Every first-round series in the NHL playoffs has completed three games and two of them are four deep, but only might end in elimination over the course of the next two nights. That’s San Jose-Vancouver, where the Canucks stand on the verge of yet another playoff flameout. The self-induced failure of Vancouver will lead our overview of all eight first-round matchups and an assessment of where they stand.
Vancouver waited until midway through Game 3 to finally lift Roberto Luongo from goal and put in Cory Schneider, who played better than Luongo in each of the last two playoff series the Canucks have lost over a two-year period (The Cup Finals to Boston in ’11 and the first round to Los Angeles in ’12), and, again, in more extended playing time throughout this season. Yet, Schneider remained on the bench until into Game 3 this time around.
The story was an injury, though Vancouver’s unwillingness to tell anyone what it was made Bill Belichick’s press office look like a model of open communication by comparison. My podcasting colleague Greg DePalma—a Canucks fan who shares my view of the goalie situation—believes the coaching staff wants any excuse to get Luongo in the lineup and they probably overplayed a minor injury into something serious. As a result, their 5-2 loss in Game 3 likely played them out of the postseason.
In fairness, Schneider did not distinguish himself. He was the man in net during the game’s fateful third period, when San Jose broke open a 2-1 game with two goals in the first two minutes. But do you think rust might have been involved? I think we’ll see a different Schneider for Game 4, but the way back is just too steep.
I picked Vancouver to reach the Finals when the playoffs began, but I’m going to pull a Skip Bayless here and say that I can’t help it if the coaching staff is going to refuse to play to their best player at the most important position. I’m gladly distancing myself from this pick, because it simply would not have happened if I’d have thought Luongo was going anywhere near the ice in a key situation.
But while I trash the Canucks, let’s not forget to praise the team that’s taking it to them. Joe Pavelski scored twice for the Sharks early in the game and Logan Couture scored a pair of power play goals in the crucial third period. They might be benefitting from Vancouver’s dysfunction, but San Jose is also showing they’re good enough to take advantage and put games away. They’re a legitimate threat to join other recent San Francisco sports successes—the Giants and 49ers—as a team who can reach the championship round and win it. At the very least, the Sharks and the Golden State Warriors in the NBA, are keeping the sports high going in NoCal. San Jose will look to put Vancouver out of their misery tonight (10 PM ET, CNBC).
THE REST OF THE WEST
CHICAGO-MINNESOTA: Beware the backup unknown goalie. That’s the lesson Boston fans learned last year when Washington’s Braden Holtby came off the bench after an injury and went into an otherworldly zone. Is Minnesota’s Josh Harding going to do the same to the top-seed Blackhawks? The backup came up with his second great game of the series and this time his team delivered with a 3-2 overtime win. Most striking was that the Wild outshot the Blackhawks 37-27, with Jonathan Toews only getting four cracks at the net. You wonder if Chicago brought the necessary urgency to Game 3, as they still hold a 2-1 series lead.
ANAHEIM-DETROIT: This has been a quietly great series. It doesn’ t have a media favorite, and the games aren’t rich in storylines to write about. It’s just a lot of evenly contested hockey and when Detroit got an overtime to goal to win 3-2, the series was evened at two games apiece. Detroit played a like a team on the edge, assaulting Anaheim’s Jonas Hiller with 49 shots on goal. The Duck defense has to tighten up.
ST. LOUIS-LOS ANGELES: The Kings answered the bell with two consecutive wins on their home ice to even this series up. A couple of defensive-minded teams played a fairly open Game 4. St. Louis led 2-0 early and 3-2 in the third period, thanks to a pair of goals by T.J. Oshie, but Los Angeles scored twice early in the final period to get the margin of victory. The Kings’ offense was balanced and defensively they limited the Blues to 22 shots. Both goalies, Brian Elliot and Jonathan Quick, were mediocre at best.
IN THE EAST
PITTSBURGH-NY ISLANDERS: The Penguins aren’t going to shake the pesky Islanders easily. The favorites’ 5-4 overtime win in Game 3 came even harder than the word “overtime” makes it appear. New York, playing at home, scored twice early and put immediate pressure on Pittsburgh.
The Pens showed both what’s good and what’s bad about them in this game. The good is that they can score a lot, and they’ve got a lot of resilience, responding with three goals of their own before the first period was out. The bad is that the defense and goaltending is substandard. They couldn’t kill two penalties in the third period and a pair of Islander goals tied the game 4-4, including one by John Tavares, who’s been AWOL in this series. The ability to keep him off the puck—he only had three shots—continues to be a recurring theme and the one thing the Pittsburgh defense is doing well. But they’re up two games to one.
MONTREAL-OTTAWA: Oh, is the bad blood running rampant. Record-setting penalties, full-scale brawls and coaches taunting each other, show how testy Montreal is getting. I put the burden here not to assign blame, but because the Canadiens are the 2-seed and the favorite, and are better suited to 5-on-5 hockey. Ottawa kills penalties better, thanks to its huge edge in the goaltending department. It showed in Game 3, as the Senators scored three times with the man advantage, while killing six of seven Montreal chances. The Canadiens need to generate a huge shot advantage if they’re going to win games. The 34-30 margin they had in Game 3 won’t cut it and translated to a 6-1 loss. Ottawa now leads the series 2-1.
WASHINGTON-NY RANGERS: A great back-and-forth Game 3 ended with the Rangers getting a tip-in goal from Derek Stepan in overtime. I picked New York in this series, am rooting for Washington and was ultimately just glad to see the Rangers close the series gap to 2-1, so we can get more of these hotly contested games. New York turned around their fortunes by limiting Alex Ovechkin to three shots on goal.
BOSTON-TORONTO: The Bruins pretty much controlled the game throughout, taking an early 2-0 lead. Even when the Leafs scored their first goal, Boston’s Nathan Horton immediately responded with a goal of his own to extend the margin and the Bruins won 5-2. Toronto enjoyed a rare shot advantage, 47-38. This was done mostly in the third period when they trailed 4-1 coming in and launched an array of shots at Tuuka Rask, but the Boston goalie made up for a subpar showing in Game 2. The B’s now lead the series two games to one.
Six Game 4s and a pair of Game 5s dot the schedule for Tuesday and Wednesday…
Montreal-Ottawa (7 PM ET, CNBC)
Pittsburgh-NY Islanders (7 PM ET, NBCSN)
Chicago-Minnesota (9:30 PM ET, NBCSN)
Vancouver-San Jose (10 PM ET, CNBC)
Boston-Toronto (7 PM ET, NHL)
Washington-NY Rangers (7:30 PM ET, NBCSN)
Los Angeles-St. Louis (9 PM ET, CNBC)
Detroit-Anaheim (10 PM ET, NBCSN)
TheSportsNotebook’s NHL analysis will return Thursday morning to assess each series anew.