NHL playoffs go into full swing with much intrigue
Day 3 of the playoffs brings us the start of the remaining two Eastern Conference playoff series and the continuation of two in the West. There's great intrigue in the matchups that are set to go in the East as the Canadiens and Senators get after it at the boisterous Bell Centre while the surging Capitals host the Rangers in DC.
Everyone considers this the first playoff series ever between the Habs and Sens, but they did meet four times during Ottawa's original tenure in the NHL, the last time coming in 1927. The Sens also had a very heated relationship with the NHL's other Montreal team, the Maroons. So this renewal between two hockey-crazed cities that are only about 100 miles apart has been more than 80 years in the making and should go a long way to creating the sort of intense rivalry that the modern Sens have developed with the Maple Leafs.
What to expect from the modern Habs and Sens? It's very tough to say. Their last regular season meeting was back in mid-March and these clubs have both undergone some changes since then. The Sens, of course, had to learn how to win without many of their core players, most of whom are now back in the lineup, including Erik Karlsson, the defenseman who many believe will be key to an Ottawa victory in the series. The Canadiens counter with the irrepressible P.K. Subban, whose multi-dimensional game blossomed this season.
Those who pick Ottawa to win also point to goalie Craig Anderson, who probably would be in the Vezina Trophy discussion had he not been injured for much of the season. He's thought to be far more consistent than the Canadiens' Carey Price, although until his late season difficulties, Price was mentioned as a Vezina candidate. One difference between the two netminders is that Price has twice as much Stanley Cup Playoffs experience than Anderson -- 26 games to 13 -- and the Sens' goalie has never won a series, not only in the NHL, but at any level above junior hockey. While it is not the only factor that figures into postseason performance, experience does matter.
The Habs score lots of goals. They averaged about one per game more than Ottawa did during the regular season, which is quite a lot. So the Sens have to find a way to counter that offensive edge. One big key to the series will be how Ottawa deals with the Canadiens' speed. Montreal is among the fastest teams in the NHL. The Habs like to take an early lead and then dictate the terms of the game. They've shown that when they surrender goals early, as they did in their slide near the end of the regular season, they have trouble climbing back into games. If Ottawa can somehow grab early leads, play its strong defensive game (which the Sens relied upon after they lost all those key players), keep pace with Montreal's foot speed, and not get trapped by the Habs' strong transition game, this could be a tough series for their neighbors. It should be fun to watch.
Can the Rangers chill the Capitals?
This series also promises to be entertaining. Washington's big three -- Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green -- have got their mojo working again and the biggest problem they might encounter is that Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist will be standing in front of the goal they'll shoot at. This could shape up as a classic confrontation between a hot team and a hot goalie.
On the other hand, Caps goalie Braden Holtby enjoyed postseason glory last year and he'll be charged with stopping Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Ryan Callahan and any additional offense the Blueshirts can muster, which is often created by driving hard to the net. The Rangers can still be offensive underachievers, but they've recently started to develop the knack for scoring. How the Caps play in front of Holtby, helping him to see the oncoming traffic, will matter a lot.
The Rangers are a better team going into the postseason than they were during the regular season, in large measure because of the additions they made at the trade deadline, especially getting center Derick Brassard and defenseman John Moore from Columbus and bringing back winger Mats Zuccarello after his KHL season ended.
There are still some lingering questions, however, about whether New York can play the same physical, stifling, game of sacrifice that brought them success last season. I watched some video yesterday of one of their 2012 playoff games against Ottawa, and was struck by how many important playoff heroes are no longer on the Rangers' roster -- Brandon Prust, Ruslan Fedotenko, Brandon Dubinsky, and Artem Anisimov. Defenseman Marc Staal, who played his best hockey ever last spring, is still recovering from taking a puck to the eye. His return is uncertain. Ryane Clowe, who was acquired to fill the character gap, is also out indefinitely with an upper body injury. Their absences could hurt. Tonight we'll start to learn how well these new-look Rangers will fare against a very challenging opponent.
On to Game 2
As for the two Western series, the Blues may have gotten a gift from the otherwise stellar Jonathan Quick of the Kings in the form of their shorthanded winning goal in overtime of Game 1, but they were clearly the better club that night. The Kings were a terrific road team last spring during their drive to the Cup, and they're going to have to rediscover what worked for them soon or they won't be hockey's kings much longer.
And while a Red Wings upset of the Ducks in the first round was the sexy pick before that series started, Anaheim increasingly took over their Game 1 as it went along. The remarkable play of Detroit's Jimmy Howard -- who has not received enough credit for his excellent goaltending this season -- kept it close and gave his team a chance. The Wings have the high-end talent in Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and impressive rookie Danny DeKeyser to make the most of those chances, but they're going to need more contributions from others to make that upset a reality.
It's way too early to pick out any discernible patterns in this year's Stanley Cup playoffs, but here are a few things worth watching:
? Home teams have gone 5-1 over the first two nights, which is quite different than the first two nights last year when they went 4-3, and it's drastically different than how the entire first round played out as road teams dominated, going 30-18 for a .625 winning percentage that was the highest since the NHL switched to its 16-team playoff format in 1979-80.
? While we'll certainly need a larger sample size to be certain, the distinct impression created by how poorly the Maple Leafs and Islanders played in their openers, against the Bruins and Penguins respectively, leads us to believe that the eight-team field in the West is probably stronger top to bottom than the Eastern field. We've seen each of the Western series already and none of them revealed as large a gap between the Game 1 winners and losers as there is in the East.
? Perhaps some of that was just the experience factor. There's a vast difference between how much playoff familiarity resides on the Bruins and Penguins rosters compared to the Leafs and Isles. The B's and Pens understand that Stanley Cup competition is not the same as what teams face during the regular season. For the Leafs and Isles, it was Day 1 at their new school.
You never want to make too much of one game, of course, not when it takes four to win the round. That was the caveat sounded by NBC's Pierre McGuire on Thursday morning over Ottawa radio Team 1200 when he said, "Every game is a different one unto itself.... You can't predict what's going to happen, but what you can do is get a feel, and right now the feel is not good for the Islanders and the feel is not good, obviously, for the Leafs. Both of them looked outclassed. Now, a lot can change because neither team has a lot of experience. So maybe they say, 'OK, that was first game jitters, we'll get that out of our system and go out and play a lot better in Game 2,' which could really happen for both teams."
For the sake of the Leafs and Isles -- and their fans who have waited a long time for their clubs to get back into the playoffs -- you hope that's true because Toronto looked like a frantic comedy troupe, especially in their own zone, and the Islanders were able to generate very little offense due to the superb checking job done by Brenden Morrow, Brandon Sutter and Matt Cooke on John Tavares, who didn't manage even one shot on goal, the first time this season that's happened.
They're going to need to find answers, and pretty quickly.