By Brian Willwerth
Round one of the NHL playoffs is in the books, and what a round it was. If you like thrilling, heart-stopping action, we saw all of that, and a whole lot more. As the conference semifinals get underway Thursday night, here’s a look at what we’ve seen, and what lies ahead:
1.) Game Seven…..times four:
There is nothing like a Game Seven in any sport. So far, we’ve been blessed with four of them in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. If that’s not enough, two of the decisive games went into overtime (won by the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks.) Three of the four home teams won a seventh game, with the lone exception being the Tampa Bay Lightning, which sent the Sidney Crosby-less Pittsburgh Penguins packing Wednesday night.
2.) Sudden Death:
The quarterfinals featured 14 overtime games – including two that went into double-overtime. That’s the beauty of the playoffs. There are no ties. There are no shootouts. Next goal wins. And they’ll play all night if they have to in order to get a winner. The Bruins won three of their four games against Montreal in OT. Nathan Horton had two of the game-winners. Can you imagine if longtime Penguins’ announcer Mike Lange were calling all of these OT games? If you don’t know who he is, look up some of his greatest calls on YouTube. You’ll be happy you did.
3.) Other notables:
*The top-seeded Canucks survived a major scare from the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, needing an overtime goal in Game 7 to survive.
*The San Jose Sharks rallied from a four-goal deficit to beat the Kings in Game 3.
*The Lightning started their rally from a 3-1 series deficit by hanging an 8-spot on the Pens. The Blackhawks scored 7 in a game against the Canucks.
*The Nashville Predators are in the conference semifinals for the first time ever.
Now for a look ahead to the second-round matchups:
EAST: (2) Flyers vs. (3) Bruins
Okay, I might as well get the obvious storyline out of the way. This is a rematch of last year’s matchup, which featured either an epic Boston collapse or a remarkable Philadelphia comeback, depending on your point of view. Both of these teams needed seven games to dispatch their first-round opponents.
The series doesn’t start until Saturday afternoon, so both teams have a couple of days to catch their collective breaths. The Bruins will be out for revenge.
For a key stat: Look no further than the power play. The Bruins went 0-for-21 in the series against Montreal, yet still won the series. Philadelphia gave up seven power-play goals to Buffalo in the opening round. Can Boston finally find a way to score with the man advantage?
EAST: (1) Capitals vs. (5) Lightning
The Caps have had plenty of time to rest, while Tampa Bay came from behind to knock off Pittsburgh in seven games. Dwayne Roloson has been outstanding in goal for the Lightning. He’ll have to be just as good against the high-powered Washington attack led by Alex Ovechkin. It’s been 13 years since the Caps last went to the Eastern Conference Finals. Tampa Bay is coming off its first series win since 2004, when they won the Stanley Cup.
WEST: (1) Canucks vs. (5) Predators
With the Canadiens out of the mix, the rabid hockey fans north of the border will be focused on the Canucks. Vancouver blew a 3-0 series lead against Chicago, then survived a complete collapse with an overtime victory in Game Seven. But the bottom line is, they advanced. Now they face a Nashville team coming off its first-ever playoff series win. The Predators did split the season series with the Canucks, so the Preds know they have the ability to knock off the top seed in the West. Based on what these two teams have done so far in the postseason, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see this series go six or seven.
WEST: (2) Sharks vs. (3) Red Wings
It seems like it’s been an eternity since we last heard from the Red Wings. That’s what happens when you sweep your first-round opponent; you get to watch the rest of the action from the sidelines for awhile. The Wings looked better in the first round than the Sharks did. San Jose goalie Antti Niemi was pulled twice in the series against the Kings. Will Detroit continue to steamroll through another opponent?