The NHL playoffs hit a fever pitch over the next two nights, as both Western Conference semi-finals reach Game 7. It’s San Jose-Los Angeles from tonight, and Chicago was able to force a decisive game with their win last in Detroit. You have the defending champion on the ropes in one series and one of this season’s co-favorites on the ropes in another. Both will have the home crowd behind them in Game 7. Here’s a look ahead to the next two nights…
The Blackhawks are the top-heavy favorite to win the West and a co-favorite with Pittsburgh for the Cup, and they got their second straight must-win game yesterday in Detroit. There were more than a few nervous moments—when a fluttering puck found its way past Chicago goalie Corey Crawford and gave Detroit a 2-1 lead after two periods, it looked like it might not be Chicago’s year. But the Blackhawks pounded in three goals in the first ten minutes of the third period and won the game 4-3.
What Chicago has to be most encouraged by is the involvement of Marian Hossa in the offense. He’s been quiet this series, not just in terms of the bottom line, but even taking his shots on the net. Hossa scored Game 6’s first goal on the power play and had an assist in the third period barrage. Jonathan Toews continued his active involvement in the offense with two assists of his own. If Hossa is back on track along with Toews, it allows Chicago to reassert their dominance in the 5-on-5 game.
The other thing Chicago can be encouraged by is the play of Crawford. Statistically, Game 6 was fine—a 92% save rate—but not overwhelming. What I like is the fact he came back after the fluttering goal and did a great job with the season on the line. I also like the fact that he stood in against a heavy attack from Detroit—they hit him with 18 shots in the second period alone, and when you allow that it’s inevitable one is going to slip through.
What I like on Detroit’s side is precisely the fact that they got those 18 shots in a single period, they took 38 on the game and they contained Chicago to 28 attempts on the net. Jimmy Howard reverted to his inconsistent ways and had a rough night, but if the Red Wings can hold the Blackhawks under thirty shots tomorrow night, they’ve given their goalie every chance to win. Detroit is simply not as talented as Chicago between the nets—not even close, really—the best the Wings can hope for is to again create the kind of shot disparity they did in Game 6 and hope the end result works out better.
We should also note that Detroit is a veteran team that’s already won a road Game 7 in these playoffs, at Anaheim. Make no mistake—I think Chicago’s going to win, because if Crawford has the mental toughness that he showed on the road, the Blackhawks just have too many weapons—but Detroit won’t give it way. Chicago will have to take it.
LOS ANGELES-SAN JOSE
This series has been the grinding, defensive battle that’s the nightmare of the NBC network coalition televising this postseason, but it speaks well to the discipline of both these hockey teams. Once again, Game 6 saw both teams held under thirty shots, but San Jose was able to build a 2-0 lead early in the second period and then hold on for a 2-1 win.
I do a little moonlighting on the hockey website Puck Doctors, and over there I wrote that Los Angeles can feel pretty good about their defensive effort in Game 6. It’s not just that they held San Jose to minimal shots and two goals, but they kept the Sharks four best players from even taking a significant number of shots. It’s hard enough to beat Jonathan Quick with your best players, much less doing so without them. On that basis, Los Angeles can feel good about their chances in front of the home fans tonight.
But the Sharks are devouring LA’s best players as well. Jeff Carter only took two shots, and San Jose goalie Antti Niemi has the feel of one who’s getting locked in. Niemi is not as good as Quick, but the Shark netminder is still pretty good, and if he combines that with being hot, the game can then swing in the 5-on-5 game, and San Jose has more weapons.
What elevated Los Angeles in last year’s Stanley Cup run was not Quick—he was great all year, but they still ended up as the 8-seed in the West. What put them over the top was that players like Dustin Brown, Carter, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Penner, suddenly turned into an offensive juggernaut. Defenseman Drew Doughty suddenly turned into an offensive threat. I’m not saying Los Angeles has to recapture all of that magic—but they’ve got to at least recapture a little of it.
I picked San Jose in seven games when this series began, and I can’t fathom why I’d change my mind now.
Both Game 7s are going to be carried by the NBC Sports Network. The San Jose-Los Angeles game on Tuesday is a 9 PM ET start, with Detroit-Chicago having the puck drop at 8 PM ET tomorrow. TheSportsNotebook’s NHL analysis comes back Thursday morning. We’ll rehash these games and look ahead to the conference finals on both sides of the bracket.
The Los Angeles Kings might have taken a couple games to get started in these playoffs, but last year’s Stanley Cup champs have the look of a freight train right now. After winning four straight against St. Louis to close the first round, the Kings immediately opened the second with two more wins against a good San Jose Sharks team.
Los Angeles took the opener on Tuesday, 2-0. Jonathan Quick was dominant in goal, and even though the Kings were outshot 35-20, the bulk of that margin was built up in the third period when Los Angeles already had a two-goal lead and San Jose had to fire away with desperation.
Last night, the Sharks were able to break through against a quick. Even though a pair of early Los Angeles goals gave them a 2-0 lead, San Jose came all the way back and took a 3-2 lead with twelve minutes left. The lead held until the final two minutes when Los Angeles struck twice on the power play and snuck out of town with a 4-3 victory.
San Jose just isn’t getting its best players active in the offense. Give defenseman Brad Stuart credit for his goal and assist in Game 2. But shots taken by Stuart means they aren’t being taken by Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton or Logan Couture—a talented quartet that combined for only eight cracks on the net.
I leaned the Sharks to win this series in seven games and things can change fast in hockey, especially with the series going back to NoCal on Saturday night. But between the way Quick is playing and the way his team is finding ways to win, NBC might get a big-market dream in the Western Conference Finals with Los Angeles-Chicago.
SPEAKING OF CHICAGO
The Blackhawks broke a 1-1 tie with Detroit and scored three times in the third period to take Game 1 by a 4-1 count. In reality, Chicago took the game over in a scoreless second period. They enjoyed a huge 42-21 edge in shots for the game and it began in the second period, with a 17-5 margin. I’ve knocked Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard in previous installments of our NHL analysis, but you can’t expose any goalie to the firepower Chicago has and expect them to stand up. Chicago continued with 19 shots in the third period and eventually they found the back of the net.
Furthermore, Chicago’s shots are being taken by their big guns. Patrick Sharp took seven shots and turned it into two assists, plus an empty-net goal that sealed the deal. Marian Hossa shot five times and scored the game’s first goal. Detroit’s got a big hill to climb in this series and they did nothing to suggest an upset could be in the works.
THE EASTERN CONFERENCE
Pittsburgh did as Chicago did, and that’s validate their #1 seed with a 4-1 win over the 7-seed. The Tomas Vokoun story as the one-time backup goalie and Washington castoff saved 35 of 36 shots. Pittsburgh’s offensive prowess beat the game’s best goalie, Ottawa’s Craig Anderson, going 2 of 4 on the power play and also scoring one shorthanded.
If Boston’s last-minute heroics against Toronto in Game 7 of the first round weren’t enough, the Bruins gave the local fans more overtime heart failure. In a back-and-forth game, the Bruins finally finished the New York Rangers in OT with a 3-2 win. The shot margin of 48-35 in Boston’s favor was eye-catching, and almost all of that edge came in overtime, where Boston shot 16 times to New York’s five.
If you dig underneath though, there were good signs for the Rangers. I harped on Rick Nash’s failure to get involved offensively in the Washington series and he took six shots in Game 1 here. There were no goals, but he did have an assist, and it’s safe to say offensive productivity will follow if Nash keeps active. And on the flip side, Boston’s shots came heavily from the defenseman, Zdeno Chara and Johnny Boychuck. Chara is a good offensive player, but while Boychuck has a lot of good attributes, scoring is not one of them. I’m sure New York would take this general shot distribution spread over the series and count on things working out.
The next schedule installment stretches out over the weekend. Ottawa-Pittsburgh resumes Friday night (7:30 PM ET, NBC Sports Network) and then we get a doubleheader both Saturday & Sunday, with NBC getting involved…
Detroit-Chicago (1 PM ET, NBC)
Los Angeles-San Jose (9 PM ET, NBC Sports Network)
NY Rangers-Boston (3 PM ET, NBC)
Pittsburgh-Ottawa (7:30 PM ET, NBC Sports Network)
When these games conclude, the Pittsburgh-Ottawa/Los Angeles-San Jose series will be three games deep, with the other two having a pair under their belt. TheSportsNotebook’s NHL analysis returns on Monday morning. In the meantime, check out the NBA commentary andMLB coveragehere at TheSportsNotebook.
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.