After the first week of games in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the one thing that seems clear is there is no real favorite out there. The Chicago Blackhawks might be the only team with a real bona fide championship pedigree with its current core, but they have goaltending issues. The New York Rangers haven't really looked like they did in the regular season so far. The Pittsburgh Penguins are unpredictable. The St. Louis Blues should be among the contenders, as should the Montreal Canadiens, but it's tough to put stock in teams you haven't seen win it before.
Honestly, the team that has really jumped out at me has been the Anaheim Ducks. It looked like they were in for a really tough series with the Winnipeg Jets, and it has been tough so far, but the Ducks are playing well. Their great players, guys like Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler, have been showing up and the goaltending has been good. They're playing a big, physical team in Winnipeg and have managed to win both games they've played. The only other team to do that has been Montreal, which hasn't looked like it's been challenged physically nearly as much as Anaheim.
As impressed as I am with the Ducks, though, I still think there are a lot of positives the Jets can sell. They easily could have won both of these games with how hard they played. If I'm Paul Maurice, the fact that my team has played so well and come so close is exactly what I'm selling in the locker room. "Guys, we're playing great. We're right there. Just a break here, a break there, keeping hitting and working and it will all pay off."
Of course, that the Ducks have played so well and the Jets are right there shows you just how great this series has been so far. It'll only get better when playoff hockey returns to Winnipeg on Monday. If you love gritty, physical, great hockey, this is the series to watch.
FLEURY COMES TO LIFE
The past few years, the hockey world has had long discussions about the postseason heroics of Marc-Andre Fleury, or, more accurately, the fact that there haven't been any since he won the Stanley Cup six years ago. That might be changing right now, though. Fleury outplayed Henrik Lundqvist in Game 2 and played as well as him in Game 1. In two games against the Presidents' Trophy winners, Fleury has looked great, and that's a huge, huge checkmark in Pittsburgh's column right now.
Sidney Crosby, certainly, has played well and Brandon Sutter, with a goal and assist, was a tower of strength Saturday, but the most impressive thing about Pittsburgh, other than Fleury, is just how well it has played to after a brutal finish to the regular season. The Penguins have looked better than the Rangers, have had a ton of offensive chances and they've clamped down on defense. At one point the Rangers had 20 shots Saturday and 13 came on the power play. New York wasn't getting shots unless they had a man advantage. In 5-on-5 situations, the Penguins owned the Rangers.
The Penguins have found a way to clog the neutral zone and slow down the Rangers' speed and shut down their stretch passes. The penalty kill also looked fantastic in Game 2, though it had to be since the Penguins took seven penalties. That strong play across the board has made Fleury look that much better, and it's made the Rangers look surprisingly average. Now that the Penguins got a split in New York the Rangers must get a split in Pittsburgh. If they don't, if they're not capable of going into Pittsburgh and dominating the next two games, well, maybe we've overestimated the Rangers this whole time. Winning the Presidents' Trophy won't mean a thing if they return to New York in a 3-1 hole.
A NINE-GAME SERIES
Nine games. That's how long I think the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues would play if the rules allowed for it. This has just been a very, very even series since it began. The Wild looked great in Game 1, but St. Louis came out much more physical and aggressive in Game 2 led by Vladimir Tarasenko. Even with that physical, aggressive edge, though, Minnesota, I thought, really took over in the third period and could have tied the game. The Blues spent much of the final 20 minutes back on their heels.
Even though the Wild could not put together the comeback in Game 2, they still grabbed a split in St. Louis and have a lot of positives to take away from the first two games. I think the Wild looked quicker than the Blues overall and had the better chances. Now, however, as if the division rivals didn't know each other well enough already, they are going to settle into a war of attrition where each team knows what to do. The Blues will keep playing tough and nasty. The Wild will have to stay focused on their game.
Either way, this really looks like it will go seven games. The teams are so tough, so fast and so close in talent level that I just can't see it ending any earlier. It's going to be great hockey. The only shame is that it can't go nine.