We're only two days into the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs and there have already been plenty of memorable moments, not to mention plenty of exciting overtime action. In analyzing the first few games of the postseason, I've come away with a few observations and even more questions.
The first thing I noticed, particularly in the first three games Wednesday night, is how there were a lot of opportunities in the middle of the ice, something you don't typically see in playoff hockey. There were a lot of pinches, including a few good pinches in which the D committed to the right play under the thought their forwards would back them up and support them, which in many instances they didn't.
There were other instances where the forwards were challenging the D and making plays offensively. Look at the goals by Lars Eller and Tomas Plekanec for the Montreal Canadiens in their overtime win against the Tampa Bay Lightning. They challenged off the rush and made plays to score.
I don't think all the forwards and defensemen were in sync. Overall, that was a theme for me in all of the games Wednesday.
There are so many interesting subplots in the first-round series between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers, most notably Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier playing against each other after having played together for so many years and winning the Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Throwing Brad Richards into that mix definitely makes it weird. Even before they played together in Rimouski in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Richards and Lecavalier played together at Notre Dame out in Saskatchewan, so there's a lot of history between those three guys.
A bigger story is Ray Emery getting the start in place of Steve Mason. Mason could be back for Game 2 on Sunday, but I think a big element the Flyers will miss if he can't come back is his puck-handling. He handles the puck really well, and that really helps the Flyers' game. Keep in mind, Ray Emery is the guy who helped take the Ottawa Senators all the way to the Stanley Cup Final against the Anaheim Ducks in 2007. He helped the Ducks after having that career-threatening hip injury. Last season, his numbers were great with the Chicago Blackhawks as backup to Corey Crawford. He's had success and he has a great record against the Rangers in his career. The Flyers are in a good spot that they can turn to a guy of that caliber until Mason is ready.
The matchup between the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings is going to be a great series. I don't see how that series can go any less than six games. I just don't see it. I just think that players from each of those teams are going to have to go so hard on every possession. They're going to have to pay a price on every shift no matter what their role is. It's great for the game and great for California. Everyone is pumped up about that series, and it's the only series featuring two goalies who have won the Stanley Cup, in Jonathan Quick and Antti Niemi.
With the Kings, in the last two seasons, it seems like they get to that curve and they hit an extra gear. They get to that bell lap and they find their stride. They just get stronger and stronger once February comes around. They've done it again this season. Marian Gaborik, acquired at the NHL Trade Deadline, has had a big hand in that. That's a team that is committed to playing every facet of the game.
Two guys to keep an eye on in this series are Tomas Hertl and Mike Richards. I can't wait to see Hertl come back in because he's such a dynamic player and such a big player. Richards has been a big-time playoff performer throughout his career. He has played very well when the games have mattered most. By his standard, he's had a subpar season. He can and should be better in the playoffs.
Let's see what happens with the St. Louis Blues against the Blackhawks now that players like Vladimir Tarasenko and David Backes have returned from injuries. St. Louis closed out the season with six straight losses and just started playing poorly at the wrong time. The Blues had an unbelievable season, and everyone goes through dips. How do they bounce back? They don't have any dynamic gamebreakers, so how will they match up against the Blackhawks, who have so many?
All these questions will be answered in the next few days.