After one of the greatest opening playoff rounds in the history of sports, round two of the Stanley Cup playoffs had a tough act to follow. Like most sequels to blockbusters, it looked like it would fall short in several key areas but then Nashville put a scare into Vancouver and Detroit showed why heart can never be underestimated in any hockey playoff. While in some other sports being on the verge of elimination can mean time to pack it in and goon it up (Yes, I’m talking about you, LA Lakers). In hockey, an elimination game means players will means strap on the helmet a little tighter, bite down on the mouthpiece and leave everything they have on the ice. Players with more heart than talent like Joel Ward rise up to stun a hometown Vancouver crowd expecting the series to end in five. Meanwhile, Detroit and San Jose provide hockey’s version of the “Thrilla in Manila”. A drama played out in seven heart stopping nights. With all due respect to other sports, playoff hockey has the market cornered on heart, resilience and toughness.
In other sports, players block a shot and scream like Mel Gibson just before the fight scenes in “Braveheart”. In hockey, players throw their bodies in front of a rock hard projectile traveling at 90 mph. When they do block the puck, they don’t yell, or scream, or even whimper although it probably hurt like hell. (Besides when was the last time you saw someone break their ankle getting hit by a jump shot?) In some other sports, players score and look for the nearest TV camera. In hockey, players score and look for the nearest teammate. Since hockey does not provide accurate injury reports most people have no idea how banged up some of these players are right now. I once saw a player take an epidural just so he could continue to play in the post season. There is a phrase for this attitude that sums the mentality, “That’s PLAYOFF hockey”. There is a reason the Stanley Cup is sports most difficult trophy to capture. It takes the toughest athletes on the planet both mentally and physically, to get to championship exit 16W. This year’s 2nd round can be summed up in two words Domination and Resilience. Let’s start in the East where sweeping was all the rage and numbers don’t lie.Eastern ConferenceTampa Bay Lightning: Key Number 131
as in 1-3-1. The 1-3-1 is the system that Coach Guy Boucher has installed with great results. The premise is one forward up front, three players across the middle and one defenseman at the back. The result clogs the neutral zone and makes it nearly impossible for the opposition to gain and odd man rushes. Technically, it is not a trap but has the same results. It’s a type of game that only Lightning fans and supporters of the 1995-2004 New Jersey Devils enjoy. This style of play has been bought into by all players including the offensive superstars and a large reason for Tampa’s incredible 5-1 road record in the postseason.
This is a team with a goaltender born 4 days before the 1969 Mets wrapped up the World Series and yet Dwayne Roloson has outplayed his younger opposition in both series wins including the shocking four game sweep of the Washington Capitals. Tampa’s big guns are contributing but their leading playoff goal scorer is Sean Bergenheim with 8, leading in assists are Steve Downie and Teddy Purcell with 10 each. In order to win this time of the year, big players have to play big but role players have to contribute every night as well. Beware of the Bolts as they are becoming the personification of the theory that the best team does not win the cup, it’s the team that plays best.Boston Bruins: Key Number 2
The number 2 stands for the amount of American Goaltenders to start for the Stanley Cup champions during the past 41 years. In fact, there have been as many US goalies to win Olympic Gold medals (Jimmy Craig and Jack McCarten) as have backstopped a Stanley Cup winner (Tom Barrasso and Mike Richter). The best chance to raise that number to 3 is Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins. A story in perseverance, Thomas bounced around the world playing in locales as diverse as Birmingham, Alabama and Oulu, Finland.
These are places where you are probably going to enjoy a few years of hockey before getting a real job. Yet somehow the University of Vermont alum kept going, landed a job in Boston and continually improved at his craft. Thomas was allegedly on the trading block last summer but battled his way to become the NHL’s best goalie this postseason. Thomas’ brilliance was the only reason the Bruins survived the 7 game battle against the Canadiens. His 52 save performance in game #2 against the Flyers sealed Philly’s fate and led to the sweep. Thomas is the hottest goalie in the playoffs and his team has complete confidence in his ability to take Boston to their first Stanley Cup since 1972. Conversely here’s a math problem that sums up the playoffs for Boston’s vanquished opponent. 3+0=0. Three goalies capable of starting plus Zero goalies stepping up equals Zero chance of winning the championship. Great goaltending wins championships. These days decent goaltending can win a title but bad goaltending has NEVER won the Cup. Plenty of netminders will be up on the free agent market this year, might be a good idea for the Flyers to invest in one.
The only thing more dominating than the Eastern Conference semi-finals was a stealthy attempt to control the minds of North Americans by the countries of Scandinavia. Not since the “Summer of George” episode of Seinfeld has one entity attempted to control a season so thoroughly. Exhibit A: the Swedish Hockey team has advanced to the title game at the World Championships and destroyed team USA 6-2 in their first round matchup. Exhibit B: the number one movie at the box office, “Thor” a movie based on the Norse god of thunder. Exhibit C: Husqvarna. Their commercials have dominated Versus coverage and thanks to the great announcer Michael "Doc" Emrick, we know the company is pronounced HUSK-VAR-NA. Like most of you I had no idea what a Husqvarna was before the playoffs began. But now I know this company is considered the “John Deere of Sweden”. Well played, Scandinavia. I salute your efforts and invite you to take a large bite out of a hunk of cheese, something George Costanza was never able to accomplish. Western Conference
With San Jose up 3 games to 0 and Vancouver leading Nashville 3 games to 1 it seemed these series would lack drama as well. But to quote the famous philosopher “Rowdy”Roddy Piper, “Just when you think you have all the answers, I change all the questions” and all of a sudden there were two great battles to elimination.Vancouver Canucks: Key Number 4,510,858
This is estimated population of British Columbia, and the estimated amount of people in the province riding the Canucks Roller Coaster this postseason. If Six Flags could turn the Chicago-Vancouver series into an attraction it would definitely have warnings for people with heart problems, back issues and pregnant women to stay off. The Nashville series appeared to be a kiddie ride but someone forgot to tell the Predators. This series defied logic as home ice meant nothing, the last five games were all won by the road team. Who would have thought that Joel Ward would become a bigger scoring threat than both Sedin twins combined? There is nothing better in sports than the chaos of the final minute of a one goal game, goalie pulled and the series on the line. Not sure that Dan Hamhuis ever saw the shot he blocked to save game #6, but he did and the Canucks move on. Ryan Kesler was the best postseason player on the ice even when he wasn’t scoring points. Kesler is now the leading candidate for the Conn Smythe trophy, Vancouver’s leading playoff scorer and one of a handful of Ohio State athletes NOT under investigation by the NCAA. If the Canucks are to advance, Kesler is going to need some help in the offensive zone. After an explosive first three games against Chicago, the Sedins are providing minimal help and are almost a non-factor five on five. Photos of the brothers will be featured on the side of milk cartons all over British Columbia if they don’t show up soon. Of all the NHL teams located in Canada only the Canucks do not have a Stanley Cup Championship banner hanging from their rafters. The ‘Nucks are now four wins away from a return to the finals since the heartbreaking loss to the Rangers in 1994. An entire providence and maybe half a country is breathlessly awaiting the next chapter.
On another note…. I still can’t figure out why some NHL team wouldn’t risk up a couple of first round picks and a large contract for a chance to grab restricted free agent Shea Weber. He’s big, nasty, plays 25 minutes a night, has a 100MPH slapshot and is a great captain who would not let his team lose this series without earning the respect of the entire hockey world. Seems like a good investment considering how long it takes to develop all-star defensemen.San Jose Sharks: Key Number: 5
Saved the best for last. WOW!!! So many big time players making HUGE plays Setaguchi from Thornton, Couture robs Zetterberg and buries it top shelf, Zetterberg responds in the 2nd, Marleau crashed the net (Take that JR) , Datsyuk backhands a highlight reel goal and then Niemi saves the series with 30 seconds to play. All of that was just in Game #7! Many people thought the Chicago-Vancouver series was the best in years, it took exactly 14 days to be upstaged. Seven games played and every contest was a one goal nail biter. (Empty net goals do not count against the one-goal rule) San Jose squeaks its way to a 3-0 lead only to have Detroit win Game four on a Darren Helm goal with 103 seconds to play. Niklas Kronwall delivers a monster hit on Ryane Clowe and the entire series changes dimension. The boys from Motown overcome a two goal third period deficit on the road to take game five and trail in game six before Henrik Zetterberg and Valtteri Filppula turn “The Joe” into complete bedlam with an audio explosion loud enough to be heard across the river in Windsor. In the deciding game, the Sharks best players, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle played huge at both ends of the ice and unsung hero Antti Niemi showed his Stanley Cup ring was no fluke. Zetterberg, Lidstrom and Datsyuk, are All-World, All-Heart performers but the Sharks were one goal better, a razor thin line between going home and moving on to Vancouver.
For the Sharks, the number 5 is their key so far. This digit is a reminder of the amount of overtime wins San Jose has through two rounds this year. For a team that has been considered a playoff underachiever, all the breaks have gone the Sharks way in 2011. Defensive zone breakdowns, bad line changes, deflections, rebounds, bad penalty calls and lucky bounces (just to name a few) can all lead to a game winner in overtime yet NONE has happened against the Sharks. In each of their series wins just one loss in OT would have changed their entire playoff fortune. They are winning by the slimmest of possible margins and getting contributions from everyone in the lineup. After so many years of playoff disappointments, the hockey gods may be finally smiling upon the Sharks
For those seeking story lines for the Conference Finals, consider the mirror images facing off. In the east, two teams that went seven games in the first round and swept the opposition in the 2nd. Boston and Tampa play defense first and have “old” goaltenders ,who have spent the last month standing on their heads. In the West, two perennial playoff underachievers meet. Each team having to survive being on the wrong side history after almost blowing 3-0 series leads. Vancouver and San Jose were the two best teams in the conference during the regular season led by explosive forwards, talented defensemen and depth that other teams only dream about. Four teams only halfway to the championship and two more glorious rounds to go. I have no idea how these playoffs can get any better, but can’t wait to find out.Bruce LeVine is the post-game co-host for Dallas Stars road games on Sports Radio 1310 The Ticket. Email Bruce at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @BruceLeVine22