What a difference a year makes. In last year’s NHL playoffs, the then-8th-seeded Los Angeles Kings got two road wins at Vancouver to open a run to the Stanley Cup. This year the Kings have lost consecutive 2-1 gutwrenchers in St. Louis and gotten themselves in early trouble as their first round series heads back to Hollywood this weekend.
The St. Louis-Los Angeles series, along with Anaheim-Detroit—the only other first-round pairing to have already played two games—will lead our discussion, and we’ll then sweep through the other six matchups.
ST. LOUIS-LOS ANGELES
The gaffe of Los Angeles goaltender Jonathan Quick led the highlights after Game 1 on Tuesday. In an overtime game, Quick brought the puck behind the net, tried to pass it out, had it deflected by Alexander Steen who quickly stuck it in the net. Steen’s play was as alert a move as anything we’ve seen in the postseason since Larry Bird picked off Isiah Thomas in the 1987 NBA Eastern Conference Finals.
Making matters worse for Quick is that this came after his team had tied the game 1-1 with just 32 seconds left in regulation, and that at the time of the gaffe they were on a four-minute power play. All the momentum was there for Los Angeles, and the goalie—who otherwise had a great night, stopping 40 of the first 41 shots fired at him prior to Steen’s game-winner—let it slip away. Quick won the Conn Smythe Trophy last year, awarded to the MVP of the entire postseason and he’s now the poster child for the “What A Difference A Year Makes.”
Game 2 saw more heartbreak for Quick and Los Angeles. They led 1-0 after two periods, but the Blues scored twice in the third period, the final one with 50 seconds left. After a subpar regular season, Quick is actually playing much better—63 saves on 67 shots is an extremely high level of play. But the mistakes have put his team in a big hole.
Anaheim is the quiet #2 seed, neither on a par with Chicago or Pittsburgh in terms of media hype, nor one whose history will get them the respect of their current opponent. TheSportsNotebook is one of the guilty parties, having picked the Red Wings to win this series. The Ducks took the opener 3-1, breaking open a tie game with a pair of third period goals. Detroit then came back with a 5-4 overtime triumph last night, first giving away a 4-1 lead in the final period, then scoring early in OT to get the win.
I should be pleased with Detroit, but I’m not. The series being tied 1-1 is fine, but a big reason I picked them to advance was that goalie Jimmy Howard had playing much better at the end of the regular season. He’s now melted down in two straight third periods. Call me crazy, but giving up five goals in a pair of third period efforts is probably a recipe for trouble.
Detroit had the necessary offensive outburst to win Game 2, getting a pair of power play goals from Johan Franzen and two assists from their fine center Pavel Datsyuk. But if it comes down to offensive talent, Anaheim’s Corey Perry is the one to bet on and while hasn’t put his imprint on this series yet, he’s staying active and getting shots on the offensive end. Howard needs to up his game significantly as this series heads back to a great hockey town in the Rustbelt and Joe Louis Arena.
THE REST OF THE WEST
Vancouver was supposed to finally be beyond the Roberto Luongo era, the goalie that ensured they would always be a great regular season team that flamed out in the playoffs. But a mysterious, still-undefined injury to Cory Schneider left Luongo in the net for Game 1’s home opener against San Jose. The result was predictable, as the Sharks scored twice in the third period to break a tie and win 3-1.
I picked the Canucks to reach the Finals, but if Schneider doesn’t play, you can throw that out the window and I’ll take San Jose to win this series. The Sharks got Patrick Marleau, their key goal-scorer, into the flow of play and he got five shots. Logan Couture scored the game-tying goal in the second period and added an assist in the third. Goalie Antti Niemi was locked in against Vancouver’s quality offensive talent.
Schneider is tentatively expected to play Game 2 tonight. If he doesn’t, book the 6th-seeded Sharks for a trip to the second round sometime in the near future. If Schneider does play, my Finals prediction is back on track.
Speaking of the Finals, Chicago’s got their eye on that spot and while one might get concerned about a 2-1 overtime win over a backup goalie in Minnesota, I think this was the kind of win the Blackhawks needed. We know Chicago can win a free-flowing offensive game with all that talent. What we don’t know is how well they’ll respond when playoff games get ugly and you have to grind one out. Corey Crawford got the job done in goal and the Blackhawks survived.
But what is it with Minnesota athletes and the playoffs right now. First it’s Christian Ponder getting hurt right before the Vikings played the Packers in the NFL playoffs, now Nicklas Backstrom goes down before the Blackhawks series. Say this for Ponder and Backstrom—they aren’t stupid when it comes to knowing situations to avoid.
IN THE EAST
Pittsburgh looked every bit the top-heavy favorite in dispatching the New York Islanders 5-0, and doing it quickly—two goals in the first, three more in the second and let everybody relax in the third. Pascal Dupuis, the best scorer, lit the lamp twice and Evgeni Malkin was skillfully moving the puck to the scorers. Even more impressive was the defense, which kept Islander star John Tavares off the puck entirely, and one of the NHL’s best scorers didn’t get a single shot on net.
The issue of shot disparity was identified as a key in the Boston-Toronto series. The Bruins get shots, the Leafs aren’t very good at getting them or preventing them. And form held in Game 1, as Boston outshot Toronto 40-20 en route to a 4-1 win. The Leafs got a goal in the first two minutes of the game on a power play. But Boston’s Nathan Horton—a scorer whose health and productivity is critical to a Stanley Cup drive for my boys—got a tip-in on the power play and Boston pulled away.
Is Braden Holtby became the latest example of a player who waits until the postseason to shine? He came out of nowhere as a 22-year-old rookie fill-in last season, then had a fairly average regular season this year. Then the playoff lights went on, the New York Rangers came to town and Holtby morphed into Ken Dryden, saving 35 shots on 36 chances. New York got the puck to their best scorers—Rick Nash got eight shots on goal, a figure exceeded by no other offensive player. But Washington scored three times in the second period and Holtby made it stand up, en route to a 3-1 win.
We may as well call the Montreal-Ottawa series, the Montreal-Anderson series. Because Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson is all his team has against Montreal’s array of offensive weaponry. And Anderson is all Ottawa needs. The Canadiens assaulted him with 50 shots, the goalie turned away 48 and Montreal’s own problematic goaltending proved to be their undoing. With only 31 shots, a few power play opportunities, the Senators scored three times in the third period to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 win. My money remains on Anderson to carry his team to a big postseason run.
Friday & Saturday will see the six remaining Game 2s played, along with Los Angeles-St. Louis and Anaheim-Detroit picking up with Game 3 late Saturday night. The schedule is below and TheSportsNotebook’s NHL analysis will resume Sunday morning.
Ottawa-Montreal (7 PM ET)
NY Islanders-Pittsburgh (7 PM ET, NBC Sports Network)
Minnesota-Chicago (9:30 PM ET, NBC Sports Network)
San Jose-Vancouver (10 PM ET)
NY Rangers-Washington (12:30 PM ET, NBC)
Toronto-Boston (7 PM ET)
Anaheim-Detroit (7:30 PM ET, NBC Sports Network)
St. Louis-Los Angeles (10 PM ET, NBC Sports Network)