Phase two of the NHL postseason begins tonight after an upset-filled opening round. Five of the lower seeds won their series and a record of 17 games (out of 47) went to overtime. All four matchups in this year’s second round will be played between teams that have history with each other. Pittsburgh is facing Ottawa for the fourth time in seven years, Los Angeles and San Jose are division rivals, and the other two series feature Original Six teams.
#1 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #7 Ottawa
The Penguins have been a cup-winning team and a powerhouse in the Malkin/Crosby era, but this year’s edition may be the best. Pittsburgh made several moves in the off-season and at the trade deadline, to give their superstar duo the most offensive talent they’ve ever been surrounded with.
Their only setback on the ice has been the man between the pipes. Tomas Vokoun replaced long-time starter Marc-Andre Fleury in net, after he allowed 17 goals in games 2-4 against the Islanders. Vokoun recorded a shutout in Game 5, but allowed three goals in their Game 6 series-clinching win in overtime. He will start Game 1 against Ottawa, but could find himself back on the bench if he begins to give up too many soft goals against the Senators.
Ottawa is far from an offensive juggernaut, scoring the fourth fewest goals during the regular season, but their defensive play may be the best. Think of them as the NHL’s version of the Memphis Grizzlies. The Senators surrendered the second fewest goals and were the league leaders in penalty killing percentage. That translated to a five game triumph over the Montreal Canadians in the first round, in which they only allowed seven goals.
Prediction: Penguins in Five
#4 Boston Bruins vs. #6 New York Rangers
Hard to think of two cities that have a bigger sports rivalry than New York and Boston, and two teams that won in more contrasting circumstances in Game 7 than the Rangers and Bruins. The Rangers dominated the Washing Capitals with a 5-0 rout in their series finale, while the Bruins had to make a historic comeback against the Toronto Maple Leafs to survive and advance.
The Maple Leafs were up 4-1 with about 15 minute left in regulation and looked well on their way to winning their first playoff series in nine years. Boston cut their deficit to two goals with less than 12 minutes to play and scored two goals only 31 second apart (with 82 and 51 seconds remaining) to send the game to overtime. Patrice Bergeron scored the series clinching goal in extra time to complete a comeback for the ages.
The Bruins will now face a tougher test against a Rangers squad with a very similar style of play. Both were mediocre offensive teams during the regular season, but featured a top-notch goalie behind the net. Henrik Lundqvist won the Vezina Trophy last season and is up for the award again this year, along with Tuukka Rask. This series could feature a lot of games decided by a single goal.
Prediction: Rangers in Seven
#1 Chicago Blackhawks vs. #7 Detroit Red Wings
The Blackhawks made hockey fans quickly forget about yet another lockout, after their dominant run to start the season. This year’s team is more experienced and deeper than their 2010 Stanley Cup-winning team. Chicago recorded a point in the standings during their first 24 games, until suffering their first loss on March 25th. Their strong played continued in to April as they finished with the regular season’s top record and in May against the Minnesota Wild in their five game series.
Next up is a showdown with the long-time rival Detroit Red Wings who are coming off a shocking seven game upset over the Anaheim Ducks. The Red Wings trailed 3-2 heading in to Game 5 of a series that had four overtime games. It was a surprising result for a franchise that nearly missed the playoffs for the first time in 23 years, less than a month ago. Detroit has remained a playoff contending team in recent years, but their talent level is far from what it was a 5 or 6 years. Mike Babcock’s squad has not advanced to the conference finals since 2009, which would make an upset over Chicago more improbable than the one over Anaheim.
Prediction: Blackhawks in Six
#5 Los Angeles Kings vs. #6 San Jose Sharks
The east coast may not be tuning in to this series as much as the others, but these California division rivals could steal the show in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Los Angeles is trying to become the first repeat champion since the 1998 Detroit Red Wings and has home ice-advantage for the first time since 1992. The Kings have won their last five playoff series and have done so the hard way. Last year’s title run came as an 8th seed and they finished their first round matchup against the St. Louis Blues with four consecutive one goal victories, after trailing 2-0 in the series. Now they face a familiar opponent who eliminated them from the postseason two years ago.
The sixth-seeded Sharks advancing past the Vancouver Canucks in the first round wasn’t too surprising, especially in a shortened season, but few expected a four game sweep. They were dominant from the start of the series with a 3-1 victory in game one, with two other victories coming in extra time. San Jose has made the postseason 14 of the last 15 NHL seasons, but has yet to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. Their strong play against Vancouver suggests that this could finally be the year , but it has been seven days since they last suited up on the ice to play a game. Sometimes rest is worse than rust in the playoffs.
Prediction: Kings in Six