The NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs are underway, with the first round in the books, and the second round being played over the next two weeks. Some matchups have gone according to plan, but some underdogs have surprisingly won over heavy favorites. Here’s a look at how both conferences are faring.
Western Conference – First Round
There were two series that went according to plan, and two upsets. The biggest upset was the Nashville Predators defeating the Anaheim Ducks in seven games. The Predators were a Wild Card team, (7th overall in the West), and the Ducks were the #2 seed (and Pacific Division champions). But the Predators fought hard, and handed the Ducks their fourth straight Game 7 loss. The Ducks also lost the decisive game in a playoff series at home for the fourth straight season. The loss resulted in the firing of Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau, despite a great regular season record, including four straight playoff appearances.
In the connecting bracket was the other upset in the West: the San Jose Sharks beat the Los Angeles Kings in five games. This one was ugly, as the Kings just couldn’t get the offense going. The Kings failed to score more than three goals in any of the five games. Give credit to Sharks goalie Martin Jones, who had allowed just a 2.18 goals against average (GAA), and averaged 23 saves per game in the Sharks’ four wins. The Sharks won because of their defense, and had just enough offense to overcome the second-seeded Kings.
The other half of the West bracket went according to seed. First, the top-seeded Dallas Stars eliminated the wild-card Minnesota Wild in six games. The Wild slipped into the playoffs with only 87 regular season points, nine fewer than any other West playoff team, while Dallas came in with a West-leading 109 points. Despite the mismatch, Minnesota gave it a good run, winning two games at home and scoring at least four goals in half of the games. In the end though, injuries to the Wild’s Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek were just too much for them to overcome, and the Wild succumbed to the best in the West.
The final first round West matchup featured the St. Louis Blues against the Chicago Blackhawks, (my regular season pick to win the Stanley Cup). My pick was obviously premature, however, as the Blues eliminated the Blackhawks in a seven-game battle for the ages. Two of the games in this series went into overtime, and only one of the seven games was decided by more than one goal. Chicago’s regular season hero and the NHL’s top scorer, Patrick Kane, scored only one goal in the series. The fact that it was Game 5’s game winner in double overtime doesn’t excuse Kane’s poor performance in the rest of the series. St. Louis played fantastic defense, limiting Chicago to three goals or fewer in five of seven games, allowing them to advance.
Eastern Conference – First Round
The first round in the Eastern Conference played almost by the book, with only one underdog winning their series. The New York Islanders, (Wild-Card), defeated the Atlantic Division-champion Florida Panthers in six games. The Panthers couldn’t maintain their home-ice advantage, losing two of the three games (including the clincher) played in Miami. Florida grabbed early leads in several of the games, but couldn’t play enough defense to maintain those quick leads. New York-goalie Thomas Greiss was excellent throughout the series, making at least 40 saves in three different games. The Islanders were also able to stop Florida’s power play, with an 86.7% penalty kill ratio.
In the next bracket, the second-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the #3 Detroit Red Wings in five games. Tampa’s defense just dismantled Detroit, as the Wings didn’t score more than two goals in any game during the series. The Lightning’s offense wasn’t much better, with just 12 goals in five games. However, goaltending, penalty killing, and timely late-game scoring set Tampa apart in this series. Tampa goalie Ben Bishop allowed just a 2.01 GAA, and made 34 saves in a shutout victory in Game 5. The Lightning also outscored Detroit 6-1 in the third period of their four wins – all of which were tied at some point in the third periods.
The other half of the bracket featured more chalk. First, the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the New York Rangers in five games. The Penguins were only slight favorites, as they scored 104 regular season points to the Rangers’ 101, but Pittsburgh made short work of New York. The Penguins were just too fast for the Rangers in this series, as superstar Sidney Crosby scored three goals and notched five assists. This series was probably the most lopsided of any first round series, as Pittsburgh outscored the Rangers 21-9 over the five games.
Finally, the overall top seed in the playoffs came through, as the Washington Capitals beat the Philadelphia Flyers in six games. Washington won the first three games easily, with a combined score of 12-2, but appeared to have trouble finishing off the Flyers. The Capitals scored just two goals in the final three games, and needed a 22-save shutout from goalie Braden Holtby to eke out a 1-0 victory in the decisive game. Philadelphia was unable to score more than two goals in any game of the series, and the lack of offense eventually buried them.
The East took the lead in the second round, as the Lightning started their series with the Islanders on Wednesday. Despite Tampa’s home ice advantage, the Islanders were able to take advantage with a 5-3 Game 1 win. Then, on Thursday, The Capitals defeated the Penguins, 4-3, in an epic overtime matchup. Washington’s TJ Oshie had a hat trick, including the OT game winner.
On Friday it was the West’s turn. First, St. Louis traveled to Dallas to face the Stars. A tough defensive game finally went to Dallas, 2-1, as Radek Faksa scored the game winner on a rebound with less than five minutes left, allowing the Stars to hang on. Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen stopped 27 of 28 shots in the win. Dallas leads the series, 1-0. The action then moved to the Pacific Division, as the Sharks faced off against the Predators in San Jose. The Sharks were able to hold home ice advantage with a 5-2 victory. San Jose was able to take advantage on the power play, scoring twice in the third period with the man advantage. The Sharks hold a 1-0 series advantage.
On Saturday the focus moved back to the East. The first game took place in Tampa, as the Lightning beat the Islanders 4-1. Tyler Johnson netted two goals and assisted on Victor Hedman’s power play goal for the Lightning, and goalie Bishop stopped 19 of the Islanders’ 20 shots. This series is now tied, 1-1, with Game 3 on Tuesday at New York. Finishing off Saturday was the other East matchup. The Penguins were able to defeat the Capitals, 2-1, taking home ice advantage away from Washington with the next three games in Pittsburgh. Eric Fehr, a former Washington Capital, scored the game winner for Pittsburgh with about 15 minutes left, and goaltender Matt Murray was able to stop 23 of 24 of the Capitals’ shots on goal. With the win, the Penguins tied the series, 1-1. Game 3 is tonight in Pittsburgh.
Statistics provided by: ESPN.com
Images thanks to: NHL, USA Today, ESPN, wtop.com