The NHL playoffs are only a week old and already they’ve brought fans plenty of drama, excitement and some surprises.
Parity and the vulnerability of top seeds
All eight series have been tightly contested; after two games, each was tied at one game apiece. Is this fact one of the aforementioned “surprises”? Well, historically, the NHL playoffs has regularly produced first round upsets, so it shouldn’t shock anyone that the lower seeds managed a road win early on. This year’s first round parity can be explained in a couple of ways.
First of all, none of the top teams is without some potential warts. Entering the postseason, questions abounded about goaltending for Washington and Chicago, scoring depth for New Jersey, as well as Vancouver, Buffalo and San Jose’s dubious playoff history. Those teams finished at the top of their divisions and conferences, though, because they played far more consistently throughout the season than most of the rest of the pack, including their first round opponents. They didn’t suffer through long, damaging losing streaks that afflicted so many others.
But a team like Boston, for example, which endured a 10-game home losing streak, was also capable of stringing together five consecutive road wins (which it accomplished in the midst of the home slide). In other words, it’s not as if the lower seeds aren’t capable of playing well, they just didn’t give any indication that they could do it consistently. Put them in a short series, though, and if they can perform at their best, then upsets can happen. Possibly, these clubs have picked the perfect time to play at a consistently high level! To that end, the Flyers, who needed a shootout win in their final game just to make the postseason, have played four solid games against the Devils and lead that series, three games to one.
A rise in scoring
So don’t be terribly surprised if some of the higher seeds don’t make it to the second round – anyway, early upsets are a compelling aspect of the NHL playoffs. What has been surprising, at least to me, is how much offense the first round has produced. Most players will tell you that in the postseason, it becomes harder to score. Talented offensive players are tightly checked, the already-stingy goaltending typically becomes even more impeccable and teams are playing their system, designed at limiting scoring chances, very well. Yes, there have been some 1-0 and 2-1 games, but we’re also seen a couple of 6-5 finals, two 7-4 decisions, and a 5-4.
Equally intriguing has been the capacity of teams to rally from deficits. It happened three times in games last Saturday alone. In the afternoon, the Sabres blew leads of 2-0 after one period and 3-2 after two. It was the Sabres’ first loss of the season in a game they led after two periods. That evening, Washington trailed Montreal, 4-1, late in the second period and rallied to tie the score at 4-4. Then, after surrendering the go-ahead goal in the final five minutes, the Caps tied it again before winning in overtime. (I know that Caps can score in bunches, but that feat, accomplished while facing a potential 2-0 series deficit, was remarkable). Finally, in Western Canada, the Kings bounced back from 2-0 down against the Canucks and Roberto Luongo to win, 3-2, in overtime. It’ll be interesting to see if teams settle down defensively and protect leads more effectively as the playoffs progress.
Western Conference showdown
And a final thought. The first round has provided us with some great matchups. But, in my opinion, one stands out as the most compelling of all: Phoenix vs. Detroit. The Coyotes were a Cinderella story this year, setting franchise records on the ice while their off-ice future in the desert remained murky. Detroit, coming off back-to-back appearances in the Final, dealt with the attrition of offseason player departures due to free agency and a terrible rash of injuries throughout the year. Yet the Red Wings finally got healthy down the stretch and propelled themselves into the fifth spot. While the Coyotes are the higher seed, many experts felt that the Red Wings would win the series, maybe easily. The pundits felt that it was just bad luck for the upstart Coyotes that they drew the mighty Red Wings in the first round. After all, when one compares the history of the two franchises, well, there’s no comparison.
The Red Wings have been in the NHL’s elite class for the last 20 years and the Coyotes haven’t been in the playoffs since 2002. The franchise hasn’t even won a playoff series since 1987, when it was in Winnipeg. So heading into the series, many looked at the Coyotes as an inexperienced bunch. That’s a misnomer. It’s true that the Coyotes have players such as Zbynek Michalek, Keith Yandle and Martin Hanzel who are new to the NHL postseason. But the Coyotes are not a young, inexperienced team.
Netminder Ilya Bryzgalov won a Stanley Cup with Anaheim in 2007 – granted, he backed up J.S. Giguere through most of the postseason, but he did appear in five games during the Ducks’ run. He also played 11 playoff games for Anaheim in 2006. (His counterpart in the series, Detroit’s Jimmy Howard, had never before appeared in an NHL playoff game).
Captain Shane Doan has been with the franchise so long that he was a part of the organization’s regular playoff appearances in the late 90s and early 2000s – he also has international and Olympic experience. Plus, Ed Jovanovski, Adrian Aucoin, Taylor Pyatt, Matthew Lombardi, Radim Vrbata, Derek Morris and others have been through playoff series before. Then there’s head coach Dave Tippett, who brings a wealth of playoff coaching experience with him from his previous job in Dallas. Despite Tuesday night’s loss, the Coyotes have hung right in with the Red Wings. The series is 2-2, with Game Five Friday in Phoenix.
Next week, I’ll recap the first round and look ahead to the Conference Semis!