COACHING CHANGES TRANSACTIONS POWER POLL DEPTH CHARTS CURRENT ODDS
By Dan Di Sciullo
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Over the next two days hockey fans will be rewarded with at least three Game 7s on the docket and a fourth decisive game could be on the way.
Obviously, the NHL playoffs are at their best when series are going the distance. The possibility of having half of the eight first-round sets use all seven games has to be thrilling for league executives, as Game 7 matchups usually mean bigger TV ratings and could lead to an overall increase in postseason interest.
Tuesday night will feature a pair of Game 7s, as Philadelphia hosts Buffalo in the East and Chicago visits Vancouver out West.
Elsewhere, Pittsburgh will host Tampa Bay on Wednesday and, depending on the outcome of tonight's Game 6 in Montreal, the Canadiens and Bruins could meet tomorrow in Boston. The Bruins lead the series 3-2 despite dropping the first two games of the set.
Here's a closer look at the three definite Game 7 matchups and what to expect from those battles.
(7) BUFFALO AT (2) PHILADELPHIA
Goaltending has been a huge issue over the first six games of this series and the Sabres hold the clear advantage in that area.
After all, Ryan Miller has turned in a few game-stealing performances for Buffalo while seeing all the action in net for the Sabres and Philadelphia head coach Peter Laviolette has shown little confidence in any of his netminders, using three different starting goalies in the series.
Tonight, the task will fall to Brian Boucher in the Flyers net after a dizzying series for the veteran backstop. Boucher won the second game in relief of rookie Sergei Bobrovsky and then started Games 3-5. However, after Boucher was pulled from Game 5 for surrendering three goals on 11 shots, Michael Leighton was inserted as the starter for Game 6.
Of course, Leighton was yanked after yielding three goals on eight shots in Game 6 and Boucher came through with another relief win to tie the series at 3-3.
Outside of the crease, however, the Flyers have been the stronger team in this series, as the club's depth advantage over Buffalo has shown. Philly has peppered Miller with 88 shots over the last two games alone, and the fact that the Flyers scored on eight of those attempts could mean they are wearing down Buffalo and its spectacular goaltender.
Recent and all-time history in Game 7s also favors the Flyers. Philadelphia is 8-6 all-time in Game 7s, including a win over Boston in last spring's conference semifinals. Of course, the Flyers had trailed three-games-to-none in that series against the Bruins and Philly was also able to come back from a three-goal deficit in Game 7.
The Sabres, meanwhile, are 1-5 in Game 7s and have lost their last two times in this situation. Buffalo has lost all four of its Game 7s on the road.
But, Miller, who posted shutouts in a pair of 1-0 victories for Buffalo in this series, is the trump card for the Sabres. Last year's Vezina Trophy winner certainly has the ability to will Buffalo to one more win in this set, but winning a decisive game in Philadelphia against a Flyers team that has dominated play for much of the series could be too much to ask.
(8) CHICAGO AT (1) VANCOUVER
Vancouver is a Presidents' Trophy winning club that held a three-games-to-none lead in this series before opening the door for a Blackhawks team to come right back and tie the set at three games apiece.
Of course, the Blackhawks are the defending Stanley Cup champions and they eliminated Vancouver from the postseason in each of the past two seasons. But, Chicago was forced by salary cap constraints to gut much of its depth from last spring's championship team this offseason, so when the Canucks took a 3-0 lead in the series it seemed like the Blackhawks' title defense would be short-lived.
However, Chicago showed the Canucks, and the rest of the hockey world, that the core group of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, etc. was still enough to win in the playoffs. Joel Quenneville's club posted blowout victories in Games 4 and 5 and then made Tuesday's Game 7 showdown a necessity by recording an overtime win Sunday in the Windy City.
Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault also made a tactical blunder on Sunday, when he opted to start Cory Schneider over Roberto Luongo. Even though Luongo had been pulled from the previous two contests, he is still a Vezina Trophy finalist this year and it's hard to fathom how Vigneault could over-think such an obvious decision.
Sure, Schneider has proven himself to be a more than serviceable backup, and at 25 years of age he still has a chance to become a No. 1 netminder in the NHL. By starting Schneider in Game 6, Vigneault has only succeeded in creating an awkward situation in net tonight. The coach has at least come to his senses and chosen Luongo to start this evening's all-important game.
Both Vancouver and the Blackhawks have 5-4 all-time records in Game 7s, but history should be on the Canucks side tonight, as only three teams have ever come back from a three-games-to-none deficit to win a series. Of course, it doesn't seem as daunting this spring after the Flyers pulled off the same amazing comeback last year against Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Canucks are trying to avoid becoming the third straight Presidents' Trophy winner to lose in the first round. Washington was bounced out by Montreal in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals after having the league's best record last spring and San Jose was ousted two years ago by eighth-seeded Anaheim.
Although it seems like a crazy notion that teams could come back from 3-0 deficits to win a series in back-to-back years, it's difficult to have faith in the Canucks at this point. Chicago has outscored Vancouver by a 16-5 margin after Game 3 and has the clear edge in momentum tonight.
(5) TAMPA BAY AT (4) PITTSBURGH
The Lightning will be faced with the much more realistic task of coming back from a three-games-to-one hole to win a series when they take the ice in Pittsburgh on Wednesday.
Of course, the Bolts will enter the Game 7 matchup with the momentum after notching an 8-2 win in Pittsburgh in the fifth game of the series and following that with a 4-2 win in Tampa.
As the series has worn on, the Penguins, who of course are without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, have had a tough time keeping up with Lightning's scoring pace.
Pittsburgh needs a strong performance from Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 7, but the goaltender did not inspire confidence over the last two games, yielding four goals in each contest.
Fleury, who has a win in Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals on his resume, was pulled from last year's decisive contest against Montreal in the conference semifinals. He gave up for goals on 13 shots before being yanked 25 minutes into that Game 7 battle against the Habs.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay netminder Dwayne Roloson has a 5-0 career mark in elimination games and the 41-year-old has surrendered just four goals on 62 shots over the last two games.
The Penguins are also dealing with the fact that they've yet to clinch a playoff series at home under head coach Dan Bylsma, winning each of its last five series-clinchers on the road. That would appear to take some of the advantage out of home ice for Pittsburgh, although the Pens obviously would still not want to change places with Tampa.
Tampa will have a clear edge in offensive firepower tomorrow with the likes of Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier on its side.
The Pens will need to halt the Lightning's momentum with an early goal tomorrow and some big stops from Fleury, but it's hard to tell what they have left in the tank at this point in the series.