All four playoff teams from the NHL’s Northeast Division are playing each other in the first round of the playoffs and both series are now on the brink of ending. The Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators each got Game 4 wins that gave them 3-1 series leads. Several outstanding performances marked their victories over the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens respectively, but none more so than the hat trick by Boston’s David Kreijci. TheSportsNotebook’s review of each NHL playoff series will begin with these two matchups.
BOSTON-TORONTO: Krejci scored his team’s final three goals, including the game-winner in overtime as the Bruins won 4-3. His wasn’t the only great performance though. Defenseman Zdeno Chara, whose passing production was down during the regular season, came up big and assisted on all four goals. And Tuuka Raask in goal came up with his second clutch road showing, stopping 45 of 48 shots.
Toronto’s ability to pound Rask with shots the last three games has to concern Boston, even as they stand on the brink of clinching. The Bruin defense, while still one of the better ones in the NHL, was not an elite unit when it came to shot prevention. The fact that Toronto, a team not known for offensive assaults, is getting this many cracks at the net, is something the Bruins need to focus on. If they don’t win the shots battle, this series is far from over and at the very least, it reduces Boston’s chance of advancing. But for now, the big nights from Krejci, Chara and Rask have set up the possibility of a Garden Party in Game 5 on Friday night.
MONTREAL-OTTAWA: Once again, Montreal’s goaltending problems do them in. The Canadiens grabbed a 2-0 lead. Both goals came in the second period, the one period where Montreal really got active offensively and got 14 shots on Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson. But Anderson and the defense at large clamped down, and in the final ten minutes of the game, the Senators nailed their rivals for two goals, then got another in overtime.
Montreal goalie Carey Price was injured at the very end of regulation and is now lost for the rest of the series. Backup Peter Budaj gave up the game-winner, but if I’m Ottawa I don’t like this development. The Senators now know they can beat Price and have control of the series. All it takes is for Budaj to catch lightning in a bottle for three days, and if the goaltending gap between these teams is even narrowed to a manageable level. Montreal is a much more talented hockey team.
I picked Boston and Ottawa to advance when these playoffs began and obviously feel good about the situation after four games. But don’t pop the champagne too quickly, as the pressure will shift if either trailing team wins Game 5.
THREE TEAMS IN THE WEST NEED ONE WIN
The Chicago Blackhawks also have a 3-1 series lead. Anaheim-Detroit and Los Angeles-St. Louis are each five games deep, and it’s the SoCal teams, the Ducks and Kings, who have 3-2 series edges. Here’s the rundown on their most recent games and the overall outlook…
CHICAGO-MINNESOTA: It was a workmanlike 3-zip win for the Blackhawks, with Patrick Sharp scoring twice and overall team defense being sound. Minnesota lost backup goalie Josh Harding to an injury, and will either have to return to wounded starter Nicklas Backstrom or go third-string when the series comes back to Chicago for Game 5.
Analogies between hockey and basketball are risky, but I see a little of the Miami Heat in Chicago right now. In each case, you have a heavy favorite primed for a championship run against a badly mismatched opponent in the first round. The opponent plays them just tough enough to make them sweat out some individual games, but not so much that you ever question who’s going to win the series. With the Heat, it left them unprepared to open the second round and they lost Game 1 to the Bulls. Since Chicago is obviously familiar with this story, I wonder if the Blackhawks will be mentally sharp to open the second round.
ANAHEIM-DETROIT: A 3-2 overtime win for the Ducks continues a hotly contested series where I remain convinced the biggest storyline is the failure of Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard. Once again, he wasn’t faced with an unreasonable offensive assault, but Howard couldn’t deliver a shutdown performance. I’m not saying Howard is getting schooled like Montreal’s Price, but the Red Wing netminder is capable of playing like Rask, Anderson and LA’s Jonathan Quick, who have each met the moment in the postseason. Howard only has one more chance.
Also give the Anaheim defense credit. Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg, after getting eight shots in Game 4, had only two in Game 5. We can also give Zetterberg credit as well—he responded by reverting to his exceptional passing skill and getting both of his team’s assists. But it underscores the problem Detroit had all year—they just don’t have anyone who can light the lamp and Zetterberg might need to do it all in Game 6.
ST. LOUIS-LOS ANGELES: After two games, I wrote how the champs were in trouble. And they were, when St. Louis grabbed the first two at home. But the positive development of Jonathan Quick moving beyond his mediocre regular season and back into his 2012 Conn Smythe Award-winning form has proved to be more important. Quick stayed in lockdown mode in Game 5’s 3-2 overtime win. He survived an early blitz from the Blues, who got 12 shots in the first period and saved 34/36 on the night, with the one downer being the game-tying goal with 45 seconds in regulation.
St. Louis’ Brian Elliot has been their version of Howard. The Blues’ defense, a well-coached, disciplined unit, only allowed 25 shots. Elliot has the talent to make two goals stand up and turn it into a win. Instead, his team has to return to Hollywood for Game 6 in a must-win spot.
SAN JOSE CLOSES IT OUT
In the last edition of TheSportsNotebook’s NHL analysis, we noted how San Jose was rolling through Vancouver, and in Game 4, the Sharks became the first team to advance to the second round. I’ve ripped the Canucks for not playing Cory Schneider in goal, but when given the chance, Schneider didn’t make me look prophetic. Once again, Vancouver had a lead, 3-2 in the third period, but San Jose scored with less than five minutes to play to tie, and then won in overtime.
The Sharks attacked offensively, playing with an urgency that speaks well to the mental toughness of a team with a three-game cushion. San Jose hit Schneider with 47 shots, and old pro Joe Thornton delivered three assists. Joe Pavelski also scored twice and Patrick Marleau got the game-winner, as all of San Jose’s key offensive pieces made contributions.
I’ll make one more basketball analogy here and say that Vancouver was the Los Angeles Lakers. Their last chance at redemption goes out the window in a four-game sweep and the Canucks showed an appalling lack of discipline. They gave up three power-play goals, including both the one to tie the game and the one in overtime. You can’t be picking up penalties in tight situations like this, so while Schneider didn’t vindicate my belief in him, the larger blame falls on the players on the ice on front of him.
San Jose is the #6 seed and the NHL re-seeds in the playoffs. As things stand right now, unless #7 Detroit rallies to advance, the Sharks will likely get the chance to face Chicago next.
PIVOTAL GAME 5s IN THE EAST
The Pittsburgh-NY Islanders & Washington-NY Rangers series are the most exciting right now, each tied at two games apiece. I saved them for last simply because they’re the only two we know for sure it will be fun to talk about again on Saturday when our NHL analysis resumes. It was the two New York teams who got the needed wins in Game 4.
PITTSBURGH-NY ISLANDERS: Will people now listen to me when I say that the Penguins’ goaltending problems make them a very vulnerable favorite and that whatever Marc-Andre Fleury did in 2009 when his team won the Cup, he’s no longer a championship goalie? The Islanders only got 25 shots on net, but still won a shootout game 6-4, scoring the final three goals in the third period.
New York is showing a previously unseen offensive balance. John Tavares, their best player, got one goal. But now players like Casey Cizkask (1 goal, 2 assists) and Mark Streit (2 goals, 1 assist) are looking like worthy competitors for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. I think that has more to do with Pittsburgh’s problems in goal and the rumors are heavy that Tomas Vokoun will get a start for the Pens in Game 5. I’m not sure if it’ll help, but Pittsburgh is right to try it.
WASHINGTON-NY RANGERS: The Rangers defense unlocked some kind of key to keeping Alex Ovechkin off the puck. After his presence was a big factor in Washington’s taking the first two games at home, Ovechkin got only one shot in Game 4, his second straight non-performance at MSG. The Rangers won 4-3, thanks to a pair of goals early in the third period that broke a 2-2 tie. But the bigger story is that Washington is not going to win games when Joel Ward and Mike Green are taking four times as many shots as Ovechkin.
The Caps still got a good showing from Mathieu Perrault, who first scored to pull Washington to within 2-1 and then again to cut the lead to 4-3 with 12 ½ minutes to play, but the Capitals need him, and others, to be in subordinate roles to the star, not primary.
We could see five more teams join San Jose in the second round over the next two nights. Here’s the schedule for Thursday and Friday…
Ottawa-Montreal (7 PM ET, CNBC)
NY Islanders-Pittsburgh (7 PM ET, NBCSN)
Minnesota-Chicago (9:30 PM ET, NBCSN)
Toronto-Boston (7 PM ET, NHL)
NY Rangers-Washington (7:30 PM ET, NBCSN)
Anaheim-Detroit (8 PM ET, CNBC)
St. Louis-Los Angeles (10 PM ET, NBCSN)
We’ll see you back here Saturday morning to again update how each series looks.