Round One in the Eastern Conference Playoffs was marked by Tuukka Rask refusing to allow the puck to enter the net, a Ben Bishop injury that completely derailed any chance the Lightning had of competing, the Penguins and Blue Jackets struggling with the concept of holding a lead until the Penguins just barely held onto their 4-0 Game 6 edge, and another dose of Henrik Lundqvist’s Game 7 magic. Round Two gets underway tonight with the Montreal Canadiens visiting the rival Boston Bruins.
1 Boston Bruins vs 3 Montreal Canadiens
Some notes about Tuukka Rask: Out of the 152 shots he faced against the Detroit Red Wings, he allowed 6 to reach the back of the net. That was good for a .961 save percentage and a microscopic 1.16 Goals Allowed on Average, both the top marks in the first round of the playoffs by considerable margins. He even collected an assist just for the heck of it. Rask owes some of his success to young defensemen Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton, who grew up in front of everyone’s eyes in this series. Krug had a goal and 4 assists and Hamilton had a goal and 3 assists and both spent the series constantly harassing the Red Wings on Detroit’s attempts to enter the offensive zone. The Bruins reinforced the notion of being an exceptionally deep team on all fronts in that series, and Rask is showing signs of going on another postseason hot streak, which should be giving Montreal nightmares.
The Canadiens’ sweep of the Lightning cannot be viewed without a slight asterisk. Vezina Trophy candidate Ben Bishop missed the entire series with a dislocated elbow, and his replacement in net, Anders Lindback, posted a 3.91 GAA, the worst in the playoffs. Seeing a backup in net where one of the top three goalies this season was supposed to be standing, Montreal poured it on offensively from the get-go, winning the first two games on the road 5-4 (OT) and 4-1. Brendan Gallagher, Lars Eller and P.K. Subban all had 5 points, and Rene Bourque scored 3 goals in the series. Carey Price was pretty good in net, but could stand to improve, especially with the level of competition rising so dramatically facing the Bruins.
The Canadiens definitely got a gift in the first round, but they will find no such thing in this matchup against the reigning Eastern Conference champions. One of the most interesting aspects of the series is the matchup between Subban and Zdeno Chara. Facing a perennial Norris Trophy finalist, now is as good an opportunity as ever for Subban to prove he earned the award in last year’s strike-shortened season. However, much of Subban’s game stems from his offensive ability, and he should find a hard time trying to establish an offensive presence against Chara, Johnny Boychuk, and the rising Krug and Hamilton. Bruins winger Milan Lucic is one of the game’s better playoff performers, and aside from his physicality, which will help in what looks to be an aggressive series, he brings a goal-scoring ability that could be crucial. Tuukka Rask vs Carey Price is a big matchup, but the Bruins’ skaters do so many things to help out Rask, whether or not he even needs it, that it would hard to pick against Boston in this series.
1 Pittsburgh Penguins vs 2 New York Rangers
The Penguins and Blue Jackets certainly played some ugly, exciting hockey. The team that scored the first goal lost in each of the first five games in the series, both teams routinely blowing leads of 3-1, 2-0, and even 3-0. The Penguins were up 4-0 halfway through the third period of Game 6 when they surrendered three goals in less than five minutes, before barely hanging on for a 4-3 win. The Penguins showed a lot of flaws in Round One, some familiar, some new. Marc-Andre Fleury, after a decent regular season, was once again inconsistent in the playoffs. Although his numbers were not as bad as they have been in the last two postseasons, he single-handedly allowed the Blue Jackets back into a lot of the games by making spectacularly bone-headed plays on the puck. In the realm of problems the Penguins did not imagine having to deal with, the power play was not very strong and Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both struggled. It was well noted that Crosby did not score a goal in the series, though he collected 6 assists. Malkin was goalless until Game 6, when he erupted for a desperately needed hat trick. James Neal only registered 1 goal and Kris Letang was exceptionally poor in this series. On the bright side, defensemen Matt Niskanen and Paul Martin were excellent, scoring 8 points each, with Martin averaging over 27 minutes of ice time per game. The Penguins may have been in a bad place without them, along with Brandon Sutter and Jussi Jokinen.
Henrik Lundqvist is a good goalie to have on your side in the postseason. Lundqvist improved his career record in Game 7’s to 4-1 with a 1.00 GAA in those games, and his Round One marks of 2.11 GAA and .919 SV% were both in the top five among first round goalies. Flyers goalie Steve Mason was great as well, but the Rangers found just enough offense in the series (usually against Ray Emery) to win. The Rangers are not in the top half of the league in goal scoring, but allowed the fourth-lowest goals, so that should indicate how they will be approaching the series with the Penguins. After making little impact in the regular season after being traded to the Rangers, Martin St. Louis showed signs of life with 2 goals and 4 assists, which bodes well for New York. Defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi will have the task of neutralizing Crosby and the rest of Pittsburgh’s scorers, but are capable of doing so. The Rangers will need more offense from Rick Nash, who had 4 assists but no goals, in case Lundqvist does not play as well as expected.
The Penguins are beatable. Their series with Columbus was very similar to their first round performance last year against the New York Islanders, whom they struggled against for much of the series before winning in Game 6. The Penguins then beat the Senators in five before being swept in the Conference Finals by the Bruins. This Rangers team is better than last year’s Senators. Henrik Lundqvist has never been prone to the kind of poor stretches of playoff performance that Senators goalie Craig Anderson turned in against Pittsburgh last year. Though the matchup between the Penguins’ offensive philosophy and the Rangers’ defensive mindset is interesting, the goalie matchup is the most crucial part of this series, and when it comes down to high-pressure, must-win games, who is more likely to succeed, Henrik Lundqvist or Marc-Andre Fleury?
The Canadiens-Bruins series begins Thursday at 7:30 and the Rangers-Penguins series starts Friday at 7:00.