Monday, April 27, 2015

Catching up on round one

Three whole days ago, we headed into the second weekend of the NHL playoffs not knowing all that much except that the Ducks had made it to the next round. By the end of last night, we’d come out of it with five more teams eliminated, two second-round matchups booked, three favorites already out, and two more on the brink. Also, we probably still don’t know all that much, although for the purpose of this post we’ll pretend otherwise.

We’ve got two more big games tonight, including our first Game 7. But first, let’s do a quick roundup of where we’re at with all eight first-round series.

The Blues Exit Early … Again

The Wild held on to beat the Blues 4-1 yesterday, making St. Louis the only no. 1 seed to get sent home in the opening round. Devan Dubnyk was solid and Zach Parise scored twice, while Blues starter Jake Allen was pulled midway through the second after allowing a pair of brutally soft goals.

This one qualifies as an upset based on the standings, but not a huge one: The Wild had been one of the hottest teams of the second half and were widely viewed as a much tougher draw than their seeding indicated. Still, the Blues were supposed to contend for a Cup, and that means being able to beat good teams like Minnesota when you’ve got home ice. Instead, they’re out in the first round for the third straight year.

It will be fascinating to see what comes next for the Blues, who’ve been one of the better teams in the league in recent years but have won just a single playoff round in the last dozen seasons. It’s widely assumed that coach Ken Hitchcock will be fired, and he’ll be in heavy demand among the various teams with vacancies. The bigger question is what will they do with a roster that ranks as one of the league’s best on paper yet just can’t seem to finish during the playoffs. Goaltending will obviously be a focus, given that this team has spent the last few years chewing through an all-star cast including Jaroslav Halak, Ben Bishop, Ryan Miller, Martin Brodeur, and Brian Elliott, and yet still can’t get a save in the playoffs.

Meanwhile, the Wild just knocked out a very good team in a series in which Dubnyk didn’t even play especially well. That has to be a scary thought for the rest of the West. And Minnesota’s next opponent may sound familiar: another Central Division powerhouse with lots of talent but a question mark in goal. Except this one knows a thing or two about winning playoff rounds …

The Blackhawks Finish Off the Predators

It’s a pretty common story line in an NHL playoff series: One team rides its superstar goaltender all the way through, while the other can’t seem to figure out who’s in net, bouncing back and forth between guys who stand on their head one period and struggle the next.

That plot played out in the Blackhawks-Predators series, but with a twist: Chicago played the part of the team with the goaltending controversy, rotating Corey Crawford and Scott Darling, but still managed to win the series in six games. The Hawks went into the matchup with Crawford firmly established as the starter, but after a shaky first two games Chicago went with Darling, who held the job until getting pulled in Saturday night’s Game 6. The hook came midway through the first after the Predators made it 3-1; Crawford shut the door the rest of the way in what wound end up being a 4-3 Blackhawks win.

That marked the second time in the series that the Blackhawks had won a game in which they’d had to pull their goaltender for poor performance, which must be some sort of record. It also left Chicago facing a goaltending controversy heading into Round 2, although Joel Quenneville appeared to hint that Crawford had regained the job.

As for the Predators, they got solid work from Vezina nominee Pekka Rinne. But they needed better than that to have a shot at winning, especially after Shea Weber was hurt in Game 2. The first-round exit is a tough way to end an impressive season that saw Nashville challenge for the division title before fading down the stretch and getting stuck with a tough matchup against the Hawks. Looking ahead, the Predators are young and well-positioned to contend again next year, although as the Avalanche could tell you, that’s not always enough in the Central.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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