By Stu Hackel
Every year in the playoffs, a strange little trend emerges in the first round. One year it might be shorthanded goals, another year, road teams winning or an abundance of 5-on-3s.
This year, after the first five days of Stanley Cup play, we'll be watching two things: Players growing playoff mustaches instead of beards and how often the team that scores the first goal wins the game.
On Sunday night, the Canucks came back to beat the Blackhawks after surrendering the first goal, only the third such instance in the 19 games played so far in this postseason. The Capitals and Red Wings have also done it. Teams that strike first are winning at a rate of about 85 percent. By comparison, the team that scored first during this season's 1230-game regular schedule won 844 times: about 70 percent.
You say that's because things tighten up in the playoffs? Well, they weren't that tight last year: The team that scored first won 63 percent(56 in 89 postseason games) after a 67 percent success rate during the regular season (825 wins). During the 2009 postseason, the team that scored first won 61 percent (53 in 87 games). In 2008, it was 60 percent (51 in 85 games).
So far this spring, scoring first matters more -- at least in the early going. The Canadiens surely know. In both their games against Boston, they've made the first goal stand up, which is how they're built and how Jacques Martin coaches them -- something B's coach Claude Julien acknowledged after Game 1 when Carey Price shut out the Bruins, 2-0. In Game 2, the Habs' Michael Cammalleri struck after only 43 seconds and Mathieu Darche added a second goal less than two minutes later and the Bruins, playing without Captain Zdeno Chara, never dug out of the hole, losing 3-1. Tonight, the Bruins skate into the loudest building in the league, the Bell Centre, where they have yet to beat the Habs all year and Chara is expected back in the lineup.
As the postseason goes on, it's worth keeping an eye on the first-goal and how the team that scored it fares. A characteristic of the NHL since the lockout has been more see-saw play, more teams coming from behind to win after allowing the first tally, and, generally, more entertaining hockey. But this year, defenses have tightened up and the clampdown is now even more pronounced. Scoring first could become a far more certain indicator of which team will win.
Of course, it's still pretty early -- except for the Blackhawks, who could be 60 minutes away from having their dreams of a repeat Cup strike midnight. But if this stat holds up, it could reflect a movement to more stifling defenses and an improvement in teams' abilities to protect an early lead.
That '70s 'stache: Well, it is very retro, very '70s and we've seen three so far. Brandon Dubinsky, who scored this wild late goal on Sunday afternoon to give the Rangers the victory against the Capitals ...
...is sprouting one, as is teammate Brian Boyle. After Dubinsky's goal -- in which he flipped the puck into the crease where it hit Karl Alzner's shoulder, bounced toward the net and traveled that last inch thanks to Alex Ovechkin's desperation dive to keep it out -- he uttered the immortal words, "The 'stache stays. It took me a while to grow this thing. Hopefully we keep winning so I won't have to shave it off."
The third lip hedge is growing on the face of Carey Price, as shown in this off-day video from the Montreal Gazette's Hockey Inside/Out blog.
Now, that's only three out of roughly 325 players who've skated in the playoffs, or one percent. But it's a significant increase over last season when, as we recall, no one grew a playoff mustache.
So he doesn't count.
And there's another one we've seen on game telecasts lately: that otherwise clean-cut guy on the bicycle who gets shaved by rabbits in the fast food ice cream commercial. It looks strange on him and it's looking strange on most of this generation of NHLers, too. Kind of a '70s porn star look. We'll see if it catches on.
Datsyuk's Dominance: Back in December, as Sidney Crosby was tearing up the NHL, we wrote a post when Pavel Datsyuk broke his hand and made the case for Datsyuk as the more complete player. "While Crosby is no slouch in any aspect of the game," the post read, "Datsyuk can do more things at a higher level.
"Defensive excellence never generates publicity the way offensive prowess does in any sport, but publicity does not win games. Datsyuk has no peer as a defensive forward. He shuts down the opposing team’s best forwards, kills penalties extremely well, and is still among the most creative and determined offensive players in the game."
That last part about Datsyuk being a creative and determined offensive player was never more evident than on Saturday against the Coyotes. Has there been a better play so far in this postseason than his rush and shot that set up Darren Helm's goal near the end of the first period?
Not likely. And Datsyuk got a goal and a pair of additional assists in that game as well.
Datsyuk's five points (two goals, three assists) has him tied for the playoff lead in points. His plus-4 is tied for the top mark and his 64.9 percent winning percentage on faceoffs is among the best as well. He leads the playoffs with six takeaways and, conversely, when he has the puck, it seems impossible to get it away from him.
Crosby's not back yet to make a case for himself, Ovie is still Ovie -- even in the Caps' new defensive posture -- and the Sedins can be lethal. But it's doubtful there's a more complete player in the game than Pavel Datsyuk.
On the brink: The Canucks became the first team to win three games this postseason and they pushed the Blackhawks to the edge of the cliff with their 3-2 win on Sunday night.
Examining this series before it began, we made the point that Chicago was no longer the team that won the Cup, having dispatched about half its roster in order to shed salary. Between trades and injuries, the Hawks dressed only five forwards who skated for them last spring. But credit the Canucks for their excellent play, starting with Roberto Luongo, who has been at the top of his game since the round began. He held off Chicago after Vancouver grabbed a quick 2-0 lead in Game 1, and this stop set the tone.
Sunday night, with the Hawks energized by their home crowd and trying to pull themselves back into the series, Luongo was outstanding again, stopping Chicago's big guns repeatedly, especially when the Canucks faltered early and got into penalty trouble trailing 1-0 in the first period. He made multiple stops like these in a 5-on-4...
...and shortly after, these in a 5-on-3.
And, with the score tied 2-2 in the third, on Patrick Kane again.
Luongo kept the Canucks in the game and was the difference in the outcome.
Aside from their goaltender and Vancouver's better depth, some credit is due to coach Alain Vigneault for his game planning. He's gotten his forwards to target Chicago's defensemen, recognizing that with the likes of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Brian Campbell play a big role in generating offense. One of those hits, Raffi Torres on Seabrook in the third period...
...was, shall we say, questionable. The NHL on TSN panel last night had a good discussion that included former NHL referee Kerry Fraser and it's well worth watching (video). Fraser thinks Torres's hit was a Rule 48 violation and suspendable, especially because he just came off a suspension for his hit on Edmonton's Jordan Eberle. Bob McKenzie is uncertain what the NHL will do and has good reasons to think the league will either slam Torres...or let him go. Two other panelists, the Flames' Steve Staios and former NHLer Aaron Ward, lean more toward faulting Seabrook for putting himself in a position to get hit, although both also say Torres has to be more aware of what he's doing and time his hits better.
The NHL won't be suspending Torres, who habitually hits opponents in the head. "Every time the NHL makes you think it's making progress, it reverts to being a freaking joke," tweeted National Post columnist Bruce Arthur. Just another day in Headshot Theater.
For the Hawks, a major penalty to Torres rather than his two-minute minor for interference might have changed the game's outcome. But not much is going right for Chicago and it looks as if the Hawks face a mountain that's too high to climb.