Conference Semis start up

Well, after a wild/unpredictable opening round, eight teams are left vying for the prize. The Conference Semis start up tonight with the Red Wings visiting the Sharks with faceoff an hour from now.

Can San Jose finally overcome a huge obstacle or will it be the same old story? They’ll need much better production from Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau, who were too silent in the six-game win over the Avs. Joe Pavelski certainly did his part as did Dan Boyle, who atoned for his giant Game 3 gaffe. Evgeni Nabokov was also steady. But if these Sharks are to do damage, their top line must step up.

You know Detroit’s best Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Holmstrom and Johan Franzen will. The Red Wings look to have a significant edge on the blueline boasting Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Niklas Kronwall. The Sharks’ best is Boyle and vet Rob Blake. They’ll need Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Doug Murray to be factors. Grinders Ryane Clowe, Manny Malhotra and Scott Nichol help. Devin Setoguchi had a strong first round scoring the Game Four overtime winner that swung the series. It’ll take a team effort against the Cup proven Wings, who boast Calder candidate Jimmy Howard in net. J-How held up well in the seven-game win over Phoenix. The goalie match-up is huge. Is this the year Nabokov conquers the demons? It all begins tonight.

The other three semi match-ups get going this weekend. Chicago and Vancouver don’t play till Saturday night on Hockey Night In Canada while NBC opted for Flyers-Bruins, meaning the Canadiens and Penguins kickoff tomorrow on CBC. Not much rest for the weary. It’ll be interesting to see what Jaroslav Halak and Co. bring to the table at Mellon Arena. Stopping 131 of the final 134 shots making the Caps the first top seed to ever blow a 3-1 series lead in the first round was off the charts. Can it be duplicated against MVP nominee Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal? On paper, it seems like a mismatch but wasn’t the same thing echoed about the Caps? Still, the Pens are defending champs for a reason and play a different style. They’re more battle tested. What can Jacques Martin come up with to slow them down?

With it being one of the best opening rounds, the league had some noteworthy info. Here are the highlights courtesy the official media site:



NEW YORK (April 28, 2010) — The entertaining and unpredictable opening round of the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs concluded tonight with the Montreal Canadiens defeating the Washington Capitals 2-1, adding the latest chapter in the storied franchise’s playoff history by becoming the first #8 seed to win a series from a 3-1 deficit.

For the past 15 days, NHL fans were treated to a roller-coaster ride of eight hotly-contested series in which no outcome was a given, no lead was safe and the margin between winning and losing was razor-thin.

Among the statistical highlights:

* Road teams won 27 games (27-22), the most ever in the first round. Three series tied the NHL playoff record for most road wins (five, Montreal vs. Washington; Pittsburgh vs. Ottawa and Detroit vs. Phoenix). The Boston Bruins were the only of the eight advancing clubs to clinch the series on home ice.

* There were comebacks galore: the winning team in 24 of the 49 games trailed at some point in the contest. Five teams won after trailing by two or more goals. A club trailing in the third period came back to win nine times.

* Teams combined to score an average of 5.90 goals per game, the highest for an opening round since 1996 and a 36% increase over 2004 (4.34), the last playoff year before the adoption of several rule changes designed to limit obstruction. The first-round scoring average also topped that of the 2009-10 regular season (5.53), marking the first time that’s happened since 1994-95.

* Twelve of the 49 games were decided in overtime, the most in opening-round play since 2001 (14). Seven of the eight series had at least one game extend to overtime.

* Scoring the game’s first goal wasn’t as much an advantage as advertised. The teams scoring first lost five of the six games in the Vancouver Canucks-Los Angeles Kings series (VAN 1-2, LA 0-3). The Buffalo Sabres opened the scoring five times against the Boston Bruins, but went 2-3 in those games.

* Adding to the upset-prone lore of the first round, each of the top three Eastern Conference seeds was eliminated: the #1 Washington Capitals (by #8 Montreal Canadiens), #2 New Jersey Devils (by #7 Philadelphia Flyers) and #3 Buffalo Sabres (by #6 Boston Bruins).

Reversal of Fortune

Beyond the statistics, each series provided a compelling narrative. Whether digging out from an early-series deficit or losing key personnel, every club that survived the first round faced adversity over the past two weeks. Their paths to winning the series were punctuated by dramatic, series-changing moments.

* Down 1-0 in the series, the Pittsburgh Penguins were tied 1-1 with Ottawa late in the third period of Game 2 until Penguins captain Sidney Crosby conjured up some playoff magic. His dive through the crease to swat away an Anton Volchenkov shot that had eluded goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury preserved the tie with 9:13 left in regulation. Later, he repeatedly eluded checkers behind the Senators’ net before setting up Kris Letang for the game-winning goal with 4:12 left in regulation.

* Down 1-0 in the series, the Boston Bruins surrendered the first two goals of Game 2 and began the third period trailing a Buffalo Sabres team that was 31-0-0 in 2009-10 when leading after two periods. The Bruins rallied for three goals and a 5-3 victory to even the series.

* The Philadelphia Flyers learned after Game 4 of their series against the New Jersey Devils that two of their top forwards, Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne, were headed for foot surgery and sidelined indefinitely. With captain Mike Richards and young star Claude Giroux leading the way, the makeshift Flyers headed up the New Jersey Turnpike and blanked the Devils 3-0 to clinch the series.

* After dropping a pair of games at home to land on the brink of elimination, the Montreal Canadiens returned to goaltender Jaroslav Halak to get back in the series. Halak backstopped the Canadiens to three consecutive victories — two at Verizon Center in Washington — as Montreal became the first #8 seed to win a playoff series after trailing 3-1. In a performance reminiscent of famous playoff exploits by Canadiens goaltenders like Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy, Halak stopped 131 of 134 shots in the three victories (.978)

* The San Jose Sharks were on the verge of trailing their series with the Colorado Avalanche 2-0 heading to Denver until center Joe Pavelski tallied the game-tying goal with 31.8 seconds remaining in regulation of what became a 6-5 overtime victory at the Shark Tank. “I’m sure a lot of people were going, ‘There we go again,'” Sharks goaltender Evgeni Nabokov said. “I hope this will give us momentum. I think we showed the team’s spirit.” Pavelski didn’t stop there — he notched the overtime winner in Game 4 to square the series 2-2 and tallied the series-clinching goal in Game 6.

* The Chicago Blackhawks were just seconds away from dropping Game 5 of their series against the Nashville Predators to force a must-win Game 6 on the road, but center Patrick Kane scored a shorthanded goal with 13.6 seconds remaining to tie the score. Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa — who was serving the penalty when Kane scored — completed the Chicago comeback by scoring early in overtime. “Nothing tops it,” Kane said when asked if that was the biggest goal of his young career. “That’s why you play the game. From death to the door opening, it’s a really good feeling. NBC in Chicago, there’s no better place you want to be. That’s why hockey’s such a great game. You never know what can happen.”

* The Vancouver Canucks trailed their series against the Los Angeles Kings 2-1 and fell behind 1-0, 2-1 and then 3-2 entering the third period of Game 4. The Canucks rallied thanks to a brilliant Roberto Luongo save, three assists from Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin’s game-winning goal with 2:52 remaining in a 6-4 victory.

* The Detroit Red Wings trailed their series against Phoenix 1-0 and 2-1, and were beaten decisively by the Coyotes 5-2 in Game 6 with a chance to wrap up the series at home. Undaunted, the Red Wings came back two nights later in Phoenix with a flawless performance in capturing their first Game 7 on the road since 1964.

It certainly speaks for itself as to how good most of the games were. Now it’s onto Round Two. In the first round, I went 5-for-8 nailing the West while taking it on the chin in the East with the top 3 seeds sent packing, including my roll of the dice on Buffalo. At least my Cup pick remains alive. Let’s try our hand at what’s left:


(4) Pens over (8) Habs in 5

(6) Bruins over (7) Flyers in 6

Analysis: Can’t see the Canadiens having much left. Pitt has tremendous center edge and Fleury got better versus Sens, showing playoff form. Halak would have to repeat and every Canadien would have to play out of their head. More offense too would help. As for the B’s, they’re getting healthy with Savard returning. Things seem to be falling into place. Plus if I got a choice, Rask over Boucher, who figures to come down from an inspired first round revenge 10 years in the making. The bluelines are similar but can’t see Philly overcoming no Carter, Gagne or Laperriere, who was key penalty killer. Just seems like too much.


(5) Red Wings over (1) Sharks in 6

(3) Canucks over (2) Blackhawks in 6

Analysis: Both series could go either way. I’m merely sticking with my picks. It will be difficult for San Jose to beat Detroit unless that top trio performs. They cannot have another no show. What they must do is attack Wings, who just went seven and have been playing playoff hockey for a month. Maybe they can wear them down. The Wings know what it takes. They get dirty and boast immense skill. Unless Thornton, Heater and Marleau can match Datsyuk, Zett and Holmstrom/Franzen, it’ll be tough for the Sharks to win. You can make the argument Sharks have better depth in Pavelski, Setoguchi and Clowe but guys like Filppula, Helm and Cleary step up. Hard to see the latter getting shutout again. Canucks-Hawks for a second straight year. Last time, Patrick Kane ended their season. Vancouver is improved with best line in game plus Kesler, Raymond and Burrows, who figures to be more a factor. Can Toews/Kane/Hossa match The Sedins and Samuelsson? Patrick Sharp had good first round but Hawks need more from Versteeg and Troy Brouwer. Keep an eye on Pavol Demitra and Steve Bernier, who had good opening rounds. For Chicago, Tomas Kopecky and Dustin Byfuglien. The bluelines are about even but we like Vancouver’s balance that includes Ehrhoff, Salo, Edler and Bieksa over Keith/Seabrook, Campbell and Hjalmarsson. Goalie match-up pits Luongo vs Niemi. Can the Finn duplicate Rd.1 success against higher scoring team? The pressure’s all on Louie here.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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