Friday, April 27, 2012

The Closers! Round One

The first round came to an end in the early hours of a Florida morning, the final game of the first round of eight series, a double overtime extravaganza, one of 16 overtime contests in the first round, an NHL record for extra work in an opening session.

Below we'll recap the successful squads and how they manage to close out their competition, some had it rather easy while others went the distance for all seven games and in some cases a little added time to put into the mix of all that drama.

The closers of Round One are:


The Predators are clearly a team on the rise, backed by the remarkable skills of Pekka Rinne they dashed the hopes of the Motor City for a return to dominance in the NHL.

In fact, the Predators revealed some of the cracks in the Red Wing foundation, an aging line up seemed to constantly be a step behind the Preds, who built around their goaltender moved the puck effectively throughout the series.

While many still question whether they should have been allowed to add Alexander Radulov,  the Russians who is fresh from his days of the KHL has fit in nicely with the Predators, adding yet another scoring threat to the forward lines.

But it's the Defensive zone where the Preds most shine, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter can shut down an attack in quick order (ask the high flying Red Wings) there's a reason why Preds games never seem to evolve into the wild west shoot outs we saw in the Philly/Pittsburgh series, stellar goal tending and a solid defence are a key to the Predators game plan, it won them the first round in quick order and that combination bodes well for further rounds.

In Detroit, there is talk of time to rebuild now, in Nashville there's no rebuilding required, the Preds are moving on and could very well be going the distance in this 2012 playoff season.


The Blues have been on the ride of a life ever since Ken Hitchcock took over the reigns of the young team, with two goaltenders to call on through the year, both equal in stinginess the Blues frequently would find that just a few goals a night would be good enough for a victory in the regular season, a theme that carried forward into the first round.

Their competition, the San Jose Sharks once again struggled in the playoffs, an ongoing theme in Northern California where a very talented squad on paper, never seems to find the right combinations on the ice to find success.

But while many will wonder just what the problem is with the Sharks, the real attention should be directed to the Blues, who despite many challenges in the last few years (ownership as an ongoing theme in some NHL markets certainly made the job difficult in St. Louis) have crafted a solid line up.

So much so that they advanced to the second round mostly on the strength of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th lines. Should the first line shake off their lethargy from round one the Blues scoring numbers could jump significantly.

The teams boasts a nice mix of offensive orientated defence men and blue liners that don't stray from their zone positions but make sure that the opposing forwards know that the passage won't be an easy one.

But by far the biggest impact players for the Blues this year thus far have been the tandem of Halak and Elliot in the Blues net,  a pairing that have contributed mightily to the Blues success this year and are so stingy in the Goals Against that opposing teams find that falling behind in a game is pretty well a sign that the game may be over.

Add into that mix the direction of coach Hitchcock and the Blues seem ready for the long ride.

There will no doubt be changes in the off season in San Jose, as they look for a solution to their recurring problems of the playoffs, perhaps a peek at the Blues blueprint might be of some assistance.


They knocked off the league champions with relative ease, so any element of surprise for the rest of the playoffs is probably gone for the LA Kings.

Based on the strength of Jonathan Quick in the Kings nets, LA shut down the Canucks rather impressively and while more of the burden of that rests with the Canucks woeful offensive play in the first round, the Kings were full value for their victory, defensively they were as solid as you could hope and offensively the goals came when they were needed most, all of which must have made head coach Daryl Sutter happy, even if he rarely shows such unwanted emotions.

Led by captain Dustin Brown, the Kings outhit the Canucks and took the play to the league leaders, a trait they will have to continue on through the second round.

The Kings have the depth offensively as well, their second line potentially as dangerous as the first, a nice option to have when required, something many teams in the NHL haven't had the success they would like to have had (hello Vancouver how's it going?).

Generally considered to be a speed bump for the return of the Canucks to the Stanley Cup trail, the Kings instead toppled the league champs, with that success grows confidence, a dangerous thing for those teams they may face going forward.


While much has been made of the rejuvenation of Mike Smith and his yeoman like work in the Coyotes net, the real strength of the wards of the NHL is their head coach Dave Tippet.

Working under what must be the most trying conditions a coach can face, that of having had no actual ownership over two years, frequent rumours of relocation and night after night of less than stellar home crowds, he has somehow found a way to bring this group of players together as a team that continues to amaze NHL fans.

Generally working with what amounts to the NHL's discount bin, Tippett has worked with the parts delivered and put together a strong work ethic in Phoenix, a team that seems to find the net frequently despite a list of players that doesn't exactly roll of the tongue when you strike up a topic of goal scoring.

The Coyotes handled the Blackhawks rather nicely, never intimidated by the United Centre faithful and quick to the attack whenever the Hawks looked like they were gathering some momentum.

Phoenix was quicker to the puck than the Hawks in round one, tougher in the corners and stellar on the blue line and in the nets there was Smith, given up on by previous teams he has helped Coyote fans (as few as there are) to forget the Bryzgalov mess of last year, indeed based on Smith's work in the Phoenix net, the Coyotes have advanced to their first second round since they were relocated from Winnipeg.

The ongoing theme of course in the desert is the future of the team, sure the fans have arrived for playoff hockey and for a change the rink in Glendale has more Coyote sweaters in the stands than visiting ones, wherever the Coyotes may play next year, there's a pretty good team set to show its stuff.

And if they keep to the Tippet plan, there could be more to see in this playoff year as well.


The much anticipated war of Pennsylvania lived up to its billing, a hard, at times nasty series that clearly outlined the dislike that the two teams and two cities seem to have for each other.

Yet, it was the Flyers that seemed to keep their head in the game, so confounding the Penguins, that they generally got away from what usually proves successful for them. It's not often that you see a team become unglued, but round one for Pittsburgh was one such event, from the bench to the ice the Penguins just lost their focus and with it the series as well.

There are of course concerns for the Flyers despite their success, the most glaring being whether Ilya Bryzgalov is going to settle down in the Flyer net, or if the meltdowns of round one are indicative of a serious problem ahead for the Flyers.

Reliable goal tending is a must in playoff hockey, it removes the burden of pressure on a teams' defence and allows the offence to take advantage of scoring chances, in round one, the Flyers goal tending woes certainly sounded alarm bells, but somehow the rest of the team picked up the slack.

The saving grace for Philly of course being that the Pens own goaltending problems in the first half of the series allowed Philly a bit of breathing space.

Bryzgalov is going to have to knuckle down and put those first round disasters behind him if the Flyers have any hopes of moving past round number two.

The Flyers have the offence to take a series, their defence while at times stretched to its limits holds its own, if they can keep the focus in the net, Philly may enjoy this playoff year just a little bit longer.


They took the hard way, a game seven overtime victory in Boston, but the Washington Capitals did what many didn't think was possible after a less than successful regular season, they knocked off the defending Stanley Cup champions.

With Dale Hunter clearly taking charge of his team of under performing stars, he set the tone of hard work and reward for success by benching those that didn't measure up through the course of the series.

It's always a risky move when you tell a star of the calibre of an Alexander Ovechkin to take a seat on the pine and watch the play (something that didn't sit particularly well with the star) but it certainly sent a message to the rest of the troops, that there would be no passengers on the bus this time around.

No past history weighed on Hunter's mind it seems, it was all about the effort on the ice and perhaps the attitude in the room, whatever the strategy it clearly worked, the team that many were beginning to wonder about turned in hard fought, play til the last whistle kind of game,.

One which gained the appropriate reward a Game Seven victory, and as though to highlight the reward of hard work it wasn't the first or second line stars that brought home the victory but the guys in the trenches of the third and fourth lines, Joel Wards series clinching goal indicative of the culture that Hunter seems to be trying to build in Washington, that of going to the net, taking the hacks and finding a way to score.

Hunter sent the message that no one is above the team, something that at times seems to have been lost upon the social strata of the Capitals, it will be interesting to see if his message continues to capture the attention of all through the second round.


A win is a win, but there were warnings for the Rangers in their hard fought victory over the Ottawa Senators in round one.

The Sens gave the Rangers all they could handle, showing resolve that almost stole them an opening round series, however, when it came time to move on it was the boys of Broadway that will be booking the travel arrangements for the second round.

The success of the Rangers started with their goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist who closed the door when it was most required, his work in the final fifteen minutes of the final game alone showcased how much the Rangers rely on him, he frustrated wave after wave of Senator shooters holding the Rangers hopes high while his team mates scrambled to find a way to beat Craig Anderson.

The final two games of the series provided a glimpse of the Ranger team that dominated the east for most of the regular season, back on the message that coach John Tortorella was providing for them, the Rangers took advantage of Senator miscues, the key factor in their victory as things turned out.

Tortorella can point to his second and third lines for the Ranger success in round one, while Ottawa shut down the Rangers first unit, the slack was picked up by those not afraid to take the hits, go into the corners and muck out a puck or two.

Defensively McDonagh and Girardi had a good round one and will be counted on to continue on that pace heading on into the second round.

But for a few bounces of a puck the Rangers could very well be watching the playoffs on TV today, instead, they found the way to win when it counted most, a trait that Championship teams have had over the decades, time will tell if the Rangers can remain on that track and add their name to the list.


It seems as long as the Devils have Marty they find ways to win.  Martin Brodeur, the long standing Devils goaltender once again showed us all why he's been one of the top goaltenders of NHL lore for oh so many years and if he's getting ready to say farewell, he is showing that his form is still high.

Brodeur once again was the difference in a series, part of an ongoing theme over the years and while he had a particularly bad game in round one, overall the bulk of his work is the reason the Devils are moving on and the Panthers are shutting it down for the year.

As befits a team that isn't much on flash, the Devils divide their scoring among all four lines, a balanced attack that tends to wear down an opposing squad rather quickly, defensively they are sound, never given to panic in their own end and more than able to frustrate opposing forwards as they roll across the blue line.

They don't get much notice playing across the river in Jersey, ownership is currently feuding amongst itself (actually litigation seems to be the word in that context) as well as with the city of Newark over any number of issues about their rink, so who knows what the future of the Devils may be in days to come.

None of that of course is of concern to head coach Pete DeBoer, who simply has to keep his focus on the product on the ice, the lack of respect that frequently is given to the Devils could very well work in their favour moving on in this years playoff race.

When you need a rallying point, what better theme than nobody respects us, nobody expects anything of us. Especially when you are competing for the affection of the fans in the league's largest market, against one of its marquee franchises

If you're DeBoer you go over your game plan, let them know that you believe in them, that they should believe in themselves and then send them out on the ice and see what happens.  

Seems to have worked so far doesn't it?

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