Unheralded. Capricious. Flabbergasted. Those might be the three words you come up with after searching the thesaurus for an hour in an attempt to describe the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. From the downfall of the Bruins and Canucks to the surprise of the newly emerging teams that dismantled veteran cores with ease (re. Nashville & St. Louis), there is no shortage of story lines from this opening round…did I mention Sidney Crosby and the Pens were ousted as well, but I digress.
Round 2 begins this Friday night, so let’s start there. After coming off a series performance for the ages, Mike Smith and the Phoenix Coyotes will do battle with the Nashville Predators. Smith has single-handedly brought his team to the second round boasting a 1.81 GAA and a .950 SV%. The Mike Smith story is quite simple. After bouncing from Dallas to Tampa Bay, he landed in Phoenix this season and hasn’t looked back since. In game 6 against Chicago, the Coyotes were out shot 28-8 after two periods and Smith did what he’s done all season: Keep his team in the game, frustrating the opponent until they make a mistake and then capitalize on their opportunities. The Coyotes went on to win that game 4-0, in Chicago. However, if they are going to continue to be successful, the Phoenix big guns need to step up offensively. Shane Doan, Radim Vrbata, and Ray Whitney who led the team in points in the regular season, combined for a mere 6 out of the teams 46 points this opening round.
The Nashville Predators proved to the world that they are a lean, mean, killing machine as they sent the Detroit Red Wings packing with 4 out of 5 dominating performances. This team has really come into there own this season with the early addition of Hal Gill and the acquisitions of Andrei Kostitsyn and Paul Gaustad at the trade deadline. Add that to the defensive towers of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter the goaltending monster that is Pekka Rinne, and a skillful offense led by Erat, Legwand, and Fisher…well you start to get the picture. There is no reason to think Mike Smith won’t be able to keep up his stellar play but eventually something has to give and with the crafty offensive weapons that the Predators possess, if the Coyotes fail to provide consistent goal support they’ll be back on the Arizona links in no time. Rahim’s Pick: Nashville in 6 (Fantasy Picks: Antoine Vermette, Pekka Rinne, Alexander Radulov)
The second Western Conference Semifinal will feature the St. Louis Blues and the Los Angeles Kings. Hot off their unheralded performance against the President’s Trophy Vancouver Canucks, the Kings have all the confidence in the world and none of the pressure. Let’s start by crediting GM Dean Lombardi who made the unpopular coaching change in December and brought in Darryl Sutter despite being told by Tim Leiweke (President of AEG), owner of the Los Angeles Kings that, “not making the playoffs was not an option.” With his job on the line, Lombardi stuck with his gut and boy did it paid off. The team looks to be coming together at just the right time after struggling to put pucks in the net in the regular season. The cohesion from top to bottom seems to be seamless. The big names of Kopitar, Richards, and Brown are doing their part and they’re also getting quality minutes from Jarret Stoll and Justin Williams. All this and we haven’t even mentioned Jonathan Quick. His .953 SV% is top amongst goalies still in the playoffs.
Let’s get my bias out of the way: I <3 the Blues. Their calm, collective demeanor along with their every shift counts attitude makes this team a coach’s dream, which leads me to Ken Hitchcock. It’s always tough for a coach to be brought in mid-season and get the team to buy into his philosophy but that is exactly what Hitchcock did and he did it to perfection. “That’s why when I say the buy-in is there, the buy-in is because everybody — not out of fear, but out of everybody having to trust each other so much that we play the right way … the way we have to play to win. And everybody is on that page and almost afraid to get off.” When Jaroslav Halak went down early in the first round, Brian Elliot stepped in without missing a beat and now holds the lowest goals-against average among goalies still in the playoffs. With no bona fide “star”, every player on this team has been contributing and that has been the key to this teams success. This will be an extremely tight series and although some might overlook this matchup, there is no doubt that it will be the most entertaining series in the West and quite possibly the most competitive, overall. This could go either way, and while my head says Los Angeles, my heart wants St. Louis. Rahim’s Pick: St. Louis in 7 (Fantasy Picks: Jonathan Quick, Dustin Brown, Andy McDonald)
Let’s move to the Eastern Conference where the Philadelphia Flyers meet the New Jersey Devils. Two Words/One Name: Claude Giroux. Fantasy pool owners are still salivating over his first round performance as he led the league with 6 goals, 8 assists and a +6 rating. Not only were people flabbergasted by the numbers Giroux put up, but also he did it against a Pittsburgh team that consists of arguably the best player in the world and this seasons probable Hart Trophy winner. The Flyers proved that their toughness and grit is accompanied by an incredible amount of skill. It’s easy to name the likes of Briere and Jagr and say that this team has depth, but the offense runs even deeper with their young core of Sean Couturier (6pts), Brayden Schenn (4pts), and Wayne Simmonds (4pts). Heading into the post season, the biggest question was if Ilya Bryzgalov could be “the guy” and while he hasn’t been lights out, he has been solid when called upon. However, even if he does falter, his problems will be absurd in comparison to the enormousness of the universe…
The New Jersey Devils snuck their way past the Florida Panthers and into the second round after Adam Henrique scored in double overtime of Game 7. If you followed this series, you know that the Devils really struggle to hold a lead and that inability to lock down defensively will be a serious problem against the high-flying Flyers. I stick by my statement in the Stanley Cup Playoffs – Round 1 episode of Puckin’ Around and that is, sometimes Martin Brodeur shows flashes of brilliance while other times he looks completely washed up. Goalie inconsistency, defensive breakdowns, and a lack of dependable scoring from their top players are three flaws too many when it comes to this stage of the post season. We saw what happened to the Bruins and Canucks and so it would be a mistake for the Flyers to look ahead to the Conference Finals. However, while the Devils might steal one, that’s as close as they’ll get. Rahim’s Pick: Philadelphia in 5 (Fantasy Picks: Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell, any other Flyer)
After staring elimination in the face, the New York Rangers survived a scare from the 8th seed Senators and now move on to face the Washington Capitals. For the first time in his career, Henrik Lundqvist has advanced to the second round of the playoffs and he carries on his back an under performing Rangers team. They sure didn’t look like the number one seed in the opening round but they found a way to score when it counted. To their credit, the Rangers are made up of shot-blocking warriors that played a major role in them advancing (23 blocked shots in Game 7). Now, it only gets tougher and they’ll need their stars to shine as another seven game series is not an option if they are to be successful past the second round.
The Washington Capitals did the impossible as they defeated the defending Stanley Cup Champions, Boston Bruins in the seventh game of the first round. After fighting tooth and nail to sneak into the playoffs, the Capitals looked like a completely different team as they played smart, strong, defensive hockey and were not intimidated by the size of the Bruins. There’s only one answer to what sparked this capricious behavior, Brayden Holtby. The 22-year-old rookie goaltender from Lloydminster, Saskatchewan didn’t let the bright lights faze him as he made countless big saves giving his team a chance to win every game. Alex Ovechkin may not be the goal scoring flash we’re used to but he did score 2 timely goals this series and leads the team with 5 points. The Rangers don’t have much time to exhale, as the Capitals are now confident that any opponent is beatable. That being said, it’s hard to overlook the goaltending of Lundqvist and you know Tortorella won’t let his team come in overconfident. Rahim’s Pick: New York in 6 (Henrik Lundqvist, Brad Richards, Alex Ovechkin)
Much like the first round, the second round matchups of these Stanley Cup Playoffs don’t have much “wow” factor on paper but by now we all know how little that really means. So turn on the television, sit back, and be ready to frantically tweet every play!