At least one series in the first round of the NHL playoffs is going to go the distance. Anaheim and Detroit are poised for a Game 7 battle on Sunday night, and three more series are getting set for a Game 6. The SportsNotebook will overview the first-round matchups in the following sequence…
*Anaheim-Detroit, in anticipation for Game 7
*The three Eastern Conference series that have reached Game 6
*A look at how Chicago, Los Angeles and Ottawa joined San Jose in advancing to the second round.
It was a wild third period at Joe Louis Arena last night, with the Red Wings fighting for survival. The game was tied 1-1 after two periods, when Detroit opened up and scored twice to take command. But the Wings’ defense, and struggling goalie Jimmy Howard, couldn’t close. The Ducks scored twice in the final five minutes and forced overtime before Henrik Zetterberg put in the game-winner barely a minute into overtime for a 4-3 win that pushed this series this distance.
In Thursday’s NHL analysis, I opined that Zetterberg might have to take the offense onto his shoulders. Detroit is best served when the center is focused on his exceptional passing skills, but with the team struggling for offense—not just in the playoffs, but all year—Zetterberg might have to just invite the team onto his shoulders. I have to say I was not expecting him to do just that. He fed Pavel Datsyuk for a first period goal, scored one of the team’s third period goals and finally lit the lamp to end it. It might not have been Mark Messier in the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals, but it was pretty impressive.
I picked Detroit to win this series, so I’ll stick to my guns. One thing I haven’t touched on nearly enough in talking about his matchup as it unfolds is that Anaheim’s Corey Perry has been fairly quiet. He tried to get into the flow last night, taking five shots and ending up with one assist, but the Detroit defense has done a good job at keeping the Ducks’ best offensive player from having a significant impact.
HEADING FOR GAME 6
Pittsburgh-NY Islanders: Tomas Vokoun might have changed the complexion of the entire postseason. The Penguins inserted the backup goalie—who’s a veteran with a lot of time under his belt in a previous stint at Washington, and Vokoun spun a 4-0 shutout against a good offensive team in the Isles. He did it even though John Tavares, New York’s finalist for the Hart Trophy, took six shots on net, his highest total of the series.
I’ve been dumping on Pittsburgh as an overrated favorite because of its goaltending problems. If Vokoun proves a long-term answer—and he doesn’t have to turn into Jonathan Quick, he just needs to be a solid NHL goalie—then the Pens will fulfill the hype they’ve gotten. They now lead this series three games to two.
Washington-NY Rangers: Another New York team fell and had problems scoring, as the Capitals won Game 5 in overtime 2-1 and moved to within one game of the second round. New York came out aggressive and took ten shots in the first period, but the Washington defense clamped down and goalie Braden Holtby had a pretty easy night. Not only did the Rangers not get a lot of shots, but the man who took the most—Carl Hagelin—is not exactly a feared offensive threat. It’s a problem for New York when Hagelin takes as many shots as Derek Stepan and Rick Nash combined.
Boston-Toronto: The Leafs had their back to the wall and played like it, peppering Boston with 19 shots in the first period. No one scored, but Toronto rolled the momentum over into the second period where they got on the board, took a 2-0 lead and then held off a furious Boston rally. The Bruins took 36 shots over the final two periods, but goalie James Riemer turned in a heroic display to hold on to the 2-1 win. Toronto may have ended up with fewer shots, but they had high value—they came early and established momentum, and 10 were taken by James Van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel, the team’s two best offensive players.
We discussed San Jose’s clinching win over Vancouver in the last installment of TheSportsNotebook’s NHL analysis. Chicago and Los Angeles have joined them in the West, with upstart Ottawa moving on in the East.
Ottawa-Montreal: The 7th-seeded Senators are the lowest seed thus far to advance (Detroit is also a #7 and the #8 NY Islanders still have a shot), but I felt from the outset that this was tailor-made for an upset. Ottawa’s goaltending was too good, and it was again on Thursday night in the 6-1 victory that wrapped this up in five games. And Montreal’s was too bad.
To illustrate how bad this Canadiens defense was, they were utterly unable to kill penalties with the season on the line. Ottawa scored three power play goals in the fourth period to blow the game open. You can say Montreal was playing with backup goalie Peter Budaj, and you’d be right. But Budaj was no less effective than starter Carey Price, either in this series, or all season long. Offensive teams can rack up wins in the regular season, but the game changes in the playoffs and you better be able to lock down. Ottawa, with Craig Anderson in net, could and Montreal could not.
Chicago-Minnesota: Chicago looked the part of the team to beat in not letting Minnesota off the mat in Game 5. The Blackhawks played rock-solid defense and the Wild only got 22 shots. And Chicago’s best offensive players got into the flow. Marian Hossa scored an early goal on an assist from Jonathan Toews. Hossa scored again in the second and then early in the third he and Toews assisted Patrick Sharp for a power play goal that was icing on the cake in a 5-1 win.
St. Louis-Los Angeles: Last year’s champions are officially back. After spotting the Blues two games, the Kings came roaring back to take the next four, including last night’s defensive-oriented Game 6. The teams only combined for 38 shots, Jonathan Quick played another solid game and Los Angeles’ 2-1 win moved them forward.
The NHL re-seeds its bracket after the first round, so we don’t know any of the second-round matchups, even though three-quarters of the West bracket is set. As the 7-seed, if Detroit wins, they’ll play Chicago, with Los Angeles-San Jose in the other matchup. Should Anaheim win, then the conference semis would be Chicago-San Jose & Anaheim-Los Angeles.
With only one team having advanced in the East, there is obviously much more fluidity. The one thing we know for sure is that if Pittsburgh takes care of business, they would play Ottawa.
There is only one game on Saturday night, as Pittsburgh goes to Long Island to try and finish off the Rangers (7 PM ET, NBC Sports Network). Sunday is set to be a hockey extravaganza starting in the late afternoon with the following lineup…
Washington-NY Rangers (4:30 PM ET, CNBC)
Boston-Toronto (7:30 PM ET)
Detroit-Anaheim (10 PM ET, NBC Sports Network)
And if the Pens and Islanders go to a Game 7, you can slot them in that sequence, with a 7 PM ET start back in Pittsburgh. No national TV is listed, but I would think the networks are waiting to see if they’ll have two games or one in the 7 PM ET neighborhood. My guess would be that NBC Sports Network will get one game and NHL Network picking up the other. Although that would be logical and fan-friendly, and we know how the NHL higher-ups seem to feel about stuff like that.
TheSportsNotebook’s playoff coverage will return on Monday to shake this all out, and we’ll at least have Western Conference second-round previews going that day. Perhaps the East will also be set, but if not, both Washington-NY Rangers and Toronto-Boston would have their seventh games on Monday night.