SI.com NHL writers analyze the aftermath of the first round and look ahead to the conference semi-finals.
1. The Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin rivalry seemed to be largely a creation of the media during its early years, but there's genuine heat there now. What do you expect to see in their second-round showdown?
Jin Kelley: I have to think Crosby has been stunned by the fact he didn't make the final three in balloting for the Hart Trophy as league MVP, so I expect that he'll be primed to put on a show -- not to show up Ovechkin, but to show the hockey world that he is every bit as good as Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk because of his ability to use his talent to make the players around him better. I expect Ovechkin to be Ovechkin, the ringleader of the circus, the exact opposite of Crosby's carefully-cultivated Canadian homeboy "Have another Timbit, you cute kid" image.
At some point in the series, Ovechkin will run Crosby hard, not to hurt him but to try to get him to react and start looking for ways to pay back rather than win the game. I don't know if Crosby will take that bait. He has in the past and still has some growing up to do, but whatever comes of it will be must-watch TV on and off the ice.
Michael Farber: While the rivalry has become increasingly personal -- it ain't Gordie Howe vs. Rocket Richard but it seems to be trending in that direction -- both players are innately clever enough to grasp that they are the twin pillars upon which the 21st century NHL will be built. More than Howe-Rocket, I see theirs as a Magic Johnson-Larry Bird kind of deal. It will always be highly competitive and, at times, wildly emotional of course, but ultimately their rivalry is rooted in a shared appreciation of the other's skill and significance.
But this isn't mano-a-mano. The best part of the rivalry is there are so many ancillary offshoots: Alexander Semin badmouthing Crosby earlier this season, Evgeni Malkin's longstanding feud with Ovechkin, etc. There are enough subplots to make Washington-Pittsburgh a seven-chapter Russian novel.
Darren Eliot: Both are extremely focused young players. It is an attribute that makes them special. They share dynamism in the open ice and a determination in the trenches that is rare in scoring stars. Ovechkin is the more natural goal-scorer and has a penchant for doling out punishing hits. Crosby is more the playmaker. To gauge his toughness, look at his willingness to wade into the high traffic areas around the net to make a play. He is arguably the most gifted grinder of all time -- and I say that with the highest sense of flattery intended. Having said all that, can Crosby vs. Ovechkin live up to the hype? Probably not. But my feeling is that both will deliver their share of big plays and memorable moments. Both of them are too used to scrutiny to shrivel.
Allan Muir: I expect this to be one of those rare sporting duels that actually lives up to the hype. Both are team players first, but this will be their Bird-Magic moment, a chance to not only measure themselves against each other, but to really dig deep and find out exactly how much they have to offer at this point in their careers.
From an individual perspective, I think we'll see Crosby emerge with the higher marks. Ovechkin struggled while trying to do too much against the Rangers, and I can see his competitive fire burning a little too brightly. Crosby seems more focused, more grounded. And you can't rule out the experience factor. He's been here before. Ovechkin hasn't.
That said, I don't think this series comes down to their battle, or to Malkin or Semin. I think the difference-maker has to be Jordan Staal. He's the guy the Caps don't have a ready answer for. His line did a nice job establishing the forecheck and keeping Jeff Carter quiet, but there was no finish. Hard work is part of the equation, but just a part. Staal knows he needs to come up with results in this round. Watch it happen.
2. The Red Wings, Canucks and Bruins haven't played in a week or more. Which of the three do you think is most vulnerable to its second-round opponent because of the layoff?
Jim Kelley: I think the Bruins will have a bit more trouble than the other two. They're a team that plays with a great deal of emotion and must face a team that's coming to the series on an amazing high after an amazing Game 7 victory. Think about this:
The Hurricanes are sitting on their bench, the clock is ticking down and they are losing to a team that can protect a lead like few others, and with the winningest goaltender of all time tending the net. In little more than the blink of Marty Brodeur's eye, the 'Canes have the game tied and then won on two of the most amazing plays you'll see in a hockey season let alone two shifts. How do the Bruins match that?
Boston is the better team and I believe they will, over the course of the series, right themselves and win it. But they're going to have to move quickly to match Carolina's emotional level and work harder than they did against Montreal to solve Cam Ward who, if he plays like he did against New Jersey, could steal the series before the Bruins get untracked.
Michael Farber: The question of rest vs. rust is eternal. When it comes to measuring the springtime rhythms, it can go either way. But if you're the Canucks, you probably treasured the time off.
In 2007, they survived a seven-game goalie's duel between Roberto Luongo and Dallas's Marty Turco, then immediately zipped off to Anaheim where they were promptly flattened in a five-game series. This time, they had the luxury of healing some injuries, including whatever ailed Mats Sundin. He looked slick in a practice I attended in Vancouver last Friday. (Indeed, coach Alain Vigneault later told Sundin that it was the sharpest he had seen him.)
But the Blackhawks were not as badly mangled by Calgary in their six-game series as I suspected they would be. In fact, Chicago seemed to do the majority of the initiating against the once-fierce Flames. With a shorter (although not insignificant) rest than Vancouver, the Blackhawks could steal Game 1 unless Luongo is razor sharp.
Darren Eliot: Canucks. The Red Wings have enough experience to know where the intensity switch is located and how to turn it on. The Bruins could have a problem with early focus due to having so many young players at their core, but Carolina's stupefying comeback balances that out. One could forgive the 'Canes for taking a little longer to come down from that high before getting fully vested in the task at hand with the Bruins.
The Canucks, however, take on a team that used winning on the road as a mantra before doing just that to eliminate the Flames in six. The Blackhawks were a good road team all season and to them, at least conceptually, this is just the second game of a trip. That preparation should have them ready from the outset while the Canucks will need time to reestablish the level of superior play they exhibited down the stretch and in the first round. That particularly applies to Luongo, who had his impressive run of top-notch netminding interrupted.
Allan Muir: If I'm Boston coach Claude Julien, I'm worried about getting the legs going early against Carolina. The Hurricanes rely heavily on their speed and transition game, and their motor's warm after taking the last two games of their series against the Devils. The Bruins are plenty capable of countering that style, but they've been cooling their jets since wiping out the Habs on April 22. That's more than recuperation time. That's ice-on-the-wings time. Wouldn't surprise me to see the 'Canes wax them in Game 1, but I still think the Bruins take a long, highly entertaining series.
3. Which team that suffered a disappointing or galling first-round ouster will likely undergo the most drastic changes during the offseason?
Jim Kelley: San Jose or Calgary, it's a toss-up, but in different areas. There's a buzz that says San Jose GM Doug Wilson will pay a price, but I don't believe that. He's too good, too smart and too talented to be put to the curb and there won't be a rabble at the gate demanding it because the fans know that it was the players who failed to get over the hump, not the GM. Wilson will have a few things to answer for -- like not getting enough grit into the lineup -- but this is going to fall on the players, especially Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and goaltender Evgeni Nabokov.
It's a different scene in Calgary where the faithful were chomping at the bit to get past the first gate and are surely going to hold coach Mike Keenan and maybe even GM Darryl Sutter accountable. Calgary's players are perhaps equally at fault as San Jose's, but the anger seems directed at management that's been making promises about being better but keeps putting the same kind of team on the ice. The Flames are a good team if you think you can win it all with smash-mouth hockey, but they are always a bruised, battered and slow club when it comes playoff time, and they always seem to run up against a team that is faster, smarter, more skilled around the net and, most times, a bit better in goal. If you don't adjust to changing trends in the game, you don't go forward. The Flames almost always go one way: hard and out.
Michael Farber: Let's see. The Canadiens will likely have a new owner, possibly a new GM and captain, and certainly a new coach. They have 10 unrestricted free agents. Yep, I guess they win this category.
Owner George Gillett appears to be unloading his 80.1 percent stake in the club, which means things are pretty much in limbo. GM Bob Gainey mentioned that he has a lot of work to do, but there are no guarantees he will still be doing the heavy lifting for this obvious overhaul. His track record is decidedly mixed. Good: Trading for Alex Kovalev, signing free agent Robert Lang, drafting Carey Price. Bad: Allowing free agents Sheldon Souray, Mark Streit and Michael Ryder to walk without getting anything in return, and the firing of coaches Claude Julien and Guy Carbonneau. Gainey's shelf life might have expired after five seasons.
There should be a contract number that will satisfy captain Saku Koivu, but he sounded drained by the Montreal experience at the season-ending breakup. The players on the No. 1 line (Koivu, Kovalev, Alex Tanguay) are UFAs, as is first-pair defenseman Mike Komisarek. With about $30 million in cap room to play with, somebody will reinvent the Canadiens for 2009-10.
Darren Eliot: I think New Jersey's loss in stunning fashion will lead to the biggest overhaul. They filled gaps with older, former Devils this season, but need an infusion of youth and exuberance on their third and fourth linesm and a presence on the blueline. I say this after greybeards John Madden, Jay Pandolfo and Brendan Shanihan played extremely well in Game Seven and defenseman Paul Martin performed with typical aplomb and anonymity.
Still, losing in such heartbreaking fashion should give management pause to reflect and retool -- this time without the retro feel. Then again, maybe if the Devils had prospects ready to step in, it already would have happened. Regardless, they could have as many as six new faces for next season -- a sizeable number for any team, especially so for the conservative Devils.
Allan Muir: There may be more moving vans pulled up to the Saddledome than elsewhere, but that'll be as much a result of free agents bailing as that fourth consecutive first-round flame out, Mike Cammalleri, Todd Bertuzzi, Jordan Leopold and Adrian Aucoin will be allowed to seek their fortunes elsewhere, so you can expect the Flames to be active filling their roles with bodies better capable of raising their intensity -- and keeping their wits about them -- in the playoffs. I think they'll be looking for a fresh voice behind the bench as well.
Injuries gave Keenan some cover, but it's hard to excuse his mishandling of the troops left on hand. Brent Sutter hasn't been shy about expressing his desire to come home to Alberta, and after that first-round disappointment in New Jersey, a scenario that sees him reunited with GM brother Darryl is looking more likely.
4. Who was your unsung hero of the first round?
Jim Kelley: The obvious choice would be Capitals goaltender Simeon Varlamov, but by the time the series with the Rangers was over, he was hearing his praises sung from coast to coast. I'll stay with that series and give a nod to Nicklas Backstrom, the forward who settled things down on the ice and created the plays that started to befuddle the Rangers defense and open the way to solving goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Backstrom came out of that series just one point behind Evgeni Malkin for the playoff scoring lead (eight to Malkin's nine), but it was his leadership and on-ice playmaking skills that saved the day for the Caps.
Michael Farber: The problem with the notion of the "unsung" hero in the NHL playoffs is that so many people warble about the games that almost nothing, and no one, is overlooked. Pittsburgh's Maxime Talbot gets the stuffing beaten out of him by the Flyers' Daniel Carcillo, and because the fight seems to spark the Penguins to rally from a three-goal deficit in Game 6, Talbot becomes the greatest warrior since Sun-Tzu. And while no one is writing a weepy ballad for Dan Cleary, the Detroit winger is hardly "unsung" after his stellar performance against Columbus.
So instead of joining the chorus, put me down for Carolina defenseman Tim Gleason, who sparkled in an under-the-radar series that offered the best hockey of the first round. With apologies to teammates Chad LaRose and Jussi Jokinen, Gleason's play on the tying goal in Game Seven, keeping the puck in the offensive zone and making a saucer pass to Joni Pitkanen, saved the Hurricanes. Gleason also had a goal and three assists and finished the series as a plus-1. Not too shabby for a stay-at-home defenseman.
Darren Eliot: My vote goes to Gleason. He scored the overtime game-winner in Game Two, thus avoiding a 0-2 series deficit. Making the goal more dramatic was the fact that he didn't score one all season. If that wasn't clutch enough, with the series hanging in the balance, he kept the puck in the Devils' zone, falling at the blueline to do so. He then had the presence of mind and ability to get the puck over and around the stick of a pressuring Devils forward to D-partner Pitkanen who fed Jokinen for the game-tying goal with eight seconds left. If Gleason fails to keep the puck in, not only is the play dead, so are the Hurricanes.
Allan Muir: The Capitals' Shaone Morrisonn caught my eye, and not just for the zombie rage incident in Game 5. He's always been a player who has left me wanting more in the past, but I thought he was really sharp against the Rangers. He made good use of that big body, exacting a physical toll and clogging up the shooting lanes. And he did a nice job covering for Mike Green while he was getting over whatever it really was that hindered his game in the early going.