I've seen it said that a big reason for the blowouts is that the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Islanders are inexperienced. That could be it. But perhaps it's more likely that these are just not very bad teams running into very good teams, as they are wont to do in the early rounds of the playoffs.
Such is the problem with watching the Eastern Conference for the majority of the year, because you start to take for granted just how good teams that finish at the bottom of the playoff pool really aren't. You'll note that the Islanders came into the postseason as one of the streaking-est teams in the league, if not the outright hottest, having taken points from all but two of their final 17 games, 11 of which were played away from Nassau Coliseum.
Despite this, very few people gave them much of a shot of beating the Penguins, and deservedly so. The Penguins are far and away the second-best team in the league, and actually entered the playoffs on the upswing from their already exceptional majority of the regular season. Anyone who picked them to win the series in more than, say, five games was being absurdly generous to the Islanders for reasons that seem difficult to grasp.
So it came as no surprise to most that the Islanders went out in Game 1 and got their heads caved in. The game ended 5-0 but could have been a lot worse; the Penguins barely had their legs under them to start and the Islanders had most of the early possession, and predictably did nothing with it. By the time Pascal Dupuis scored midway through, the game had already been turned on its ear by a Beau Bennett opening goal against the run of play.
Yeah, shots finished at 26 apiece but anyone who watched it saw that the biggest positive for the Islanders is that James Neal might now be out for a while thanks to a hit from Travis Hamonic. That's not much to take away from a game in which you looked hopelessly unprepared and overmatched.
The same is even more true when it comes to that Bruins/Maple Leafs matchup in the Nos. 4 and 5 series. Were it not for Boston's routine refusal to play anything like it was capable of during the stretch run of the regular season, the series wouldn't have even happened, and as it was, the Bruins still only missed out on the division title by two points. This game was an embarrassment pretty much from the get-go because of the atrocious way in which Randy Carlyle manages his roster — you have to wonder how many goals against Mike Kostka has to be on the ice for before he gets shuffled out of the lineup in favor of literally anyone who can hold a stick and skate at the same time — as well as the fact that Boston is one of the most dominant possession teams in the league, while the Leafs are rather the opposite (the latter fact owing to the lineup most nights, one supposes).
The Leafs scored an early goal that only served to, in Jack Edwards' parlance, poke the bear, because the Bruins rampaged to an easy W after that, outshooting their opponents 40-20, and any rational observer would have a hard time coming up with a truly threatening Toronto chance after James van Riemsdyk's power play goal. Tyler Bozak's breakaway is one you might mention, if you know very little indeed about Bozak's offensive prowess.
This kind of stuff extends, to a certain length, to the individual players in a series. I saw on Twitter yesterday that the Penguins held John Tavares without a shot on goal in Game 1 (and he only attempted three), marking the first time he'd been held without one all season. The reason for this was that Dan Bylsma — given the benefit of line matching — gave him a heaping helping of shutdown players every time he came off the bench at even strength; Kris Letang and Paul Martin, Brandon Sutter and Matt Cooke and Brenden Morrow. It wasn't inexperience that kept Tavares boxed up, though it must be conceded that all but Sutter have considerably more playoff experience, but rather the gobful of excellent players he was matched up against.Phil Kessel wilts in big-game situations. Yes, he only had one shot on goal in the game, but here's a pretty good reason why: Multiple-time Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara and I-Can't-Believe-It-Was-Only-Once Selke winner Patrice Bergeron were on the ice for literally almost every single second of his 5-on-5 shifts. Add in Dennis Seidenberg and Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin, and it's pretty easy to see why Kessel, saddled as he was with Bozak on his line for reasons that continue to evade rational description (see above with respect to Carlyle's roster management), didn't do much aside from creating the play that led directly to Toronto's only goal.
Good teams, you see, have the luxury of matching their best players against the other teams' best players, and generally, the best players on good teams are better than those on bad teams. Then the depth takes over, and the former get to win with relative ease over the latter. So it wasn't as if Tavares and Kessel went into hiding because Pittsburgh and Boston are "in their heads," or any such nonsense as that, but rather because, y'know, they got tougher matchups than they are usually used to seeing. That's how it goes.
So by the time the dust settled on the first two games of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals' opening night, the favored teams gutted their opponents to the tune of an 8-1 differential and neither game had even really been as close as all that. This obviously stood in stark contrast to the Western Conference, where quality teams are actually abundant.
Take, for instance, the Chicago/Minnesota series. The Blackhawks probably should have won by multiple goals, especially because the Wild were forced to start their backup, but they in fact did not, instead needing a healthy chunk of the first overtime to put down a team that they clearly should beat rather badly. Again, no one is actually expecting the Wild to put up much of a fight in this 1-versus-8 matchup, at least over the balance of the series. They win a game on the outside, probably get swept, but in that first matchup at least, they kept it interesting.
But the Wild are almost as "inexperienced" in the playoffs as the Islanders or Leafs, aren't they? The last time they were in the playoffs, George W. Bush was still the president. The Islanders' previous appearance came just a season later. So I'm not sure I understand the difference. Why was no one chalking their overtime loss up to their being inexperienced? How many guys on their roster had been in a playoff overtime before? The fact of the matter is that, while we'll never know exactly how good the Wild would be in the Eastern Conference, we can make a pretty fair guess that they'd have elbowed their way at least higher than the No. 8 slot they occupied in their own conference. The Isles, meanwhile, would have probably been lucky to finish 10th had they been flip-flopped.
So I guess it must be nice to be a good team in the Eastern Conference. Your first round matchups are basically byes, which helps a lot. Then on top of that everyone wants to give you credit you don't really deserve for getting into the kitchens of your meager challengers, if you can even call them that, when all you really did was show up and be better-constructed.
It doesn't make for a particularly attractive storyline, I guess: "Great team creams bad team." Well yeah, you'd say, no kidding. But sometimes better teams are better and bad teams are bad and that's the end of the story. Throwing in any additional meaning behind it comes off as trying to find meaning in the meaningless.
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