In the end, there weren’t that many surprises in the first round of the NHL playoffs. Two underdogs gave us this-can’t-be-happening moments, but the New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs couldn’t pull off upsets. Two second and two third seeds lost, but in our initial NHL playoff power rankings, listing teams in order of their chances to win the Stanley Cup, none was in the top six.
The only team left without a recent playoff pedigree is the Ottawa Senators, who just won a round for the first time since 2007, when they made the Cup final. But the way the Sens have defied the odds all season, surviving despite injuries to their best players, would it shock anyone if they kept winning?
1. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
The Blackhawks had the easiest draw of the first round: the Minnesota Wild, which struggled down the stretch, lost its starting goaltender in warm-ups before Game 1 and saw its backup get hurt, too. The ’Hawks did what they were supposed to do as a No. 1 seed. They won in five games.
Now they have another good draw: the Red Wings. Though the Blackhawks’ 4-0 record in the regular-season series wasn’t as lopsided as it appears – they won twice in a shootout, once in overtime and once in a 7-1 blowout – they are the kind of team the Wings used to be. They have more high-end talent and depth.
Captain Jonathan Toews has no goals and two assists in these playoffs, while Patrick Kane has no goals and five assists. But that’s actually a positive. It shows how the ’Hawks can win without goals from their two best players, and you know Toews and Kane won’t stay quiet. The main concerns remain goaltending, which was strong against the Wild, and the power play, which was not.
[Watch: Penguins lost aura of invincibility in shaky Round 1]
2. LOS ANGELES KINGS
The biggest question about the Kings entering these playoffs was how they would handle adversity. They took 3-0 leads in four straight series last year. They swept one series and closed out two others in Game 5. Only once did they let a series get to a Game 6, and they capped their 16-4 playoff run that night by winning the Cup.
The Kings answered many questions in the first round. They fell behind the St. Louis Blues, 2-0, then won four straight games, looking a lot like the team that rolled to a championship last season. Goaltender Jonathan Quick found his form. Defenseman Drew Doughty played well while logging big minutes. Jeff Carter scored big goals. Heck, even Dustin Penner woke up. He scored twice in the first round after scoring twice in the regular season, reprising his role as a playoff hero.
One thing to watch is how the defense continues to develop. Willie Mitchell is injured. Matt Greene is back but has been out of the lineup. Robyn Regehr has been a steady presence paired with Doughty, who is freer to jump into the play. Rob Scuderi and Alec Martinez have played a shutdown role. Youngsters Jake Muzzin and Slava Voynov have plenty of promise, especially Voynov, who has two goals.
The Penguins entered the playoffs with three concerns: goaltending, defense and chemistry. All three proved problematic in a white-knuckle, six-game series with the upstart Islanders. Marc-Andre Fleury melted down. The defense broke down. Coach Dan Bylsma had to figure out how to fit all his pieces together.
It’s still a work in progress. Tomas Vokoun will stay in net to start Round 2. The defense still has to tighten up in front of him. Even though the Penguins averaged 4.2 goals per game in the first round, best in the league, the top six has been shaken up. Pascal Dupuis has moved from Sidney Crosby’s right to his left, making room for Jarome Iginla to move from left wing back to right wing. The Chris Kuntiz-Evgeni Malkin-James Neal line, so dominant last year, has been reunited.
The Penguins handled the Senators well in the regular season. Goaltender Craig Anderson hasn’t been as good against them as he has been against the rest of the league. But the Pens cannot play Reese Witherspoon hockey. They cannot say: “Do you know who I am? You’re about to find out.” No one is intimidated by their star power right now.
4. SAN JOSE SHARKS
Things are almost going too well for the Sharks. They swept the Vancouver Canucks in the first round and had six days to sit around.
Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski continue to emerge as leaders, while Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau continue to do their thing. They have more size, grit and speed up front with Brent Burns and Raffi Torres. Dan Boyle is producing but isn’t logging too many minutes on the back end, because the defense corps is balanced. The special teams are humming. And goaltender Antti Niemi, who had an excellent regular season, continues to win in the playoffs. He has won seven of the nine series in which he has played in his career.
The only concerns really aren’t major concerns: injuries to Martin Havlat and Adam Burish, who had not been contributing much, anyway. The Kings are not the Canucks, and this will be a much more difficult round. But the Sharks are an even match for the defending champs.
[Related: Puck Daddy playoff Q&A with Sharks star Logan Couture]
5. BOSTON BRUINS
The good: When the Bruins are desperate, they’re a force. They came back from a 4-1 deficit late in Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs and pulled out a miracle overtime victory to advance. The Milan Lucic-David Krejci-Nathan Horton line produced all series, and Patrice Bergeron saved his first two goals for last.
The bad: When the Bruins aren’t desperate, they’re average. They blew a 3-1 series lead to the Leafs and came within seconds of losing in the first round for the second straight year. Brad Marchand, Tyler Seguin and Jaromir Jagr haven’t been producing. The power play continues to be a weakness.
The ugly: The defense is thin. Andrew Ference and Wade Redden didn’t play Game 7 against the Leafs and Dennis Seidenberg played only 37 seconds because of injury. That puts way too much pressure on Zdeno Chara, as great as he is, and it asks a lot of rookies Matt Bartkowski and Dougie Hamilton.
This has been the most frustrating team to read all season. They seemed to lose their blue-collar, hard-working identity at times and needed a push to make the playoffs. In three of their first-round games against the Washington Capitals, they scored at least four goals. In the other four, they couldn’t manage more than one.
Brad Richards has been brutal. Rick Nash has been a disappointment, but at least he has shown signs that he could get going. And at least another former Columbus Blue Jacket, Derick Brassard, has taken the lead offensively. Maybe the Rangers can pound the Bruins’ depleted defense, wear it down and generate some goals that way.
It shouldn’t be as hard as the Rangers make it. Injuries to Ryane Clowe and Marc Staal don’t help, but they have a great goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist who keeps them in games night after night. If only they could score consistently.
In a team meeting Monday, coach Paul MacLean went over the game plan for the Penguins. He told his players to stick to the system. He also told them the pressure was on Pittsburgh, not them, and to go out and have fun.
MacLean has been a psychological master. He drove Montreal Canadiens coach Michel Therrien nuts in the first round. He shrugged off Brandon Prust’s “bug-eyed fat walrus” comment brilliantly in public and behind the scenes. He has kept his players loose, and that should especially help if the Penguins are uptight.
The Sens know what the Isles did to the Pens. They know if they skate and hit and play without fear, they can poke holes in the Pittsburgh mystique, create some doubt and develop some momentum. Just keep Erik Karlsson away from Matt Cooke, OK?
[Nick Cotsonika: Bruins saved season, maybe more, with amazing Game 7 rally]
8. DETROIT RED WINGS
Frankly, the Red Wings’ season was a success when they won four straight down the stretch and extended their playoff streak to 22 seasons. It was a bonus when they beat the Anaheim Ducks in seven games in the first round.
In the first season of the post-Nicklas Lidstrom era, the Wings showed they still have leadership and pride, even if they don’t have the talent and depth they once did. Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk combined for four goals and 18 points in their final four regular-season games, and they combined for four goals and eight points in their last three playoff games. Once again, just when you think the Wings will fade away, they refuse to do so.
The Red Wings will forget their 7-1 loss to the Blackhawks and point to the overtime loss and two shootout losses in the season series as proof they can play with the top team in the West. We’ll see. Jimmy Howard is going to have to come up huge for them to advance again. But at least we get one more matchup of these old Norris and Central Division rivals before the Wings move to the East next season in realignment.
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