NHL Weekend: Catching Up on Round 1

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Three whole days ago, we headed into the second weekend of the NHL playoffs not knowing all that much except that the Ducks had made it to the next round. By the end of last night, we’d come out of it with five more teams eliminated, two second-round matchups booked, three favorites already out, and two more on the brink. Also, we probably still don’t know all that much, although for the purpose of this post we’ll pretend otherwise.

We’ve got two more big games tonight, including our first Game 7. But first, let’s do a quick roundup of where we’re at with all eight first-round series.

The Blues Exit Early … Again

The Wild held on to beat the Blues 4-1 yesterday, making St. Louis the only no. 1 seed to get sent home in the opening round. Devan Dubnyk was solid and Zach Parise scored twice, while Blues starter Jake Allen was pulled midway through the second after allowing a pair of brutally soft goals.

This one qualifies as an upset based on the standings, but not a huge one: The Wild had been one of the hottest teams of the second half and were widely viewed as a much tougher draw than their seeding indicated. Still, the Blues were supposed to contend for a Cup, and that means being able to beat good teams like Minnesota when you’ve got home ice. Instead, they’re out in the first round for the third straight year.

It will be fascinating to see what comes next for the Blues, who’ve been one of the better teams in the league in recent years but have won just a single playoff round in the last dozen seasons. It’s widely assumed that coach Ken Hitchcock will be fired, and he’ll be in heavy demand among the various teams with vacancies. The bigger question is what will they do with a roster that ranks as one of the league’s best on paper yet just can’t seem to finish during the playoffs. Goaltending will obviously be a focus, given that this team has spent the last few years chewing through an all-star cast including Jaroslav Halak, Ben Bishop, Ryan Miller, Martin Brodeur, and Brian Elliott, and yet still can’t get a save in the playoffs.

Meanwhile, the Wild just knocked out a very good team in a series in which Dubnyk didn’t even play especially well. That has to be a scary thought for the rest of the West. And Minnesota’s next opponent may sound familiar: another Central Division powerhouse with lots of talent but a question mark in goal. Except this one knows a thing or two about winning playoff rounds …

The Blackhawks Finish Off the Predators

It’s a pretty common story line in an NHL playoff series: One team rides its superstar goaltender all the way through, while the other can’t seem to figure out who’s in net, bouncing back and forth between guys who stand on their head one period and struggle the next.

That plot played out in the Blackhawks-Predators series, but with a twist: Chicago played the part of the team with the goaltending controversy, rotating Corey Crawford and Scott Darling, but still managed to win the series in six games. The Hawks went into the matchup with Crawford firmly established as the starter, but after a shaky first two games Chicago went with Darling, who held the job until getting pulled in Saturday night’s Game 6. The hook came midway through the first after the Predators made it 3-1; Crawford shut the door the rest of the way in what wound end up being a 4-3 Blackhawks win.

That marked the second time in the series that the Blackhawks had won a game in which they’d had to pull their goaltender for poor performance, which must be some sort of record.1 It also left Chicago facing a goaltending controversy heading into Round 2, although Joel Quenneville appeared to hint that Crawford had regained the job.

As for the Predators, they got solid work from Vezina nominee Pekka Rinne. But they needed better than that to have a shot at winning, especially after Shea Weber was hurt in Game 2. The first-round exit is a tough way to end an impressive season that saw Nashville challenge for the division title before fading down the stretch and getting stuck with a tough matchup against the Hawks. Looking ahead, the Predators are young and well-positioned to contend again next year, although as the Avalanche could tell you, that’s not always enough in the Central.

The Flames Roar On

In my travels around the league last week, variations on one phrase kept coming whenever the conversation turned to the Calgary Flames: “This is the worst team in this year’s playoffs.” That was true in terms of the numbers, old school and new – Calgary ranked 16th among the 16 playoff teams in both points and possession. And it even seemed to be true based on the eyeball test, as the Flames iced a roster built around a mix of capable veterans and inexperienced youngsters, devoid of anyone you’d really call an established star, all lined up in front of questionable goaltending.

But if that “worst team in the playoffs” label was true last week, then it’s still true this week, because the Flames are sticking around. Calgary bounced Vancouver in six games, capping the series off with a wild Saturday-night win in which the Flames spotted the Canucks a 3-0 first-period lead, then roared back for a 7-4 decision in a game that would have felt at home in the high-scoring Smythe Division glory days of the mid-’80s.

It wasn’t a perfect series for the Flames, but it was good enough. The aging Canucks proved to be just about the ideal matchup for a young and hungry Flames squad, and the bad blood that characterized the series seemed to suit the Flames just fine. Jonas Hiller played well until Saturday (he was pulled after giving up two goals on three shots), and now gets a chance to go up against his former team, as the Flames will face Anaheim in Round 2.

Calgary will be heavy underdogs in that series, with just about everyone picking the Ducks. And given how their year has gone so far, that probably suits the Flames just fine.

For Vancouver, the loss ends a season that still has to be considered a surprising success, at least based on preseason expectations. After missing the playoffs last year, the franchise went through a shakeup in both the front office and coaching staff. With a roster built around an aging core, it wasn’t hard to imagine the Canucks taking another step backward this year before embarking on a full-fledged rebuild. Instead, they had a 101-point season, good for second place in the Pacific.

All of which leads to what could be a difficult offseason in Vancouver. The roster full of old guys just went out and proved it could still compete, but it’s still a roster full of old guys.2 Their blue line in particular was exposed badly in this series, unable to keep up with the Flames’ young guns, and the team is already close to capped out. After this year, the temptation to try to squeeze one last run out of the current core will be strong. But the roster will have to look a lot different on opening night than it did on Saturday, even if the big names stick around.

The Wings Have the Lightning on the Ropes

You’ve got to hand it to Mike Babcock. If this is indeed his last year as the Red Wings’ head coach, he’s going out with another strong postseason. In the lead-up to the Wings’ series with the favored Lightning, Babcock made the somewhat unexpected decision to go with untested 23-year-old Petr Mrazek in goal instead of All-Star Jimmy Howard. So far, it’s worked: Mrazek has been excellent, earning a pair of shutouts, including a 4-0 win on Saturday that gave the Wings a 3-2 series lead. Detroit can finish the series at home tonight.

For the Lighting, the big story so far has been Steven Stamkos. The sniper has been essentially shut down, with no goals and just two points over the course of the series. He’s not alone; among Lightning forwards, only Tyler Johnson has managed more than two points.

A Red Wings series win would qualify as an upset, as the Lightning went into the playoffs as a trendy pick to win the East. Tampa Bay is lucky to still be alive, as it needed a late comeback from a 2-0 deficit to steal Game 4 on Thursday. On paper, this is a team with more than enough firepower to win two straight and take the series. But they’ll need Stamkos and friends to figure out a way to beat Mrazek, and they’ve got no more margin of error to work with.

The Rangers Put the Penguins Out of Their Misery

The Rangers became the second team to advance to Round 2 on Friday night, beating the Penguins on Carl Hagelin’s overtime winner to end the series in five games.

The series was closer than it looked, with all five games decided by one goal and the last two going into overtime, but still produced the result that everyone seemed to expect. The Rangers started slow this year but were a powerhouse from December on, winning the Presidents’ Trophy along the way. Their run to last year’s final was a mild surprise; a quick win in the first round bodes well for a return engagement this year.

In Pittsburgh, there will be some tough calls to make on a roster that stumbled badly in the season’s second half. Considered a legitimate Cup contender heading into the year, the Penguins failed to impress for most of the season before collapsing down the stretch and nearly missing the playoffs. While part of that has to be chalked up to injuries, especially along the blue line, this remains a top-heavy team that can’t seem to find the right mix of supporting players for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The team already changed its coach and GM last summer, so this year we can expect to hear plenty of speculation about a shakeup to the team’s core. A full-scale overhaul ultimately seems unlikely, but fans of the rumor game should strap in for some fun.

The Ducks Rest Up

Anaheim has been idle since Wednesday, when they completed their sweep of the Jets. With all but one other series going at least six games, that added rest could give the Ducks an advantage in later rounds.

I say “could” because the idea that early rest was crucial to a long playoff run was pretty much written in stone until later year, when the Kings and Rangers blew it up by playing a combined 41 games on their way to meeting in the final. That may have signaled a change in how we think about the issue, or it may have been an outlier.

The Ducks are hoping it’s the latter, because they’ll be just about as rested as possible for Round 2. Not only did they sweep their first-round series, but they did it after an unusually light schedule to end the season. The Ducks played just four regular-season games after March 29, meaning they’ll have played just eight games in more than a month by the time their second-round series starts later this week.

It’s possible that all that rest could leave them rusty against the Flames, at least early on. But as far as their Cup chances, it should be good news.

The Capitals and Islanders Go the Distance

The Caps and Isles became the first two teams to punch a ticket to Game 7 on Saturday, when New York extended the series with a Game 6 win at home. John Tavares had two points, and Jaroslav Halak had his best game of the series, stopping 38 of 39 shots in a 3-1 win.

Saturday’s win came in front of a loud Islanders home crowd in what could have been the final game ever at the Nassau Coliseum (the Islanders move to Barclays Center in Brooklyn next season). Nobody will miss the decrepit arena when it’s gone — “the building is awful,” Gary Bettman recently told reporters — but it’s been fun to watch Islanders fans honor it during the series. A few of them even made off with souvenirs.

The Capitals, meanwhile, seem like a team that hasn’t played its best game yet. Braden Holtby has been excellent and Nicklas Backstrom has played well, but Alexander Ovechkin has been limited to just two goals. He’s had an impressive 27 shots, which means the Islanders are playing with fire.

Game 7 goes tonight in Washington. The winner gets the Rangers in Round 2.3

The Senators Run Out of Comebacks

Ottawa had made a record-breaking late-season push from 14 points back just to get into the playoffs, so falling behind 3-0 in their series with the Canadiens probably didn’t seem like too big a deal. And sure enough, they fought back with a pair of wins to force Game 6 at home last night. It was shaping up for another Hollywood ending. Carey Price apparently didn’t get the script.

The Habs goalie stopped all 43 shots in a 2-0 win to eliminate the Senators and send Montreal on to Round 2. Brendan Gallagher was the only Hab to beat Craig Anderson; Max Pacioretty added an empty-netter with one second left. The Senators outshot the Canadiens 30-7 in the final two periods and were all over Montreal’s crease in a frantic final minute, but Price calmly turned everything aside to deny Ottawa another miracle.

“I liked the way we had to win the series. We deserved it. We worked for it,” said P.K. Subban, whose Game 1 slash of Mark Stone led to him being booed by Senators fans each time he touched the puck. “And when you’ve got Carey Price back there playing like that, it makes everything easier.”

For his part, Senators coach Dave Cameron praised his team during a heartfelt postgame press conference in which he introduced the phrase “heated toilet seat at the Ritz” into the Ottawa hockey lexicon (don’t ask).

“This team’s been a real treat to say you’re the coach of,” Cameron said. “This is a tough business, a tough league. We’ll go with the disappointment of it ending, beat by a real good hockey club … But I think after the disappointment of that is digested, it’s always a lot easier as a coach when your team has emptied its tank. And that team emptied its tank.”

Filed Under: 2015 NHL Playoffs, Detroit Red Wings, Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Winnipeg Jets, Anaheim Ducks, Washington Capitals, New York Islanders, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens, Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues, NHL Weekend

Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at Down Goes Brown. When he's not writing, he makes hockey jokes on Twitter at @downgoesbrown.

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