What a playoff year it’s been so far! Highlighting one of the most exciting, entertaining first rounds in recent memory was Montreal’s stunning upset of the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals. It’s not the first time an eight seed has knocked off a one seed, nor even the first occasion a President's Trophy winner lost in the first round (see: San Jose Sharks, 2009). But what the Montreal Canadiens accomplished was mind-boggling. In rallying from a 3-1 series deficit, they held the top offensive team in the league to only three goals in the final three games. How did they do it?
First off, many NHL experts felt that if the Caps had an Achilles heel, it was in net. While there’s little doubt that Montreal’s Jaroslav Halak outplayed both Jose Theodore and Semyon Varlamov, I don’t think you can point to the Caps’ goaltending as the main reason why they blew a 3-1 series lead. Theodore allowed two softies early in Game Two and didn’t see the ice again and Varlamov arguably only had one really strong game, a 5-1 win in Game Three. His worst performance came in Game Six, when the Caps needed him to keep pace with Halak, but he allowed at least two very questionable goals. Having written all of that, Theodore only yielded two goals through three periods of Game One and Varlamov only gave up two goals in both Games Five and Seven.
Rather, Washington’s demise had less to do with Washington – and more to do with Montreal. Caps head coach Bruce Boudeau excoriated his team for a lackluster start in the critical Game Five; Washington allowed two early Montreal scores. But for the most part, the Caps actually played quite well in the final three contests, especially the last two. Over the course of Games Five, Six and Seven, they dominated puck possession, outshot the Habs to the tune of 134-66 and badly outchanced their eventual ousters. They just couldn’t score enough goals. Halak had a lot to do with Washington’s power outage; he stopped 131 of those shots, including 53 in his incredible Game Six effort. But it wasn’t just Halak. The Canadiens played as a terrific five-man unit in front of him. Hard to believe that the Caps attempted more than 134 shots in those three games, but they did. The Canadiens blocked 83 more Washington shots in Games Five, Six and Seven – they had 41 blocks in Game Seven alone. This was a strength all year for Montreal, which ranked third in the league in blocked shots during the regular season. So essentially, the Caps ran into the worst possible combination during those fateful final three games – a team that was committed to keeping the puck out of its net and, of course, a hot goalie.
Red Wings Advance With Dominant Win
A few other thoughts from the first round. Last week, I wrote about how Phoenix wasn’t going to be a pushover for Detroit. Well, after the Wings pasted the Coyotes, 6-1, in Game Seven, do I feel as though I have egg on my face? Not at all. The Red Wings played a marvelous game on Tuesday night; it might have been the best overall performance by any team in a playoff game this year. But the games throughout the series weren’t so decisively in Detroit’s favor. Obviously, Phoenix won three games, including two at Joe Louis Arena. And in two of Detroit’s other three wins, the Wings needed to break a third period tie en route to the victory. So high marks to the Red Wings for playing virtually a perfect game. But also congrats to the Coyotes for a great season.
In the West, the three top seeds advanced along with fifth-seeded Detroit, a team that, without its injury woes during the season, likely would have finished higher than fifth. But in the East, three of the four lower seeds posted upsets. Remarkably, Boston, Philadelphia and Montreal didn’t even clinch a playoff berth until the final weekend of the regular season. Now here they are in the second round and at least one of them – either Philly or Boston – is guaranteed to advance to the Conference Finals! Incidentally, these results are identical to the East’s first round in 1999, when the four, six, seven and eight seeds all prevailed. By the way, that year, seventh-seeded Buffalo reached the Stanley Cup Final.
Onto Round Two
Looking ahead to the second round, the Pittsburgh-Montreal series reminds me somewhat of the 2004 second round matchup between the Lightning and Canadiens. That year, seventh-seeded Montreal rallied from a 3-1 series deficit against Boston, riding a hot Jose Theodore to three straight wins. But the Habs looked gassed in the first two games against the Lightning. The two games in Montreal were closer (Game Three, as Lightning fans remember well, featured Vinny Lecavalier’s dramatic sixth-attacker tying goal and Brad Richards’ overtime winner), but the Canadiens likely burned out their flame during their first round comeback. Can they avoid a repeat scenario this year? And, more importantly for the Canadiens, can they take some pressure off their goalie and even out the flow of play? If not, they will have a hard time staying in this series.
Boston and Philadelphia met four times over five playoff seasons back in the 70s – including the 1974 Finals – and forged a great rivalry, but they haven’t played in the postseason since 1978. (Of course, they did play in the signature game of this year’s regular season: the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day at Fenway Park). While both teams struggled with consistency throughout the year, they seem to have found their rhythm in the playoffs. The adage is that goaltending wins championships, so the fact that the Flyers and Bruins knocked off Marty Brodeur and Ryan Miller, two of the league’s best, speaks to how well they’re both playing. I think the key to a Philadelphia series win will be how well the Flyers fill in the offensive holes vacated by the injured Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne. Claude Giroux did it in Game Five against the Devils, netting two Philadelphia goals in the Flyers 3-0 win. They’ll need similar performances against the Bruins. Unlike the Flyers, the Bruins are getting a key player back from injury. How well will Marc Savard be able to play? Can he jump into the intensity of playoff action after missing nearly two months? If he can, he’ll certainly pose problems for Philadelphia. He’s one of the best playmakers in the league and will certainly boost Boston’s power play, which already clicked at 27.3% against Buffalo.
Heading into the Western Semis, a lot of people like Detroit against San Jose. Part of that has to do with the way the Wings dismantled Phoenix in Game Seven. Some of it has to do with the Sharks’ previous playoff struggles. Still, it’s a bit strange that a number one seed would be considered an underdog. I’m very interested to see how San Jose meets this challenge. Many of the Sharks are back from last year’s humiliating first round loss and undoubtedly, they’ll view this series as an opportunity to write a new history. The Red Wings will need to work out some of the kinks in their game – yes, they had an incredible all-around performance in Game Seven at Phoenix, but they’ll need to build on that performance against the Sharks. San Jose won Game One last night, 4-3.
It’s a bit off our radar in the East, but Chicago and Vancouver recently have a heated rivalry. They had some fight-filled games last year during the regular season and then engaged in an intense second-round series, a matchup in which Chicago prevailed, 4-2. I’ve felt throughout the season that Chicago was the team to beat in the West, but the Hawks had some shaky moments against Nashville in the first round. When Chicago is on its game, it is dominantly possessing the puck and, in doing so, limiting opposition chances. But the Canucks will be a tough foe. The Sedin twins are elite players capable of holding onto the puck themselves and Vancouver has a strong cast alongside the twins, including Ryan Kesler. I see this as a very close series – the winner will be the team that can make a few more plays at key times.
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