Upsets Mark NHL Playoffs’ Opening Night

We’re one day into the NHL playoffs and already the two betting line favorites to reach the Stanley Cup Finals have lost their openers, a coach has ripped the officiating in an in-game interview and the one game last night that wasn’t penalty-ridden was the one everyone was waiting to see closely officiated. In other words, it was another day at the office in the NHL’s always-wild two-month ride to the championship.

Philadelphia 4 Pittsburgh 3 (OT)--In spite of being the #4 seed in the East, Pittsburgh is the favorite win the Cup (as noted in yesterday’s complete preview, the Pens only finished one point back of New York in the East, but division winners get the top three seeding spots) and they looked every bit the part in jumping out to a 3-0 lead against Philadelphia. Even better was that they were getting contributions from the lesser-known names on the roster. Yes, Sidney Crosby scored the opening goal and also had an assist, but the other two goals came from Tyler Kennedy and Pascal Dupuis. The latter also had an assist and Kris Letang had a pair of assists. The only question was how thoroughly would the Penguins dominate once Evgeni Malkin and James Neal got in the act.

They never did, and it was Philadelphia’s Danny Briere who turned the tide after the first intermission. Briere was the team’s leading playoff scorer on the 2010 Philadelphia team that reached the Finals. That team’s high point was rallying from 3-0 down against Boston in a Game 7 on the road. This Flyer team did the same. Briere scored on an assist from Braydon Schenn, and the same combination did it again in the third. With the clock down to eight minutes, Philadelphia got a power play goal, and then won it less than three minutes into overtime.

The problem I have with both of these teams is goaltending and it stood out like a sore thumb tonight. This was the one game of three played last night where they weren’t power plays in abundance. The shots on goal weren’t overwhelming (28 for Pittsburgh, 26 for Philadelphia). For Marc-Andre Fleury and Ilya Bryzgalov to allow this many goals is a serious problem. The caliber of excitement in Pittsburgh was championship-caliber last night. The caliber of play was not.

Los Angeles 4 Vancouver 2—After some buildup that made it look like Vancouver’s top scorer Daniel Sedin would play after dealing with a concussion, he didn’t make it onto the ice, and Los Angeles controlled play, launching 39 shots on goal to Vancouver’s 26. Given that Kings’ goalie Jonathan Quick is one of the game’s best, that’s a stat that’s going to be tough to overcome. What’s more, penalties went heavily against Vancouver. Los Angeles got eight power plays and turned two of them into goals. Before Vancouver fans complain too much, their own power play was weak—while they had fewer chances, five is still a good number and the Canucks failed to score with the man advantage.

Mike Richards delivered the first of the Los Angeles power play goals and it tied the game 1-1 in the first period. With the score tied at 2-2 in the third period, Richards shifted to passer, getting on an assist on Dustin Penner’s goal that proved to be the game winner, and adding another assist on an empty net score to clinch it.

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If Sedin doesn’t play, Vancouver is still more talented, but the possibility for the Kings’ defense to win the series increases drastically in likelihood. After last season’s goaltending collapse in Games 6 & 7 of the Finals, Vancouver has to be a nervous city, and I’d be surprised if Roberto Luongo gets much rope—or even the start in Game 2, when Cory Schneider is waiting in the wings behind him.

Nashville 3 Detroit 2: There were 14 penalties overall, and even though eight went against Nashville, Detroit head coach Mike Babcock was not a happy camper. In an in-game interview, Babcock told CNBC that “these are the two least penalized teams in the league”, and went on to question the motives of the officials, saying it was being done so they (the refs) could advance to the Stanley Cup Finals themselves. There’s two things I’m sure of—that Babock’s wallet will be lighter in about 24 hours. And that Joe Buck and Tim McCarver on Fox baseball are hoping Babock gets a managerial job and juices up their own in-game sessions.

It was a goaltending display between Pekka Rinne of Nashville and Jimmy Howard of Detroit. This game was a case where what you saw live contradicted with the hard numbers on the box score. It seemed to me that Howard was making great save after great save trying to keep his team in it, while Rinne was quietly in control, but not being tested to the same degree. But like DNA, the numbers don’t lie, and they say Rinne faced 37 shots and Howard 26. Someone in hockey has to develop a stat that focuses on the quality of the shots faced, because I can’t believe my own observations were that far off. Another one of my observations in yesterday’s preview was that Detroit would win the Cup and I could easily believe that I’d be far off there. But one thing I’m not far off on was knowing that this series is shaping up to be a great goalie battle and either team can go the distance.

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Action rolls on tonight with four more games. The top two seeds in the East take the ice, as the New York Rangers host Ottawa, and a much-anticipated series between Boston and Washington takes place in the Garden (at least it’s much anticipated for me, because I’m a Boston fan and a good friend is a Washington fan). In the West, its St. Louis hosting San Jose, and Chicago traveling to Phoenix, where I’m wondering if there are still enough Illinois snowbirds on winter vacation to show up and neutralize any home crowd advantage for the Coyotes. The only series that will have not started by tonight is New Jersey-Florida, which opens up on Friday.