Dissecting trouble for NHL's elite eight

Ross McKeon
Yahoo! Sports

The symmetry is striking: Seeds 1, 2, 5 and 6 from each conference survived the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs while sending seeds 3, 4, 7 and 8 to the cemetery. Then again, when you consider the golf course is the NHL's graveyard, don't feel too sorry for these guys.

San Jose's Ron Wilson, coach of the last team to tidy up Round 1, put it best late Tuesday night following a Game 7 win over Calgary: "It is just one small step. … History says the first series, they are wars out there. They are usually difficult."

And that being said, there are eight teams that believe they are the team that can win the Cup. That's what a first-round victory does in the NHL these days, because rarely does it come easy.

Pittsburgh was the only team to sweep, and the Rangers won in five (including three road victories). Everyone else needed six or seven games to get through as 48 games were played in the opening round (25 in the West and 23 in the East) to surpass last year's total of 43 (23 in the West and 20 in the East).

Everyone is feeling pretty darn good about themselves, but here's the big issue facing each team heading into conference semifinal action.


Colorado Avalanche: Special teams play is a work in progress for the Avs, and judging from their six-game series win over Northwest rival and division champ Minnesota is any indication, there has been progress.

Colorado clicked away at 20-percent efficiency on the power play, going 6-for-30 against the Wild. The fourth-best success rate among teams still alive is a big improvement over the regular season, when the Avalanche finished 28th at 14.6 percent, ½-percent better than last place and worst among playoff qualifiers.

Killing penalties were a struggle in the regular season, too, as Colorado ranked 20th at 81.4 percent (better than four other playoff qualifiers – all from the East), but the Avs improved that figure to 85.6 percent against the Wild in killing 18-of-21 power plays.

Adding personnel such as Peter Forsberg, Adam Foote and Ruslan Salei at the trade deadline has helped the power play and penalty kill, and so has the improved health of Joe Sakic, Paul Stastny and Ryan Smyth.

Goalie Jose Theodore's superb play in Round 1 (1.88 goals-against average and .940 save percentage) helped spearhead the improved penalty kill as well. This is important because the second-round opponent Detroit Red Wings can be deadly on special teams. The Wings were second only to Pittsburgh on the kill in Round 1, denying Nashville on all but two of 23 power-play opportunities. Detroit's power play was subpar against the Predators – just 3-for-26 for 11.5 percent – but with all the depth and talent Detroit possesses, Colorado can't assume those struggles will continue.


Dallas Stars: If eliminating the defending champion Anaheim Ducks in six games wasn't enough to grab people's attention, just remember the Stars did it without a minute of ice time from veteran defenseman Sergei Zubov.

One figures he's the type of player who will eventually be missed, and it figures to start in this round against big and physical San Jose. Zubov, however, appears to be close to rejoining his teammates for the first time since Jan. 17, coincidentally against the Sharks.

Zubov participated during Wednesday's full practice a day after skating in a spirited practice and scrimmage with a number of the organization's younger players. He is suffering from a sports hernia injury, and went to great lengths to search out the latest medical practices to repair the ailment. Zubov had something done in Germany earlier this month, but won't talk about the specifics of the procedure.

"Whether he starts or not, time will tell," Stars coach Dave Tippett

said of Zubov's status for Friday's Game 1 in San Jose.

The 37-year-old winner of Stanley Cups as a member of the Rangers in 1994 and Stars in 1999 appeared in just 46 games during the regular season, but that was enough to rank as Dallas' seventh-leading scorer. Thirty-one of his 35 points were assists, however, as Zubov fired 84 shots during the season. Among skaters who spent the entire season in Dallas, Zubov led in average ice time by a wide margin (25:41).

Zubov has always been an important figure for Dallas on special teams, an area the Stars excelled against Anaheim on the power play (league-best 10-for-38 and 26.3 percent) and performed just under the league average on the kill (79.2 percent).

In addition to welcoming Zubov back, Dallas could avoid having half of its blue line being defended by rookies – Matt Niskanen,

Nicklas Grossman

and Mark Fistric.


Detroit Red Wings: Dominik Hasek's shaky play in Round 1 signaled a change was necessary, and coach Mike Babcock didn't hesitate to switch to fellow-veteran Chris Osgood, who finished out the six-game victory over Nashville.

Nashville, however, didn't really test Osgood. The Predators put a total of only 54 shots on goal during the last 2 ½ games. Osgood, who relieved Hasek halfway through a 3-2 loss in Game 4 that tied the series 2-2, faced only 21 shots in Game 5 that went 1:48 into overtime, and 20 shots in Detroit's series-clinching Game 6 victory.

Logic would dictate that the 35-year-old Osgood would get the nod over the 43-year-old Hasek at the outset of the second-round series against Colorado that starts Thursday night in Hockeytown.

"Ozzie's obviously got the net right now and it's his job to make sure Dom doesn't get it back," Babcock told reporters after the first-round series. "But Dom's going to do everything he can to be ready."

How much confidence will Babcock have in Hasek if he is forced to make another change? Neither goalie was great toward the end of the season, even though Detroit won the Jennings Trophy for having the goalie tandem that allowed the fewest number of goals.


Montreal Canadiens: The top-seeded Canadiens' challenges might be more mental than physical. Montreal dominated Philadelphia during the regular-season series, winning all four games by a combined score of 15-6. Three of those victories came when the Flyers had Antero Niittymaki in goal and only one against current starter Martin Biron.

Going back even further, Montreal has beaten Philadelphia in nine of 11 meetings.

Fresh on Montreal's mind is the fact it beat Boston all eight times during the regular season, but the Bruins took the Canadiens to a seventh game.

Montreal's best players – Alexei Kovalev, Andrei Markov, Andrei Kostitsyn and Saku Koivu – were the Canadiens' leading scorers against the Flyers in the regular season, and the heat will be on them to perform well again. They need to pick it up on a power play that led the NHL during the regular season (24.2 percent), but went only 3-for-32 (9 percent) against the Bruins.

New York Rangers
New York Rangers

New York Rangers: The Rangers worked almost exclusively on special teams during Tuesday's practice. Even though they had success on the power play against the Devils (4-for-17, 23.5 percent, fourth best in the first round), New York feels like Pittsburgh will pose more problems, and converting chances will be of utmost importance.

That thought goes even more so for the penalty kill, because the Rangers face a far more potent power play in Pittsburgh than posed by the Devils, who went 5-for-24 in the first round.

New York's power play was below average during the regular season. The Rangers ranked 22nd at 16.5 percent, better than only one other final-eight team (No. 28 Colorado), but their penalty kill was solid at 84.5 percent to rank sixth.

Facing a Pittsburgh power play that clicked at better than 26 percent in the first round, the best penalty kill for the Rangers is not to take many penalties, which is easier said than done. The Penguins were content to hit the New York blue line, chip the puck in and play a forecheck game.

The Pens will hit the New York blue line, too, but they'll do it at top speed. New York's strength is its defense, and it will be sorely tested by one of the most potent group of forwards in the league.


Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers face an emotional and physical challenge. They won a seven-game first-round series on the road in overtime Monday, and now turn around to start a second-round matchup against the conference's top seed in another city two nights later.

Maybe it's easier to just keep rolling along, playing every other day, and there's the theory that Montreal has to come down from winning a seven-game series as well. But the Flyers should certainly be more road-weary than the homestanding Canadiens.

The Flyers also have to get beyond the fact they were swept in the regular-season series by the Canadiens. Philadelphia needs to focus on how it started the first-round series, by rebounding from a difficult Game 1 loss to snatch Game 2 on the road.

The Flyers need to probably earn a split in Montreal to feel like they have a chance. Without a victory in either of the first two games means Philadelphia has to win four of the last five to advance, and that's a steep hill to climb.


Pittsburgh Penguins: The Penguins have to realize that gaining revenge over the team that ousted them from the playoffs in the same round a year ago came largely against an Ottawa team that has been reeling since midseason and probably wasn't worthy of the playoffs.

When Pittsburgh opens its second-round best-of-seven Friday against the Atlantic Division-rival New York Rangers, it will mark the first game in nine nights, so rust and inactivity could be an issue.

All of the attention will be cast toward Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Marc-Andre Fleury, but a player like veteran Gary Roberts may have just as much to say about who wins this series as any of the young Pittsburgh studs.

Due to turn 42 next month, Roberts is a savvy performer who helped get Pittsburgh off on the right foot against Ottawa. He scored the first and last goals of a 4-0 victory and wasn't afraid to mix it up physically with the Senators, sending a strong message that the Penguins were vastly different from the team the Senators ousted last spring.

But Roberts, limited to 38 games due to injury during the regular season, is struggling with health again in the postseason. He was held out of the final two games of the series because of a sore groin. So he's had basically two weeks to get ready for the Rangers.

San Jose
San Jose

San Jose Sharks: The focus is on the blue line, where the team wants to get one player going and another playing again.

Things came awfully easy for Brian Campbell since his arrival at the trade deadline. He scored three goals and 19 points in 20 games with the Sharks, and it wasn't until his 19th contest with his new team that the ex-Sabre experienced a regulation loss.

Campbell found there was a lot less ice during San Jose's seven-game war with Calgary. Certainly part of the Flames' preparation was to try and bottle up Campbell, and it not only worked, but resulted in a number of turnovers and a pivotal goal in the Flames' Game 1 win. Campbell got on the score sheet with three assists, just one a primary helper on a power play.

Coincidentally, when the Sharks have previously matched up against Dallas in the postseason they've never had an answer for Stars puck-mover Sergei Zubov. Now they do, as long as Campbell gets going, and Dallas doesn't know if its top defenseman will be available.

And it's going to be awfully difficult navigating four rounds without the services of Kyle McLaren, who hobbled off the ice after one shift in the second period of Game 5. McLaren missed the last two games of the series with what the team terms a lower-body injury.

The near annual mid-season scope of his chronically troubled right knee didn't go as well as in years past. McLaren felt pain within a month of the procedure, and has been dealing with the ailment ever since. His physical presence is needed on a backline that otherwise has only Douglas Murray and Craig Rivet to apply the muscle. Christian Ehrhoff returned after missing the first three games of the series, and the team is keeping its fingers crossed with regards to his healthy, too.

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