Round 1 of the playoffs is off to a very promising start. Unless you are rooting for the Penguins, the quality of play so far has been very high and nearly every game has been exciting. Here is some analysis on the first half of Round 1 of this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Penguins have been a complete mess. Everybody is pointing fingers at goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and make no mistake, Fleury has been awful. But to blame Fleury alone is a mistake. Fleury has gotten absolutely no support from his defense. Look at the goal scored by Philadelphia’s Matt Read in Game 3. Read was practically allowed to skate right out into the slot area untouched and get a wide open shot on the Penguins goal from in close.
It’s almost like the Penguins have been reading their press clippings before the playoffs started this year. The media basically said that the Pens are the most talented team in the league and are the favorites to win the Stanley Cup now that they have Sidney Crosby back in the lineup. But in order to win the Stanley Cup, a team needs to do the little things right: block shots, back check and get physical. Pittsburgh hasn’t done any of those things well and it’s showing against a strong Flyers team that has raised their game in the playoffs.
The Pens are also clearly being put off their game by the tough nature of this series. This is surprising for a team that won the Cup in 2009 and reached the Finals in 2008. Pittsburgh seems to be getting angry when the Flyers get physical and are often concentrating more intent on swinging back than playing smart hockey. It’s obvious what Sidney Crosby is trying to do when he drops the gloves but if you’re Dan Bylsma or Mario Lemieux, the last thing you want to see is “Sid the Kid” taking punches to his head or anywhere else for that matter. The Penguins are falling apart and the Flyers should be congratulated for making this happen.
The league still has a huge problem with suspensions and fines in the playoffs. It doesn’t matter if Brendan Shanahan or Colin Campbell is calling the shots, consistency is still lacking. The average fan and even hockey insiders cannot understand how Shea Weber gets just a fine for going all WWE on Henrik Zetterberg at the end of Game 1 while Carl Hagelin of the Rangers got three games for his elbow to Ottawa’s Daniel Afredsson’s head. I am willing to bet Alfredsson plays in Game 3. Then, Ottawa’s Matt Carkner gets just one game for deliberately punching a defenseless Brian Boyle, who declined an invitation to fight and was clearly defenseless on the ice. Carkner’s action was deliberate and clearly an attempt to injure. So was Weber’s. Hagelin’s was clearly a head shot but did not appear to be a deliberate attempt to deliver a blow to Alfredsson’s head.
There is little doubt that Shanahan’s inconsistency and failure to penalize Weber’s actions and to lightly punish Carkner made some of the later violence we’ve seen in the playoffs more likely. The league needs to be consistent and thus far it hasn’t been. As The Who said, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”….
Two goalies that are clearly difference makers thus far in the playoffs: Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles and Pekka Rinne in Nashville. Rinne has led the Predators to victory in two games where his team was outshot by Detroit. Meanwhile, Quick has a .970 save percentage and a 1.34 goals against average in helping the Kings hold a 3-0 lead over the team with the league’s best record, the Vancouver Canucks.
The Canucks tried to mix things up by starting Cory Schneider in Game 3. Schneider played very well but Quick was perfect. Roberto Luongo played very well in Game 1 and OK in Game 2 but Alain Vigneault made the switch to try to give his team a lift and disrupt the Kings momentum. It didn’t work. Luongo should not be a scapegoat for the Canucks failures in this series so far. They really do miss Daniel Sedin and Quick has been THAT good.
Another goalie who has been a difference maker is Braden Holtby. Could there be any more pressure on a rookie goalie? He is going up against the defending Stanley Cup champs on an underachieving team and playing on the road. Holtby has a .970 save percentage and a GAA of 0.83. His only loss was a 1-0 overtime defeat.
Holtby has already proven himself to be a clutch goaltender at the AHL level. He responds well to pressure has given the Capitals a chance to pull off the upset in this series. The fact that his teammates have blocked 49 shots in front of Holtby helps as well. The Caps have also benefited from having Nicklas Backstrom back in the lineup which gives Washington an additional scoring threat. Expect the Bruins-Caps series to go at least six games if not seven.
Overall, the first round of the playoffs have been exceeded expectations. The rest of the playoffs should be at least as good.