The first round of the NHL playoffs had an incredible ending in Boston and an anticlimactic one in Washington, as a pair of Game 7s trimmed the field to eight teams. Today we’ll briefly recap yesterday’s games and then dive into previews of the four conference semi-final matchups , two of which begin tonight.
GAME 7 HISTORY
No team had ever trailed by three goals in the third period of a Game 7 and rallied to win. Until last night. In fact, not only was Boston down 4-1 in the third, that deficit persisted until about the ten-minute mark. And it was still 4-2 with less than 90 seconds in the season. Once the Bruins emptied the net and played with the extra man, they got two goals in a matter of 31 seconds and then won in overtime.
For both goaltenders, James Riemer for Toronto and Tuuka Raask for Boston, it was a best of times/worst of times kind of game. Neither team got a high number of shots—35 for Boston, 28 for Toronto, yet the teams scored a combined nine goals. On the flip side, both goalies made several spectacular saves and were often victimized by the failure of their teams to clean up the rebounds. But on the flip of the flip side, Riemer and Rask both have work to go in making saves cleanly with the glove and preventing the chaos of the rebound opportunity. These are two talented netminders with good futures, but each has some work to do over the summer. Which for Riemer, begins with right now.
Washington was a no-show in the Verizon Center last night, as the New York Rangers broke open a 1-0 game with two goals in the second period and two more in the third. Braden Holtby, so often praised in TheSportsNotebook’s NHL analysis, fell apart. And no one pulled a bigger disappearing act than Alex Ovechkin, who took only one shot with his team’s season on the line.
New York and Boston will now meet up, and with that we’ll segueway into previews of the conference semis.
Chicago-Detroit: Based on how each team played throughout the regular season and how they looked in the first round, there is no reason on earth to think the Red Wings could even win a game, much less beat the Blackhawks four times in seven tries. Chicago excels both offensively and defensively and Corey Crawford has been masterful in goal, stopping 95% of the shots that Minnesota fired at him. Detroit has no edge anywhere that can be exploited.
This assumes, however, that the statistical data of the 48-game regular season and the first round of the playoffs is the end of the story. Detroit is capable of getting more from their offense, and we got at least a glimpse of that when they hit Anaheim with three goals in the first two periods of Game 7. Henrik Zetterberg’s play has been as good as anyone in the postseason and fellow center Pavel Datsyuk is doing his usual yeoman’s work moving the puck. Now it’s up to someone like a Daniel Cleary to take the puck and light the lamp. Cleary scored twice in the Anaheim series, but he’s got to be more engaged in the action. Nine shots in seven games for someone who needs to score is not acceptable. Zetterberg put everything on his shoulders and willed his team past Anaheim, but that won’t be nearly enough in this round.
Chicago, meanwhile, not only has a deep offensive team, but everyone got rolling in the playoffs. Whether it was Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa scoring, or Patrick Kane and skilled defenseman Duncan Keith passing, the Blackhawks were in championship form. Detroit’s team defense will be much better than Minnesota’s, but Red Wing goalie Jimmy Howard has got to step it up. I know I’ve been a broken record on this topic, but Howard’s 91.1% save rate in the first round was the worst of any advancing goalie. I gave him the benefit of the doubt when I picked Detroit to advance, but I’m not doing it here. I’ll call for a Blackhawks sweep, and certainly no more than five games.
Los Angeles-San Jose: How will this series be officiated and can San Jose finish? The Sharks would like to see a tightly called series. The Kings were much better in normal 5-on-5 play, while the teams were more comparable in their ability on the power play/penalty kill. On the offensive end, San Jose does an outstanding job and getting shots, but in spite of having some good offensive talent, they weren’t nearly as effective at finishing. The team was 4th in the NHL in shots generated, but only 24th in the bottom line of scoring goals.
San Jose did not have the problem in their first-round sweep of Vancouver, the only series to end in four games. Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton—the who’s who of the Shark attack—were all involved, be it scoring or passing. The question would be how much weight do you want to assign dominance of a Vancouver team that was also imploding by its own hand and has me kicking myself from here to next week for picking them to reach the Finals. My inclination is to give the Sharks credit for seeing a weakened team and like…well, like sharks, circling and going for the kill. But to also be realistic and know that opportunity will not be there against Los Angeles.
Los Angeles does have its own set of challenges. They have a lot of reasons to feel good. The Kings are hot, having won four straight after losing a pair to St. Louis to open the playoffs and Jonathan Quick was dominant in all six games. However, the Kings, after a pretty good year offensively, had trouble getting anything going against St. Louis. Jeff Carter scored three goals, but in this series Los Angeles needs more on the scoring end from Dustin Penner and more on the passing end from Anze Kopitar. They’ll get their chances—while San Jose’s defensive bottom line is good because of goalie Antti Niemi, the Sharks are mediocre when it comes to preventing shots.
This is a great matchup and I’m looking for it to go the distance. Niemi is an underrated goalie, and I think he can match Quick in a defensive war, providing San Jose’s superior offensive personnel just enough room to win a seven-game dogfight.
Pittsburgh-Ottawa: This was the matchup I expected, and when the postseason began I picked Ottawa to deliver a second consecutive upset. But the emergence of Pittsburgh’s Tomas Vokoun in goal has become the big X-factor of the entire playoffs. The question now is whether he’ll continue to get the nod and just how much we can expect.
Believe it nor, some in the Pittsburgh media are actually clamoring for Marc-Andre Fleury to get more playing time in this series. If it were up to me, I’d keep Fleury in a suit and tie just to avoid temptation. We know Pittsburgh has exceptional offensive talent—Sidney Crosby, Pascal Dupuis, Jarome Ignlia, Chris Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin—the list goes on and they all produced in the first round. But the first question in the NHL playoffs is always about who’s in net and Ottawa’s Craig Anderson has been the league’s best in 2013. Pittsburgh’s goalie doesn’t have to match Anderson, because the Senators offense won’t generate the same kind of pressure, but the Pens can’t have a liability in goal.
So what to make of Vokoun? He had a 95.7% save rate in the two games he played, and if he even keeps it at 93-94, the Pens might not lose another game, much less another series. But he also spent a year as the backup to a subpar goalie. He was also the netminder on some recent Washington Capitals’ teams that became infamous for early postseason exits as heavy favorites. Does all that go out the window over two hot games against the #8 seed?
It doesn’t go out the window, but we should be cognizant that playing goalie in the NHL is a funny business and hot streaks can come and go. We know Vokoun is fresh and we know he’s hot. I’m going to stay with my upset pick, because I’m not really sure what to make of this—or if, at the first sign of trouble, he’ll be yanked—but if you’re an Ottawa fan you have to be worried that this Vokoun hot streak could easily last a few more games, enough to create a series sweep.
Boston-NY Rangers: Both Rask and New York’s Henrik Lundqvist are top goalies, but it was the Ranger netminder who looked in Cup form during the first round. Rask’s 92.3% save rate against Toronto was below his season average, while Lundqvist posted a 94.7% number. If we want to take the flip side of that, we can argue that the Rangers’ defense had a straightforward task in Round One—keep Alex Ovechkin off the puck—and they performed it. The Boston offense doesn’t have a great scorer, but it has several pretty good ones, and all of them made their mark at some point against Toronto.
Where I think this series will be ultimately won or lost is in both the volume and quality of shots that the Rangers can get. Rick Nash was absent in the Washington series, as was Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan. If they settle for 25-30 shots a game and aren’t aggressive on the rebounds, Rask can turn them away. If they keep on the move and create the same kind of looks Toronto was able to get for its key players, then it’s going to put inordinate pressure on Rask—pressure he did not handle at key moments of the first round.
Boston’s my team and I’m staying with them, but they have to do a much better job on the rebounds—preventing them if you’re Rask, clearing them if you’re a defender and getting them on offense. There were too many instances in the first round of a Bruin shooter getting a look and creating a rebound that would sit tantalizing in front of the next for a good second or so, but the rebounders were beaten to it. You are not going to beat Lundqvist on one-and-outs.
NBC Sports Network is taking over the weeknight coverage, and the four Game 1s will take place over the next three nights and San Jose-Los Angeles playing twice in that timeframe…
Ottawa-Pittsburgh (7:30 PM ET)
San Jose-Los Angeles (10 PM ET)
Detroit-Chicago (8 PM ET)
NY Rangers-Boston (7:30 PM ET)
San Jose-Los Angeles (10 PM ET)
TheSportsNotebook’s NHL analysis will return on Friday morning to overview where all four series are at. Please also check out NBA commentary, with a fresh installment coming tomorrow, and MLB coverage as the week rolls on.