Well ladies and gentlemen, the delicious first round of playoff hockey is nearing its end. Out west, the Blues, Coyotes, Predators and Kings have advanced. In the East, only the Flyers have advanced, with three Game-7 matchups yet to be decided, beginning with tonight’s clash between the Bruins and Capitals. Here is a quick breakdown of each series to this point. If you have any questions you can write me on Twitter @JonSimkins13.
St. Louis Blues vs. San Jose Sharks – I’ve said for a while now that the foundation of the Blues is the prototypical way to build a team. They preach team defense, emphasize solid positioning, and have two goalies that could easily carry any team. The fact that they don’t have a single superstar who they depend on for production, but instead get solid contributions from multiple sources has gotten them to this point. The Blues took the series 4 games to 1 over San Jose. I expect a blowup of San Jose this offseason. They’ve had the same foundation for quite a while and have been unable to take that next step and both Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski each tallied zero goals and zero assists in their 5 playoff games. Halak was knocked out early in the series, but capable backup Brian Elliot (if you would even call him a backup) stepped in and ran off 4 wins, only giving up 5 goals in that span.
Nashville Predators vs. Detroit Red Wings — Nashville knocked out Detroit in only 5 games which surprised me. I predicted this series would go Nashville’s way but envisioned it going 7. Detroit’s core gets older every year and the return of 151-year-old captain Nicklas Lidstrom is up in the air. Pekka Rinne shut the door on the aging Redwings, finishing the series with a 1.81 goals-against average and a .944 save percentage. He continues to receive less talk than he should, which is solely the result of playing in a market like Nashville (which is a growing market for hockey but has a very long way to go). Shea Weber slammed Henrik Zetterberg’s head off the glass early in the series and only received a one-game suspension, even though the move resembled something performed in the WWE. The only explanation I can offer as to why Zetterberg was able to function afterward is the fact that his heroic beard, one of the top-3 in sports, softened the blow.
Vancouver Canucks vs. Los Angeles Kings — The 8th seed LA Kings knocked out the President’s trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks in 5 games. Roberto Luongo was replaced by Corey Schneider in Game-3 of the series and it appears Bobby Lu’s time in Vancouver may be up. Schneider played well in his time, and at only 26, you have to believe he’s going to be the guy going forward. Jonathan Quick shouldered his team and was lights out in the series, posting a microscopic 1.59 GAA and a .953 save percentage.
Phoenix Coyotes vs. Chicago Blackhawks – FINALLY! For the first time in their 16-year existence, the Coyotes won a playoff series. Congratulations to them and more specifically to their captain Shane Doan who has been with them since their inception (his first series win as well). The Blackhawks were looking to get back a series in which all of the first 5 games went to overtime, but their lack of legitimate goaltending as well as some poor defense in Game-6 allowed the Coyotes to clinch convincingly in a 4-0 win. Mike Smith, largely irrelevant for most of his career, has had an amazing season at age 30. Whether it’s a fluke or not will have to be seen, but he finished the season 38-18-10 with a 2.21 GAA and a .930 save pct. In this series he was even better, finishing with a 1.81 GAA and a .950 %. He made a whopping 39 saves for the shutout yesterday, frustrating scorers Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews throughout the series.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers –I picked Pittsburgh to win the Stanley Cup this year. What in the Hell happened? With all the dirty hits and fighting, the first four games looked more like a UFC Pay-Per-View event.
Oh and by the way, there were about 4,925 goals scored between the two teams. After being down three games to none, Pittsburgh looked like they were going to come storming back and then proceeded to get destroyed in Game-6, 5-1. Claude Giroux had a super-human series with 6 goals and 8 assists in the 6 games. Both goalies were scarecrows for the majority of the series. Marc-Andre Fleury inexplicably finished with a 4.63 GAA and a pathetic .834 save pct. Mr. Universe, Ilya Bryzgalov, managed to dip his GAA to a bloated 3.89 after a solid performance in Game-6 in which he channeled his inner tiger and blocked out his fear of bears in the woods. His save % is still only .871. Horrendous. On a side note, even after a full season, I still can’t get used to seeing Jaromir Jagr in orange and black.
Florida Panthers vs. New Jersey Devils — Florida is surprising many, including myself. Even though they were the 3 seed, almost everyone picked the Devils to take the series convincingly. Not only did that not happen, but Florida is in position to win the series in Game-7 at home, failing to clinch in Game-6 in New Jersey days after taking a 3-2 series lead in a game where Jose Theodore stopped 30 shots to shut out the Devils, looking like his old Vezina Trophy-winning self. Stephen Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg continue to impress and lead the way, and Sean Bergenheim is showing why he was signed this offseason, tallying 3 goals and 2 assists in 6 games.
New York Rangers vs. Ottawa Senators – Shockingly, the 8-seed Senators had a chance to win the series by taking game 6 at home, but the Rangers won 3-2 and forced a game 7 back at Madison Square Garden. I have to believe that the Rangers close out the series at home. They have better goaltending and the home crowd should be in full voice. Guys like Marian Gaborik have to put their stamp on the series. He was a 41 goal-scorer in the regular season only has a goal and 2 assists in 6 games thus far. Brad Richards has had a solid scoring series, but in spite of his 5 points, he’s a minus-2.
Boston Bruins vs. Washington Capitals – Is it possible to have a closer series? All six games have been decided by one goal. If you have blood pressure issues and are a die-hard fan of one of these teams, I feel bad for you. The Caps, like the Senators, had a chance to close out the series at home in game 6, but lost in overtime 4-3. Until game 6, the Caps had contained the Bruins top players, but David Krejci netted his first goal, Milan Lucic had 2 assists, and Tyler Seguin notched his first tally. As a die-hard Caps fan I hope I’m wrong, but it’s hard to imagine the Caps going to Boston and winning Game-7. Boston has the experience, they’re the defending Cup champions, and Tim Thomas has a sterling reputation in Game-7s. Thomas stood on his head on Sunday with multiple highlight saves, and with the aforementioned guys heating up, they may have woken their giants. Playing this game in Boston is pretty daunting. But if the Caps have anything going for them, it’s that they don’t have the weight of expectations like in previous seasons. The pressure is on Boston to close it out. Braden Holtby has carried the Caps to this game with spectacular play, and if Alex Ovechkin could possibly carry the momentum from netting a late game-tying goal in game 6 into game 7, who knows? I’ve been impressed with how they’ve matched the Bruins physical style of play. This definitely isn’t the same finesse Caps team of previous years.
Side note on this series:I wrote on Twitter that it was idiotic for Caps fans to shout “Refs you suck!” after Ovechkin was called for a high-sticking double-minor on Zdeno Chara. Many responded to me, saying Chara ran into the stick or even that that kind of thing is hockey and I shouldn’t be responding that way. Let’s break this down. In a hockey scrum, you are NOT supposed to have your stick up high enough to hit someone’s upper body, specifically someone’s face. Chara, on skates, is SEVEN FEET TALL! Whether or not he accelerated toward a stick (which is hilarious people were arguing that as well) is irrelevant. You have to make a serious effort to have your stick high enough to hit a 7-feet tall person’s face.
In the end, the Caps killed the double-minor penalty so it didn’t matter anyway, but please understand that ………………….But I digress.
Fun facts — The 2008, 2009, 2010 Cup-winners have all been eliminated (Red Wings, Penguins, and Blackhawks), and if the Caps did eliminate the Bruins, that’d take care of the 2011 winners as well.
Out west history will be made, as Phoenix and Nashville will meet. Neither has been to the Western Conference Finals before and that will soon change. St. Louis and L.A. round out the West’s matchups.
If the Ottawa Senators don’t close out the series against the Rangers, the drought of Canadian teams lifting the Cup will continue. Last Canadian team to hoist the Cup was the Montreal Canadiens in 1993.
If this first round has proved anything, it’s that anything can happen in the NHL playoffs. The President’s Trophy winners are out, and the 1 and 2 seeds in the East are being forced into game 7s. We saw it when the Flyers went to the Stanley Cup Finals against Chicago. That Flyers team didn’t even make the playoffs until the final day of the season, in a shootout.