Every year without fail, the Stanley Cup Playoffs kick off and we see plenty of players and teams step up unexpectedly. It's just one of the many reasons the playoffs are so great.
One of the biggest surprises so far has been all the offense coming uncharacteristically from the middle of the ice. You don't typically see that as much in the playoffs. A prime example of that would be what happened with the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks through their first three games. The Kings won the William M. Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals this season, but the Sharks are faster and deeper than they've ever been and have been scoring at will. As great as the Kings typically are defensively with Jonathan Quick, that hasn't been the case so far against the Sharks, who did a great job of exploiting the Kings in scoring 17 goals and winning all three games.
San Jose has gained so many odd-man rushes. They're exploiting a lot of missed coverage on the back door and they're making lots of passes across the width of the rink. I just think they had their way with L.A. The Kings don't look like the Kings yet.
The Sharks are also a very fast team. That team speed and depth has been a major factor. Forward Raffi Torres has always been a proven playoff performer and now he's back after missing much of the season with injuries. Tomas Hertl is also back and there is so much depth on that team, especially up front, that they can roll four lines. They never really addressed their fourth line before, but I really believe that this is the deepest team that they've had.
Torres is just one example of a player who has emerged at playoff time. Rene Bourque of the Montreal Canadiens, who scored three goals in the first three games of the sweep against the Tampa Bay Lightning, is another.
The playoffs are a new season and afford an opportunity to hit the reset button. Coaches may or may not manage all four lines during the season, but once you get into the playoffs you definitely need four lines to win. I feel like the style of playoff hockey is more conducive to players who are willing to pay the price. Torres, with his speed and thickness and willingness to initiate contact, is the kind of guy who can step up to do that. Bourque has also found his game, and it couldn't have come at a better time.
That's the beauty of the playoffs. They offer the opportunity for a new hero to rise up on every play in every game. It's not just for your star players to be successful. Montreal's Dale Weise scored the first overtime winner of the postseason, which shows you how every player needs to step up and can be the hero. That's why it's really important to manage your group all year long. You never know what's going to come up in the postseason. If you want to go deep, you're going to need four forward lines. You can't just wait until the postseason and then tap a guy on the shoulder and say "Hey, we need you to play some minutes."
I think the Canadiens were excellent, which was a surprise for me. I didn't see them being able to do this in this type of matchup against a very young, speedy, skilled team. Carey Price didn't have to steal any games because Tampa Bay didn't play to its level, based on what they're capable of.
The Lightning have turned the puck over uncharacteristically, they haven't had a lot of sustained offensive-zone pressure, there seems to be a gap between their D and forwards. There are a lot of different elements that they can and should be doing better. Getting back to plays in the middle, how many breakaways did Montreal have in this series? Between Bourque, Max Pacioretty and Brian Gionta, the Canadiens had a ton of breakaway opportunities.
Somebody else who has been surprising so far has been Claude Giroux. After three games against the New York Rangers, the Philadelphia Flyers captain and leading scorer had two shots and two secondary assists. He's one of the premier players in the League and delivered a huge second half of the season. I give him a lot of credit for that, but he has had a rough time so far.
Giroux can beat you offensively a lot of ways by himself. There's no reason he shouldn't be getting four or five shots per game, for all the pucks that he gets. Of any upper-echelon player I played with, whoever it was, he had to get four or five shots a night. Giroux needs to be shooting a lot more so far.
Out west, I love how Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars have really risen to the challenge. Heading into the Stars' series against the Anaheim Ducks, I felt the big matchups were going to be Dallas' speed against the depth of Anaheim, but also the world's best duo in Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry going against the best up-and-coming duo in Benn and Seguin. Seguin and Benn have stepped up in a big way and answered the bell. It's been amazing to watch.
Based on all the great surprises we've seen so far in the playoffs, I can't wait to see what the rest of the postseason holds.