After a somewhat boring start, the second round of the playoffs ended with a bang – Game Seven between Detroit and San Jose was one of the best games of the season. The chalk held in the west, with the #1 and #2 seeds squaring off, while the East features the surprising Lightning and the rather dominant (of late) Bruins. Let’s check out the East first, with some second round recaps along the way.
Tampa Bay vs. Boston: Two big surprises in the last round – I’m not surprised that Boston won, but I AM surprised that they handled Philly so easily; and while a Tampa win would have been a mild surprise in any case, the sweep of the choking Caps was, in its own way, more of an upset than the Caps’ loss last April to Montreal. Boston simply took advantage of Philly’s issues in goal and the fact that the Flyers were a lot more beat up than anyone realized (Pronger is set to undergo back surgery, and reports indicate four other Flyers, including Mike Richards, also need surgery for various ailments). Still, to focus on Philly’s shortcomings is to deny the Bruins their greatness in the last round – I keep waiting for Tim Thomas to wilt, but he has been up to the challenge in goal for Beantown.
As for Tampa, they simply ground Washington into dust, much the same way they did to Pittsburgh in the previous round. The difference, of course, is that the Caps were much more talented, and they couldn’t even win a single game! Word out of DC is that the G.M. isn’t planning any major changes to the roster OR the coaching staff – after FOUR straight playoff ousters in the first or second round, the last two being major upsets, I can’t help but think that major change is needed in Washington. However, again we need to give the Lightning their due – they found a style that works for them over the last three games of the Pens series, and they played that system to absolute perfection against the Caps – and threw in some very timely goals to boot. When they were down 3-2 in the third period of Game 3, I figured the bubble was about to burst – but they struck for two quick goals 24 seconds apart, and the Caps never recovered. Dwayne Roloson continues to defy Father Time – he’s now won seven straight playoff starts at age 41, which HAS to be a record.
So, how will this series play out? Both teams endured tough, 7-game series in the first round, so the extra time off after their sweeps will help both squads – but I have to believe it will favor Tampa a bit more, especially Roloson. Tampa figures to have the advantage on special teams – they have scored 12 power-play goals and allowed only three (in 54 shorthanded chances), while the Bruins have scored only two power play goals and killed just over 80% of their penalties against. I think this will even out some – no team can kill 95% of its penalties indefinitely, and no NHL team has a 5% power play for long – but even so, a series with a lot of power plays should favor the Lightning. Of course, no team has been more dominant at even strength than the Bruins – through two rounds they have outscored their opponents 35-16 at even strength; so clearly they are quite comfortable playing without a lot of special-teams involvement.
Both teams give up a lot of shots – over 34 per game – and as such, both goalies have had to be extra-sharp to allow only a little over two goals per game. This may surprise you, but these are the top two scoring teams in the playoffs thus far, and also the two teams with the best goal differential through two rounds. I actually believe that this will be the highest-scoring series yet; both teams have quite a bit of offensive prowess, and both goalies have yet to truly have an off-game. I’ll rate them about even in goal and more or less even up front – but I don’t see a defender on the Lightning anywhere near as good as Chara, and I also get nervous about picking teams that are overly reliant on their special teams. The ONLY surprising result here would be another sweep, Tampa has clearly proved that they are for-real – but I think Boston will be just a bit too much for the Lightning, and Roloson will finally crack juuuust enough for the Bruins to move on BOSTON IN SIX.
San Jose vs. Vancouver: If form holds, one of these teams will take a 3-0 series lead, and then the other team will force a Game 7. Both teams came within a period of blowing 3-0 leads in these playoffs, and both teams have shown a disturbing tendency in both rounds to let teams get back in the series. Vancouver simply is not scoring enough – at 2.31 goals per game, they are by far the lowest-scoring team left, and of the 16 playoff teams only the Pens and rangers scored fewer goals per game than the Canucks have. The Sedin twins have 19 combined points, but are also a combined -16 – never a good stat for your top line. Luckily for them, Ryan Kesler came to life against Nashville and was really the difference with five goals in the series, but somehow the Canucks have to rediscover their scoring touch to get by the Sharks. Vancouver has struggled some on defense as well – in fact, through two rounds they’ve actually been outscored by three goals. Their power play has been decent, but they have only had 36 opportunities (less than three per game), while allowing 51 opposing power play chances. In a series this tight, Vancouver simply MUST get more power play chances to win the series.
As for the Sharks, I said before the Detroit series that I had no feel for them, and seven games later I still do not. Are they the team that dominated for long stretches in the first three games and the first period last night? Or are they the team that was soundly outworked in games 4-6 and was on the ropes at times late in Game 7? I cannot recall a team that could look completely dominant and then completely overmatched in the same game like San Jose does at times. However, the fact is that these are the series San Jose ALWAYS lost in the past, and the games where Joe Thornton consistently came up small – and neither was true in Game 7. Thornton was absolutely magnificent last night, especially early on, and in my mind he was the difference for San Jose. When he plays with confidence, he has a playmaking ability rivaled by only a handful of players in the world – and combined with his size, he can be just short of unstoppable.
San Jose’s power play has had plenty of opportunities, but has not connected often (13.7%), and their penalty kill has been petty average – but I would note, the Red Wings are a much more formidable opponent than the Predators were for Vancouver, which is possibly skewing those numbers. I could go into a lot of depth and stats about the Sharks and find lots of reasons to pick them to win, and lots of reasons to pick them to lose…they are so mercurial, it’s pointless to even try. This series could literally go any direction – if SJ chases Luongo like the Blackhawks did, they could win in four or five games; if the Sedins find their stride and Thornton disappears again, Vancouver could sweep. I’m not confident in picking any particular outcome, but I like San Jose to win mainly because I like how goalie Antti Niemi has bounced back from adversity the past month – and let’s face it, he won a cup last year as well, while Luongo still seems to get rattled too easily. So, I guess I’ll go with SAN JOSE IN SEVEN – either way, these two series should be a lot of fun to watch!
Next week, a look around baseball at the surprising/disappointing players and teams thus far.
Dave Glass can be reached at email@example.com.