The first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs is just about in the books, but it's already been an incredibly revealing two weeks. With the field nearly narrowed down from 16 teams to eight, here are the things I'm thinking about.
DON'T BLOW UP THE BLUES
This was a devastating loss for the St. Louis Blues. There is no way to sugarcoat it. If you're up two games to none and you're one of the best teams in the NHL, the series you're playing should be just about over. To lose a first-round series is one thing, but to lose it the way they did, considering the same thing happened to them a year ago against the Los Angeles Kings, is certainly another.
This loss definitely gives the Blues and general manager Doug Armstrong some reason to think, but I don't think they can panic and destroy the team. This is a heck of a hockey team right now. There are a lot of gritty, young players all in their prime like Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, and there is a deep group of forwards and a deep defensive corps. I know we say this almost every season now, but St. Louis is almost there. There is a difference between being a proven winner like the Chicago Blackhawks and a team waiting to make that next step. If the Blues are going to make that next step they'll obviously need to re-evaluate their team. Deciding whether to try and sign Ryan Miller, for example, is among the big decisions they'll need to make.
But this is a really good hockey team that is just one or two pieces away from that next level. This was a difficult way to go out, but considering the Blues still played well throughout the series and lost to maybe the best team in the NHL, I just don't think you panic and blow up what you've got.
THE HAWKS JUST KNOW HOW TO WIN
We say this every year, too, but this team is awesome. The Blackhawks have great players at every key position and their role players are probably the best in the NHL. What other team can go down 2-0 in a series, lose its second-best defenseman in Brent Seabrook for three games and then win all three games before closing out the series?
I think Duncan Keith might be the best defenseman in the NHL, Jonathan Toews may be the best captain and two-way player in the NHL right now, Patrick Kane might be the best clutch goal-scorer in the NHL, and then there's the rank and file. Bryan Bickell didn't have a great season in 2013-14, but now he's scoring big goals and providing a physical presence. The same goes for Andrew Shaw.
Finally, we have absolutely got to talk about Corey Crawford. I think at this point you have to consider Crawford the best goaltender in the West. In his last four playoff series he's beaten Ryan Miller, Tuukka Rask, Jonathan Quick and Jimmy Howard. That's some pretty impressive company. I know he's got a great team in front of him, but if you look at what happened in the second period Sunday against the Blues, there's no doubt that he was the reason Chicago stayed in that game. The Blues outshot Chicago 17-3 that period, and Crawford was there to keep them at bay.
He's tremendous, but he's just one part of what is an unbelievable team. This is a team that is deep, talented, experienced, and after its comeback against St. Louis and against the Detroit Red Wings in the playoffs last season, it's obvious there's an incredible amount of character in that locker room. Add all that together and right now Chicago looks like the team that won the Stanley Cup a season ago.
A TELLING SERIES
What a wild series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets, huh? Four times teams blew multi-goal leads, and it looked like the Penguins might do it again Monday night. While Pittsburgh made it through and beat Columbus in six games, I think you're feeling a lot better after watching this as a Jackets fan than a Penguins fan.
The Blue Jackets have some players, like Jack Johnson, James Wisniewski and Brandon Dubinsky, who really impressed throughout this series, but the team as a whole just plays so hard. They really make you earn what you get against them, and they've also got a great goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky, some solid young forwards in Cam Atkinson and Boone Jenner, and a superstar in the making in Ryan Johansen. Columbus paid its dues, but if you look at which teams have the best future ahead of them in the NHL, I would say the Colorado Avalanche are probably No. 1, but you might have to say the Blue Jackets are right behind them.
As for the Penguins, we talk every season about them being a Cup contender, and there's no denying their talent, but I think this series just solidified that Pittsburgh simply isn't in the class of Chicago or the Boston Bruins. Since the Penguins won the Cup in 2009 they haven't had a ton of playoff success. They went six games against the New York Islanders a year ago and you could certainly make an argument that Columbus deserved to beat them this season.
The Penguins just look to me like a team that people respect, that they know they have to play great to beat, but that they don't fear. People just aren't scared of the Pittsburgh Penguins. They have the offensive talent of a team like Chicago, but I don't see that grit and that hunger other elite teams have. Right now the Penguins look like a team that is built for the regular season, but not the playoffs.