Thursday, April 30, 2015

One Round In

Some thoughts on the Stanley Cup Playoffs, now that the first round is in the books:

Those Predictions
In my April 15th post I predicted that whoever won the first round series between Nashville and Chicago would go on to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals. I am sticking with that prediction despite the fact that the Blackhawks had to deal with some goaltending vulnerabilities during the series. They did overcome them, after all, and it was eye-popping to see how well Patrick Kane played after missing two months with a broken clavicle.

I also predicted the Cup champion will come from the East, and I'm not changing that one either. The top four seeds all advanced and looked like championship material (although, and I hate to say this, the Lightning had the most question marks of those four teams).

My Lightning Indulgence
Although their seven-game tilt against Detroit featured lots of moments when they were on their heels, Tampa Bay showed tremendous resolve by coming back from a 3-2 series deficit; overcoming a hot goalie and pair of shutout losses; surviving an elimination game on the road; and, finally, chucking the Red Wings in the trash by blanking them last night in Game Seven.

I think I had three or four heart attacks last night, especially after Anton Stralman's late goal, which would have extended their lead to 2-0, was waived off thanks to questionable off-setting penalties being called against Steven Stamkos and Riley Sheahan. But of course, if your cardiac health doesn't get stretched to the limit, you're not watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- and when Stralman struck again by banking a length-of-the-ice shot off the side boards and into the empty net with 1:18 remaining, the feeling of hockey jubilation that filled the building was unlike anything we Lightning fans have felt since our team hoisted the Cup in 2004.

Here are the things from Round One that give me reason to believe the Bolts have a chance to win it all: They proved they have character and composure; they managed to use their speed and skill despite running into a big, bruising foe that pushed and sometimes tore the rule book's envelope; their defensive corps was much stronger than during the regular season; they got lots of secondary scoring (e.g., goals from defensemen Stralman, Andrej Sustr, Jason Garrison, and Braydon Coburn, whose top-shelfer at 3:58 of the third proved to be last night's game-winner).

But here are the things from Round One that give me reason to believe the Bolts won't be able to survive all four rounds: They converted only two of their 30 power plays; they were inconsistent; on several occasions, their offense went dead for way too long; Stamkos, despite playing very well in Games One and Seven, was damn near invisible throughout the other five and has yet to score a goal; and, although Ben Bishop was spectacular in goal last night, stopping all 31 shots and boosting his series save percentage to .921, he was subpar through the first six games.

If Bishop continues to play like he did last night, the Lightning have a legitimate chance. If he reverts to the form he showed in Games One through Six, winning the Cup will be impossible.

For quite some time, all the talk about the Capitals' lack of playoff success has been greatly exaggerated. You would never know it without reading the fine print, but their win over the Islanders on Monday was their third Game Seven triumph of the Alex Ovechkin era; and contrary to what conventional wisdom would have you believe, Ovechkin has had a very productive playoff career with 66 points in his 65 post-season games... But having said that, there is something different about this year's Caps because they seem to relish the chance to win tight defensive battles when they find themselves in such games. If they get past the Rangers in Round Two, watch out.

Some have said that because all four of the Rangers' first round wins were by the same razor-thin score of 2-1, they look less formidable than they did before. However, I think that makes them even more formidable, for it shows they have the mental strength to win games when they're playing subpar and facing a brick wall of a goalie. Plus, Henrik Lundqvist demonstrated that he is on top of his game by posting a .939 save percentage and allowing just 1.94 goals per game. In each of those stats, his opening round was identical to that of Vezina front-runner Carey Price.

You gotta feel bad for Marc-Andre Fleury. Against the Rangers he registered a lights-out .927 save percentage; surrendered more than two goals in only one of five games; held New York to a single regulation goal in two of the five; and looked every bit like the Cup champion he is. Nonetheless, when Pittsburgh fans and management assess how their team needs to be improved in the off-season, they are probably going to consider him one of the weaknesses rather than one of the strengths.

You also gotta feel bad for the fans in Winnipeg. It's not like their team had a great chance to eliminate top-seeded Anaheim, but after all they've been through over the years, those fans deserve to at least experience a playoff game being won in their building. Their white out tradition is too awesome to not witness some kind of post-season success.

Also, if you have any sense of history and tradition, you gotta feel bad about the New York Islanders playing their final game in Nassau Coliseum and moving from Uniondale to Brooklyn. Although the Rangers always receive the media attention, it is the Isles who produced one of the NHL's true dynasties. When I first fell in love with hockey, Mike Bossy was the face of the game and Denis Potvin was the world's best blueliner. Maybe Nassau Coliseum is a dump by today's standards, but it is the home of hockey royalty, and is the last functioning arena to house a winner of four consecutive Stanley Cup champions.

Lastly, I will take this opportunity to puff up my hometown francise one more time: In their history, the Lightning have played five Game Sevens and never once given up more than one goal (their lone Game Seven loss was by a score of 1-0, four years ago in Boston).

I'll be back later. Go Bolts!

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