The Boston Bruins earned their place in last eight for the Stanley Cup with an epic comeback overtime victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs and will now face the New York Rangers, who also won a Game Seven. Here we preview all four matchups in the NHL playoffs second round.
New York Rangers vs Boston Bruins
Here's the question: What gives you a bigger boost for the next round? Winning game seven in a walk during an away game after having to fight tooth and nail to get any kind of foothold in the first six games? Or winning game seven after losing game six on the road and then being soundly beaten for most of game seven until you mount an incredible come-from-behind, four-goal comeback and win the series in overtime? The good news? We'll soon find out.
Let's start with the second one first. The Bruins looked completely beaten Monday night in Boston against the Leafs. Until the last half of the third period, the best the Bruins looked was during the first two minutes of the game. The Leafs, up 4-1 in the third period, were on their way to fulfilling so many hopes and dreams of a disheartened hockey city, cruising to what surely would have gone down as one of the finest performances by any Leafs team ever. There would have probably been a parade. Dion Phaneuf would have immediately been declared Rob Ford's co-mayor. The Gardiner would have been renamed James Reimer Way, and the CN Tower would be re-branded as the Nazem Kadri Point. Tuesday would have been a new civic holiday – Lupul Day, perhaps. But no. No. All of that is now dashed, disappeared just like the three-goal lead. Washed away, drowned out by a sea of tears the size of Lake Ontario.
Where was I? Oh yes. The Leafs blew it. And the Bruins are now on their way to meet the Rangers. That won't be an easy assignment. For all the last-minute heroics in Boston Monday, the Bruins have looked at times thoroughly exhausted. They're also not getting the scoring they need from their top guys. Tyler Seguin grabbed an assist on Patrice Bergeron's winner Monday, but had been mostly missing in action during the Toronto series. Same story for Milan Lucic, who had been almost entirely quiet up to Monday night (he didn't take a single shot on net in all of Game 5) when he notched one to bring the game to 4-3. Similar case for Brad Marchand. Against a man like Ranger goalie Henrik Lundqvist, that has to change.
Speaking of whom... Lundqvist had a return to form Monday night against the Capitals, marking a shutout in the 5-0 victory. There are reasons teams fall apart, and facing an impenetrable goalie is one. At his best, Lundqvist gives the Rangers the time to score, and that's something that with guys like Rick Nash, Brad Richards, Ryan Callahan or Derek Stepan, they can certainly do. Expect to see Bruins captain Zdeno Chara shadow Nash much like he did against Leaf Phil Kessel.
Potential x-factor in this series is whether the Rangers can return to last year's shot-blocking form. We all remember how much the Rangers frustrated teams in their 2012 playoff run by throwing themselves in front of just about anything, and there have been signs that they've started to remember how to do that of late (Game 4 comes to mind). If they can replicate that and Lundqvist holds firm, they might see the Eastern finals for the second straight year. Not to suggest that will make it any easier.
Prediction: Rangers in 7
Ottawa Senators vs Pittsburgh Penguins
Erik Karlsson. That's all you really need to know about this one.
His potential impact on this series against the Penguins is twofold: First, since returning to the ice from his sliced Achilles tendon, Karlsson has looked as good as ever. He's an integral factor at both ends of the ice for the Senators – so dangerous as the late man on a rush (with plenty of ability to get back if the puck gets turned over), but also as the anchor to what this "nickel" defence Ottawa's perfecting (as explained with jumpy audio here). Second, though, is that revenge factor. Karlsson left in February with that Achilles tear thanks to an errant Matt Cooke skate. The motivation the Senators will have to get back at the Penguins for that transgression will be difficult to really qualify, but it'll be there. And who knows what that might mean.
Apart from that, the matchup likely favours the Penguins – so long as they stick with Tomas Vokoun between the pipes. I mean, can they really risk a few more of these happening?
Over at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, there was some weighing of options.
"The guess here is Bylsma will go with Vokoun again in Game 1 against the Senators and ride him until he loses or has a bad game, although I wouldn't have any problem if he went right back to Fleury. It has to be back to Fleury at some point. Vokoun was acquired in a trade with Washington before the season to rescue the Penguins in case Fleury had a bad game or was injured. But Fleury is the man who has to play the majority of games if the team is going to compete for the Cup. The franchise has bet millions that he is their guy."
I agree with everything up until the part where Fleury comes back. Unless Vokoun has some kind of collapse, you stick with the winner. After all, when the Penguins know goals will be hard to come by facing a man like Craig Anderson, they ought to hedge their bets in their own end. The Senators might not boast the same kind of firepower as the Penguins, but we know that kind of thing sometimes really doesn't matter. Ask the Islanders. Or the Canadiens.
Speaking of which, Ottawa will again be looking to guys like Jakob Silfverberg and Jean-Gabriel Pageau to continue to produce on the goal-scoring front. Senators' forward Jason Spezza has been practicing with the team, but there's still no word on when he will return from his time away for back surgery. On the other side, the scoring power of the Penguins hardly needs mentioning. Crosby, Malkin, Iginla, Kunitz, Dupuis, Letang, Neal. Need I go on?
Prediction: Penguins in 6
Side-prediction: Eugene Melnyk's head will explode Scanners-style sometime before this is all over.
LA Kings vs San Jose Sharks
Not a lot separates the LA Kings and the San Jose Sharks, apart from (perhaps) one surprising element: the goaltending. This time last year, the hockey world was marveling at the way the Kings' Jonathan Quick was coming to the fore as one of the most dominating net-minders in the league and watched as he back-stopped the Kings to their first Stanley Cup. This year, the story hasn't been quite as rosy in the LA net. Quick had a good season, but nothing quite like what we'd all expected. That carried over to the first two games against the St Louis Blues in round one, where the Kings lost both match-ups. As a team, they recovered in order to stonewall the Blues four games to two, but LA has to be wondering what version of Quick will show up to start this round.
On the other end of the ice will stand Sharks goalie Antti Niemi who is basically amazing in the playoffs. The Vezina candidate was a big part of the reason San Jose steamrolled the Canucks in four games in Round One. He posted a 1.86 GAA and a .937 save percentage, which is impressive, but his career bears out that it probably wasn't just a fluke. Niemi is 29-19 in the postseason overall and 11-2 when those games have gone to overtime. That's not to say Quick can't match him, but it'll be a tall order for the LA goalie.
Lucky for Quick, he's got a great top line of defencemen in front of him. The Kings added Robyn Regehr at the trade deadline and he's proved to be a good match with Kings stalwart, Drew Doughty. Up front, the Kings are still waiting for their top line to start performing at its full potential, and will no doubt look to the second line of Mike Richards, Dwight King and Jeff Carter to keep pumping out the goals (Carter had three against the Blues). But without guys like Anze Kopitar or Dustin Brown stepping up, that's a heavy load to expect the second line to carry all the way through the series. Look for coach Sutter to juggle the lines in the event of continued low goal productivity up front.
As for the Sharks, two words: Logan Couture. He was a force in the first round against the Canucks, as he had been all season, grabbing eight points against the Canucks, including three goals. (If you doubt his abilities, I recommend you watch all of these) Not only does he score goals, he saves them, stacking up 51 blocked shots in the regular season. The Sharks will also look to Joe Pavelski to keep up his current streak – he had four goals during the Kings' sweep of Vancouver. They will, however, be without Adam Burish, who is now sidelined with some kind of upper-body injury. And though Burish is down on the fourth line, according to defenceman Dan Boyle, he'll be a noticeable loss.
"He's one of those guys who doesn't necessarily end up on the score sheet but having played against him he gets under other guys' skin. He certainly got under mine when he was in Chicago. You kind of need that going forward. When the top guys are thinking about certain players versus what they have to do on the ice, that's a bonus for us."
These two teams split their season series two games apiece, with each team winning both its home games. LA won its second against San Jose this year with Jonathan Bernier in net, rather than Quick. Read into that what you will.
Prediction: Sharks in 6.
Chicago Blackhawks vs Detroit Red Wings
A surprising early exit for what looked to be a very strong Anaheim Ducks team means the West will see an Original Six matchup in Round Two between the Blackhawks and Red Wings. Going through the Blackhawks in the playoffs has been a good thing for the Red Wings of late. They beat Chicago in the West final in 2009 on the way to their last Stanley Cup win. However, in this year's season series between the two teams, Chicago had Detroit's number, beating them in all four meetings. Two of those games went to a shootout, one was decided in overtime and one, at the end of March, was a 7-1 trouncing.
Don't remember that? It was ugly.
Chicago made quicker work of its first round opponent (Minnesota) than the Wings did of theirs, but the latter victory showed the Wings are not to be taken lightly, especially at the back end, where Jimmy Howard was a massive factor, stopping over 30 shots in each of Detroit's wins against the Ducks. He wasn't the only story, though. Detroit's young squad may have been more inexperienced going into the series against Anaheim, but they did one key thing well: shut down the Ducks scorers. Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan and Teemu Selanne only managed six goals between them against the Red Wings. Scratch that. Y'know what? Forget the first name. Perry actually only had two assists the entire series. That's it. The Ducks needed him badly in this one, and he didn't show up.
Chicago comes into this series with an impressive discarding of the Wild under its belt, and boasts a similar Duck-esque list of players who can, often, do some serious damage to any team in the league. They will no doubt have registered the kind of job the Wings did to the Anaheim's scoring corps – especially since Hawks sniper Patrick Kane and captain Jonathan Toews were almost invisible on the scoresheet against Minnesota, putting up Perry-like numbers. Neither managed a single goal against Minnesota. Thank goodness for Patrick Sharp, who picked up the slack with a massive five-goal showing, and for the depth Chicago has across all four lines. As long as everyone can keep contributing as they did in the last five games, they might be able to overwhelm the Red Wings.
The Red Wings will likely be mindful of Chicago's record on the penalty kill against the Wild: 100%.
The x-factor for the Blackhawks will be whether netminder Corey Crawford can keep up his recent performance. He managed three shutouts against the Wild and earned a 1.94 GAA and .926 save percentage. Should the Blackhawks advance to the finals, Crawford might suddenly look like a strong contender for the Conn Smythe. But that's getting ahead of ourselves. First thing's first: Detroit.
Prediction: Blackhawks in 6