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Kings in the North

Ranking the best of the NHL playoffs' opening games

In Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones — and don’t worry, I’m not giving anything away here — one schemer coldly presented his opportunistic worldview to another. “Chaos isn’t a pit,” he said.

Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, given a chance to climb — they refuse. They cling to the realm, or the gods, or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.

Sure, he was talking about his plans to one day rule the Seven Kingdoms (or something; I’m never entirely clear on what’s happening in any given scene), but he may as well have been chatting with a buddy about the Vancouver Canucks or the Washington Capitals in an arena concourse during intermission. It wouldn’t be the first time Westeros had some hockey tie-ins, is all I’m saying. They have the climate there to host any number of outdoor games!

And when it comes to playoff hockey — first-round playoff hockey, in particular — things are pretty much just as chaotic as they are in a fantasy world where warring tribes and royal armies face fire-breathing dragons and snow-covered zombies on the regular. Maybe more so. In this week’s Playoff Power Rankings, we celebrate the series that have featured the craziest climbs up the ladder of chaos. Because when it comes down to it, that’s all there is.

Ottawa Senators (7) vs. Montreal Canadiens (2)

Ottawa leads series, 2-1
Chris Kunitz #14 of the Pittsburgh Penguins

This Sens-Habs series isn’t even really climbing up the chaos ladder, to be honest: It’s standing at the bottom and shaking the damn thing until everyone else falls off. It took less than 24 hours for the two teams — who hadn’t previously met in the postseason — to go from polite acquaintances to suspicious adversaries to sworn, bitter, to-the-death rivals.

I don’t even know where to begin. There was the hit by Eric Gryba on Lars Eller in Game 1 that earned the former a two-game suspension and the latter a trip to the hospital. There was the subsequent press conference by Senators coach Paul MacLean, in which he explained that if he were Eller, “I’m really mad at Player 61, whoever he is, because he passed me the puck in the middle of the rink when I wasn’t looking, and that’s always been a dangerous place.” There was Brandon Prust taking exception to the gross characterization of Raphael Diaz as Player 61. “We don’t really care about what that bug-eyed fat walrus has to say,” he said. It went on from there.

There was Senators goalie Craig Anderson’s Game 1 win in which he lost a tooth thanks to a shot by Rene Bourque. There was Canadiens goalie Carey Price’s Game 2 victory in which he broke both his front teeth after running into his teammate and then hand-delivered the remnants to the bench, dropping them into the trainer’s outstretched hand like a kid handing over forbidden-but-already-been-chewed gum to his mom. There was Ottawa unknown Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who scored three goals in Game 3 and — you guessed it — lost a tooth in the process. “I might put it under my pillow to see what’s going to happen,” he said. “I’ll lose another one if it means we can win the next game.”

That’s the spirit! What else … there was also the line brawl (which in any other sport would be a “fracas” or a “melee”) that ultimately led to this box score. The third-period penalty summary alone takes up more than the length of my computer screen.

That’s not even to mention Erik Condra’s crosscheck on P.K. Subban, Subban’s beatdown of Kyle Turris, Bourque’s elbow, Chris Neil’s celebration, Ryan White’s slash, or Josh Gorges slapping the puck into Turris at the closing buzzer. May this series go to at least triple-overtime in Game 7, for all of us.

San Jose Sharks (6) vs. Vancouver Canucks (3)

San Jose leads series, 3-0
Jason Zucker #16 of the Minnesota Wild

Normally a series in which one team leads three games to none would not merit such a high ranking on a list meant to promote unpredictable outcomes and questionable antics. But in this case, a Sharks sweep in Game 4 tonight would be anything but dull, as it could set the stage for all sorts of rash responses out of Vancouver. Back-to-back (fast) first-round exits while having home ice? Excuse me while I go pop some popcorn. The only team more liable to do something drastic is the Rangers, and that’s not the company the Canucks want to keep.

In general, it is unwise to base major franchise-level decisions on the results of a lockout-shortened season followed by the eensy sample size of a few games in the playoffs. If Patrick Marleau were in just a slightly different position with under a minute to play in Game 2, maybe he wouldn’t get his stick on the puck and the series would look markedly different. We’d all be gravely wondering if the Sharks could stand up to the pressure, or ripping Joe Thornton’s leadership or something. Instead, all the focus is on the Canucks’ aging core, their sky-high expectations, their relentlessly present goalie saga — all because of the way a puck bounced. (Well, we would have talked about the goalie saga regardless.) This isn’t specific to hockey. Think of all the moves that have been made over a single basketball rimming out, or a broken fourth-down play somehow succeeding. But this series highlights it.

The Canucks’ goalie situation continues to deteriorate. Due to a “body injury” to Cory Schneider, Roberto Luongo got the start in Games 1 and 2. Schneider let in five goals in Game 3 and was pulled. (Thornton casually twisted the knife afterward: “We felt [Luongo] was playing great … We felt we were lucky not to play against Lou, to be honest.”) Luongo’s apartment in Vancouver is on the real estate market. The beat goes on.

Between all that and the emerging drama between Kevin Bieksa, Thornton, and Logan Couture (Bieksa contends that Thornton and Couture aren’t being Good Canadian Boys because they’re embellishing contact. Takes one to know one, neener-neener!), this series could very well move back from the brink. (By the way, someone should do a study on the spike in the words “brink” and “stave” during the playoffs.) But those of us rooting for chaos are probably rooting for a sweep.

New York Islanders (8) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (1)

Pittsburgh leads series, 2-1
Los Angeles Kings left winger Dustin Penner

For the second year in a row, the Penguins are engaged in an increasingly bananas first-round matchup with an Atlantic Division opponent. Pittsburgh cruised to a 5-0 win over the Islanders in the opening game of the series and went up 2-0 in the first 3:19 of Game 2. But New York chipped back to tie it midway through a second period that included a bloody fight involving Kyle Okposo — who later scored the game-winner for the Islanders to even the series. I would pay large sums of money to get an audio feed on the penalty-box split screen that NBC showed between Matt Cooke and Matt Carkner, who engaged in another angry confrontation.

One of my favorite things about the playoffs is the maligned fan bases returning to the (eventual crushing heartbreak of the) postseason after a long fallow spell. Even bandwagon fans don’t usually start to annoy me until the conference finals. And so it was fun to see so many scenes of happy, dumpy tailgating (the best kind!) going on pre-10 a.m., and it was surprisingly moving to hear the reaction inside the doomed arena when the Islanders took an early lead in the first period of Game 3, and then again in the third period when New York battled back from a 4-2 deficit.

The Penguins ultimately scored in overtime, but combined with the Islanders’ Game 2 win, the effort was the kind of close result that can give a team some “Hey, we can legitimately beat these guys” swagger (which certainly didn’t exist after that 5-0 Game 1). I’d anticipate tonight’s matchup will only get feistier — the Islanders were not happy that the game-winning power play was a result of Sidney Crosby drawing a penalty. They’ll probably be looking to let him know.

Detroit Red Wings (7) vs. Anaheim Ducks (2)

Series tied, 2-2
Max Pacioretty

It would have been easy for this series to devolve into madness after winger Justin Abdelkader delivered a massive hit on Anaheim’s Toni Lydman in Game 3 this weekend. But the two teams kept their cool in their next rematch Monday night (which Abdelkader missed while serving a two-game suspension). In fact, the most unhinged of anyone involved in this series might be this raving radio guy. Are you sure he didn’t mean to challenge people to name five stars on the Red Wings?

I kid, I kid. Pavel Datsyuk alone is typically worth at least three stars. His goal Monday night to tie the game at 2-2 was the opposite of chaotic — it was flawless, elegant, practically courtly, and so clean and precise that you weren’t sure whether anything had actually happened. Anaheim, on the other hand? “Whole OT for the Ducks felt like they were juggling chainsaws, fire and puppies,” tweeted the New York Times’s John Branch. “Ducks looking like they are on E,” tweeted the L.A. Times’s Lisa Dillman. (Here’s how that particular high looks in shot-chart form. Compare with Games 1, 2, and 3.) “We’ve got some guys who are working their [rears] off,” said Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau, “and then we have continually the same passengers every night.”

The Ducks seem to be squawking a little, but maybe we have an answer to how the Red Wings have been keeping themselves pretty Zen: flower showers. From now until the Stanley Cup is awarded, I am going to gaze upon this photo of “Johan Franzen look[ing] down as flowers fly after the soccer ball hits the trees” anytime I need to decompress from the insanity of the playoffs. (I tweeted this picture out earlier and several people clicked on it expecting to see the author Jonathan Franzen, by the way. I’d pay for that photo shoot.)

New York Rangers (6) vs. Washington Capitals (3)

Washington leads series, 2-1
San Jose Sharks left wing Raffi Torres
I’ll let Charles P. Pierce guide you through this series, but a few additional notes:

1. For two teams that are playing each other for the fourth time in five postseasons, there hasn’t really been too much in the way of extracurricular activity. That said, the seeds were planted near the end of Game 3 when Brad Richards high-sticked Alex Ovechkin, Ovie snapped his head back like a crash-test dummy, and Richards’s eyes glowed with fury from the penalty box. We’ll see if this gets addressed in Game 4.

2. In a Sports Illustrated piece on Ovechkin by Sarah Kwak, the Capitals captain credits his fiancée, Maria Kirilenko, with much of his personal improvement. “I don’t think [the relationship] changed my personality, but it’s changed my lifestyle,” he told Kwak. “No more crazy stuff like I did in the summers … You don’t want to know.” (Actually, thanks to this wondrous GQ article on those summers, yes I do!)

3. Poor Rick Nash had eight shots in Game 1, then got ripped by Mike Milbury for being invisible. Ovechkin is like, I know how you feel, pal.

4. I’m tempted to leapfrog this series way up to one of the top slots based on this actual image from Game 3. This is really taking the concept of “chaos” a little too literally, guys.

Los Angeles Kings (5) vs. St. Louis Blues (4)

Series tied, 2-2
Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard
This rematch of last year’s semifinals has been perhaps the best pure-hockey series in the first round. It’s been the kind of matchup that makes you wish it weren’t taking place so early in the postseason, and happening so fast. There’s a line in Bright Lights, Big City about how “your life will fade behind you, like a book you have read too quickly,” and in a way, that’s sort of how Blues-Kings feels: I can’t believe it’s already more than halfway over! It’s almost sad.

Neither team has lost at home yet, stars on both teams have made crucial overtime mistakes (for the Kings, it was Jonathan Quick mishandling the puck behind the net in Game 1; for the Blues, it was T.J. Oshie, who scored twice in Game 3 but was on the ice for all four of the Kings’ goals. “It’s probably the worst complete hockey game I’ve played all year,” he said), and there’s been plenty of physicality. But it’s hard to rank this series high with a straight face after reading this send-up of the relationship — and I do mean relationship — between the two teams:

When it’s the playoffs, the teams get to know each other up close and personal. During the regular season, the relationship is more a passing fancy, a one-night stand. They bump into each other on a Saturday night. They have some laughs, exchange phone numbers and they agree to get together again real soon. Weeks go by.

In the playoffs, the players get together again on Monday, then on Wednesday, then on Friday. Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester is experiencing this closeness for the first time. He’s never spent so much quality time with an opponent before …

Dr. Phil would call it “relationship-building.” And the bonds are especially intriguing where the Blues and Kings are concerned because it’s nostalgic. These teams hooked up together a year ago and, with only a handful of exceptions, their lineups are the same.

I … I feel like I’m back in college.

Toronto Maple Leafs (5) vs. Boston Bruins (4)

Boston leads series, 2-1
Arron Asham #45 of the New York Rangers

Ottawa-Montreal has thus far been the rancorous series I thought Leafs-Bruins would be. Instead, we’re getting borderline Yogi Berra–isms like “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying. That’s my theory on faceoffs” from Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle. (“Cheating” is the buzzword of the 2013 playoffs, so credit Carlyle for being hip to this one thing. Alain Vigneault also accused the Sharks of faceoff infidelity, while Wild coach Mike Yeo did the same to Chicago.) In the Toronto-Boston series, though, the cheating discussion was almost aspirational. “They were cheating a little better than we were,” Tyler Bozak said. Such mutual respect!

It was one of many surprisingly complimentary statements between the two teams. Jake Gardiner described trying to check Jaromir Jagr: “It’s almost impossible. It’s like the puck is glued to his stick.” Milan Lucic gave props to the frenzied crowd at the Air Canada Centre (I love the headline of that article, by the way): “It’s the centre of the hockey world and they deserve playoff hockey,” he said, blessedly working in a small dig to make us all more at peace with the natural state of the world: “It was pretty cool, looking at them with all their fancy white scarves, and it was definitely a fun game to be a part of.” Here’s a picture of the scarves (in Toronto, are they called scarfs?), which Elliott Friedman described as “maki[ing] this game look like the world’s biggest Bar Mitzvah.”

And in one of the most touching displays of affinity, the ACC fans made their support for their often-maligned scorer Phil Kessel loudly known: “Thank you, Kessel,” they chanted Monday, turning a mocking Bruins fan heckle on its head. It didn’t hurt, of course, that Kessel scored during the game, or that he had converted on a breakaway during Game 2 in Boston, much to the delight of the fans back in Canada. Having been smothered with great persistence by Zdeno Chara all series, Kessel finally found himself on the ice without the hulking defenseman. But Boston coach Claude Julien argued that when Kessel did score, it wasn’t because Chara was on the bench — it was because there was “a parting of the Red Sea with the two defensemen [Dennis Seidenberg and Johnny Boychuk] that were out there.”

This analogy means Phil Kessel = Moses, and so I approve.

Minnesota Wild (8) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (1)

Chicago leads series, 2-1
Toronto fans

If there’s any single team that has worked hard to use chaos as a ladder during the first few games of the playoffs, it’s the Minnesota Wild. Just moments before they were set to play their first game against the Presidents’ Trophy–winning Blackhawks, Wild starting goaltender Niklas Backstrom went down with an injury and backup Josh Harding, who announced in November that he has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, had to step in unexpectedly.

The Wild, not expected to give the Blackhawks an enormous amount of trouble, took Chicago to overtime in one game and won another. In three games, Harding has amassed a .928 save percentage and an enormous amount of respect.

“It’s nothing short of amazing,” Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said after Game 1. “Obviously you have a lot of respect for a guy like that. I don’t remember his quotes exactly, but it was along the lines of him not wanting any sympathy or anything like that.” A few days later, Harding affirmed that by denying Toews what might have been one of the highlight-reel goals of the postseason.

It’s hard to think that Minnesota will be able to beat Chicago three more times in the next four games. As opposed to a team like the Penguins, the Blackhawks don’t have obvious holes that can be exploited. But the Wild have already shown how they can adapt, both in their own net and at the other end. (Jason Zucker, who scored the overtime game winner Sunday, is a rookie who only a few weeks ago was playing in the American Hockey League.) And the climb is all there is, right?

Filed Under: Events, NHL Playoffs, NHL Viewing Guide, Power Rankings, Series, Sports

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes