Sunday, May 16, 2010

v2, d68: The Playoffs: What You've Missed

I've had a couple of you asking how the NHL Playoffs are going since I've offered far less talk about them here than I have in the past, so I thought I'd just give you one nice big post to get everyone caught up (and let everyone who's not interested at all skip this one and be done with it :-)

The 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs have been weird. They started with a deluge of "History Will Be Made" ads from the NHL, and sure enough history has been made. We've got the #1 and #2 teams in the West still alive and the #7 and #8 teams in the East playing for the right to challenge for Lord Stanley's silver chalice. Not only are the Habs and Flyers the bottom two seeds in the East, but they actually had worse records than (I believe) three teams in the West that did NOT make the playoffs, so it's more like the #1 and #2 seeds in the NHL in one corner and the #19 and #20 seeds in the other.

Like I said, weird. Furthermore, we've had own-goals in overtime, second, third, and fourth-string goalies carrying their teams, the Coyotes moving to Winnipeg next season (and then not), and the two teams that have played in the Cup Final the past two seasons both bounced in the second round.

Rewind about a month. The first major surprise came when the only series of the opening round that failed to go six or seven games ended with the ousting of the #2 New Jersey Devils in the East by the #7 Philadelphia Flyers, who were playing without key forwards and their starting goalie. The guy in net, Brian Boucher, was touted to be the Flyers' goalie of the future...ten years ago. Since then, he's played backup for Phoenix, Calgary, Columbus, Chicago, and San Jose, with two decent years to his credit and a bunch of bad ones. (One year he set the record for consecutive shutout minutes--over five full games--and finished well below league average in save percentage) However, Ray Emery went down with an injury, so the Flyers brought in Michael Leighton--and he went down with an injury, too. Boucher took the reins in the playoffs and stunned the hockey world by shutting down the Devils (plus Ilya Kovalchuk) in five games.

The rest of the first round was pretty tightly-contested. Every single series was tied at 1-1 after two games, and I believe the majority of them were even after four games, too. In the West, the #8 Colorado Avalanche looked poised for a major upset against a San Jose Sharks team that has historically been prone to major letdowns. Colorado goalie Craig Anderson stole the show in games three and four, stopping something like 50 San Jose shots in a 1-0 overtime win that saw Shark defender (and 2004 Cup Champ) Dan Boyle put the puck past his own goalie. It looked like the hockey gods had it in for the Sharks, again, but San Jose took over the series from that point and won it in six. Colorado was banged up and suffered some key injuries, but even when healthy they weren't as complete team as San Jose. Given that they were the worst in the west last year, though, just making the playoffs and giving the Sharks a bit of a scare was quite the accomplishment.

Another feel-good failure happened in Phoenix, where the Coyotes, who were almost sold and moved to Ontario over the summer, lost most of their front-office staff, had a messy break with the head coach (some guy named Gretzky), drew less than 10,000 fans per game the first half of the season, and had sucked for the last seven years, had a chance to eliminate the mighty mighty Detroit Red Wings on home ice in a game seven. They didn't do it, and a few weeks later it was leaked that the NHL had put together a tentative schedule for the next season that had a team in Winnipeg and not Phoenix, and then both ownership groups bidding to buy the Coyotes walked away, and then came back...okay, I'm still not sure what's happening there. But it appears there'll be NHL hockey in Phoenix next year, and hopefully they can build on the momentum they've built this entire season.

The #6 L.A. Kings were another team to come back from seven years of obscurity to put a scare in a Cup contender in round one, leading the Canucks 2 games to 1 at one point, but they dropped it in six. Ditto the Nashville Predators vs. my pre-season Cup pick, the Chicago Blackhawks. In the East, the Ottawa Senators grabbed a quick 1-0 series lead against the defending Cup champs from Pittsburgh, but really, they just made the Penguins mad, and Pittsburgh won that series in six. #6 Boston upset #3 Buffalo and All-American Hero Ryan Miller, leaving only the Montreal/Washington series to wrap up the first round.

You have to keep in mind, the last two weeks of the season, it seemed like neither the Canadiens nor the Bruins nor the Flyers wanted in the post-season, because they kept losing and falling closer and closer to missing the playoffs altogether. All three showed up in the first round, though, and the Habs took the first game in D.C. Alex O's Caps stormed back to take a 3-1 series lead as Montreal couldn't seem to settle on a #1 goalie. Finally, they gave the ball--er, the puck--to Jaroslav Halak and let him run with it. Suddenly, the NHL's highest scoring team simply could not score. It was incredible. It seemed at times like Halak must have had plexi up on the goal line. He pulled a JS Giguere circa 2003, a Miikka Kiprusoff 2004, a Dwayne Roloson 2006, and somehow the smallish-yet-speedy Canadiens forwards put just enough pucks past Seymon Varmalov to come all the way back to win the series in game seven on the Caps' home ice.

When all was settled, the Pens, Bruins, Flyers, and Habs were left in the East while the Sharks, Blackhawks, Canucks, and Red Wings battled it out in the West.

But oh, the surprises didn't end there, as the first team bucked from round two was the Wings, taken out in five games by the suddenly-can't-miss Sharks. San Jose won four one-goal games (Detroit's only win was by a 7-1 score, so technically the Wings outscored the Sharks for the series) and, miracle of miracles, San Jose's big guns showed up to play. Wings fans will probably complain about the officiating in this series for the next six or seven years, but San Jose was the better team, the more poised team, and the deeper team, and they moved on. Meanwhile, Vancouver looked dominant in the first game of their series against the Blackhawks--and then never again. Like the Sharks, the Hawks showed why they'd been a top team all year long, and the two are now matched up to give us one heck of a fireworks show in the conference finals.

Both East series' featured gritty comeback performances and game seven dramatics. Like the Capitals, the Penguins managed to get the Habs down three games to one. Like the Caps, they never did finish the deal. The team had trouble scoring, and their lack of depth at wing was definitely exposed, but it seemed to me like the difference in the series was that Marc-Andre Fleury wasn't able to make the saves the team needed him to make in order to stay in it. Too many soft goals, too many early goals. Maybe the kid's tired from two summers of playing into June. Who knows. The Pens had to play the last three games trailing, and the Habs are just a tough team to claw your way back against. And, of course, Halak has been nothing short of a monster so far in the playoffs.

In the other series, Boston cruised to a 3-0 series lead. For perspective: only two teams in history had come back from down 3-0 to win a series. Well folks, make it three. Despite losing first-round playoff hero Brian Boucher to an injury for the rest of the playoffs, the Flyers again found a way to win four in a row. Game seven in Boston saw the Bruins take a 3-0 lead early in the game, and the Flyers come back to win it 4-3 in regulation. First time in history that's happened in a game seven, too.

Here we are, then. Two rounds to go, four teams left. The juggernauts from San Jose and Chicago trading blows (the Blackhawks won game 1 today, 2-1, in a game that featured lots of great chances and some fantastic goaltending) and the scrappy-dappy-doo Flyers and Canadiens in the East. This has been a tough year to try to predict. Even a lot of experts--Versus, TSN, various Internet celebrities--have looked pretty bad. My prediction: more weird things will happen.

Aha! Case in point: Flyers vs. Habs, game 1: Halfway through the second, Halak has been yanked from the game after allowing four goals. Who knew??