It's only been five days since the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs began and already we've seen an unbelievable amount of great hockey. All of the series have had their own drama -- seven of the first 15 games went into overtime -- and Sunday we saw an action-packed quadruple-header in which two games were decided by one goal, a third nearly featured a three-goal comeback, and a fourth featured enough drama to keep us talking for days.
And on top of it all, the Los Angeles Kings might be on the brink of one of the biggest upsets we've seen in years. Here is what has been on my mind so far during the first round of the playoffs.
The Intensity -- This is the craziest, meanest, toughest, most intense first round I can remember in a long, long time. The hitting, the fighting -- we used to go through whole postseasons and not see two guys drop the gloves, and it just shows how amped up the intensity level is. Even more amazing is that the parity level has caused these series to be mostly completely even, and the ones that aren't, aren't the ones you expected. Right know we've got an eighth seed in the West in Los Angeles that's a game away from sweeping the Presidents' Trophy winners, and in the East we've got an eighth seed in Ottawa that managed a split at the home of the best team in the conference all season. I'm just marveling at how hard the guys are playing, how tough the games are, how physical the games are and how tight each game has been. The product on the ice is just superb.
I've been very impressed with the physical play of San Jose. Two games in a row the Sharks have gone toe to toe with St. Louis and St. Louis is a very tough team physically. Nashville and Detroit have played an intense series just like we thought with two teams that are basically even. I can't believe that one won't go seven games. Los Angeles and Vancouver has been a dirty, nasty series, Ottawa against New York has been a nasty series, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have played a nasty series and Boston and Washington have been toughing it out, too. After watching Game 1, I didn't know if Alex Ovechkin would be able to play four games with the way he's been hit by the Bruins. The intensity level all around has really amazed me.
Home Sweet Huh? -- Need an indication of how hard the teams are playing? Only two teams managed to sweep the first two games of their series, and each one did it on the road. Every other series has closed out the first two games with a split, and it just goes to show how level our playing field is and how little home ice means because of it. Anybody in the NHL can win in anybody else's building. Home ice, when the buildings used to be different, meant a lot. When Boston was a small rink or Buffalo was a small rink or Chicago was a small rink -- when the ice surfaces were different, home ice meant something. Now that all the rinks are the same and they all look the same and they all seat roughly the same amount of people, home ice isn't a big thing and our athletes don't really care where they play. They're going to play as hard on the road as they do at home. Hockey's always been that way. So now home ice is not a big advantage and what we're seeing is the difference between No. 1 and No. 16 in the NHL is not that great. If the NHL ever winds up changing the playoff format to a 16-team seeded tournament, it's not inconceivable that a No. 16 could beat a No. 1. Look no further than Vancouver and Los Angeles for proof.
Holtby humming along -- I think the greatest story so far has been Washington goalie Braden Holtby. We're talking about a No. 7-seed that's 1-1 against the second-seeded defending Stanley Cup champions with their third goaltender starting and he's given up just one goal in regulation through two games. This kid has been unbelievable. If you look at Game 1, he was basically on his own. Washington was totally outplayed by the Bruins in that game. In Game 2, Washington played better, but Holtby still had to be great and he was. He's been the best story so far, and with the possible exception of L.A.'s Jonathan Quick, he's been the best goalie in the entire field.
The Blues' two-headed monster -- There might be some concern in St. Louis with Jaroslav Halak being out for Game 3, but we've all seen what Brian Elliott did splitting the job with him in the regular season and I think he'll be just fine in the playoffs. He came in Saturday and looked great, and his numbers are just as good as Halak's this season. He may not have Halak's history, but you don't win a Cup with history. Elliott has been every bit as good and I expect him to continue to be Monday (10 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN). Typically having two No. 1 goaltenders doesn't work. As the saying goes, when you have two No. 1 goalies you really have none, but I think this could be an exception to the rule. This season, St. Louis might be a new case of Johnny Bower getting hurt and Terry Sawchuk coming in.
Which Blackhawks team is it? -- We all know what Chicago has done, tying each of the first two games of its series with Phoenix in the final 20 seconds of regulation. Those are some impressive late-game heroics, but the problem for me is I don't know if I love their character because they've played so hard and so smart in the last minute, or if I hate their character because they didn't for the first 59 minutes. In most of the third periods there hasn't been a lot of urgency from Chicago. What is also odd is compared to the other series being played, this one has been a walk in the park. With the exception of Andrew Shaw's collision with Mike Smith, there's been no hitting, no stuff after the whistles, no fighting. The hardest hit has been on a goalie. It's almost like these two teams don't even hate each other. It's been a strange series and I haven't liked how the Blackhawks have played for most of it, but they're 1-1 going back to Chicago, and at this point, I don't really think the Coyotes can play any better than they have.
Is it the New Jersey of old? Or just old New Jersey? -- I think New Jersey and Florida are pretty evenly matched, but I thought the Devils were going to score 10 goals in the first period of Game 1 with how they were playing. They looked unbelievable and Florida looked like it didn't deserve to be there. The Panthers had some early jitters and you can't have that in the playoffs. Patrik Elias' first-period goal went in so easy, and he toasted everyone so badly, that everyone on the Florida bench must have looked at each other and said, "Wow, this isn't what I signed up for." Most guys would have fired that puck right away, and it might have gone under the bar, but Elias had the patience to wait, wait, wait some more and then throw it in when Jose Theodore blinked. Martin Brodeur also looked like his old self, assisting on one goal by throwing the puck up to the blue line for a breakaway. It was deja vu for Devils fans, like everyone went back in time 10 years. After that, though, the Panthers made the first game close and came out strong in Game 2 Sunday to even the series. I'd like to get a copy of Kevin Dineen's speech after the first period of Game 1, because it must have been a beauty. It will be interesting to see which teams show up Tuesday in New Jersey (7 p.m. ET, NHLN-US, TSN).
The Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series has been crazy -- But you all knew that already didn't you? If you had told me Pittsburgh would score as many goals in this series as they have or that Ilya Bryzgalov would have given up as many as he had and Philadelphia would be up 3-0, I'd have said you were crazy. This series is totally bonkers and it's a mystery as to what's happened to the Penguins. They can't check, they can't hold a lead, their power play looks lost, Evgeni Malkin has been nonexistent -- it's just nuts. This whole series is crazy. Even with the series at 3-0, this has still been the most entertaining series, and the best series, but it has been totally bonkers.