Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
With the second round of the NHL playoffs set to begin, the biggest story is how the conference semifinals will have an Alexander Ovechkin-sized hole where the Washington Capitals' Stanley Cup hopes used to be.
And it's not just D.C. puck fans who are down in the dumps about the Caps' early exit. You can bet commissioner Gary Bettman and all those folks at the league office concerned with TV ratings in the U.S. are none too happy about not having a certain Russian superstar to drive up viewership.
But this is what makes the Stanley Cup playoffs so compelling, not to mention unpredictable.
Jaroslav Halak made 131 saves on 134 shots in Games 5-7 for the Habs.
Next to nobody picked the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens to knock off the Presidents' Trophy winners in the opening round and we all appeared to be right about that when the Capitals grabbed a 3-1 series lead. Then Jaroslav Halak comes along and makes 131 saves on 134 shots in Games 5-7, leading the Habs to an amazing series comeback.
But, let's not give all the credit to Halak. The Capitals have been stretched to seven games in all four playoff series during the Ovechkin era, despite being the higher seed each time. There is something fundamentally flawed about the way this Washington team is built. So good in the regular season, so disappointing when the best-of-seven series begin.
One final note on the Caps before we get to the eight teams that are still playing hockey. Do you remember a few weeks back when Columbus Blue Jackets forward R.J. Umberger predicted the Capitals' playoff downfall? Here's what he told the Columbus Post-Dispatch earlier this month, in case you don't recall:
"They play the wrong way. They want to be moving all the time. They float around in their zone, looking for breakaways and odd-man rushes. A good defensive team is going to beat them [in the playoffs]."
I just thought of something the Caps can do to build a playoff winner - hire Umberger as a consultant.
(4) Pittsburgh vs. (8) Montreal
With Washington and the East's other two division winners, New Jersey and Buffalo, getting ousted in the first round, the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins are left as the conference's top remaining seed. That gives the Pens home-ice throughout the conference playoffs, not that they'll need it.
Last year, Pittsburgh had that advantage just twice in its four series -- in the opening round against Philadelphia and in the conference finals versus Carolina. The Pens won Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals on the road in Detroit, avenging their loss to the Red Wings in the previous spring's final stage.
With Halak and a deep defensive corps that features Andrei Markov and former Penguin Hal Gill, the Canadiens actually match up well against Pittsburgh in this conference semifinal series. Still, Pittsburgh's strength down the middle with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal will once again spell doom for its playoff opposition, just as it did in the Pens' six-game series triumph over Ottawa in the opening round.
Penguins in 6
(6) Boston vs. (7) Philadelphia
Boston couldn't have been expecting home-ice in the second round, but they will certainly take it after beating third-seeded Buffalo in six games during the opening round. The Bruins also have the advantage of getting healthier, while the exact opposite is happening to Philadelphia. Boston's top offensive weapon, play-making centerman Marc Savard, has been cleared to return for the start of this series and should give the B's, who rely more on defense and goaltending to win close games, an extra edge. Savard has been out since early March with a concussion suffered on a vicious hit by Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke.
The Flyers will almost certainly be without forwards Jeff Carter and Ian Laperriere for this entire series, while Simon Gagne has an outside chance at returning during this set. Carter and Gagne both suffered foot injuries in Game 4 of Philly's 4-1 series win over New Jersey, while Laperriere sustained a brain contusion and mild concussion in the final game of that series. The Flyers will miss Carter and Gagne's scoring and Laperriere's gritty work on the penalty kill.
The Bruins have the upper hand in net with Tuukka Rask over Brian Boucher in this series, and also have a slight advantage on defense. With 30 more goals scored during the regular season, Philadelphia would normally have the clear edge on offense, but the Flyers' injuries combined with Savard's return makes the scoring disparity less noticeable. Boston has a knack for winning close games and expect this series to be full of nail-biters. In the end, the Bruins will use home-ice to reach the conference finals for the first time since 1992.
Bruins in 7
(1) San Jose vs. (5) Detroit
The Sharks struggled early in the opening round against Colorado, but rebounded for a six-game series win over the Avs, avoiding last year's fate when they were also a top seed and lost in Round 1 to Anaheim. The goal for San Jose now is to get back to the Western Conference finals for the first time since losing to Calgary at that stage in 2004.
Meanwhile, the Red Wings, winner of the last two conference titles and the 2008 Stanley Cup champions, needed seven games to oust Phoenix in the opening round. The Game 7 victory was extremely impressive, however, as the Wings pounded the Coyotes, 6-1, to earn their first road win in a Game 7 since 1964.
The key for San Jose in this series is getting more scoring from its top line. The Sharks received just one goal from Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau against the Avs. The trio also had a total of nine assists against Colorado, but greater production from a unit that combined for 103 goals and 254 points in the regular season will be needed to knock off the Wings.
Detroit's biggest question mark is in net, where Calder Memorial Trophy nominee Jimmy Howard struggled to a 2.59 GAA and .919 save percentage in the opening round against the Coyotes. Backup Chris Osgood has won two Stanley Cup titles as the starter for Detroit, but his poor play all year long caused head coach Mike Babcock to lose faith in the veteran.
The Red Wings went 3-0-1 against San Jose in the regular season and should convert that success into a fourth straight trip to the conference finals
Red Wings in 6
(2) Chicago vs. (3) Vancouver
The Blackhawks are the hottest ticket in the Second City right now and for good reason. Chicago is loaded with young superstars like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith, giving the club the foundation to become the Pittsburgh Penguins of the West. After a shaky start in Round 1, the Hawks pulled out a six-game series victory over Nashville and the club's biggest question mark, goaltender Antti Niemi, quelled some fears about his ability to get it done in the playoffs.
The Canucks are led by the stellar forward duo of twin brothers Daniel and Henrik Sedin and also have the red-hot Mikael Samuelsson, who led all NHLers with seven goals in Vancouver's opening-round win over Los Angeles. The Canucks also have goaltender Roberto Luongo, who is considered by many to be the most-talented backstop in the league. Even though Luongo was the main netminder for gold medal-winning Team Canada at the Vancouver Olympics, questions still remain about how far "Bobby Lu" can lead this team in an NHL postseason.
The Canucks need to get Luongo's best effort to reach the conference finals for the first time since they made a run to the Cup Finals in 1994. If not, Chicago will make its second straight trip to that stage.
The good news for Vancouver is Luongo finished the LA series on a high note, stopping 54-of-58 shots in Games 5 and 6, and it appears the goaltender is ready to take Vancouver to the next level.