By Stu Hackel
Now that the second round is underway (notes on Thursday night's Predators-Canucks opener are below), let's venture some thoughts -- but no predictions-- about the other matchups. (If you want my SI.com colleagues' picks, here you go.) The higher-seeded team won six of the eight first round series, but there has been fear of the underdog.
Washington (1) vs. Tampa Bay (5) - Both the Capitals and Lightning took out offensively challenged teams in the first round. Although their series went five games, the Caps didn't have an easy time with the Rangers, who were in every game right up to the end. But when the Caps had to turn it up a notch -- starting with overcoming the Rangers' explosive second period in Game 4 in New York with three goals in the third and an overtime victory -- they were clearly the superior team, grinding out victories, playing disciplined defense and flashing their obvious offensive skills when needed.
Unlike the Lightning, the Caps have had a chance to rest and heal (they'll likely get Mike Knuble back from his hand injury sometime during the round, Mike Green is apparently good to go after taking a puck in the helmet, and Dennis Wideman continues to progress from his thigh injury) but hope they haven't become too rusty. But if the Caps get fooled by the Dominik Moore-to-Sean Bergenheim play from behind the net that the Bolts used twice against the Pens, once in Game 6...
...and again in Game 7 for the series winner...
...they'll only have themselves to blame. The Lightning, as everyone knows, have some serious skill of their own with the likes of Hart Trophy finalist Marty St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, Simon Gagne and Vinny Lecavalier, plus a fine supporting cast. Their special teams play against the Penguins should concern the Caps.
Washington's team defense has improved greatly and this is an area where the Caps will have to maintain their posture, not just with their young top two on the blueline, Karl Alzner and John Carlson, but with their forwards continuing to buy into the game plan while playing responsibly in all three zones.
The Lightning are still somewhat challenged defensively -- of all the teams that advanced, Tampa Bay averaged the most shots-against in the first round. But their 1-0 win on enemy ice in Game 7 and limiting Pittsburgh to five goals in the last three games shows that the Lightning got better in its own end as the series progressed. Their defensemen, not highly ranked by most observers, did a good job of helping out Dwayne Roloson by allowing him to see much of what was fired at him.
Roloson is at the top of his game and on top of the NHL with a .949 save percentage. He's made deep runs in the playoffs before, so if experience matters in these things -- and it does -- he knows the drill. Michal Neuvirth was solid for the Caps and looks to have solved their annual playoff goaltending questions, although he'll be facing a tougher challenge from Tampa than he did from the Rangers. The series could turn on the ability of the Lightning to cope with the Caps' forwards and with Green's offensive activity joining the rush and pinching down in the offensive zone. Tampa Bay's Guy Boucher is a strong tactical coach and if anyone can figure out how to turn the Caps back and pierce their defenses, it's him.
These teams are no mystery to each other. They met six times during the season with Washington winning three in regulation, Tampa Bay one, and they split shootout results. This could be an entertaining, high-scoring affair or it could be a defensive struggle. But it won't be boring.
Philadelphia (2) vs. Boston (3): Reprising the matchup of 2010's great playoff comeback/collapse, the Bruins now have a second demon to exorcise after they squeaked past bitter rival Montreal.
These teams have certain qualities that balance each other out. Both went seven games in Round 1, so the fatigue factor is even. Both are good at scoring 5 on 5 -- 16 for Philly, 15 for the B's, tied to the top two totals of the first round. They each have a solid compliment of rugged players and antagonists who can get under an opponent's skin. They each play in a demanding environment and wearing their respective sweaters carries a tradition and identity that the players and their fans strongly embrace.
What the Bruins have going for them is Tim Thomas compared to whoever the Flyers have in goal. Thomas can be the difference in any series and he got stronger against Montreal, with saves like these helping the B's win Game 7.
At the other end, Philly once again survived shaky goaltending and while it appears that Brian Boucher is their guy going in, that could well be temporary. The major question will be, if Boucher falters, can they trust Michael Leighton or Sergei Bobrovsky?
But the Flyers still have what works for them in a very deep group of forwards who know how to push the play and they could make life difficult for a Boston's defense corps, which had trouble keeping up with Montreal's forwards for significant portions of that series. Philly won't have Jeff Carter, at least for the start of the series, but Claude Giroux had a terrific series against Buffalo in all areas of the game while James van Riemsdyk seems to have reached another level as a dangerous power forward in the offensive zone. And Danny Briere's six goals tied the Ducks' Teemu Selanne for the best mark of the first round, even though the Sabres took the body on him every chance they could. The Bruins may well do the same thing.
The B's got important contributions up front from Patrice Bergeron and depth forwards Michael Ryder and Chris Kelley, and Nathan Horton shook off an indifferent start to make timely contributions. But Boston will probably need more from his MIA linemates Milan Lucic and David Krejci if they hope to advance.
The Flyers d-men are a stronger, more mobile group than Boston's, especially when Chris Pronger is dressed and healthy. His damaged hand seems improved, judging by his play in Game 7 against Buffalo. He's a needed counterweight to the B's Zdeno Chara, who wasn't quite himself either after missing Game 2 against Montreal with dehydration.
Neither team's power play is functioning well. The B's were shut out in 21 attempts with the man advantage in their seven games against Montreal; the Flyers were 5 for 35, which is still better than Boston, but not great. If the Bruins show the same lack of discipline they did at times against the Canadiens, they could again burn themselves.
The Bruins may lack some depth compared to the Flyers, but if their first round proved anything, it's that they play with determination and no shortage of sandpaper. If this comes down to goaltending, the B's could prevail, but if the Flyers can limit Boston's time in the attack zone and dictate the play, even a superhuman effort by Thomas may not be enough.
Sharks (2) vs. Red Wings (3): Another reprise series from 2010, Detroit will be looking for a better outcome against the Sharks than in last year's second round, five game-loss. They are more rested this time, not only because they got out of the first round in four games, but they haven't played as much hockey as they had going into last season's series against San Jose after reaching the Cup final two years running. The Wings will have Henrik Zetterberg (knee) for the first time since early April and they believe Johan Franzen (ankle) will return during this series.
No team was more impressive in the first round than Detroit, even without Zetterberg (and Franzen for one game), although the Wings benefited considerably from the subpar play of Coyotes goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. Pavel Datsyuk's inspired all-around play led them, along with many of the usual suspects (Nick Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom, Dan Cleary, Nick Kronwall, etc.) plus the work of younger Wings like Darren Helm and Valtteri Filppula has created great balance. Twelve different Wings scored goals, and only four of their 19 skaters failed to register at least a point.
The danger for Detroit is that the Wings may have had it too easy against the Coyotes and developed a false sense of their play because their opponent was less than advertised. The Sharks will likely pose a much sterner test. But San Jose had some problems with consistency against the Kings, although L.A.'s Jonathan Quick presented more of a challenge in goal than Bryzgalov was for the Wings.
Only 10 Sharks scored first-round goals in two more games than Detroit played, but San Jose has shown more balance than in the past, when all a foe needed to do was stop the Big Three of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley. Joe "The Big" Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi, rookie star Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe, their big gun in Round 1...
...make the Sharks a potentially explosive club. But their problems against L.A. had more to do with their blueline corps, which gave the offensively challenged Kings far too much room and too many chances. This is an area where the Wings have a distinct advantage. Their defensemen move the puck perhaps better than any team in the league and have an outstanding blend of positional and physical players back there.
Both clubs are generally less concerned with matching forward lines than making sure they have the right tandems out against certain forwards, and both coaches love to mix up their lines. The real battle between Mike Babcock and his former assistant Todd McLellan will be figuring out which defenders to send out against which forwards.
San Jose's power play, strong during the regular season, sputtered against the Kings, who kill penalties very well. McLellan says he'll be making adjustments on both his special teams, so that will give the Wings something new to look at.
In goal, Jimmy Howard reversed his form from the last part of the regular season, playing a strong series against the Coyotes, who don't have any high-caliber forwards. The Sharks forwards will be a much stiffer test.
And Antti Niemi? Well, you can never be entirely certain with him. When he's on his game, he can be very frustrating for opposing teams, but at times he was the bad Antti against the Kings with a .863 save percentage. He'll have to be much better than that.
Vancouver (1) vs. Nashville (5): Was it Game 1 stage fright, or are the Nashville Predators so outclassed by Vancouver that the Canucks will make quick work of them? That's the big question these teams will settle when they skate out for Game 2 on Saturday.
Now free of their Chicago boogeyman, the Canucks played a confident opener, looking every bit like Presidents' Trophy-winners on Thursday night, winning 1-0 in the first series to start the second round (thoughts on the other three are below). They had the Preds running around in their own end and showing little of the defensive mindset or intelligent play that got them past Anaheim in Round 1.
The Predators took penalties far away from their net and lost lots of puck battles. Their forwards didn't close up the neutral zone and they allowed the Canucks to attack with speed. They also blew a line change that led to the game's only goal -- two players going to the bench and leaving too much room for Chris Higgins to take a pass from Maxim Lapierre and bury it.
As SI.com's Darren Elliot pointed out in his game reaction, had it not been for Pekka Rinne in goal, this would easily have been a blowout and bad for Nashville's psyche.
Rinne wasn't a Vezina Trophy finalist by accident, and his 29 saves all seemed tough as the Canucks used their skill and speed to create numerous scoring opportunities. He kept Nashville in a game it had little business being in, considering how one-sided it was, and gave his team a chance to steal it. When, not long after Higgins scored in the second period, Keith Ballard got called for clipping Jordin Tootoo on this wonderfully executed hip check...
...the possibility arose that the Preds could tie it up and deflate everything Vancouver had built until that point. But good penalty killing squashed that possibility. By the way, that penalty for clipping was marginal at best. It's called when a checker goes low to upend the puck-carrier and the ref believes he endangers the puck-carrier's knees, which is a legitimate concern. Ballard is one of the great hip-checkers in the NHL. Here's video of another one from the regular season:
It's something of a lost art. The one on Tootoo was a bit lower, but it didn't appear that his knees were targeted (and it's rather curious that the NHL is so concerned about knees that anything remotely close is called -- this crowd pleasing hit has almost vanished from the game -- while the league continues to allow as many hits to the head as it does).
"We win and lose as a group of 20 every night, and we had way too many passengers," disgusted Preds coach Barry Trotz said afterward. "Especially at this high level of competition in the second round, you can't play the way we did."
The Predators looked slow through the first two periods by comparison. They are not the super-skilled team the Canucks are, of course, but they usually don't allow opponents as much time and space as they did in Game 1. They began to close things up much better in the third period and were able to get the puck down low and generate chances by working along the boards in Vancouver's end and making Roberto Luongo, another Vezina finalist, come up with a few big stops of his own.
That's exactly what the underdog Predators are going to have to do if they want to make a series of this. Shea Weber had a chance late in the third period to equalize with Luongo out of position, but his shot sailed over the top of the net. "If we get it, tie it up, it probably puts us in a position to have a chance to steal the game," Trotz said. "But, let's be honest, we didn't deserve to win this hockey game."
Give the Canucks credit, though. They didn't take the underdog Predators for granted last night.