Two days, four upsets, seven observations: The Stanley Cup playoffs so far

There really is nothing like playoff hockey: the intensity, the insanity, the towel-waving, whited-out crazed throngs of fans, the collective rise and fall of thousands of hopes and dreams with every hit, carom, and deflection. The difference in the playoff brand of hockey from its regular season counterpart is greater than the change that occurs in any of the other four major sports (with the possible exception of Major League Baseball, but that’s a numbers game of condensing the efforts of 162 games into a mere seven games where talent and ability are more likely to give way to sheer dumb luck).

The hits are harder. Every slap shot has just a little more gusto behind it. Every player is just a little more willing to sacrifice life and limb in the path of a slapper to get that much closer to hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup. It is, without a doubt, one of the greatest happenings in sport, and it plays itself out over two shiner-filled, scraggly-bearded months.

With two days and seven games of the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs already in the books, I’ve got seven observations—one for each series underway—to whet your appetite for the quest for the most prestigious trophy in sports.

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Sens in Steal City

There’s something amiss about this year’s Pittsburgh Penguins. (Disclaimer: I am a Pens fan who’s watched 65 of their games this year; prepare for more detail than you ever could have wanted.) I thought Pens in six was a pretty safe bet over the Senators, who the boys from the Steel City quickly dispatched two years ago en route to their first of two straight Eastern Conference Championships.

This team just doesn’t have the mojo last year’s Cup winners did, and the first round matchup doesn’t help. If there’s one aspect where the Pens would have an advantage borne out of their experience, it’s their grit, hustle, and ability to pressure a team into mistakes. But Ottawa is one of the grittier teams in the playoffs, and their ability to forecheck effectively against the Pens and grind their attacks to a halt in the neutral zone is a testament to that. It helped that they got a lot of bounces to go their way (see goals 2-4), but they certainly earned the win.

It was to a team that on Wednesday looked like it lost that winning feeling (thank you, Righteous Brothers.) They weren’t able to impose their will, and even when they did, quickly relapsed and were answered by the gritty Sens. The Pens weren’t playing their puck possession, shooting gallery-type game (much to the benefit of a not-so-convincing Brian Elliott in goal). The pace resembled that of a college basketball game in that each team had runs of sustained pressure that may or may not have led to a goal. And like so many college games, the Pens spent so much energy in the fight back that they had to let up on the gas and didn’t have enough to finish the deal.

It’s been a constant theme for the Pens down the stretch. They managed to maintain contact with the top teams in the East, but it was an unconvincing 6-6-3 finish to the season. Three of those wins required overtime, the finish was made to look better thanks to 13 goals over two games against the Islanders, and a 2-0 home loss to the hapless Lightning and a 1-0 loss at a Thrashers team just playing out the string were interspersed in there.

The Pens have to be encouraged that Evgeni Malkin finally got off the schneid. But three points of worry for the current Cup holders. 1) Marc-Andre Fleury didn’t look like the star of the last two postseasons, and let in some soft goals. 2) The Sens did all this with just three points and five shots from the top line of Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, and Peter Regin. 3) The Pens second line of Makin, Alexei Ponikarovsky, and Ruslan Fedotenko looked about as comfortable as a line of Malkin, myself, and my coffee table out there. They haven’t had much time to play together and gel this year with a plethora of injuries, and this team will go nowhere if the scoring is coming from just one line and the first power play unit.

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Flying high in Jersey

If a basketball analogy fits for Pens-Sens Game 1, then a soccer metaphor will do for the Flyers and Devils. The Broad Street Bullies looked the part of a perfect counter-attacking soccer team (Aston Villa of the EPL came to find as one of the most consistent exponents of the style). They were content to absorb the Devils’ pressure—onslaught at times—and attack just enough to steal a win in the Garden State.

Whether this is a recipe for sustained success, I’m not so sure. I’m also not quite ready to tag Brian Boucher and a similar reclamation projects as Chris Osgood’s run to the Cup Finals out of nowhere every five years. But he is a veteran stopper, one of the most experienced candidates in the host of goaltending conundrums among this year’s crop of playoff teams, and was outstanding between the posts in Game 1. Ilya Kovalchuk must have had some tired arms last night as he went to bed, and he was probably seeing Boucher’s perfectly positioned glove hand in his sleep.

I thought the Devils would win the series in six, and I still see that happening, despite the fact that they’ve managed just one win over the seven meetings with the Fly Guys this year. Going forward, Boucher isn’t the goalie in this series who’s going to steal games. But he’s already pilfered one, and he was able to do so because the guys in orange jerseys who can dominate games, like Mike Richards and Chris Pronger, did just that.

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Phoenix rising in opener

If there was a team the Coyotes would have wanted to avoid in the first round, it was the Red Wings. They were 2-2 against the Wings this year, but had to go to overtime to for both their wins. This season’s feel-good story would have matched up more favorably against any of the other three low seeds. The Kings, though they play a higher tempo and have more offensive firepower, are still a bunch of young kids with almost no playoff experience. The Avs are also young and lack that star presence and scoring pop. Same is true for the Predators, who haven’t won a playoff series in franchise history.

But the Wings have all those things that would create matchup problems, in spades—so much so that you would be hard-pressed to call the lower-seeded boys from Hockeytown “underdogs”. It’s what made the Game 1 statement made by the owner-less, rag-tag bunch from Scottsdale all the more impressive. Yes, they did benefit from a missed double-minor high-sticking call on Niklas Lidstrom late in the third period that could have altered the result. Of course, that was balanced out by a flukey first goal by Tomas Holmstrom, since goals scored by the Swedish garbage collector when he is farther than a stick-length away from the goaltender are rarer than appearances by Hale-Bopp. Nonetheless, it was a win the old Winnipeg Jets richly deserved with their hustle and intensity. (Incidentally, if it ever did come to pass that the Coyotes and the Avalanche met in the postseason, I would have to start a petition for them to each wear their old Jets and Nordiques jerseys. Be by your phone, Bob Essensa!)

It really is remarkable when you look at this team. They have no guarantee where (or if, for that matter) they will be playing hockey next year. It’s a unique and, quite frankly, inadvisable mix of journeymen and castaways (Robert Lang, Lee Stempniak, Scottie Upshall, Petr Prucha, Woljtek Wolski, Radim Vrbata) with some young talent (Keith Yandle, Martin Hanzal). One paper, they have no business being where they are, which only makes them more appealing. As good of a story as Jimmy Howard is on the other side of the ice (and believe me I love Howard and would love to see him wearing a Team USA jersey in Sochi in 2014), the emotional vote points the Coyotes way in this series.

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Shark killers

The Avs-Sharks series falls into that “picks I wish I had the guts to make, but won’t because I’d look like an idiot” category (see Robert Morris-Villanova). You’ve got the perennially underachieving Sharks, who’ve won four Pacific Division titles and made six playoff appearances in the last seven season and have just one Conference Finals appearance to show for it. Then there’s the Avs, who flew out of the gates this season and barely held onto the eighth seed in the playoffs.

It’s a combination that means my pick in this series may be predicated more on the Sharks losing than the Avs winning. But that wasn’t the case in Game 1 for the young Avs, who showed a lot of guts to go take a win away from the Shark Tank thanks to Chris Stewart’s fortuitous game winner. It’s even more impressive when you look at how they did it: by taking it to the conference’s top seed in the waning moments when everything you’ve ever learned about hockey suggested the momentum would be with the more experienced, higher seeded hosts.

The key in this series is going to be goaltending on both sides. How well can Craig Anderson repel the high-powered attack of San Jose’s Joe Thornton-Dany Heatley-Patrick Marleau line? (So far, so good.) Can Evgeni Nabokov avoid the periodic blackouts of form that seem to crop up at the worst times in the playoffs? (Again, he played well in Game 1.) We could be looking at an upset in the making.

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Habs and Hab nots

The only thing better than playoff hockey? Overtime playoff hockey. It’s such a momentous occasion that when I was young, my father and I would each pick three players (two picks and one “wild card”) on each team as the possible goal scorers in overtime. We would keep standings each season, and the competition would get pretty brutal.

My dad passed away three years ago, but I still keep the tradition going. So, in the waning moments of last night’s Caps-Habs game, I grabbed a Post-It note and wrote down these names: Ovie, Backstrom, Fleishmann, Gionta, Kostitsyn, Plekanec. (Keep in mind, I’m still assuming someone else is picking, so they would be left with, say Semin, Green, and Laich for the Caps). Anyway, it was Plekanec, mostly on a hunch, who came through for Les Habitants and for me.

That’s two days, two wins by eight seeds on the road. It has all the makings of a topsy-turvy playoffs. You’ve got to be impressed with what Jaroslav Halak did in net for the Canadians, and his 45 saves, including 18 in the first period, are the biggest reason why they were able to steal a game. This is the only series in the playoffs featuring two teams with issues over who the number one puck stopper is, and both Halak and his counterpart/Montreal pariah, Jose Theodore, made strong cases for why they should be on the ice. Even Theodore can’t be fully blamed for the overtime winner, since Joe Corvo did give Plekanec more than ample space to snap off his wicked wrister.

As good as Halak was, it comes with the caveat of Ovechkin being little more than a skating observer on the offensive end. He was on the ice for 26:26 without registering a shot on goal, the first time he’s gone that long in a game without a shot in his NHL, and probably his entire hockey, career. Big credit has to go to Jaroslav Spacek, who was Ovie’s Czech shadow everywhere he went last night. The Caps without Alexander the Great, which they essentially were last night, are at best a seven-seed in the East. Don’t expect the Habs to be able to keep him down for too long because, in the immortal words of Dan Patrick, you can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him.

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Northeast brawl

I have to admit this is the only one of the seven games so far of which I didn’t get the chance to watch live. But I probably could have told you the outcome four days ago: 2-1, gritty, shining goaltending. Ryan Miller had 38 saves and Tuukka Rask (who has at least two unnecessary letters in his first name) had 30.

The shots totals may look abnormally high, but they were seventh and ninth in shots taken per game this season at just under 32 per game. But they also ranked 27th and 29th in the league in least goals allowed. That all points to fantastic goaltending, which will be the story of this series.

I would be shocked if either team hits four goals in any game of the Sabers’ six-game triumph. It’s clear the Bruins lack wingers, as their NHL-low 196 goals this season attests (for a little perspective, the Caps led the way with 313). Without Marc Savard as another scoring option, the winger contingent behind Milan Lucic (which includes 35-year-old Miroslav Satan, 42-year-old Mark Recchi, Michael Ryder, whose goal-scoring touch is still lost in transit somewhere between Montreal and Boston, young Blake Wheeler, and Marco Sturm) just isn’t up to snuff. They’re all great second- and third-liners, but no one you’re going to hang your hat on for a playoff run.

Take another look at the shot total from Game 1: 11 of those 39 attempts came from defensemen Zdeno Chara and Johnny Boychuk. The Bruins will need some offense from the blueline, but against a guy like Miller and without a premier pest in front of the crease, the American Olympian will gobble the long-distance efforts up time and time again. If the Bruins continue to want to play this kind of open game with a lot of shots on both sides, it’s going to favor the team with guys who actually can take over a series single-handedly, like Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, and Jason Pominville.

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Old West shootout

It may be tough for hockey fans with day jobs, sleep requirements, or sanity to stay up until 1:55 am to watch the Kings and Canucks play. But if you’re seriously hockey-crazy or you work at NORAD, tune in for what may turn out to be the most open and entertaining series of the eight. These two teams are dripping with skill, young talent, a scintillating blend of size and speed, and two goaltenders who walk that fine line of sensational play and total implosion. It’s amazing hockey theater.

I’ve gotten the chance to watch the Kings a few times this year and love the blend of youngsters with just a handful of veterans, and the best young blueline the league has seen in quite some time. The Canucks are an offensive machine that ranked second in the league with 268 goals scored in the regular season behind the strength of three solid goal scoring lines led by the Sedin twins.

And to boot, these two teams don’t much like each other. The Canucks won the first three meetings this season, holding the Kings to just three total goals, but the Kings won the finale, 8-3. They’ve averaged 24 penalty minutes per contest, and there’s sure to be no love lost thanks to Andrew Alberts boarding major on Brad Richardson in Game 1.

Now to the goalies. Questions were asked of Jonathan Quick, who won 39 games this season, but none of his last eight entering the second season. He played well, albeit on the brink of disaster on more than several occasions, with 41 saves in the loss. Roberto Luongo, he of the playoff underachievement, was solid but not outstanding for most, and had some moments when the end-to-end play heated up.

I still think it’s possible for the Kings to steal this series, and if that happens, it will be a seven-game, bloody war held primarily in one of the best playoff arenas in the NHL (GM Place, with organ music blaring, exudes excitement even through the television screen). If it costs you an extra hour or two of sleep and a bigger cup of coffee at Wawa the next morning, it’s worth it.

Oh, and by the way the Post-It read: “H. Sedin, Kessler, Samuelsson; Kopitar, Brown, Frolov”. That’s two for two baby!

-Matthew De George ’10

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