Friday, April 27, 2012

Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 2 Preview: Late Night With the NHL

If you watch as much of the Stanley Cup Playoffs as I do, you have to be prepared for some late nights. After all, the postseason, with its potential for games that theoretically can never end is often full of overtime epics that stretch into the early morning hours, and this season's rendition has been no exception. In fact, the first round of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs had a record 16 overtime games, with the piece de resistence being between Chicago and Phoenix, a series that saw overtime in the first five games.

So, of course, it's only fitting that the last game of the round, last night's Game 7 thriller between New Jersey and Florida, which didn't start until 8:30 p.m. despite being on the east coast so as not to coincide with the end of Game 7 between the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators, needed more than 60 minutes to be decided. After all, Game 6, too needed more than 60 minutes to be figured out, resulting in Ilya Kovalchuk's beautiful backhand feed after noticing he had lured in both defenders on a 2-on-2, which Travis Zajac took in front of the net and deposited between the legs of Scott Clemmensen to save New Jersey's season.

But what was surprising about Game 7 between New Jersey and Florida was not that it needed more than 60 minutes to be decided, but that it needed more than 80. Double overtime isn't something particularly unheard of, but overtimes have ended surprisingly early this postseason. Only three of the 16 overtime games this season reached a second extra period in the first round and the vast majority of games were done within about 10 minutes. This seems to run contrary to the typical postseason overtime trend of "try to end it quickly and if you can't settle in and lock down the neutral zone and wait for a break," not because games aren't ending fast on the whole but because they aren't ending immediately and still aren't running on forever.

No need to worry, though. The Devils and Panthers solved that problem for everyone Thursday night by keeping the sportswriters, TV watchers and schedule-makers up deep into the evening in a holding pattern until somebody scored. As someone who is, shall we say, emotionally connected to one of these teams, it was an experience that was euphoric at its end but excrutiating for the rest of the duration. After all, playoff overtime is a precarious tight-rope walk where every slight shift in weight or brief mental mistake -- and those are inevitable -- could mean the end of a game or a season. The playoffs are stressful. Game 7 doubly so. Game 7 in overtime triply so. A Game 7 in double overtime? You get the idea. And despite nibbling on my fingers for most of the late evening, it was an immediate and explosive relief when Adam Henrique did this.

The game wouldn't have gone that far, however, were it not for the absolutely stellar play of Martin Brodeur. As we've noted here earlier, Marty has struggled for stretches of this season and started to look his age -- an age that will reach 40 next weekend -- and while the Panthers did manage a furious third-period rally that tied the game with less than four minutes left, both of those goals were the result of an unbelievable amount of pressure and maybe a little too much contact with Brodeur put on by Florida. After all, people will forget that a third Florida goal early in the third period was waived off as a result of goalie interference, but they may not forget that the Panthers peppered Brodeur with an almost absurd 19 shots in the third period alone, a number that in the hayday of New Jersey's Cup-winning defense of Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Ken Daneyko would have represented what he saw in an entire game.

All things considered, Brodeur was probably the best player on the ice, outplaying fellow elder statesman Jose Theodore with 43 saves on 45 shots, and the win was reassuring for a fan base that has started to wonder if Marty can still put out the top performances. After all, before last night New Jersey hadn't won a playoff series in five years and Brodeur hadn't won a Game 7 since the Devils topped the Mighty Ducks in the decisive final game of the 2003 Stanley Cup Final nine years ago.

And then there was the devastating collapse against Carolina in 2009 that no Devils fan in their right mind ever speaks of.

Apparently all Marty needed to return to the second round was two goals from Henrique, a man who was five years old the first time Brodeur lifted the Stanley Cup. If the Devils want to give Brodeur another championship, it's a hard slog ahead. After all, eight teams still remain, and there isn't a scrub among the bunch. Here's the lowdown on who's left in the race to bring Stanley home.

Eastern Conference

(1) New York Rangers vs. (7) Washington Capitals

The first round is always full of surprises and this year's had many. The Presidents' Trophy winner (Vancouver), the defending champs (Boston) and the prohibitive, sexy 2012 favorite (Pittsburgh) are all playing golf already, and that is almost certainly the most stunning development one could imagine, but lost in that hub-bub is the fact that the top seed in the East, and arguably the best team in the League most of this season, New York was pushed to the brink in a seven-game series and very nearly was sent home in the first round as well. The Rangers could easily have fallen in their own Game 7 Thursday night, and were it not for Henrik Lundqvist's unflappable performance in a tense third period that saw several quality chances thrown in his direction, the postseason might have been even more wide open.

Now that the Rangers, who have played a strong defensive game all season, but forgot how to score for the first five games of their first-round series, get Washington, a rubik's cube of a team that that is as talented and yet as unpredictable as can be. The Capitals could have been swept meekly in the first round by the Bruins and no one would have been surprised, but the fact that they stretched it to 7 -- and at one point had a 3-2 series lead with Game 6 at home -- isn't all that surprising either for a team with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin. Add in goalie Braden Holtby who has been playing like anything but his age and it probably wouldn't be a shock to see the Caps upend the East's top seed in the second round. But on the other side, it wouldn't be shocking to see the Rangers send them packing in five games either. You can draw your own conclusions before the puck drops in Game 1 Saturday.

(5) Philadelphia Flyers vs. (6) New Jersey Devils

Despite New Jersey's heroics Thursday night, the Flyers will be the prohibitive favorites in this series, probably by a fair margin, and it shouldn't be much of a surprise. After all, Philadelphia has a scary offense which can come in waves as the Flyers roll four lines with ease. Need proof? The Flyers trailed 3-0 in Game 1 against Pittsburgh and came back to win with little difficulty. In Games 2 and 3 against the Penguins, Philadelphia scored a total of 16 goals. New Jersey scored 18 in its entire seven-game series. Add into that that Philadelphia pretty much manhandled the Penguins and the Flyers do all the ornery things after the whistle that get a team off its game, and they are an extremely tough opponent for anyone.

But there are few things that may not be in Philadelphia's favor. For one, the Flyers don't own the Devils like they own the Penguins. The Flyers beat the Penguins four out of six times in the regular season and until a late season game that had little meaning they had never lost in Pittsburgh's home building. New Jersey is a different case. The Devils and Flyers split their six meetings this season and each team managed to take two in the other's arena. Add into that that the Flyers won't have played a game in seven days by the time they step on the ice for Game 1 Sunday, and the concern of rust could mean they need a full game to get back into the swing of things. And a full game is too much time to sacrifice in the postseason.

Western Conference

(2) St. Louis Blues vs. (8) Los Angeles Kings

Do you liike goals? And offense? And lots of high-scoring action? Because if you do, let us tell you, this will not be the series for you. We've already covered this one in significantly more depth but suffice it to say that this is not exactly a battle of goal-scoring machines. Granted, the Kings do have some potent offensive players like Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown or Anze Kopitar -- when they decide to be ones -- but most of the reason L.A. was able to upend the Presidents' Trophy-winning Canucks in the first round (read: the only reason) is because Jonathan Quick is maybe the best goalie in the League and he has been playing out of his mind lately.

Quick is likely to put on another show this round considering St. Louis is not exactly the most potent of teams, but anything the Kings can do the Blues probably think they can do better. Ever since coach Ken Hitchcock came in early in the season and installed his tight-checking system, getting open ice in the neutral zone has been almost impossible against the Blues -- and its likely to continue to be in this round. St. Louis is a deep, talented defensive team with some championship veteran leadership in Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner to boot. What it all adds up to is a lot of close games and likely several overtimes. I will be fun and exciting to watch if you don't need the light to be lit every four minutes to keep your attention -- but we may only see a grand total of three goals scored in the entire series. And as for who has the edge, well, it's a bit of a toss-up.

(3) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (4) Nashville Predators

Of course, if you're looking to the other Western Conference series for offense, you can keep looking. The West's second round has a fresh and exciting new look about it this season, as the Blues have won their first postseason series in 10 years, the Kings won their first in 11, the Predators won just their second postseason series ever and the Coyotes won their first since 1987 when they were still the Winnipeg Jets. It's a wild new world and the one big constant seems to be that each of these teams has superlative goaltending, and if you're looking for a matchup of top netminders, look no futher than here. Phoenix's Mike Smith has been dominant over the last month -- and considering Phoenix was outshot 28-8 during the first two periods of its series-clinching Game 6 win, he had to be -- while Nashville's Pekka Rinne has been equally as good and was nominated for the Vezina Trophy as the season's top goaltender this week.

This won't be quite the same matchup of punchless offense that the other West matchup features, though. Neither of these teams is known for its scoring, but at least they have some. Phoenix can throw Radim Vrbata or Martin Hanzal out there to notch a few goals while Keith Yandle is about as good at starting the offense from the back as any puck-moving defenseman, but Nashville can counter with several guys who can score even if they don't do it 40 times a year, and late-season addition Alexander Radulov, who is a bonafide goal-scorer. Add into that a top defensive pair of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, and the potential return of 6'7" blueliner Hal Gill and Nashville doesn't just look like a deep team that plays its system to a T and has the edge in the second-round, it just might be the favorite to come out of the West.

But you know what? There's a reason why we talk about these things here before the games are played. It's so we can all look like asses when we wind up wrong. After all, four of the five most popular picks to win it all are already done. So, basically, we're probably looking at a Phoenix-Washington Stanley Cup Final.

Yeah, that seems about right.

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