Four teams are on the brink of moving into the conference finals of the NHL playoffs and to the surprise of everyone, one of them is not the Chicago Blackhawks. The Western Conference’s top seed, and co-favorite with Pittsburgh for the Stanley Cup, has been pushed to the brink of elimination by the Detroit Red Wings. It’s there that we’ll begin our review of all four second-round matchups.
Detroit did everything well defensively, as they took Game 3 by a 3-1 count and Game 4 on a 2-0 shutout, to move out to a three games to one series lead. In Game 3 it was about the goaltending. Jimmy Howard played a superb game, as the talented Blackhawks offense got 40 shots, but only lit the lamp once.
Then in Game 4 it was about the defense. Chicago got a pedestrian 28 shots, and just as importantly, they got half of those in the first period. In both games, Detroit broke scoreless ties in the second period and then locked down defensively the rest of the way, whether it was Howard saving the day or the team defense just preventing Chicago from getting going.
Jonathan Toews is the only Blackhawk player who was even into the proceedings at Joe Louis Arena this week. Toews got seven shots in Game 3 and six more in Game 4. By contrast, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane were nowhere to be found. Every offensive team will have games where the opposing goalie just gets locked in and shuts them down, but that’s all the more reason you need your best players taking their cracks at the net. Chicago’s not getting that and because of it, they’re one game from elimination.
I will say this—after some shaky performances in Games 2 & 3, Chicago goalie Corey Crawford played well again in Game 4. If that’s a sign Crawford’s back on track, the fourth win will be a tough out for Detroit. If you’re a Chicago, just win on home ice in Game 5 and the pressure starts to subtly shift back the other way.
The other favorite fared a little better. In the last installment of our NHL analysis on Monday, we noted how the Penguins let Game 3 slip away and allowed Ottawa back into the series. It seemed to continue going the wrong direction for Pittsburgh in the first period of Game 4. Right on the heels of the Senators winning the third game because a shorthanded goal, they did the exact same thing to open Wednesday’s affair and took a 2-1 lead into the first intermission.
But then the sheer power of the Pittsburgh offense finally broke down Ottawa. The Pens scored twice in the second period, thanks to two assists from defenseman Kris Letang. In the third period, the dam broke and Pittsburgh scored four times. It was the usual suspects stepping up as the game turned into a 7-3 blowout—Sidney Crosby, James Neal, Pascal Dupuis, and Jarome Iginla all lit the lamp in the final period.
I picked Ottawa to win this series because of goalie Craig Anderson, but I’m having to admit that the Penguins seem to have broken the back of the man who was the league’s best goalie in the regular season and who carried his team past 2-seed Montreal in the first round. I’ll be surprised if Pittsburgh doesn’t close it out in Game 5 at home, and even more surprised if my upset pick actually comes through.
Boston took firm command of this series in Game 3 with a 2-1 win that gave them a three games to none series lead. That grip seemed to be ironclad last night when the Bruins led Game 4 2-0 and 3-2, before letting New York tie it both times and eventually win in overtime. Boston continues to get significantly more shots on the net than New York, and the Bruins’ Tyler Seguin is getting going offensively after being dormant for much of the playoffs. Seguin got a number of good shots in both games at Madison Square Garden, and scored what looked like it might be the game-winner last night with the game tied 2-2.
But New York has to be feeling good themselves. The Ranger power play had been so dormant that we should issue an apology to the word “dormant” for even using the two in the same sentence. But it was a power play goal that tied the game. Rick Nash and Ryan Callahan combined for nine shots—not a huge number, but enough to suggest that New York’s best offensive players are getting active.
These two cities have a certain history with series that go to 3-0—the 2004 American League Championship Series, and those echoes were awakened in the NBA playoffs when the Celtics threw a scare into the Knicks. I know the Bruins still have this series in hand on the surface, but those blown leads last night seem an awful lot like the Yankees losing Game 4 in ’04 after having the lead in the ninth inning with Mariano Rivera on the mound. How many New York fans that night (or early morning as the case was) just said words to the effect of “Forget it, we’ve got three more chances.” Who knows, maybe Game 4 in the Bruins-Rangers battle was Boston’s best chance to clinch and they blew it.
LOS ANGELES-SAN JOSE
The one series that’s got five games under its belt sees the Kings with a 3-2 series lead. San Jose had grabbed Game 4 on home ice in a tough 2-1 battle. The Sharks led two-zip in the third period and then went into a defensive shell. They only took two shots in the third period, while the Kings assaulted Antti Niemi for 14 shots in the final period alone. Los Angeles scored once, but San Jose hung on.
But the Los Angeles defense, backed up by Jonathan Quick in the net, took over Game 5 back in SoCal. This has been a defense-oriented series and both teams are usually coming in under 30 shots for the game. It was the same in Game 5, and Quick turned them all back. The Kings got a goal from Anze Kopitar in the first, moved ahead 2-0 early in the third and then added an empty net goal to clinch.
San Jose is doing a very good job in this series of making sure its best players are the ones taking the shots. Logan Couture took five cracks at the net in Game 4 and scored a goal, and even in the Game 5 whitewashing, the quartet of Couture, Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau took close to half the team’s shots. It’s why I’ll give the Sharks the benefit of the doubt and stick with my original pick of them to win this series in seven games. But Quick is enough to scare the hell out of anyone, when he only needs one unbeatable game to lock up a series.
Pittsburgh goes for the clinch tonight against Ottawa at 7:30 PM ET on NBC Sports Network. Then the same network has a Saturday doubleheader starting in the late afternoon. The Rangers try and keep alive at Boston Garden starting at 5:30 PM ET, and that’s followed by Detroit-Chicago at 8 PM ET.
TheSportsNotebook’s NHL analysis will come back on Sunday morning. By that point all the series will be on equal footing, through five games. We’ll either look ahead to the coming Game 6s, or do a conference finals preview, pending the outcomes the next couple days.