Well, it's the middle of April and the NHL postseason has officially begun. Regular season win-loss records are meaningless, with the exception of an extra home game, and everyone starts out with a clean slate. Not everything has gone the way the statistics had predicted, but this is not out of the ordinary for such a small sample size of games. There have been some amazing moments, Marty Havlat's overtime goal against the Flames in the first minute of play, and some suprising moments, the Rangers returning to Madison Square Garden after taking the first two games against Washington. As the playoffs continue, there will be more twists and turns than we could ever imagine. For now, the Puck Prospectus team have put together their thoughts on the first games of each series.
(1) Boston Bruins vs. (8) Montreal Canadiens
Montreal showed that they have some fight in them -figuratively and literally- but in the end, Boston still leads the series 1-0.
Most of the usual suspects were involved as expected:
-Bruins’ top sniper Phil Kessel (36 G, 11.8 Offensive GVT) opened the scoring as well as sealing the game with an empty netter.
-Alexei Kovalev (26 G, 9.2 Offensive GVT) had a flash of brilliance that tied the game 2-2. He could have put that slapper clear through the net. It was enough to put the game in the balance going into the third period, but not enough to give the Habs the upset road win. Kovalev now has 43 goals and 53 assists in 113 career playoff games with the Rangers, Penguins and Canadiens.
-Zdeno Chara (19 G, 8.4 Offensive GVT) has been a leader of the Bruins in every possible way this season, even occasionally mixing it up with opponents. The man with the hardest shot in the NHL blasted home the winning goal on the power play halfway through the third period.
-The Canadiens took 4 minor penalties as opposed to 2 minor penalties by Boston. Montreal’s penchant for taking penalties may have been the ultimate difference in the game.
-The goaltending battle was virtually a dead heat, with Thomas stopping 26 of 28 Montreal shots (.929) and Price stopping 35 of 38 Boston shots (.921). The Canadiens did not lose because of being outplayed in net this night.
The tussle at the end of the game that resulted in 4 roughing minors and 4 misconducts has very little meaning going forward.
Boston in 5 games still looks like a solid prediction.
(2) Washington Capitals vs. (7) New York Rangers
Well, I'll admit I didn't see this coming. With three first round sweeps in the last three years, I suspected that a sweep could be possible in this series. However, I thought the Capitals would be the team sweeping and advancing, not the Rangers. In the first game, the Rangers played well. In the first period of the first game, the Capitals were dominating offensively, outshooting the Rangers 14 to 4. Throughout the game, Jose Theodore played poorly. Sure, there was one nearly impossible goal to stop. However, no more than two goals should have gone past Theodore. Stopping 17 of 21 shots, .810 save percentage, is just bad, despite that figure constituting a Poor Start.
Coach Boudreau might have overreacted in pulling Theodore for game 2, but he certainly wasn't playing near the level of Tim Thomas this season either. Simeon Varlamov looked good, but the Capitals couldn't get past the Rangers defenders. The Rangers blocked 21 shots in game 1 and 29 in game 2, very impressive. I'm still not impressed with Washington's defense. Mike Green needs to do a better job of keeping forwards out of the area in front of the crease, otherwise the Rangers are going to continue to get good shots off. Conversely, the Rangers have been solid defenders this series. The Capitals need to take more shots closer to the net. As for Henrik Lundqvist, he has looked fantastic. A .914 save percentage in game 1 is good for a Quality Start, but the 1.000 save percentage in game 2 is very big in a 1-0 victory.
(3) New Jersey Devils vs. (6) Carolina Hurricanes
The Devils completely dominated the game. They allowed only 19 shots
to the Hurricanes, and only a single goal. Playing a disciplined game,
New Jersey took only two penalties, and proceeded to shut down the
Carolina power-play, not allowing a single shot on the penalty-kill.
The Devils had 39 shots, including 13 when a man up. Hurricanes goalie
Cam Ward was inconsistent, stopping eveything when killing a penalty,
but allowing 4 goals on 25 even-strength shots for a very poor .840
save percentage in that situation. Don't expect the Devils to dominate
every game of the series like this, but the Hurricanes now have a
tough time coming back against a very good defensive team.
(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Philadelphia Flyers
The Philadelphia Flyers have been relying very heavily on a small number of players, they almost had me believing at times that only three defensemen had dressed (Timonon, Coburn and Carle). Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne have both had some amazing chances, and they both appear to be on the verge of big games.
Marc-Andre Fleury, who prior to last year's playoffs had never enjoyed a post-season save percentage of .900 or better at any level, is playing very well and is proving that he can be counted on in the clutch. The Penguins stars like Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Bill Guerin have been great, but will they continue to produce when they're on the road and their opponents have the ability to match lines? If not, will the other lines step up?
(1) San Jose Sharks vs. (8) Anaheim Ducks
The hard thing about having a reputation as playoff chokers is that, as soon as anything starts going against you, people are thinking: “Oh no, here we go again”. That’s exactly the situation the Sharks find themselves in after losing game 1 of their series with the Ducks. Ironically, the Ducks maintained one of their weaknesses from the regular season: they were short-handed 6 times to the Sharks’ 4, but went 1-for-4 on the power-play instead of 0-for-6, which was all the difference. Whenever a team loses, there’s always a tendency to find “reasons” why they lost, but the fact is that the Sharks played a decent game. They just couldn’t convert on the chances they got, in large part because of Jonas Hiller. I hope someday people will stop saying: “Yes, he’s good, but what PLAYOFF experience does he have?” How many goalies have to stand on their heads in their first playoff year before this silliness ends? Just in the last 5 years, we’ve had Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Cam Ward and Roberto Luongo dominate in their first years on playoff ice. Hiller could very well add his name to this list.
As incredible as it sounds, game 2 is a must-win for the Sharks. A higher seed never wants to leave its home ice down 2-0, a hole from which only 16 of 68 teams in NHL history have recovered from. In the Sharks’ case, there’s no controversy, no backup goalie to whom to turn, no game plan to shake up; they just need to score at least 3 goals. If it makes them feel better, two of the 16 comeback teams mentioned above were the 2002 Detroit Red Wings and 2006 Carolina Hurricanes, both Stanley Cup champions.
(2) Detroit Red Wings vs. (7) Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets looked in trouble after the first period. The Red Wings outhit Columbus 37 to 26 and beat them on faceoffs 57 % of the time. Rick Nash averaged 3.37 shots per game during the regular season and managed to get 4 in game 1. He'll have to convert on those shot attempts, 0 points in game 1, if the Blue Jackets are going to have a chance in this series. Columbus, only having one star on offense in Rick Nash, will have to get closer down-low in order to get more rebounds and generate more shot opportunities. Twenty-one shots will be not enough on most nights when you're trying to keep pace with the Red Wings dynamic offense. The Blue Jackets also failed to defend the middle of the ice sufficiently, which is a problem considering the great amount of depth the Red Wings have at center.
Detroit played superb hockey in the first matchup of this series, and they should continue to cruise into round 2 as long as they continue to defend Rick Nash as well as they did in game 1.
(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) St. Louis Blues
As expected, St. Louis was anemic against the Canucks at even
strength. They managed only 13 shots (no goals) in even-handed
situations, compared to the 24 taken by Vancouver. Vancouver's one
even-strength goal made the difference in the game, as the teams
traded power-play markers and the game ended 2-1 for the favorites.
Roberto Luongo was named first star; he has the ability to carry his
team in the playoffs, and this performance raised his career playoff
save percentage to .943, albeit in only 13 games. The Canucks took
seven non-coincidental penalties, but St. Louis was only able to
manage 9 shots with the man up, and that wasn't enough against Luongo.
(4) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (5) Calgary Flames
The Flames are most definitely feeling the absense of the injured Robyn Regehr and Cory Sarich, having lost two leads in game one, and in part due to defensive breakdowns. It is always heartbreaking to lose overtime games because that's when a single break, like for example a missed call, can make the difference between going on a Cup run and golfing in April. The Flames need to put that game behind them, and they have got to get their unsuccessful power play working again.
Kudos to Martin Havlat for a sensational game, managing to get to the Flames both psychologically and on the scoreboard. Nikolai Khabibulin improves his amazing record against the Flames, but he better not become complacent. At their peak earlier this season the Flames were practically unbeatable and they do have the potential to return to that form at any time.