Go ahead, NHL. Try and do better than that first round. Dare you. Can’t imagine how it can be done.
Three Game Sevens on one night for the first time since 2003. A whopping 14 overtime games. No lead was safe – not even Pittsburgh’s 4-0 advantage in the third period of its clincher at Columbus.
There were 29 comeback wins in 48 games and six game-tying goals in the final two minutes of regulation. Teams lost seven times when leading after two periods, an astonishing number when you consider top-flight clubs often go through an entire 82-game season maybe losing only once or twice when ahead after 40 minutes.
So round two, which kicked off Thursday in Boston and continues tonight in Pittsburgh and Chicago, has a long way to go to match that kind of drama. But Gary Bettman and the folks at NBC must be drooling at the thought of a final four featuring Boston, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. That’s entirely possible. Or we could end up with the exact same final four from 2013 – Boston, Pittsburgh, Chicago, L.A.
We’ve even got four Olympic goalies left in Boston’s Tuukka Rask (Finland), Montreal’s Carey Price (Canada), Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick (USA) and the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist (Sweden).
A look at the matchups:
Boston (1) vs. Montreal (3)
The Bruins: Won four straight over Detroit after dropping the series opener and are in “Win One for Iggy” mode as veteran Jarome Iginla has his best shot at a Cup since leading Calgary to Game Seven against Tampa Bay in 2004. And what a chance it is with a solid group of forwards and a Norris Trophy type in Zdeno Chara back on defense. Young guns Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton play with maturity far beyond their years on the back end. Goalie Tuukka Rask (1.16 GAA and .961 save percentage) was the league’s best in the first round.
The Habs: The top line of Thomas Vanek, David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty has 21 goals in the last 17 games dating to the regular season. Maybe Vanek gets a chop at Johnny Boychuk’s ankle and some revenge for the play that knocked him out of the 2010 Sabres-Bruins series and really turned the tide. It is strange to see Daniel Briere as a fourth-line center, but he’s still playoff-clutch and dangerous (111 points in 112 career postseason games).
Notable: This is a blood feud between the two fan bases as much as the teams, with decades of old-time history as well as current incidents like the ugly Chara hit on Pacioretty in 2011 stoking the fires on both sides. … They’ve met an NHL-record 33 times in the playoffs, with Montreal winning 24. They haven’t met in the second round since 1992. … En route to its first Cup in 39 years, Boston won an opening-round match in 2011 on Nathan Horton’s overtime goal in Game Seven.
The pick: The Bruins won the Presidents Trophy and like to be Supermen in the East. But the Habs have been their Kryptonite, as Montreal won three of four regular season meetings and has taken six of the last seven dating to last year. Nonetheless, too much Rask, too much Chara, too much of everything. Boston in six.
Pittsburgh (1) vs. NY Rangers (2)
The Penguins: They lived on the edge against the upstart Blue Jackets, with goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s meltdown in Game Four in Columbus pretty much inciting full-blown panic in Western Pennsylvania. The lack of scoring from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who finally notched a hat trick in Game Six, was also a huge talking point. Defenseman Paul Martin led all players in the first round in assists (8) and plus-minus (+7).
The Rangers: The schedule did them no favors. By the end of Game Three of this series, the Blueshirts will have played six games in nine nights. A couple of long overtimes could really add to their fatigue factor. Ten years after they won a Cup in Tampa Bay, it’s time to see if Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis can produce more of that postseason magic. Ryan McDonagh is fast developing into a superstar on defense, and played 24:03 in Game Seven against Philly.
Notable: Pittsburgh has won all four playoff meetings – and posted a 16-4 record against the Rangers in those series. The last one was in 2008. … Crosby has 111 points in 88 career playoff games but was oddly absent at times against Columbus amid rumors he was dealing with a foot problem. … The Rangers and Penguins, respectively, have been the losers in the last two Eastern Conference finals.
The pick: The Rangers have far better goaltending and it will be interesting to see how coach Alain Vigneault does in his first postseason matchup against the Crosby-era Penguins. Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma’s Olympic troubles and the trouble against Columbus did little for his teetering reputation. The New York defense corps against the frontline Pittsburgh forwards will be fascinating to watch. Rangers in six.
Chicago (3) vs. Minnesota (4)
The Blackhawks: It’s really starting to go Chicago’s way. After beating St. Louis and watching Central Division champ Colorado get knocked off, the defending Cup champs go from third in their division to home-ice advantage in the second round. They have stars everywhere, including a healthy Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane (who combined for all four game-winners in the first round), and staunch goaltending from Corey Crawford.
The Wild: The Game Seven win over Colorado provided their first postseason series victory since 2003, when they also won in OT in the first round at Colorado and advanced to the West final before losing to Anaheim. With St. Louis gone, this is Buffalo West with Jason Pominville, Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick all filling roles. Pominville had four goals against the Hawks during the regular season. Who plays goal? Darcy Kuemper took another shot to the head late in Game Seven in Denver and Ilya Bryzgalov may need to rejoin the universe in a tough spot.
Notable: Chicago took out Minnesota last year in a five-game first-rounder. … Colorado fans will certainly blanch when Wild winger Matt Cooke returns in Game Four after serving his seven-game suspension for the knee-on-knee hit against Avs defenseman Tyson Barrie. … Nino Niederreiter’s overtime goal in Denver made the Wild the first team in NHL history to survive a Game Seven in which they trailed four times.
The pick: The Hawks are rolling. They’re at home. They’ve got big edges in just about every area, especially in goal. Call it Chicago in five. A sweep would be no surprise.
Anaheim (1) vs. Los Angeles (3)
The Ducks: They have top-level stars in Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry as well as an emerging star in Nick Bonino, but you sometimes wonder about their depth up front. The same goes on defense, where there is some youth ahead of its years that makes you think Anaheim’s huge regular season came ahead of schedule. Rookie goalie Frederik Andersen was iffy against Dallas but was strong against the Kings during the season.
The Kings: Became just the fourth team in history to climb out of an 0-3 hole by pulling the trick against San Jose as Quick gave up five goals in the final four games. Anze Kopitar had four goals and seven points in the victories and has become one of the NHL’s best two-way forwards. He’s tied for the playoff scoring lead with Minnesota’s Zach Parise (10 points). Rookie Tyler Toffoli, whom the Sabres have long coveted, scored a key goal in Game Seven. Jordan Nolan, Ted’s son, has been a healthy scratch the last four games.
Notable: It’s only about 30 miles from the Honda Center in Anaheim across the freeway from Angels Stadium to Staples Center in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, but this is the first time these next-door neighbors have met in the postseason. … The Ducks won four of five during the season, including a shutout in the Dodger Stadium outdoor game on Jan. 25. … Ex-Sabre Robyn Regehr is playing a big role on Kings’ defense.
The pick: Given the history in the regular season, you go with Anaheim. But there’s a hunch surrounding how well the Kings have played in the postseason the last two years, winning the Cup in 2012 and getting back to the West final last year. They’re so hard on the puck all over the ice and Quick is an ace in net. This will be a bitter battle and well worth staying up for. Kings in seven.