Thursday, May 1, 2014

What We Learned from the Opening Round

One of the most exciting opening rounds of playoff hockey in recent years is sadly over, and the inevitable letdown of round two begins tonight.

What did we learn from the opening round?

The Habs are a playoff juggernaut... least when playing against an AHL-quality backup goalie and that guy's backup. The Habs were the only team to sweep in the opening round, and against a higher ranked seed no less, yet they aren't really world beaters. The drop off between Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback and Kristers Gudlevskis was huge and Montreal took full advantage. Not that anyone outside of Quebec is really viewing them as anything more than the underdog against the Bruins, but if there's one team the Bruins seem to have some trouble with (read: don't steamroll), it's the Habs. They are their kryptonite.

The Sharks are still the Sharks

Unbelievably, they did it again. No, not blow a playoff series in horrific fashion. Sucker us all in to believing they were Stanley Cup bound. Despite the Sharks' near 10-year history of being considered a Cup contender only to bow out of the playoffs early, they were still trendy picks to make it out of a tough Western Conference and vie for their first Stanley Cup. Amazing that they can continually tantalize people with their regular season dominance and then suddenly lose it all at the most inopportune moments. I have wrote disparaging remarks about the Sharks for years and shrugged off everything Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have accomplished, yet I too jumped on the bandwagon and had them pegged for glory. When will we learn?

The Blues are not the new Sharks

Even though the Sharks are still the Sharks, the Blues could be making a case that they are deserving of the chokers mantle. The Blues of the 90s/early-2000s were always a great regular season team that could never hack it in the playoffs, and some might say the new iteration of the Blues are the same. But it's hard to pinpoint what, if anything, is really wrong with the Blues. Apart from being blasted in Game 6, the Blues fought the Hawks about as tight as you can through the first five games. Only one contest was decided by more than a goal and that was won 2-0 by the Hawks thanks to an empty netter. The Blues will have to decide what to do with Ryan Miller (who certainly didn't shine in the playoffs, or the last handful of games in the regular season), but other than maybe looking for a little more offense, the Blues don't really have to make any major changes and can still be considered contenders next year. There's no shame in losing to the Hawks, the only shame is if you blow up a good team because of it.

Nathan MacKinnon has arrived

MacKinnon's 63 points in the regular season were the third most by a teenage rookie in the past decade, behind only Patrick Kane (72) and Sidney Crosby (102). He also grew strong as the season progressed, with 39 points in 43 games after the new year. In the playoffs he really took over, amassing 10 points in seven games—all of which came in three multi-point binges.

Pittsburgh is in trouble

The Pens' lack of depth is a real problem, as any time Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin aren't carrying the team there is a very real chance anyone can dominate Pittsburgh. The Blue Jackets don't have a lot of high-end talent, but there is enough decent players on every line that the Penguins looked at one point like they were going to add another team to the list of playoff chokers. Against teams with both depth and high-end talent—I'd say New York qualifies, and Boston definitely does—the Penguins are ripe for an upset. That isn't even considering Marc-Andre Fleury's penchant for a meltdown.

The Conference Final could be a Gary Bettman dream

The heavy favourites in the second round are Chicago and Boston, and you should probably give LA the edge over Anaheim, especially because the Ducks are so banged up and have questionable goaltending. That's three huge US markets poised to make the Conference Finals, and then you get either New York (huge US market) or Pittsburgh (highlighted by the league's poster boy). Gary Bettman is happy right now.

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