The first round of the 2017 NHL Playoffs had plenty of drama, intrigue and excitement. Here are some of my observations from Round One and some questions that will be answered in Round Two.
Parity: As if there was any doubt about parity in the NHL, the first round of the playoffs put that to rest. It's true that none of the eight series went to a full seven games and five of the eight higher seeds advanced to Round Two. But those aren't the numbers to look at when examining the closeness and competitiveness of the action.
There were 42 games played in Round One. A record 18 of those went to overtime. Even more amazingly, only nine of the 42 were decided by more than a goal (or a goal and an empty-netter).
Anaheim may have swept Calgary, but the margin in all four games was razor-thin. Five of the six games in the Washington-Toronto series were OT contests, as were four of the six in the Ottawa-Boston series.
It just goes to show that the difference between playoff teams is a narrow one - and reinforces the theory that any team qualifying for the postseason has an opportunity to make a long run.
Big Comebacks: Conventional wisdom tells us that teams have playoff success with great defense and goaltending. If a team is going to go deep in the postseason, it needs to be able to win 2-1 games. Correspondingly, getting a lead in a playoff game is especially important - and a two-goal lead can be insurmountable.
But that wasn't the case in Round One. In just one series did a team not surrender a two-goal lead - that was the Montreal-New York Rangers series. In the other seven, one team rallied from a two or three-goal deficit to at least tie the game. And in a number of those series, it happened in multiple games.
Why did this occur? Momentum swings within games might have helped account for some of the comebacks - a team might score multiple goals within a single momentum surge - but the frequency of these rallies was unique.
Experience vs. Inexperience: In three of the eight series, there was a large gap in postseason experience between the teams: Pittsburgh-Columbus, Washington-Toronto and Edmonton-San Jose. (I'm not including Calgary as an inexperienced team, because many of the Flames players were part of the 2015 postseason, in which they won a first round series).
This isn't meant to imply that there weren't individuals on the Blue Jackets, Maple Leafs and Oilers with postseason experience. But as a collective group, those three teams were far more inexperienced than their opponents.
Edmonton was the only one of the three to win its series, impressively taking Games 5 and 6 after suffering a 7-0 loss in Game 4. But despite losing their series, the Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets both gave their opponents a tough battle. As mentioned earlier, every game in the Washington-Toronto series was a one-goal contest. And while the Blue Jackets only took one game from the Penguins, they decisively carried play for portions of all five games.
Here are some of my other takeaways from the different series.
The Minnesota-St. Louis series was the only series in which the losing team was "goalied". The winning clubs in the other seven series all received good to great goaltending, but the Blues were the only club to advance because their goalie stole the series. The Wild dictated play for most of the time, but because of Jake Allen, simply couldn't convert on enough of their scoring chances. The Blues, on the other hand, were very opportunistic and efficient in finishing their own looks.
I was so impressed with the Montreal Canadiens when the Lightning saw them in early April at Amalie Arena. They played such a tight, structured game in front of Carey Price and gave the Lightning virtually no time or space. So I confess I was somewhat surprised to see the Rangers beat them in Round One. Not because the Rangers aren't a good team (they finished just one point behind Montreal in the overall standings). Rather, I just felt the Habs looked like a team poised for a deep run. But what I should have noticed in that April 1 game at Amalie Arena was that, even with their terrific defensive performance, Montreal only scored one goal through regulation. And that lack of offense clearly hurt them against New York.
As I mentioned earlier, the Pittsburgh-Columbus series was closer than five games. Ultimately, when the Blue Jackets were carrying play, they couldn't translate that advantage into goals (or enough goals). Conversely, when the Penguins got rolling, they repeatedly cashed in.
The most compelling first round series was the Washington-Toronto matchup. What surprised me was how Toronto was able to break down the Caps' team defense. The Capitals had the lowest team GAA in the league during the regular season, but played an uncharacteristically leaky game during a significant part of the series. Obviously, Toronto's team speed and solid execution had something to do with that.
Regardless of rooting interest (unless you're a Bruins fan, I guess), you've got to feel happy for Ottawa's Clarke MacArthur, who missed most of the last two seasons with concussion issues. He netted two goals against Boston, including the series-clinching overtime goal in Game 6.
Nashville's a good team, so a Preds' victory over Chicago shouldn't have come as a complete shock. But sweeping the 'Hawks? That was the biggest surprise of the first round. The Preds did it with the aforementioned formula of great defense and goaltending. Nashville was able to neutralize Chicago's top offensive players and held the 'Hawks to three total goals in the four games.
Speaking of great team defense and goaltending, the Oilers deserve credit for how they beat the Sharks. Dynamic Connor McDavid was held to just two goals in the series - and one of those was an empty-netter. Instead, Edmonton relied on goalie Cam Talbot, who pitched two shutouts, and a structured game in front of him. Yes, they swallowed a 7-0 loss in Game 4. But in the other five games, the Oilers held the Sharks to six total goals.
Now, it's on to Round Two. And here are some pre-series questions that will get answered over the next two weeks.
Anaheim vs. Edmonton: So Edmonton vanquished a more experienced opponent in Round One. Can the Oilers do it again in Round Two? The Ducks came within a win of reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2015 and, like the Sharks in Round One, do have the advantage of more collective postseason experience than the Oilers. For the Ducks, will they be able to contain McDavid as well as the Sharks did?
St. Louis vs. Nashville: Are the Blues going to carry play more than they did against Minnesota? If not, they're going to have to keep leaning heavily on Jake Allen. Spending lots of time in your own zone without the puck is not usually a formula for success, especially in the playoffs. For the Preds, I'm curious to see if they can maintain the solid level they set in the four games against the 'Hawks.
Ottawa vs. New York Rangers: I may be wrong, but this figures to be a low-scoring series. If it is, then it'll come down to this question: which team will make enough key offensive plays to win?
Washington vs. Pittsburgh: This is the heavyweight bout of this round. They had the top two regular season point totals in the league and played a close, bitter series in Round Two last year (Pittsburgh won three games in overtime in a 4-2 series triumph). I have a few questions here. Are the Caps better or worse off because of their tough series against the Leafs? In other words, will it have made them more battle-tested? Or have worn them down? Will the Caps clean up some of the defensive issues that hurt them against the Leafs? Or will the Penguins expose them? On the Pittsburgh side, there are other questions. While it didn't cost the Pens in their Round One win, will the absence of Kris Letang affect them versus the Caps? As mentioned earlier, the Blue Jackets had segments in Round One when they had the Penguins back on their heels. Will that continue against the Caps? The Capitals are capable of doing lots of damage when they start rolling.
I'll check back with the answers to these questions after Round Two!