Early games yield obvious trends
This year's first-round Stanley Cup playoff series have yet to fully develop their own storylines, but there are some early trends worth noting:
Ottawa vs. Toronto
The perception is that the Maple Leafs can and will dominate and that the Senators don't have the character to win when it counts, especially against Toronto. But if Game 1 proved anything, it's that Ottawa is way too quick and too fast for the Leafs, and it's a series that isn't going to be just about goaltending. Ottawa won Game 1 because of its speed and potent power play, and the Leafs made it easier because of their penchant for wrong-headed penalties. The Leafs will adjust; they're too good not to. But there's every bit as much pressure on Leafs goalie Ed Belfour as there is on the Sens' Patrick Lalime. Since the Senators have more firepower, this should be closer than many people think.
New York vs. Tampa Bay
This is where you will come to understand how goaltending can steal a game, maybe even a series. Given the quality of their chances, the Islanders had every right to expect a win in their first meeting with the Lightning. Nikolai Khabibulin made sure they didn't get it. Though the Lightning are the top seed in the series, the Islanders won the regular-season series relatively easily, and there are people who will tell you that they were definitely inside Khabibulin's head. Having Khabibulin come up big in Game 1 takes a load of pressure off the Lightning and shifts it directly to the New Yorkers. Look for New York to start crashing the crease to try to change this from an up-tempo series to a physical one. Since the Isles really can't catch most of the Lightning forwards, Khabibulin becomes the easier target.
Montreal vs. Boston
While the big question is whether Boston rookie Andrew Raycroft can outplay Montreal veteran Jose Theodore, the series is about size and firepower, and Boston has both. Montreal will struggle to fight through the Boston checks to get to Raycroft; the Canadiens also will struggle to keep the bigger Bruins away from Theodore. Unless Montreal coach Claude Julien figures out how to beat size with speed, the goaltending matchup will be a sideshow. A month later, it seems the Bruins made the biggest impact at the trade deadline in terms of addressing specific needs by acquiring Washington Capitals Sergei Gonchar and Michael Nylander. Nylander looked dominant in Game 1, teamed with Sergei Samsonov and rookie Patrice Bergeron, and that took a lot of pressure off the injured Joe Thornton and the Bruins' No. 1 line
New Jersey vs. Philadelphia
Don't let the two quick goals in the first game fool you. The Devils don't have the firepower to match up with the Flyers and they don't have the size in their own zone to keep the Flyers off all-world goalie Martin Brodeur. There were rumors that the Devils had leaned a little too heavily on Brodeur this past regular season and it seemed to show a bit in Game 1 of this series, but he'll bounce back. The bigger issue is whether Flyers goalie Robert Esche can continue to stand up under pressure and whether Devils coach Pat Burns can figure out how to keep the Flyers out of his zone, where his weakened defense (no Scott Stevens and a hampered Brian Rafalski) is thinner than usual. Another factor is whether the Flyers will self-destruct. They've done it in the past, especially against the Devils.
Nashville vs. Detroit
Since Tomas Vokoun couldn't steal a win in Game 1, it's assumed the Predators will fall apart. Don't bet on it. The Red Wings are still the heavy favorites here, but if we saw anything in Game 1 it's that Nashville's speed gave the Red Wings' defense fits. An awful lot of the game was played in the Detroit end, which is odd considering the Red Wings are a puck-possession team and the game was in Detroit's rink. It's not likely the Predators can physically pound the Red Wings into submission, but if they want to win more than one game, they will have to skate the Wings into the ice. It should at least make for entertaining hockey and maybe even forge the blueprint as to how to beat the Red Wings a little further down the road.
St. Louis vs San Jose
If we learned anything from Game 1 it's that the Blues still have the same problems they had during the regular season: They can't manufacture goals when they have to, or when the opportunity presents itself (read: power play). That's bad news for the Blues, because they got a great game out of Chris Osgood in goal and still lost. That puts more pressure on players who, over the years, have shown they don't handle it well. If players like Keith Tkachuk, Chris Pronger and Doug Weight can't take hold of their team and be the difference makers, the momentum will swing decidedly toward the Sharks, a team with firepower and a coach, Ron Wilson, who knows how to manufacture offense.
Calgary vs. Vancouver
People were thinking of a Calgary upset here for a variety of reasons, which included Miikka Kiprusoff's strong goaltending and the Flames' work ethic. But all teams work hard in the playoffs, so Calgary coach Darryl Sutter has to find innovative ways to attack the Vancouver net and rattle goaltender Dan Cloutier. That could be difficult, not because Cloutier can't be rattled, but because Sutter doesn't have a lot of offensive tools and his coaching style rarely changes. It will take more than hard work to beat the Canucks, who seem finally to have developed some character from all of the adversity they've faced this season.
Dallas vs. Colorado
A dull finish to a ho-hum regular season had a lot of folks writing off the Avalanche, especially with David Aebischer's lack of playoff experience. Forgotten is the fact that it's Stars goalie Marty Turco who has to prove himself in the postseason, and he wasn't exactly off to a good start in Game 1. Turco's inability to make big saves was a big contributor to the Stars' loss to the Mighty Ducks last spring. He needs to convince teammates, in a hurry, that it's different this time around. Despite their problems, the Avs are the deeper, more offensively potent team, and with the two defenses pretty much a wash, Turco has to be a difference.
Around the rinks
Before we put the regular season to rest, here are a few things worth noting:
- Tampa Bay's first-place finish in the East was a surprise, even to long-time hockey watchers. The Bolts were decent last season and they came together as a team in the playoffs last spring, but they played with machine-like consistency for 82 games in the regular season this time around. Past Lightning teams were all about Khabibulin. That's not the case any more.
- A tip of the proverbial hat also goes to the Calgary Flames. You might have picked them to make the postseason just because nobody except the New York Rangers can miss for seven straight years and counting, but it was no sure thing. The Flames made some shrewd hockey moves, especially in goal, but getting defenseman Rhett Warrener to help stiffen the blue line was a subtle but very effective one as well. With his game slowing due to age and recurring injuries, Buffalo wrote off Warrener, but he's a major reason the Flames found the character to win on the road. Both the Buffalo Sabres and the Flames missed the playoffs last spring, and it shouldn't be lost on people that the Flames got Warrener as a part of the deal for Chris Drury.
- And while giving Sutter kudos for the job he did in Calgary, don't overlook the fact that Wilson, the man who replaced Sutter in San Jose, drove his team to a 31-point improvement in the standings with a young lineup. The Sharks, who a season ago were one spot removed from dead last in the Western Conference, came back to win the Pacific Division. Not bad when the only move of note was to acquire Nils Ekman from the New York Rangers. Ekman was an unheard of player when the deal was made, but he finished second on the team in scoring.
- Another Western team that deserves acclaim is Nashville. Most people had general manager David Poile firing head coach Barry Trotz just out of the gate this season. Poile, however, believed in his coaching staff, giving them all contract extensions, and they delivered, taking a young team to the postseason for the first time ever and beating quality opponents along the way. There are lots of people who deserve a pat on the back in Nashville, but the biggest one has to go to Poile, who believed in his people and then made the right move at the deadline -- picking up Steve Sullivan from Chicago -- to get the job done.
- The biggest disappointment was the continued free fall of the Carolina Hurricanes. It looked as if the 'Canes had finally gained a toehold in the market with their run to the Stanley Cup finals two seasons ago, but the team faltered on ice and finished last in the league at the gate. This is still an at-risk franchise and, with Ron Francis gone, it lacks fan appeal until the young players get better. The 'Canes were the only team to finish without a 20-goal scorer this season. That's scary.
- Two near-miss teams -- Buffalo and Edmonton -- won't have an easier time of it next season.
Buffalo will likely move winger Miroslav Satan, the team's leading scorer five of the last six seasons, before the team reconvenes. The Sabres also have to find a way to retain No.1 defenseman Alexei Zhitnik, who will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1. The Sabres also are trying to find ways to recover from the bungled Michael Peca deal. Neither Tim Connolly (concussion, missed entire season) nor Taylor Pyatt (no offensive or defensive contributions of note again this season) has helped the team. Meanwhile, Peca has led the Islanders to the playoffs in each of the three years since he was traded.
It's also about money in Edmonton. The Oilers have to decide whether to keep near point-per-game center Peter Nedved, whom they acquired from the Rangers at the trade deadline. They likely won't pick up his $5 million option, but they will try to bring him back for less. As a soon-to-be unrestricted free agent, he's not likely to listen to the traditional Edmonton call of less money, more fun. The Oilers also need a center to replace Adam Oates, who retired at the end of the season.
Ethan Moreau earned the team's MVP award, and while that's a great honor for a checking center, the lack of clutch offense and inconsistent goaltending is what kept the Oilers out of the playoffs this season. Both of those elements are difficult to improve upon without money.
Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.
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