The first few games of a playoff series are frequently quirky, as teams suss out their new opponents, figure out matchups, come up with imaginary or legitimate reasons for bitter hatred, and compete on wildly divergent degrees of rest. (The Philadelphia Flyers were idle for a week before Game 1 against the Devils, who’d had a day and a half to recover from a double-overtime Game 7.) What’s more, they say that a series hasn’t really begun until you’ve played in both barns, meaning it’s difficult to assess a series after a game or even two.
Still, the opening weekend of Round 2 offered up plenty to think about. From the unexpectedly high-scoring Phoenix-Nashville series to Scott Hartnell’s tender ministrations toward Pierre McGuire; from Chris Kreider’s breakout to Alex Pietrangelo’s nerve-racking absence, what hopes to be two weeks of long, hard-fought series got off to a good start. Here are our weekly Playoff Power Rankings, judged on a highly unscientific and random scale that essentially seeks to answer the question: “Which series is gonna be the best?” Here they are, in order of least to most likely.
No. 3 Phoenix Coyotes vs. No. 4 Nashville Predators
Coyotes lead, 2-0
Are you a visual learner who wishes to see the difference between Games 1 and 2 of this series in graphical form? Look no further than this shot data from Behind the Net: camera one, camera two. Camera one, camera two. After relying heavily on goaltender Mike Smith to help them survive a first game in which they were heavily outshot 42-24 — Pierre LeBrun called the overtime win “robbery” — the Phoenix Coyotes outshot Nashville 39-33 on Sunday.
The two teams have managed plenty of goals for a series that had been expected to be a low-scoring, goaltender-led affair. Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, who allowed just nine goals over five games in Nashville’s first-round win over Detroit, has missed another nine in just the first two games of this series.1 It’s not all on Rinne, though, as Barry Trotz pointed out: Nashville’s defense has had some major issues, and the pairing of Roman Josi and Kevin Klein has proven particularly troublesome. (Adam Gretz pointed out that Klein has been on the ice for five of Phoenix’s goals and was serving a penalty during another.)
It’s not the defense that is the scapegoat du jour, though. That’s because of a searing segment on NBC’s studio show in which Keith Jones castigated Alexander Radulov for slow backchecking, loopy skating, and missed shots. While there’s no denying that the cherry-picked selection of clips appears pretty damning, you do wonder why no one is drawing attention to the countless other mistakes occurring around him. (Maybe because they’re not being committed by an archetypical “enigmatic Russian”?) It’s true that after five points in the first round, Radulov has just an assist in the second. But when you look at possession-based numbers, he doesn’t stand out as having a markedly negative impact. Asked if Radulov deserved the criticism, coach Barry Trotz said, “yes, absolutely.”
It’s true that most people didn’t expect the Coyotes to come out of their two home games with a pair of wins, but it really shouldn’t be that surprising: Save for an injury-ridden slump midway through the season, the team has been doing this for quite some time.
Keith Yandle and Ray Whitney, who have combined for 13 points this postseason, were the team’s no. 1 and no. 4 scorers all year. Radim Vrbata, who was second in scoring thanks to a 35-goal regular season, has rebounded from a first-round injury and lit the lamp in each of the last two games. (If you’re a math nerd looking for a team to support in the playoffs, you might choose the Coyotes: Their line of Vrbata, who wears no. 17, Whitney (13), and Martin Hanzal (11) has been dubbed “The Prime Line.“) And GM Don Maloney’s trade-deadline deal with Columbus for Antoine Vermette looks better and better with every playoff goal. He has five to go along with three assists.
No. 1 New York Rangers vs. No. 7 Washington Capitals
Rangers lead, 1-0
I can’t back this up with any proof, but the loudest moment at Madison Square Garden on Saturday didn’t seem to be when rookie Chris Kreider scored on a streaking slap shot to put the Rangers up 2-1 seven minutes into the third period, even if it did cause the crowd to break out a “Kreider, clap clap” chant. Nor was it when the kid earned an assist just 90 seconds later when Brad Richards threaded the needle past Braden Holtby. It came earlier, in the second period, after the Rangers committed a pair of penalties in the still-scoreless game that put them down 5-on-3 for 33 seconds, and then killed both of them off.
As Ryan Callahan, Dan Girardi, and Ruslan Fedotenko kept the Capitals from getting a shot off, the roars of encouragement and relief grew every time the puck cleared the zone. In some ways, it was indicative of the pace of the game to that point — one MSG usher leaned over to me in the first and muttered, “They better get some goals, or everyone’s gonna turn on the Knicks” — and the crowd’s anxiousness to cheer for something. But it was also a nice tribute to the style of play that has gotten the Rangers this far. (And the Knicks sucked it up anyway.) Fedotenko, in particular, blocked a shot attempt by Ovechkin, broke up a pass, and got a key clear. (A few minutes later, he assisted on Artem Anisimov’s 1-0 goal — a wraparound that took place right after the Rangers had shown Stephane Matteau on the JumboTron.)
After the game, the group of reporters gathered around Fedotenko in the locker room was one of the biggest scrums.2
“It was a great kill and we take the momentum going further,” said Fedotenko, who, at 33 years old, is the Rangers’ oldest skater (backup goalie Marty Biron is 34) and one of the team’s most experienced postseason veterans. He scored the Stanley Cup–winning Game 7 goal in 2004 as part of a Tampa Bay Lightning team coached by John Tortorella and led by Brad Richards, and he was on the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins championship squad. “[The penalty kill] was a key point of the game,” Tortorella said on Saturday. “Feds came up big. They all did.”
The blocked shot on Ovechkin was one of two attempts the Capitals captain had stopped during the game. On one would-be offensive sequence, no. 83 was shut down by the Rangers’ defensemen and took a bad penalty. “I make a bad decision,” he told the Washington Post. “Sometimes I make that kind of decisions and after that I just think, ‘Jesus, why I do that?'” (Here’s an interesting piece that tries to explore just why.)
But Ovechkin wasn’t the only one making mistakes. Alex Semin took two silly penalties, Mike Green and Roman Hamrlik had a defensive mix-up that led to Kreider’s goal, and Braden Holtby was hardly the second coming of Ken Dryden in net, allowing three goals on 14 shots. (Holtby explained that the low shot total made it hard for him to “get into the game.”)
No. 2 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 8 Los Angeles Kings
Kings lead, 1-0
Let’s begin with the most important news: Dustin Penner has joined Twitter, his bio is listed as “ihop.com,” and he’s already posted a Player Haters Club photo. Amazing. Also, I have to think that whatever editor wrote the caption “Dustin Penner is congratulated after his empty-net goal” cracked a small smile. The goal gave the Kings some insurance in their 3-1 win over the Blues on Saturday — a game which was watched, by the way, on 8.3 percent of TVs in St. Louis, the no. 1 program for its time slot and a new record for NBC Sports in the market. (In comparison, the share in Los Angeles was a sad 0.8.)
With so many Blues fans tuning in, there must have been an audible gasp midway through the game when young star defenseman Alex Pietrangelo4 was hit from behind into the boards by the Kings’ Dwight King. Pietrangelo played one more shift and then left the game with the dreaded “upper body injury.” This was a significant blow to St. Louis, considering that he has been the team’s ice time leader in the playoffs, racking up an average of 24:42 per game, including 3:19 on the penalty kill.
Things really spiraled downward for the Blues after the hit: King was given only a two-minute minor, the Kings managed to score while killing the penalty (their third shorthanded goal in the playoffs), and the goal was tarnished by uncalled contact on goalie Brian Elliott. Pietrangelo’s defensive partner Carlo Colaiacovo said Sunday that he “seemed to be in quite a bit of pain,” but Pietrangelo was back on the ice for the team’s morning skate on Monday.
Jonathan Quick finished with 28 saves, and he kept the Kings in the game during crucial times: In the game’s opening minute he stopped three straight shots by Andy McDonald, and as the clock ticked down near the end of the game and his team clung to a 2-1 lead he withstood an offensive onslaught by the Blues until Penner hit the open net.
Before the series began, St. Louis head coach Ken Hitchcock engaged in some gamesmanship, declaring the Kings the “no. 1 seed” by virtue of their having beaten the no. 1 seed. But at this point, the pressure is more on St. Louis not to become the second top Western Conference team knocked off by L.A.
No. 5 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 6 New Jersey Devils
Flyers lead, 1-0
You know how if you look at a word long enough, it becomes nothing but an arbitrary jumble of letters that forces you to contemplate the very construct of language? Well, that’s happening to me right now with the word “clutch.” The Flyers’ Danny Briere appeared to have scored the overtime game-winner in Game 1 of Flyers-Devils on Sunday, but it was called back when it was ruled that he had hit the puck with a distinct kicking motion of his skate. No worries, he got the puck back in the net again two minutes later. This time, so as to avoid any confusion, it was a slap shot.
“Daniel Briere is so clutch,” wrote Backhand Shelf’s Cam Charron, “he once scored two goals in the same playoff overtime.” With 106 points in 104 playoff games, Briere is frequently cited by lovers of Ebersolian-style narrative as a primo example of a guy who’s just so freaking clutch. He elevates his game when it really counts! He’s a gamer rising to the occasion! Playoff heroics! Loud noises! GOOOALLL!
I’m not an complete anti-clutch hardliner — sometimes I just want to believe, man — but there’s no disputing that its existence, let alone its impact, is frequently presented without proper context. Charron pointed out that you need to take Briere’s defensive presence into account.5 Broad Street Hockey’s Eric Tulsky asked: “Question for ppl who think JvR [James van Riemsdyk] and Briere elevate game in playoffs: are you mad at them for not bothering to play their best in reg season?” (At the start of this particular regular season, he had run some telling numbers.) (Also, that URL makes me laugh.)
The Devils saw a few ups and downs from goalie Martin Brodeur, who finished with 32 saves. They came out on top early, recording the game’s first 11 shots as the Flyers showed clear signs of rust after a week-long layoff. Zach Parise scored his third goal of the playoffs three minutes in, while Travis Zajac netted his fourth. Petr Sykora tied the game in the third period to send it to overtime, the third straight for New Jersey. Fans even booed Philly after the first. But the real raspberries are probably owed to New Jersey’s Marek Zidlicky, who was a defensive disaster on Briere’s game-winning goal.
(By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, here are the places I managed to catch dribs and drabs of Game 1: a bar on Bowery in New York that still smelled like beer from the night before; the backseat of a speeding cab, the window out of which I may or may not have had to stick my head once or twice; the airport floor, while curled up in the fetal position; and my seat on a JFK-SFO flight that took off seven and a half hours after the one I was originally booked on. Thanks to a bachelorette party on Saturday night that began with “transfusions” and ended with several of us stragglers bumbling around a bodega at 4:30 a.m.,6 I slept right through my alarm — or possibly I never set an alarm, it’s kind of unclear. “I’m sure you can still make the flight!” my friends said encouragingly when I opened my eyes and started moaning obscenities. I explained that probably I couldn’t — it was taking off in 10 minutes.
In other words: I make a bad decision. Sometimes I make those type of decisions and after that I just think, “Jesus, why I do that?” Alex Ovechkin, I completely understand.)