As I did after the First Round, here are some observations from Round Two.
- Like in the First Round, the Second Round featured a handful of big comebacks. In all four series, one team was able to rally from a multi-goal deficit to at least tie the score. The comeback didn't always yield a win, but the frequency of these rallies again showed that in this year's playoffs, no lead is seemingly safe. According to the NHL, nearly 40% of games in the 2017 playoffs (27 of 68) have seen the winning team overcome a deficit of at least one goal.
- Within a game, momentum is a real thing. When a team is dictating play, it feels as though the wind is at its back. That might be one explanation for some of the comebacks we've seen so far - a team gets rolling after scoring one goal, then quickly adds another. And, potentially, another. But momentum can be fleeting, too. It's rare for a team to ride a momentum wave throughout an entire game. Instead, games tend to have ebbs and flows. There's no question, however, that momentum swings during games do exist.
- What about momentum within a series? Regarding this question, I've never been a big believer in a team's ability to carry momentum from one game to the next. Round Two provided plenty of examples of how momentum doesn't carry over and that each game represents a fresh start for both teams. Pittsburgh was able to bounce back from a subpar Game Six performance and win Game Seven in Washington. Conversely, the Caps weren't able to carry over their strong play from Game Six into Game Seven. Edmonton bounced back from a crushing Game Five defeat, a contest in which they blew a 3-0 lead in the final four minutes of the third. The Oilers blasted Anaheim, 7-1, in Game Six. Then, in Game Seven, the Ducks put the Game Six blowout loss behind them and responded with a 2-1 victory. The Rangers enjoyed lopsided victories in Games Three and Four at Madison Square Garden, but then Ottawa produced strong performances in Games Five and Six to close out the series. These outcomes reinforce the fact that a new game is just that - new - and will likely have its own individual, unique storyline.
- While it's true that each game presents a fresh opportunity for both teams to write a narrative, I was particularly impressed with Edmonton's resiliency during this playoff year. For a collectively young group, the Oilers handled adversity well - and that quality will help them in future years. Their Game Five victory over San Jose in Round One came the game after a 7-0 loss. The aforementioned Game Six blowout victory over the Ducks occurred after the deflating Game Five double overtime defeat. During the Anaheim series, the Oilers also had to swallow some tough calls on goal reviews, all of which went against them. But none of that slowed them down - and they came within a goal of reaching the Western Conference Final.
- Typically, big comebacks don't happen often in the playoffs. Successful teams tend to rely on strong team defense and goaltending to win games. Of the four remaining clubs, Nashville is the one to have followed that script the closest. Pekka Rinne has been one of the best goaltenders in the playoffs and the Preds are playing solid, structured hockey in front of him. They held the Blackhawks to three total goals in their first round sweep. It took the Preds six games to dispose of the Blues in Round Two, but they were a perfect 3-0 at home during that series, allowing just one goal in each of those contests. Nashville's top four defensemen - P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis - have been outstanding. Not only are they playing well defensively, they have nine goals and 27 points between them so far in the postseason.
- En route to winning the Stanley Cup last year, the Penguins regularly outshot and outchanced their opponents. The Pens haven't been able to tilt the ice that way in the 2017 postseason, though. Instead, they've been leaning on goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and an opportunistic offense to win games. That was the formula they used in building a 3-1 series lead over Washington. But after losing Games Five and Six, the Penguins produced their best game of the series in Game Seven. Fleury was excellent (again) in posting a 29-save shutout and made a spectacular second period save on Alex Ovechkin to preserve what was a 1-0 Pittsburgh lead at the time. But beyond Fleury, the Penguins did a much better job of dictating play, particularly in the first and third periods.
- For most of the first five games in the Ottawa-New York series, either the Rangers had the lead or the game was tied. But Ottawa still won three of those five contests. The Sens did it by coming up with big plays at key times. Erik Karlsson scored late in Game One to break a 1-1 tie. In Game Two, J.G. Pageau had two of his four tallies in the final minutes to help Ottawa erase a 5-3 deficit. And Derick Brassard had a sixth-attacker goal to get Game Five tied at four. Then, in Games Two and Five, the Sens were able to complete their comebacks with overtime triumphs. Game Six was the outlier win for Ottawa, a game the Sens led virtually from beginning to end. But make no mistake - the Senators won that series because of their ability to make game-changing plays at crucial moments.
So what will I be looking for in the Conference Finals? Here are some questions for all four clubs.
As mentioned earlier, Pittsburgh has not been as dominant as it was during last year's playoffs. But they also faced two of the top regular season teams in Columbus and Washington. Will the Penguins be able to carry play for longer stretches against the Sens? Or again will they be forced to rely on strong goaltending and opportunistic offense?
On the flip side, can Ottawa dictate play as much as the Blue Jackets and the Caps did against Pittsburgh? If not, will the Sens be forced to come up with more game-saving plays? Also, can Erik Karlsson, who has been one of the best players in this year's postseason, maintain his incredibly high level? He's the top scoring defenseman in the league and averaging nearly 29 minutes a game. All while playing on an injured foot.
Anaheim had a bumpy ride against Edmonton. The Ducks lost the first two games of the series at home and trailed Game Five, 3-0, late in the third before rallying. They also blew a 3-0 lead in Game Three at Edmonton. They had that 7-1 loss in Game Six. Will the Ducks find a better level of consistency against Nashville?
Speaking of consistency, Nashville has been the league's most consistent club through the postseason's first two rounds. Can the Preds maintain that? And will they continue to receive such prolific offensive production from their defense corps?
We'll get the answers to these questions in a couple of weeks!