Forgive me for pouring on the praise, but you have to admit these were one of the most exciting opening rounds in recent NHL playoff memory. Almost every series turned out to be hard fought battles containing multiple plot twists and surprise situations. Were you looking for a few late equalizers and plenty of overtime? Check. How about some end-to-end action with a side of wow? Check again. Did you ever think about changing the channel to some other sport? Better check yourself.
But nothing in front of the crease could compare to the drama inside the blue ice. Did anyone foresee Antti Niemi looking overmatched on multiple occasions? How about the rotating Philly carousel of starters? Who would've thought Roberto Luongo could ever not be considered to start an important game? And the funny thing is that all three of these situations occurred on teams that advanced.
As opposed to last season when four of the eight lower seeds made it through, we only witnessed two upsets - although neither #5 could have been considered significant underdogs. So what does the next batch have in store for us? Let's take a look:
2nd Round Preview
(1) Vancouver vs. (5) Nashville (Season series: Tied 2-2)
One could argue the injury to Cory Schneider helped the Canucks, as it removed any doubts as to who should be between the pipes...Neither Sedin played to his full potential (12 points together), so it'll be scary if the twins can conjure the full extent of their telepathic powers...Ditto for the likes of Mason Raymond (three) and Mikael Samuelsson (two), although their roles are more complementary...For a side not blessed with offensive talent (tied with Montreal for fewest regular season goals of all playoff teams), Nashville topped the charts with 22 goals in six...Mike Fisher (six) may have led in scoring, but no fewer than 12 others hit the three-point plateau...Shea Weber (five, including two power-play goals) and Pekka Rinne (3.29 GAA and .880 SV% aren't exceptional, but he used his 6'5‚ÄĚ frame when it mattered) both displayed why they were chosen as finalists for their respective positions.
Prediction: While the Canucks looked scared in Games 4 through 6, they ramped up the intensity for the decider. You can't truly stop the Sedins; you can only hope to contain them...until they escape from the trap and terrorize the opposition. Nashville faced weak goaltending with Anaheim, so it'll be much tougher to score this series. We congratulate the Preds on their first trip to the next level, but this is their last stop. Vancouver in seven.
(2) San Jose vs. (3) Detroit (Season series: San Jose 3-1)
Ryane Clowe (seven) is following the same trend from last year, where he sunk Colorado with eight in the opening round...Joe Thornton has stepped it up, notching at least one point in the last four - including the series clincher in LA...San Jose's leading point getter from the blueline? Try Ian White (five assists), although others are close behind (Dan Boyle, Niclas Wallin, and Jason Demers each with three)... Even without Henrik Zetterberg (knee), the Wings still managed to destroy Phoenix with a whopping 18 goals spread amongst 13 skaters...Pavel Datsyuk (six) and Valtteri Filppula (five) were forces at both ends...Johan Franzen and Tomas Holmstrom are maintaining their postseason magic, adding four goals to their combined career total of 81...Jimmy Howard was hardly tested (only 118 shots against in four) but still managed a perfect record.
Prediction: Antti Niemi (3.99 GAA, .860 SV%, twice pulled) clearly struggled, but it would be tough to bet against him after his recent Cup run. Few believed San Jose could run through Detroit as quickly as they did last spring; but let's face it, the West Coasters are actually the bigger, younger version of the Motown Men. The addition of Zetterberg, the added rest, and the over 1000 games of playoff experience (from the forwards alone!) will make a difference, but not enough to counter the Shark attack. San Jose in six.
(1) Washington vs. (5) Tampa Bay (Season series: Washington 4-1-1)
No goaltending controversy in Washington, as Michal Neuvirth (1.38 GAA, .950 SV%) sparkled and played all 300 minutes of Round 1...They'd like to see more from Nicklas Backstrom (one), but don't mind if Marcus Johansson (four) is covering...A puck to the head won't stop Mike Green (five, including two PPPs) from recapturing his top form...Hart candidate Martin St. Louis (four goals, four assists) continued his late-season surge...Beyond the 8-2 thrashing of Pittsburgh in Game 5, where has Steven Stamkos (four, but three in that contest) been hiding?...Dwayne Roloson (1.77 GAA, .950 SV%) may have been shaky at times, but he hasn't let in more than three goals in any of the first seven.
Prediction: And we haven't even discussed either Alexander or the veteran forwards who grace the Washington lineup. Or the fact St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier know what it takes to earn a ring. The two teams were close in the Southeast Division standings for a good chunk of the season, but the Caps pulled ahead based on their skill and experience. No different here. Washington in five.
(2) Philadelphia vs. (3) Boston (Season series: Boston 3-1)
The return of Chris Pronger (broken hand) will serve as an obvious boost, both for his stick skills and his, um, intimidation factor...Whether or not Jeff Carter (sprained knee) is available will determine how much Philly will have to rely on Ville Leino (four) and Daniel Carcillo (two goals) to continue chipping in...Brian Boucher (2.10 GAA, .930 SV%, and all four victories) remains the clear favorite in net, seeing how quickly Michael Leighton was shown the press box and how unprepared rookie Sergei Bobrovsky looked...You wouldn't have been able to tell Nathan Horton (three goals, two of them overtime winners) never participated in the postseason up to now...Kudos to Boston's third line of Rich Peverley, Michael Ryder, and Chris Kelly (at 14) for overshadowing the underperforming unit of David Krejci, Milan Lucic, and Horton (at six).
Prediction: Everyone in Boston remembers the collapse. Let's forget about it and move on. There is no discounting how talented Philly shapes up at forward and there's no question they are far superior to Boston in this regard. But goaltending usually wins series and the Bruins have the decided edge. Just make sure Zdeno Chara can still chug those cola products during the intermissions and they'll be fine. Boston in six.
So after the amateur prognostication session, let's see who's leading the race for the Conn Smythe trophy. The following is a Top 5 list based on a combination of point totals, outstanding performances, and overall importance to their team. The order isn't important for now. And it's early, so don't get too excited about who may be missing until we reach the next series: 1. Pavel Datsyuk; 2. Pekka Rinne; 3. Martin St. Louis; 4. Tim Thomas; 5. Michal Neuvirth.
Since I started with a prediction of San Jose over Boston in the Final, let's stick with that. Or I can change my mind whenever it suits the situation, like you know, after one or both of those squads gets knocked out. Keep on enjoying the games and we'll see you again before the Conference Finals.
Evan Berofsky enjoys writing. Seriously. When he's not trying to shove hockey miscellany down your throat, he gets his kicks playing tournament Scrabble. If you have anything to say about Evan's work (or need any hot word tips), feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.