It was no coincidence that their only power play goal came in their only win. The Rangers also failed to hold leads, which was very uncharacteristic of the team with the best regular season record when leading after two periods (29-0-0). The Rangers had a 1-0 lead with seven minutes left in Game 1 and lost the game 2-1 in OT. Then they held a 3-0 lead after two periods of Game 4 before falling 4-3, also in OT. The Rangers were in all five games. The chances were there, but the Rangers failed to take advantage of them.
Buffalo vs. Philadelphia
The Flyers goaltending problems have followed them into the playoffs with all three available netminders seeing playing time against Buffalo. Brian Boucher has been the best of a very mediocre bunch and looks like he will get the start in Game 7. But, one or two bad games by Boucher and somebody else will likely get another chance. Philadelphia has been resilient and has an opportunity to advance despite their goaltending problems, which is a testament to their character, talent and depth. But right now, they are winning despite their goaltending, not because of it.
The strength of the Sabres remains goaltender Ryan Miller, who has a pair of 1-0 shutout wins out of the three Buffalo victories thus far. Even in some of the games they've lost, Miller has helped keep his team close when the Flyers had an advantage in play. The Sabres are doing their best to overcome numerous key injuries including the latest to Tim Connolly, who left Game 6 after being slammed head first into the boards by Mike Richards. Derek Roy may be back for Game 7, but you get the feeling Game 6 was the Sabres best chance to pull off an upset in this series.
Boston vs. Montreal
This has been a very entertaining series between two bitter rivals. The Bruins have gotten stellar goaltending from Tim Thomas and some timely scoring from unexpected sources like Michael Ryder, Chris Kelly and Brad Marchand. Meanwhile, Patrice Bergeron has become the team's top offensive producer in this series and has come up big in the clutch. The Bruins power play has yet to score in the series and that is something that needs to change if the B's are to make a long playoff run.
The Canadiens still rely heavily on Carey Price, who has a spectacular .940 save percentage through five games. Even a strong goalie like Price needs some support but beyond Michael Cammalleri, the Habs have not produced enough offense, scoring just 12 goals in five games. Tomas Plakanec has just one goal and one assist in the series thus far and Montreal needs him to step up and return to his regular season form, where he led the team in assists and scoring.
Tampa Bay vs. Pittsburgh
The Lightning have gotten consistent offensive production from Martin St. Louis and Simon Gagne thus far in the playoffs, while Steve Downie has come through when the team needs him most. St. Louis is always productive, to the point where fans may sometimes take his excellence for granted. Gagne finds a way to step things up in the postseason. The Bolts have to hope that sniper Steven Stamkos, whose production fell off down the stretch of the regular season, has found his scoring touch again. Stamkos scored twice and added an assist in Game 5 and the Lightning need production from him if they hope to complete their comeback and win the series. Dwayne Roloson has played well enough to give his team a chance to advance and has a career record of 5-0 in elimination games during his career.
If the Penguins hope to go deep into the post season, their special teams need to improve. The Pens PK has not been good enough while the power play has just scored once in the first six games of the series. Offensively, Arron Asham is leading the team with three goals. While offense from Asham is a bonus, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang and Pascal Dupuis have not provided enough offense in the absence of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Pens also have to hope that Tampa Bay's eight-goal outburst in Game 5 was just a fluke occurrence. Their team defense has been much better than that over the course of the year. They need to rebound from two straight losses to take Game 7 at home. Look for Marc-Andre Fleury to bounce back in the clutch, something he has often done for the Pens in past playoff years.
Chicago vs. Vancouver
The Canucks and Roberto Luongo are facing a moment of truth in Game 7. For all their talent, it would be devastating to the franchise and their fans if they were to blow a 3-0 series lead and fall to the Blackhawks at home. Luongo's reputation for not rising to the occasion in the postseason would be taken to another level if they lose. His numbers in this series are pedestrian so far with a 3.45 GAA and a save percentage of just .890. He was benched for Game 6 when Coach Alain Vigneault went with a "gut feeling" but replaced an injured Corey Schneider and took the loss when he gave up a late goal. If Luongo bounces back to lead the Canucks deep into the playoffs, his future in Vancouver would be solidified. But a first round exit after a President's Trophy season and a 3-0 series lead? That could that mean the end of the franchise's confidence in their franchise goalie.
The big turnaround for the Blackhawks began with the return of Dave Bolland. Chicago has won all three games it played with Bolland in the lineup. The third liner has two goals and is tied for the team lead with six points despite playing in only half of his club's games. Bolland adds some of the grit and depth that the Hawks lost from last year's Stanley Cup-winning team due to salary cap constraints. Getting defenseman Brent Seabrook back into the lineup is also a big plus for Chicago, which heads into Game 7 with very little pressure despite having a chance to make history.
Los Angeles vs. San Jose
Of all the eight opening round match-ups, this one has felt the least like a playoff series. The Sharks have had some spectacular comebacks but on two occasions, starting goalie Antti Niemi has been pulled after a poor start. In both cases, Antero Nittymaki came in and played well although San Jose returned to Niemi as the starter in Game 6 and he was more effective. The Sharks top line, featuring Dany Heatley and Joe Thornton, has not produced as expected, yet the Sharks have still gotten plenty of offense thanks to Ryane Clowe, rookie Logan Couture and defenseman Ian White, who has five assists in five games. San Jose has to hope that Thornton's big OT winner in Game 6 will help him raise his level of play in the second round. The Sharks got past the kings but unless the goaltending and team defense pick up, the Sharks may have a lot more trouble with future playoff opponents.
The Kings have been one of the biggest surprises of this postseason. They were a team without their leading scorer in Anze Kopitar and with a good young defense, yet they have not played good team defense while scoring plenty of goals. Jonathan Quick literally bailed his club out in Game 5, making more than 50 saves to gain an improbable victory. The lack of team defense is a big shock on a Terry Murray-coached team as Murray stresses defensive discipline. Simply put, the Kings are not consistently playing playoff style hockey although they did play a stronger defensively in Game 6. This young team has to learn from this year's disappointment if they are to make a long postseason run in the near future. The talent is there.
Coyotes vs. Red Wings
It was a big advantage for a veteran team like the Red Wings to sweep their first round series. Detroit's older players will now get a helpful rest as they prepare for their second round opponent. The Wings were simply a better team across the board than the Coyotes. Detroit has players who always seem to take their game to another level in the playoffs like Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen and Tomas Holmstrom. A player like Brad Stuart rarely shows up on the score sheet but his value increases in the playoffs because he provides a lot of minutes of smart, steady hockey from the blue line. Jimmy Howard has been solid so far, which is all the Wings usually need from their netminder.
The Coyotes seemed to lack the edge they had a year ago when they took Detroit to seven games in the opening round. They played just good enough to lose in each of their four games and did not get the heroic goaltending they needed from Ilya Bryzgalov, although he was not given a lot of support by his defense. The biggest question facing the Desert Dogs is whether or not they will remain in Arizona or be departing Phoenix for a new (or old, if it's Winnipeg) home. The league has run the team for two seasons and certainly doesn't want that to continue for a third.
Nashville vs. Anaheim
The Ducks went pretty much according to form. They got plenty of scoring from their top two lines but not enough from their depth players. The power play excelled and produced eight of the team's 20 goals. In net, they missed Jonas Hiller. Dan Ellis wasn't the answer while Ray Emery had some stellar moments but lacked the sustained excellence to carry his team to victory against a hard working Preds club that kept grinding away. In the end, it was a lack of depth and the absence of their top goalie that brought Anaheim's season to an early end.
For the first time in franchise history, the Predators won a playoff round. Kudos to GM David Poile and Coach Barry Trotz, who have been there since the beginning of the franchise and have managed to keep them competitive despite losing so many good players to free agency due to their limited budget. The Preds won in their own typical fashion -- with their depth and Pekke Rinne's goaltending. While Nashville lacks the star power of Ryan Getzlaf, Teemu Selanne or Bobby Ryan, they got 22 goals in six games with a balanced attack. Only one skater on the Predators postseason roster failed to score a point in the series while 13 different players scored at least three points in six games. Nashville rolls four lines which are nearly interchangeable and never stops grinding. While they may not win their second round series, no team in their right mind wants to face Nashville as they will not be an easy opponent to beat.
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