Neutral Zone Wrap
If overtime and unbelievable stories are your cup of tea, then the first round definitely kept you caffeinated.
Congrats to the Kings on their comeback and to the Wild for finally breaking their postseason goose egg. And speaking of animal droppings, kudos to the Ducks for scoring all those goals as a way to mask their goaltending problems. Thumbs down to the Sharks for, well, playing the usual clutch role of the Sharks. Ditto to St. Louis for crashing and burning just to follow the same pattern that ended their regular season. But let's not take anything away from the Blackhawks, who picked apart the Blues' weaknesses one by one to advance. And hey, there's always next year, Colorado.
Regardless of going down in six, Columbus should be praised for giving a mighty Pittsburgh squad a genuine scare. The Wings predictably didn't have the legs to match the Bruins. Montreal made Tampa Bay pay for Ben Bishop's absence. And in case you didn't know, Steve Mason isn't Superman...because Henrik Lundqvist already owns that moniker. Now if only the Rangers could put a few more in the net.
And thanks to a return to the old divisional playoff procedure, the second round matchups will get you even more excited. A Boston-Montreal Original Six encounter? Yes, please. Wanna see a real fight? Then Penguins-Rangers may hold your interest. Pining for a warmer locale? No need to dream about Southern California since Anaheim and LA will have you believing you're there. Looking for a blowout? Step right up and watch Chicago dismantle an exhausted Minnesota side.
The following battles will take place over the next couple weeks. Better get some sleep now, while you still can:
Anaheim (P1) vs. Los Angeles (P3) (Season series: Anaheim 4-0-1)
Who to watch: Nick Bonino (four points after a 49-point breakout campaign) may make the headlines but Mathieu Perreault (two goals, two assists) simply gets the job done...Devante Smith-Pelly (two goals) looks to be a natural in front of the net...Still some progress required, but Cam Fowler (two assists, missed about a month with a knee sprain) is slowly returning to full strength...Despite the significant edge in postseason experience, Jonas Hiller has relinquished duties to Frederik Andersen. But as the Danish rookie has struggled (3.40 GAA, .892 SV%, pulled twice in the Dallas series), perhaps this is the Swiss star's chance to reclaim his rightful place...Just when LA needed him, captain Dustin Brown (four points, 40 hits) figured it out during the most important stretch of the season...Come on down, Tyler Toffoli (five); it's your moment to shine...Easy to overlook Jake Muzzin (four) behind three higher profile defensemen...Following a pair of horrific outings (12 goals combined) and two mediocre appearances (seven allowed), Jonathan Quick stole the show to stymie San Jose (two in the final three).
Prediction: The Kings just wouldn't go without a fight but unlike the Sharks, the Ducks won't quit. Don't be Quick to write off Anaheim's netminding duo, who can at least pull off the job as a tandem (if necessary). As long as Getzlaf can lead the way, then his team is here to stay...Anaheim in six.
Chicago (C3) vs. Minnesota (W1) (Season series: Minnesota 3-1-1)
Who to watch: May and June are obviously Bryan Bickell's favorite months (three so far after 17 in 23 in last year's run)...Ben Smith (goal, assist) may not act as the prototypical Chicago forward, but enough confidence has been shown (like giving him a second-line center position/power-play gig) to allow him to develop...Nick Leddy (one PPA) has been provided with ample opportunities, so he'll bump those numbers up soon enough...With all the tight scorelines from the opening series, Corey Crawford (1.98 GAA, .935 SV%) ended up stealing a game or two on his own...What's more impressive? Dany Heatley's offensive resurgence (five) or his timely backchecking that took down Colorado?...(El) Nino Niederreiter swooped in and ultimately put the opening series on his stick (both goals coming in the finale)...Aside from the tying marker in Game 7, Jared Spurgeon (two goals, assist, 17 SOG) has always been a threat to go for the net...Looks as though Darcy Kuemper (undisclosed injury) will not be ready to start, so intergalactic wolf enthusiast Ilya Bryzgalov (4.26 GAA, .826 SV% in three outings) is set to take the reins.
Prediction: Regardless of whom Minnesota put it net, Chicago will find a way to score. Combine that with a superior blueline and the Blackhawks could easily roll over any comer, especially a tired one. A great run, but the Wild things are ready to be extinguished...Chicago in five.
Boston (A1) vs. Montreal (A3) (Season series: Montreal 3-1)
Who to watch: Don't be discouraged by Brad Marchand's dropoff (no points against Detroit); it's not as if he wasn't trying (11 SOG, eight hits)...In case you haven't heard, Carl Soderberg (so much more than one point) is a pretty good player...Dougie Hamilton stepped up (four, including two PPAs), although he's looked shaky at times on the back end...No time for backups, especially when Tuukka Rask (1.16 GAA, .961 SV%) is dominating as usual...Way to show those skills, Lars Eller (co-lead with five points). You too, Brendan Gallagher (also five)...Where were these goals the rest of the year, Rene Bourque (three in four vs. nine in 63)?...We've been waiting, but Alexei Emelin (two assists, 16 blocked shots, 10 hits) is becoming a fine two-way D-man...As much as Carey Price looked comfortable in leading Canada to Olympic gold, he appears determined to carry the club on his shoulders (2.33 GAA, .904 SV% in handling every minute).
Prediction: Price has looked sharp but the clock just sounded and it says it's Tuukka Time. The Bs can roll out three scoring lines and a very useful fourth unit. The Habs cannot match that depth but can still prove to be a tough opponent. The water may be dirty but the outcome will come out clean... Bruins in five.
Pittsburgh (M1) vs. NY Rangers (M2) (Season series: Tied 2-2)
Who to watch: With all that firepower up front, it's no surprise Pittsburgh's leading scorers are...Paul Martin and Matt Niskanen (eight apiece)?!?...Nice secondary contributions from Brandon Sutter (five) and Beau Bennett (four), with an added injection from probable returnee Brian Gibbons (two goals in Game 2 but missed everything after that)...Expect an uptick for Kris Letang (one goal), considering his average ice time (besides being briefly 'benched' in Game 1)...While not exactly dominant (2.81 GAA, .908 vs. Columbus), Marc-Andre Fleury continues to make big saves at key moments...Four assists may be decent, yet Rick Nash should have been able to convert 30 SOG into more than zero goals...Ignore the Game 6 hiccup and you'll notice Henrik Lundqvist only allowed 10 goals in 18 periods...Don't expect either Dominic Moore (three points) or Daniel Carcillo (two goals in three) to continue their magic...Ryan McDonagh (43 points during the regular season) has been held off the scoresheet but he'll be able to pick up the pace against a more adventurous Pittsburgh D.
Prediction: While Pittsburgh boasts two of the best forwards on the planet, the Blueshirts attack is nothing to sneeze at and capable of striking in any situation. The Penguins can also easily claim an offensive advantage on defense but the main difference can be found between the pipes. King takes Fleury. Checkmate...Rangers in six.
While goalies usually dominate the playoff MVP balloting, there are a number of skaters who have impressed enough to get their names into the conversation. Here's my top-5 right now. Discuss/argue amongst yourselves: 1. Tuukka Rask; 2. Ryan Getzlaf; 3. Anze Kopitar; 4. Jonathan Toews; 5. Carey Price.
We'll see you before the Conference Finals. Rest up.