"Sometimes the first round is the hardest round," said coach John Tortorella Thursday night, after his New York Rangers, the No. 1 seed in the East, survived a Game 7 against the eighth-seeded Ottawa Senators.
This year the first round was a giant-killer.
Gone are the last four Stanley Cup winners: the Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings. Gone are the Vancouver Canucks, who were Cup finalists last year and won their second straight Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's top regular-season team. Gone are the San Jose Sharks, the only ones to make the conference final in each of the past two years.
Eleven seasons since the last expansion, seven years into the salary-cap era, the talent is relatively even across the league's 30 teams. But it seems especially even among the 16 playoff teams.
"When you look at the teams that have been knocked out, it's whoever's playing their best hockey at the right time, and the parity shows," said coach Claude Julien Wednesday night after his second-seeded Bruins lost a Game 7 to the seventh-seeded Washington Capitals. "The teams that are on top of their games seem to be winning the series right now."
The playoffs have broken wide open. But that doesn't mean the second round will be any easier than the first for those left standing.
In the West, the four teams are remarkably similar. None has won a Cup. All have excellent goaltending. Between the St. Louis Blues' Brian Elliott, the Nashville Predators' Pekka Rinne, the Phoenix Coyotes' Mike Smith and the Los Angeles Kings' Jonathan Quick, no one has a goals-against average higher than 1.81 or a save percentage lower than .944. Good luck, shooters.
"It's hard to score," said Coyotes coach Dave Tippett. "You hope you have enough skill to win."
The goaltending ain't bad in the East, either – with one notable exception. The Rangers have Henrik Lundqvist, a finalist not only for the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goaltender – along with Rinne and Quick – but the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player. The New Jersey Devils have Martin Brodeur, a three-time Cup champion and four-time Vezina winner. The Capitals have Braden Holtby, who might be a 22-year-old rookie third-stringer, but who just beat the Bruins' Tim Thomas, a two-time Vezina winner and the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the playoffs' MVP. The Flyers …
Well, the Flyers have Ilya Bryzgalov. He struggled for the Coyotes when they were swept in the first round by the Red Wings last year. The Flyers signed him to a nine-year, $51 million contract to solve their chronic goaltending problems, anyway. Surprise, surprise, he was shaky in the first round against the Penguins.
Still, the Flyers had enough firepower to beat the Penguins, who were the odds-on favorites to win the Cup – "were" being the operative word. So here are our updated, reshuffled, shot-in-the-dark power rankings for the second round in a league where 1 through 16 – let alone 1 through 8 – is closer than it appears:
1. Nashville Predators: This could be their year. First, general manager David Poile was able to add three key pieces before the trade deadline: hulking defenseman Hal Gill, scoring winger Andrei Kostitsyn and checking center Paul Gaustad. Then, Poile had a star scorer fall into his lap when Alexander Radulov decided to return from Russia.
Next, the Predators cleared a huge hurdle when they beat the rival Red Wings in five games in the first round. They kept the skilled Wings to the outside, let Rinne make his saves and capitalized on their opportunities. Now they have a golden opportunity to go deep with so many traditional powers out of the way.
The problem is, they didn't generate enough of an attack against Detroit and relied too much on their defense for offense. They can't expect more from the likes of Kevin Klein, who scored the 14th and 15th goals of his NHL career – regular season and playoffs combined. Their offense needs to show why it ranked in the top 10 in the regular season, and their power play needs to show why it was No. 1.
2. New York Rangers: It starts with Lundqvist in goal. It continues with the blue-collar, shot-blocking defense. But it extends to the energy and speed up front.
Rookie Carl Hagelin looks like a natural on the top line with center Brad Richards and sniper Marian Gaborik. Even more impressive, Chris Kreider, who won an NCAA title with Boston College just a couple of weeks ago, looks like he has been playing forever with center Derek Stepan and captain Ryan Callahan. He scored the winner in Game 6 against the Senators and made key plays in Game 7. Both rookies were out in the final minute to protect a one-goal lead with the season on the line.
Tortorella has instilled a gritty identity in this young team specifically for this time of year. But the question remains whether he has enough offense. Third-line center Brian Boyle provided much-needed secondary scoring with three goals against the Sens, but he hasn't played since Game 5 because of a concussion. Richards had two goals and five points, but he was virtually invisible in Game 7. Gaborik hasn't scored since Game 1.
3. Philadelphia Flyers: After the Flyers eliminated the Penguins, coach Peter Laviolette casually referred to center Claude Giroux as "the best player in the world." He slyly emphasized that Giroux had beaten Sidney Crosby head-to-head and assured that pundits would talk about him differently.
Is Giroux really the best player in the world? Whether you think he is or isn't doesn't matter. If you're arguing about it, he's in the conversation.
But whether we continue to talk about Giroux in those terms probably depends on what happens next. Though he put up an impressive 14 points against the Penguins – five points more than anyone else in the first round – that was in an unusually wide-open series with porous goaltending on both sides.
To help Bryzgalov, the Flyers need to keep blocking shots like they did in Game 6 against the Penguins, when they made sure 40 pucks wouldn't have a chance of leaking into the net. Otherwise, they need to keep outscoring their mistakes. If Giroux continues to perform like the best player in the world – or at least the best player still alive – they have a chance.
4. Los Angeles Kings: It didn't make sense that the Kings were the second-lowest scoring team in the regular season, relying too much on Quick and squeaking into the final playoff spot in the West.
Look at their roster – Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Drew Doughty, Dustin Brown, plus trade-deadline acquisition Jeff Carter. Of the four teams left in the West, they might have the most high-end talent. When goals are few and far between, that could be the difference.
Not only did the Kings upset the Canucks in the first round, they won the series in a stunning five games. Carter looked injured and ineffective. But Brown, the gritty captain, led the way with four goals. Richards was the playoff beast he was expected to be, and Quick won his first playoff series. Coming together under coach Darryl Sutter, the Kings might be the team they were supposed to be all along.
This isn't a typical eighth seed. This team has now shown it is capable of making a run.
5. St. Louis Blues: Now that Andy McDonald is healthy and productive, the Blues have more experience and scoring. McDonald played only 25 games during the regular season. But the crafty center, who won a Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007, led the Blues with four goals and eight points in the first round.
The Blues whipped the San Jose Sharks in five games. But frankly, that was a good matchup for them. They handled the Sharks well in the regular season and were expected to close them out rather quickly.
The Kings will be a stiffer test. The Blues scored only once in three games against Quick in the regular season. McDonald and Patrik Berglund, who had three goals and seven points in the first round, cannot carry the load in the second round. More will be needed from T.J. Oshie, Alex Steen, David Backes and company, while more of the same will be expected from the defense and goaltending.
6. Washington Capitals: Listen to this quote from Alex Ovechkin: "We played well defensively, and it's worth it sometimes." The Capitals fully committed to their new direction under coach Dale Hunter in the first round, and even Ovechkin, angry as he is about his reduced ice time, can't argue with the results. The Caps upset the defending champion Bruins in the tightest series in NHL history – seven one-goal games for the first time ever, including four that went to overtime.
The Capitals were able to take leads against the Bruins and collapse into a defensive shell, while Holtby did his best 1971 Ken Dryden impression. It worked this time, and it seemed to validate general manager George McPhee's decision to adopt a more defensive philosophy and replace Bruce Boudreau with Hunter.
But an unlucky bounce in overtime of Game 7 could have invalidated it just as easily, and the Capitals flamed out in the second round last season. If they do so again, how will this be viewed? Will Ovechkin think it was worth it then? Will Hunter want to come back next season or go back to coaching the junior team he owns, the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League?
7. New Jersey Devils: Two things don't bode well for the Devils against the Flyers.
One, they blew leads during the regular season and continued to blow them in the first round against the Florida Panthers. They blew a 3-0 lead and lost Game 3. They blew 2-0 leads in Games 6 and 7, only to recover and win both, 3-2, in overtime – double OT in the case of Game 7.
Anyone watch the Penguins-Flyers series? The Flyers rallied from a 3-0 deficit and won Game 1. They rallied from deficits of 2-0, 3-1 and 4-3 and won Game 2. They gave up the first goal in Game 3 and won again. If only the Devils could go back to their old neutral-zone trap.
Two, the Devils' record-setting penalty kill suddenly looked vulnerable in the playoffs. The Devils killed 89.6 percent of their penalties during the regular season, best in the league. But they gave up eight power-play goals to the Panthers.
Anyone watch the Penguins-Flyers series? The Penguins had the third-best PK in the regular season at 87.8 percent. The Flyers torched it. They went 12-for-23 on the power play against the Penguins – an absurd 52.2-percent efficiency rate.
8. Phoenix Coyotes: Frankly, the playoffs are already a success for the Coyotes. By beating the Blackhawks, they won their first series since the franchise moved from Winnipeg in 1996 – while the NHL continued its efforts to keep the franchise from moving again.
You've got to love the underdog story here. Antoine Vermette, a deadline acquisition from the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets, led the Coyotes with four goals and five points in the first round. Mikkel Boedker, who entered the playoffs with 27 career goals, scored back-to-back overtime winners. Gilbert Brule, claimed on waivers from the lowly Edmonton Oilers and a healthy scratch in Game 2, chipped in a couple of goals. Even Smith, the Coyotes' best player and backbone, was an afterthought in free agency last summer.
But they're beaten up, and ruffian Raffi Torres is serving a 25-game suspension for his illegal hit on Chicago’s Marian Hossa. How long can the Coyotes stay alive in the desert?