North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Upset cities – breaking down the second round

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Well, it was certainly something, wasn’t it?

The second round of the suddenly-anarchistic NHL playoffs was something to behold, with not only upsets but collapses; not only great finishes, but the kind that ESPN Classic must have been DVRing.

It feels odd that the Eastern Conference, the home of the President’s Trophy winner and defending Stanley Cup champion has come down to two teams that only qualified for the playoffs on the final days of the season. The Flyers had to beat the New York Rangers in a shootout just to qualify; the Canadiens only qualified when they got a single point in the standings after going to overtime against Toronto.

And now these two teams, the seventh and eighth seeds, have come out as the two top teams in the conference. It’s far from the first time that a low seed has made it this far, but I can’t remember the last time the conference finals had two seeds this low.

But that’s what I love about the playoffs and especially playoff hockey. It’s unlike anything else, where it’s sudden death and anything can happen… and oftentimes, the craziest thing does.  So much so that ESPN’s Bill Simmons once gave it it’s own special level of losing: The Sudden Death.

While there hasn’t been a ton of overtime (only three games went to overtime in the second round), it has been a really close and intense playoffs. Both Philadelphia/Boston and Montreal/Pittsburgh went to a seventh game and Vancouver/Chicago was a series with wild mood swings through all six of it’s games.

Even Detroit/San Jose was exciting – the Sharks seemed to exorcize past playoff demons in a five-game win over the Red Wings.

These have been a really, really good playoffs. And while I was pretty off in my picks, I couldn’t care less. This is really too much fun for a pucks fan. But the Eastern Conference, man. That’s where it was at – and where I’ll begin.What I said: Bruins over Flyers

What happened: Flyers over Bruins (4-3)

The usual instinct when just skimming over line scores in a database is that to get to a game seven, both teams have to be pretty closely matched. Of course, that’s not true.

Never was this more true then with Boston and Philly. The Bruins roared out to a three-zip series lead, then lost the next four straight, matching a mark of futility only ever seen twice before in the NHL.

On one hand, it looks like a gigantic collapse – of the four straight games they lost, two were at home and one was in overtime. They had every reason, every opportunity to get a win and they couldn’t. It’s heartbreaking if you’re a Bruins fan.

But the series was actually pretty close. When the Bruins went up 3-0 in the series, two of their wins were by a goal. Three of the Flyers wins were by just a goal too.  In all, that’s five games decided by five goals. Boston’s total goals? 20. Philadelphia’s? 22.

In the regular season, both teams were close. The Flyers won more games, but the Bruins had more points. Their rank in the Simple Rating System was close too: the Bruins were 15th in the NHL at 0.02, the Flyers were 11th at 0.08. Hell, they each finished third in their own division.

This was a series that really, couldn’t have been any closer, at least on paper. That’s probably how it happens, though. For a series to unfold like it that, you need either a) a gamechanging problem, like a star goalie getting hurt or b) two teams that are pretty equal and getting some odd bounces.

The last time a team blew a 3-0 series lead was in 1975, when the Penguins did so against Al Arbour’s Islanders. In that series, the Penguins won the first three games by scores of: 5-4, 3-1 and 6-4. They then lost four straight, 3-1, 4-2, 4-1 and 1-0 in game seven. Like Boston and Philly, neither team exactly dominated – only one game was won by three goals or more. Those two teams were really evenly matched, too. In the regular season, they were right behind each other in the standings. The Pens finished with 89 points and 37 wins. New York had 88 points and 33 wins.

As ugly as it was to go out in that way, for two teams this closely matched, going to a seventh game felt right. And unless you’re a Bruins fan, game seven was really exciting – the third period was one of the most intense periods I’ve seen all season long. It may have been an ugly way to go out on paper, but for anybody watching, it was playoff hockey at it’s finest.

What I said: Pittsburgh over Montreal

What happened: Montreal over Pittsburgh (4-3)

To be fair, I had some reservations about picking the Penguins. I said the Habs had shown they could shut down high-scoring teams and I’m never big on picking against a hot goalie.

But the Penguins seemed to have everything in their favor. They had some rest, they had home ice and they had the best player in the NHL, Sidney Crosby. It didn’t hurt that they were the defending Stanley Cup champs, too. On paper, they were by far a better team: the scored more and let in less. Their SRS was way above Montreal’s and unlike the Habs, they had a 50-goal scorer.

But of everything that could have gone wrong, everything did. The first game was a shooting gallery, the kind of game that the Pens excelled at all season. But everybody, from the experts to my friends on Twitter chalked it up to Halak being tired. Okay, fair enough. That win was the only time the Pens would ever play their kind of high-scoring hockey all series. The rest was played in Montreal’s wheelhouse, a low-scoring, grind-it-out kind of game.

It wasn’t as if the Pens couldn’t solve Halak; they scored in every game and only once were they limited to a single goal. It wasn’t the other way around, either: Marc-Andre Fleury did shut out the Habs in game three. It seemed more like the Habs are some kind of weird destiny team, with Halak becoming the NHL’s version of Desmond Hume.

He’s been on fire throughout these playoffs. Going up against the two highest scoring teams in the NHL in two seven game series, he’s gone 8-5 and posted great stats: a GAA of 2.42 and a save percentage of .933. He hasn’t shut anybody out yet (who could?) but he’s shut them down. The Penguins averaged just above three goals a game this season. The Caps averaged nearly four. The Habs are allowing just under three (their team GAA is 2.54).

Some of this is Halak. Some of it falls on their defence – PK Subban, Hal Gill and Josh Gorges have all been excellent this postseason. But they’re scoring too. Michael Cammalleri has already scored 12 goals; he scored 26 times in the regular season. This is a team-wide thing. The Habs are on a roll, and I’m not one to bet against them now, even if I’m not sure what’s causing it.

That’s why I like them to advance to the Cup Finals. They’re scoring and limiting the other side. They can play rough and they can shoot the lights out and break a team’s back – their game seven win was a classic “kill the head and the body will die” kind of win, where they went in for kill early and often.

At the same time, Flyers goalie Brian Boucher is starting to fall back to Earthy after a rs. His GAA went up from 1.59 after the first round to 2.33. His save percentage is .915; after the first round it was at .940. Boston was not a great scoring team; I think the seeds are being sewn for a collapse.

*******

What about the West? Well, what about it? There isn’t the same drama, the same sense of uncertainty the East has. Both teams that have arrived are among the four or so that were expected; if the East is Lost, the West has been Gilligan’s Island.

Not that it’s a bad thing. It’s nice to see no upsets, sometimes. It’s nice to think that at least one team to make the Finals will be one that qualified for the playoffs on their own merits, not hinged on other teams losing. Anyway.

In the last round, the Sharks were clearly the better team and they look focused. They went into Detroit and beat the Wings in game three; for them, that was like Jordan going to the Palace in 1991 and winning an intense game against the Pistons. For all too long, the Sharks are the chokingstock of the NHL; people just know they will collapse and they wait for it.

But they haven’t collapsed yet. They beat a good – if aging – Wings team and they did it convincingly. They should be a clear favorite.

That doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement of the Blackhawks and it isn’t. They won a weird series with the Vancouver Canucks that felt more then a little disjointed. It was one of those weird ones where both sides win games, but there aren’t any close games. To use another basketball example, it was like the Atlanta-Miami series from last year where it went to seven games, but none of them are ones you’d want to watch again.

It’s why I feel weird about the Blackhawks. They can score, but they also seem like one of those teams that fall behind early and it’s over. If the Sharks can score – something they’ve been spotty with all postseason – the series could end in a hurry. But if the Hawks can pull out a win or two in the first four games, I can see this one going all the way.

That would play right into the Hawks style of play. They don’t seem to have it every night, but sometimes they have these streaks where they score four, five, even seven goals. Get a couple of those in, and they have a good chance at beating the Sharks, since San Jose doesn’t win by just scoring more then everybody else.

Picks: Habs in six, Blackhawks in seven

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Written by M.

May 16, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Posted in Hockey, nhl, nhl playoffs

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