Eight teams. One Stanley Cup.
We saw just about everything in the first round of the NHL playoffs: penalty shots and crazy comebacks and overtimes and Game 7s and overtimes in Game 7s. We saw ugly incidents and suspensions and controversies, too. But upsets? Not so much.
Anything can happen in this era of parity, as we saw last year when the seventh-seeded Philadelphia Flyers met the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference final. But anything includes the cream rising.
The top three seeds in each conference advanced to the second round this year, even if some had a hard time doing it – like the Vancouver Canucks, the winners of the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top regular-season team, who blew a 3-0 series lead and went to overtime of Game 7 before beating the Chicago Blackhawks, the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Both fifth seeds beat the four seeds, but those weren’t really upsets. In the East, the Tampa Bay Lightning finished only three points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins, who didn’t have injured superstars Sidney Crosby(notes) and Evgeni Malkin(notes). In the West, the Nashville Predators finished with the same number of points as the Anaheim Ducks, but lost home ice to a tiebreaker.
So as we cut in half the playoff field and recalibrate our power rankings for the second round, it gets even tougher.
So should the tournament.
1. Detroit Red Wings: No team had an easier time in the first round than the Red Wings. Their sweep might have had as much to do with the Phoenix Coyotes as their own dominance, but Pavel Datsyuk(notes) was dazzling, Jimmy Howard(notes) was encouraging and coach Mike Babcock will be the first to tell you a playoff series is not a best-of-seven but a race to four wins.
The Wings wanted to wrap up that series as quickly as possible so they could rest. The eight days off they earned should have helped key playoff performers Henrik Zetterberg(notes) (knee) and Johan Franzen(notes) (ankle) heal from injuries, and it saved on the wear and tear of travel for an Eastern time zone team in the Western Conference.
Short series historically help the Wings. They swept the Colorado Avalanche in the second round in 2008. They were so rusty after a six-day break they won the first three games of the Western Conference final against the Dallas Stars and went on to win the Cup. They swept the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round in 2009. After a seven-day break, they won the second-round opener against Anaheim and went to Game 7 of the Cup final.
2. Washington Capitals: Everything is falling into place for the Capitals, by design and by chance. You know the background: All Alex Ovechkin(notes) heard was that he wasn’t as good as Crosby because he hadn’t won the Cup. The Caps were a sexy regular-season team that couldn’t win in the playoffs. So they changed their ways.
Well, in the first round, their composure was tested by the New York Rangers, a scrappy, shot-blocking bunch with a great goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist(notes) that might have frustrated the old Capitals and forced them to make mistakes. The Caps won the series in five.
Now, in the second round, they have drawn the Lightning, which has the firepower to test their new defensive approach. But at least the Capitals don’t have to face the Montreal Canadiens, who upset them in the first round last year, or the Penguins, their dramatic foils from the HBO reality series and the Winter Classic. Crosby missed the second half of the season with a concussion, and now it’s certain he isn’t coming back this season. Maybe it’s Ovi’s time to shine.
3. Vancouver Canucks: The big question is what effect the Blackhawks series will have on the rest of the Canucks’ playoff run. Will they carry the momentum into this series against the Predators, which starts Thursday night, less than 48 hours after their big victory? Or will they suffer a letdown?
The Canucks still have all the attributes that made them the Presidents’ Trophy winners and Stanley Cup favorites. But when they failed to put away the Blackhawks quickly, they missed a great opportunity to set themselves up for the rest of the tournament. They would be even more confident that they are a different, better team than they are now, and they would be less beaten-up.
They need to take a page from the Red Wings’ book and make this a short series. They cannot afford a second straight long, grueling battle with the prospect of facing the Wings or the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference final.
4. San Jose Sharks: The Sharks had more trouble than they should have in the first round with the Los Angeles Kings. Goaltender Antti Niemi(notes), who won the Cup with the Blackhawks last season, was less than impressive.
But Ryane Clowe(notes) looked like he was ready to make a name for himself in these playoffs with four goals and seven points, and he was one of seven Sharks with at least two goals in the series. This team is scary deep up front with Joe Thornton(notes) and Patrick Marleau(notes) and Dany Heatley(notes) and Logan Couture(notes) and Joe Pavelski(notes).
The key to the second round could be whether the Sharks can take advantage of a Detroit team that hasn’t played the best defense or gotten the best goaltending for much of the season. Until now, the Sharks have been silently circling. One way or another, we’re about to find out whether they’re ready to make a Cup run.
5. Boston Bruins: Boston might as well be Vancouver East – a seaside hockey town, feeling about 40 years of playoff frustration, having just vanquished a bitter rival in OT in Game 7. Folks in Boston were almost as relieved to get past the Canadiens as folks in Vancouver were to get past the Blackhawks.
Only now the Bruins have to get past the Flyers, against whom they blew a 3-0 series lead and a 3-0 lead in Game 7 in the second round last year. Here’s betting that won’t happen again. (It can’t happen again, can it?) And here’s betting that the Bruins will be even better than they were against the Habs.
Goaltender Tim Thomas(notes) can be better. The top line of Milan Lucic(notes), David Krejci(notes) and Nathan Horton(notes) can be better. The power play certainly can be better, because it can’t be any worse after going 0-for-21 and allowing a shorthanded goal to Montreal.
6. Philadelphia Flyers: Can somebody get these guys a goalie already? Geez. Sergei Bobrovsky(notes), Brian Boucher(notes), Michael Leighton(notes) … It was hard to keep straight who was starting and who was backing up and who wasn’t even dressing from game to game in the first round against the Buffalo Sabres.
The saving grace for the Flyers is that they came within two victories of winning the Cup last year with turmoil in goal, and although much still rides on the health and effectiveness of lynchpin defenseman Chris Pronger(notes), they are as deep as any team in the league.
Danny Briere(notes) and Claude Giroux(notes) were outstanding against the Sabres, and the Flyers are built to win in the playoffs with four lines that can score and three defensive pairings that can defend. They also know that – especially against the Bruins – no one should ever count them out of a series, no matter what the situation.
7. Tampa Bay Lightning: In his rookie season as a general manager, Steve Yzerman not only rebuilt the Lightning into a playoff team, he built the Bolts into a group with enough fortitude to rally from a 3-1 series deficit to defeat the Penguins in the first round.
At age 41, goaltender Dwayne Roloson(notes) still has the ability to lead a team deep into the playoffs, as he did when he took the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers all the way to the Cup final in 2006. The Bolts still have veterans who have won a Cup in Tampa – Martin St. Louis(notes), Vincent Lecavalier(notes). Steven Stamkos(notes) has started to heat up in his first playoff action.
But this is a hard group to figure out sometimes. The Bolts were up and down during the regular season and in their first-round series with the Penguins, losing one night 3-0, winning another 5-1, losing back-to-back 3-2 games, then winning 8-2, 4-2 and 1-0. That unpredictability alone should make for an entertaining series against a Washington team that still has to define itself in the playoffs.
8. Nashville Predators: As they advanced to the second round for the first time in their history, the Predators were better offensively and worse defensively than expected. So expect things to return to normal, and the formula for an upset against the Canucks will have to be defense and goaltending.
The Predators shouldn’t have enough firepower to keep pace with Vancouver. The star defense pairing of Shea Weber(notes) and Ryan Suter(notes) will have to shut down Henrik and Daniel Sedin(notes), and Pekka Rinne(notes) will have to look like the Vezina Trophy finalist he was during the regular season, stealing some games and maybe even the series.
No better time to start than Thursday night, while Vancouver is still reveling in its victory over the Blackhawks, while most of the hockey world is still trying to digest everything that went down in the first round.