We're getting close to the end of the first round of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but there is still plenty to be decided, and there are still plenty of storylines coming out of what has been an entertaining tournament so far. For my money, however, one of the biggest stories is the way Nashville knocked out the mighty Detroit Red Wings in just five games, and it raises a pretty real question:
Are the Predators the team to beat?
When the playoffs began two weeks ago, I think if you weren't one of the people that thought this team had a chance to win, then you didn't know much about hockey. This is a heck of a hockey team, plain and simple, and its win over Detroit shows it. The interesting thing about this matchup was that it was something of a changing of the guard in the West. The Predators will tell you that their model for this team is Detroit. They want to build their team like Detroit, build their organization like Detroit -- they even throw fish on the ice like Detroit fans throw octopi. They want a tradition just like the Red Wings have.
If you look at how they're built, the Predators have great goaltending and maybe the best goaltender playing in the playoffs right now. Brian Elliot has been good for St. Louis, but he hasn't faced the shots that Pekka Rinne has, and Jonathan Quick has been good for Los Angeles, but other than those two, I can't think of a goalie who has played as well as Rinne.
Then you look at Nashville's defense, which has two studs on the top pair with Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, but it's also got this kid Kevin Klein, who had two goals in the series and played great defense. And this is all without Hal Gill, who hasn't been in the lineup. If you look at their forwards, they have four lines that can all play, their special teams are very good and they have a very good defensive system to go along with a great goaltender. This team is for real.
I think the last piece to the puzzle was getting Alexander Radulov, because they didn't have that one pure goal scorer. They had a lot of guys who can score like Mike Fisher or Martin Erat, but the one pure goal scorer that only needs one chance -- Radulov is that goal scorer now, and we saw that in that last game against Detroit.
I picked Nashville to beat Detroit, so I thought they were ready to come out of their shell and go to the prom, but I didn't think it would be five games -- and I didn't think the Predators would beat the Red Wings in Game 5 giving up just 22 shots. When you can do that to a team like Detroit, with the talent level and history Detroit has, it sends messages to the rest of the League.
Beating Detroit in five games was impressive, but how they did it, with tight checking, great defense, controlling Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg for the most part, making Detroit's defense look average at times -- it all adds up to a pretty dominant win. Any series that ends in five games is a dominant win, but things like only giving up 22 shots in the last game, that's a message sender. That makes teams look at the tape and think, "Wow, how are we going to get through the neutral zone and get our chances?"
They're just solid from top to bottom.
Of course, we're only through one round right now. If Nashville is going to win the Cup they've got three more rounds to get through, but I like the way the draw shapes up for them. With St. Louis locked into facing Los Angeles in the second round, the Preds are going to face whoever wins between the Coyotes or the Blackhawks.
If you watch the way Phoenix and Chicago play, both have some question marks. Phoenix is up in the series, but they're giving up a bunch of shots and they were basically outshot 2-to-1 for a while in Game 5 Saturday night. It's not a case of Phoenix dominating Chicago. Mike Smith has been unbelievable and Corey Crawford can't stop the puck in overtime. That's the only reason this series has gone this far. Phoenix is a team that stresses defense and goaltending, very much like Nashville. Chicago will give the Predators a lot of offensive weapons to deal with, but if Marian Hossa's still out, that's a big weapon gone.
The Preds have two different matchups waiting for them, each with its own share of problems, but I think with the Predators' system, goaltending and depth, they match up well against both of them.
If Nashville gets through the second round it might very well face its division rival St. Louis. To me these are the two best teams playing in the West right now, and that would be a very difficult series for each -- and a very difficult one in which to see goals. Both of them look good, but Nashville's first-round win against Detroit has shown me something. When the playoffs began, I had Chicago coming out of the West, but with the way the field is shaping up and the way the Predators are playing, seeing them facing off in the Stanley Cup Final wouldn't surprise me one bit.
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.
As it turns out, this is not the matchup we thought we would be getting during the final weeks of the season. For a long time it looked like New York would be facing Washington or Buffalo, but surprisingly it will be Ottawa. The Senators can score and they've got a pretty good power play and some solid young players, but I just think the Rangers are too gritty, too strong and too good defensively. It could be a tougher series than people expect, but I have to think New York will be able to shut down Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson and Daniel Alfredsson with the smothering defense it has.
In many cases the equalizing factor in these series is goaltending, but Henrik Lundqvist is so good that Craig Anderson will have a challenge matching up. Anderson would have to play like Jaroslav Halak did with Montreal in 2010, and in the end, I think that's the only way Ottawa pulls it out.
Washington, if you look at their history in the playoffs, they haven't had much success, so it's not like they're a confident team in the postseason, but they are dangerous this time around. They have nothing to lose and they'll be loose, which is different from coming in as favorites, which they haven't handled well.
All that said, I expect Boston to just have too much experience and grit. I think Zdeno Chara and company will be able to shut down Ovechkin and Backstrom, particularly because Chara proved last year when he went against the opposition's top guys every night that he can negate lines like Washington's. As well, Backstrom may not be 100% healthy, and the Bruins will make his life miserable. Plus, the Capitals will probably have to go with Braden Holtby in net. He's played very well at times, but he's also looked very young at times, and it's pretty tough to expect a kid to walk in there and beat the mighty Boston Bruins.
I know how the teams are seeded, but this, to me, isn't a real 3-versus-6 matchup. I think the Panthers are good -- they found a way to win their last game and get that third spot -- but I like the Devils. Jersey is a deep team, and don't forget that the Devils are much better offensively. They have three 30-goal scorers this season, which is a pretty impressive arsenal. They're very good defensively like always, and Martin Brodeur has played well. He isn't the Marty Brodeur of 10 years ago, but he's played well in a rebound year, and I just think the Devils are very solid all around, and I like the way they're playing.
Also, don't forget, the Devils had eight more points than Florida in a tougher division. That's a pretty good indicator. Florida, too, I think will be one of those teams that is just happy to finally be back in the playoffs after so many years. Making the playoffs was their goal and they did it. They may be one of those teams that's just happy to be there, and I don't think the stay will be long.
This is the one we've been waiting for. I think this is just going to be a great series, and it may be the best one of the entire 2012 postseason. These two teams both hate each other, they're both from Pennsylvania, they both have a bunch of star power and they've both been to the Stanley Cup Final recently.
I think this is a very evenly-matched series. The Flyers don't look quite as good as the Penguins on paper, but the Flyers know how to play Pittsburgh. They know how to get under their skin, they know how to goad them into penalties and they'll goad them into getting too emotional and losing their game plan. A lot of the reasons the Flyers win are intangibles that you don't see on paper. That said, the Penguins have so much scoring and a very deep defense. I see a very hard-fought, emotional, dirty, mean series, but I see Pittsburgh as the team that survives.
We have a major upset every year in the playoffs so you can't pick chalk all day long. I have a feeling this might be it. Vancouver is a great team again after winning another Presidents' Trophy, but I can see them walking into this series thinking it's going to win and underestimating the Kings. Remember, we don't know what's happening with Daniel Sedin, and that's a huge problem for the Canucks. I actually think L.A.'s goaltending is better than Vancouver's and don't forget, Chicago almost beat Vancouver in the first round last year.
I think L.A. is a much better team now than they were a month ago, I think they're playing better offensively than they have all season and I think Jonathan Quick is good enough to stand on his head and steal a series if he has to. I also think the Kings will remember how the Bruins beat the Canucks a year ago and they'll get in Vancouver's face and play physically, which we've seen them do before. Every year we see a big upset, and something tells me the ingredients are there to make this the one.
Before this season started we might have seen this matchup going the other way, but not now. I really think St. Louis is playing so well that at the moment they just don't have a weakness. The defense is big, young and mobile. Their goaltending tandem is great, and they're just playing great hockey. The Blues never stumbled down the stretch and I just think they've been a great team ever since Ken Hitchcock took over. He brought in accountability and a defensive mindset that really fits the players on the roster, and he also got to take over a team with talent. This is a team that has gotten to draft high picks for several years.
Ken was the right man in the right place at the right time for this team. I do think San Jose will play them well. With the experience and talent the Sharks have they can't be counted out lightly, but I just think St. Louis is too deep and they're playing too well right now.
I think Phoenix has had a great season. Mike Smith is probably the comeback play of the year, the team is playing great hockey right now going into the playoffs, they finished the season strong and they're just a good team all around. But all that said, I just like Chicago. I like the way the Blackhawks play, I like their speed, and everyone seems to think they'll finally have Jonathan Toews and Dave Bolland back so they'll have the full team healthy for the first time in a long time.
The Blackhawks are just a team that knows how to win. They won a Cup a few years ago with this core group, they've added some guys to give them that grit factor and I also like the addition of Johnny Oduya on the blue line. Phoenix has really impressed, no matter what happens, coach Dave Tippett always has the Coyotes competing. But I just like the Blackhawks.
I think this is going to be awesome. This is going to be a very tough series for both of these teams, but a few things stand out. I'm not a big believer in home ice in the playoffs, but Detroit is definitely a different team this season on the road than at home. Nashville is good everywhere. I think the Predators' defense matches up well with the Red Wings' forwards, they're big and tough, I think Alexander Radulov has changed their offense and I think Pekka Rinne is as good a goaltender as there is in hockey.
Nashville's size will definitely be a factor. If you look at that defense with Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Hal Gill, that's a big defense and then add in that they've got Paul Gaustad now and some other big forwards that will grind you. Also, the Predators have played Detroit a lot so they know how to play the Wings. I think Jimmy Howard will be good, but I don't think he'll be as good as Rinne. This will be a great series, but it could also be Nashville's years. They're a team to be reckoned with and if a few things go their way, they could be the team to come out of the West.