Sunday, April 17, 2011

First Round Notebook: Chapter One

Some observations from the first round of the NHL playoffs, which series we are watching with interest and which ones are all but over already.

Montreal / Boston  (Montreal leads 2 -0) --- Jaroslav Who?  Hey Habs fans (at least those that booed Carey Price at the start of the season) feeling a little like you should have been a tad more receptive to your goaltender back in September.  Beyond the fact that while the Bruins are shooting, hitting, but not scoring, one of the main keys to the surprise 2 - 0 advantage that the Canadiens have is the fact that Carey Price is showing that form that Bob Gainey saw so long ago.

And While Gainey is no longer involved in the day to day of the team, you can't help but find his blue print on this squad.  The Habs are full value for their lead and the hold on the hammer, they've played some terrific shut down hockey, taken some brutal punishment and bounced back up to put the dagger into the hearts of Bruins fans time and time again with a timely goal to signal the start of the boos.  There hasn't been this much angst in Boston since Benedict Arnold changed sides in the Revolutionary War.

There is of course still time for the Bruins to get back into the series and reclaim some momentum, but Saturday's surprise announcement that Zdeno Chara was sidelined due to illness, seemed to take more than a bit of air out of the Bruins' sense of invincibility.  Combine that with Mr. Price winning the goaltenders match up and one can sniff out a whiff of panic in B town at the moment.  Not a position that will make re balancing the Bruins game and the status of wins and losses in this series any easier.

Philadelphia / Buffalo (Series tied 1 -1) -- It's almost a throw back to the era of the Broad Street Bullies days without the endless brawling of course.  The series got off to a rather uninspiring start, game one while rewarding for the Sabres wasn't particularly entertaining, in fact it seemed a tad plodding at times.  But game two, ah all was forgiven.  There was speed, hitting, clear contempt at times and scoring, oh was there scoring.  It was a wild first period alone in that second game, one which Ryan Miller perhaps wondered when his defensive corps might wish to engage in some play, if nothing else at least clear a few players from in front of the net.

Originally I thought that the Sabres would provide some interesting competition in the tune up for a long Flyer run in the playoffs, and while I still think the Flyers will prevail, the process it seems isn't going to  be as short a one as perhaps I thought.  Rather, as the intensity of this series heats up and the Sabres continue to not only answer the Flyers but pose a few questions of their own for the Orange crush, the confidence level of the Flyers and their fans may begin to wane a bit.

That was the case after game one when the Flyer faithful shared their thoughts with their favourite sons, the longer the series goes, the more anxious those fans may become.  There may be room after all for an upset in this series, the success of that idea will be in the net with Ryan Miller.  The Flyers managed to get through in game two, though you had the feeling that the momentum could have changed with the bounce of a puck.

It's looking more and more like a series that will have many more surprising moments to come and with it a time warp shift to a more physical era of the past (hopefully without the accompanying silliness that detracts from the competitive spirit of the game)

Tampa Bay / Pittsburgh (Series tied 1 -1)-- After game one the Pens provided a work ethic that suggested that Sidney Crosby could rest as long as he needs, after game two you get a sense the next question is when will Crosby suit up again and could it be soon.  The answer of course is he should take as long as he needs to fully recover from his concussion symptoms, and if that means he's off the ice through to June so be it.

The Lightning however provided the gist for the rumour mills of a Crosby return, that after they completely overwhelmed the Pens in game two,  an offensive outburst that showcased the once dominant skills of their top scorers, skills that had been a tad dormant in the last little while.

With the highly touted Steven Stamkos shifted off the top lines, perhaps as call to regain some focus, the Bolts put in motion a game plan that seemed to leave the Pens a tad unsteady on their feet.

The Bolts can take a step back to the prize with this series, the Pens have more than a few concerns to think about, but rushing back a franchise player as Crosby shouldn't be one of them.

If they have to take a pass on the playoff run this year then that will have to be the result, the future is far too unclear to rush decisions on their captain's health.

New York / Washington (Washington leads series 2 games to 0)--  Well here's a familiar theme, New York sports writers engaged in spirited debate with a head coach of a Big Apple sports team, and once that happens you know things aren't going very well for the home side.

John Tortorella offered up a few choice opinions to the scribes of the city's Daily papers this past week trying perhaps to deflect some of the pressure off his struggling Blue shirts as they start to crack under the weight of the task ahead.

The Capitals, a team which in years past has found ways to toss aside that favourite status, don't seem to be in danger of facing a first round departure this time around. While at times they've struggled with their game in the first two matches, they never appear to be on the cusp of throwing it all away.

The Rangers best game, the game one OT thriller lost after an Alexander Semin goal may have been their definitive playoff statement. A game where they threw all they had at the Caps and came out of it frustrated by the final result.

Game two provided more of the anticipated play before the start of the series, a game which saw the Capitals control the play, neutralizing the Rangers attack and showcasing the kind of play that placed the Caps atop the Eastern Conference this season.

Game two suggests that the Caps have regained their focus and most likely aren't going to let the Rangers get any kind of a foothold in the series, a situation that should make for more lively back and forth between the Rangers coach and his media followers in the days to come.

Detroit / Phoenix  (Red Wings lead the series 2 games to 0)-- The Coyotes are heading home to answer a lot of questions, perhaps pick up some moving quotes, check out the services of a good real estate agent and explain to the kids just where Winnipeg is.  Oh yeah, they'll also have to try and figure out just what to do about the Red Wings.

They came close in game two, a worthy effort from Dave Tippet's burdened team that at least offers up hope that the flag of surrender hasn't been brought out of the dressing room just yet.

Still, despite the fact the Red Wings don't even have their key player in the line up, they still look to be the dominant squad of the two on the ice.  They aren't quite the same dynamic as that dynasty team of recent past, but they certainly seem more than ready to take the next step in the NHL West.

The Coyotes who may still snatch a win at home, before what seems as the eventual end of the season arrives (and with it the final answer to their long running financial woes) but we are beginning to sense that the end credits are about to run.  Both in the series and in the experiment of these days in the desert.

Nashville / Anaheim (Series tied at 1 game each) -- Ducks fans sat back in shock in game one as the home side became the latest of playoff teams to try and figure out Barry Trotz and his motivational skills. The Predators in game one once again answered the call of their coach to bring surprise to the playoffs, like years past, Trotz seems to get the most out of a line up that few outside of Nashville could probably recite with any confidence.

And while the Ducks recovered enough from their game one miscues to reclaim some equilibrium in the series with a game two victory, it surely wasn't a victory that suggests that they will now make quick work of the pesky Predators.

As the series heads to the land of country music, there could yet be some heartbreakin' songs for the fans in Orange County, with Mike Fisher enjoying his new found status as a key participant in playoff hockey and for a team that clearly is enjoying his enthusiasm, should the Preds recapture the intensity of game one they and their fans may find that the next two home games could be quite enjoyable experiences.

Something that of course will be a little un-nerving for the Ducks and the fans back home, a collective that looked a little unsure of things as the clock ticked down in those final moments of the first game, the key for Randy Carlyle is keep his team on track and not looking back to their less than impressive start and keeping any momentum shift to relocate into Nashvile over the next two games.

Los Angeles / San Jose  (series tied at 1 game each) -- It's the North versus the south in a California version of a hockey civil war and while the series is tied at a game a piece, you have to feel that the Kings are clearly making the Sharks a little bit nervous.

Los Angeles nearly claimed game one, with only an OT goal removing the burden of anxiety from the San Jose Sharks as they began their annual wobbly march in the NHL playoffs.  Game two however, did nothing to quell the uneasy feeling in San Jose that all may yet go wrong.

The Kings completely controlled the second game, out hitting the Sharks, out playing them, out coaching them and most importantly of all out scoring them, by a margin of 4 goals to none.  That's none as in ZERO, GOOSE EGG, NADA.

The Sharks with one of the best potential scoring machines ever assembled for a fantasy draft, continue to show that there is a disconnect between potential and reality when it comes to the playoffs.

As the series heads down to LA, the Sharks can't be feeling particularly confident of their  game just yet, the Kings have knocked them off their game plan with a fair bit of success.  The weight of previous playoff collapses perhaps as big a problem as that offered by the play of the Kings, a combination that may yet make things a little tense around the Sharks dressing room this week.

Vancouver Canucks / Chicago Blackhawks (Canucks lead the series  2 games to 0) -- The Canucks head into game three with a renewed spring in their step, the challenge of the Blackhawks in the first two games rebuffed (though not without a few anxious moments in game two) the ghosts of last years series with the Hawks starting to fade.

This years edition of the Hawks is nowhere near as intimidating as the Stanley Cup version of last year, the pressure is fully on the shoulders of Kane, Toews et al, but the salary cap requirements that took away the cast of characters from last year are showing the Hawks vulnerable status.

With no Dustin Byfuglien type player to make life a misery for the Canucks (and Roberto Luongo especially) the Canucks seem to have more control over their events this time around.

The Canucks who didn't require the help of the Sedins in game one, but welcomed their input in game two have provided for a more complete team focus thus far.  Each line offering some impact into the play, showing the depth that carried them tot he top of the West this regular season.

The Hawks on the other hand, barely made the playoffs and while still the defending champions seem little bit unsteady with their grasp on that title.  All could change of course after two games at the Madhouse on Madison, but the Canucks don't seem like they're going to be rattled this time around.

With two wins under their belt, a split in Chi town would be a helpful assist on their way forward, taking both would be the icing on the cake and the definitive statement that they're the playoff contender that many Canadians are hoping for !

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