Reflection on the Division Semifinals through the first week has to start with the Vegas Golden Knights and their commanding 3-0 lead over the Los Angeles Kings.
But first, a word about the general state of the National Hockey League. Part of the reason for the NHL realignment into four divisions (from six) was to cut down on the number of upsets in the playoffs. In general, so far, it’s working.
The matchups featuring the second and third seeds are even, so no one thinks those are upsets. The division winners are also having their way with wild card opponents… except one – and we all know which club, those lovable Washington Capitals – is behind the 8-ball.
Golden Knights-Kings: The physical play of L.A. has a potential drawback: it means the opponent has the puck, thus, you cannot score. Conversely, Vegas seems to be staying out of the battles in the corners, waiting to poach a pass to forge a counter-attack. In other words: Bet The Under!
After three games and nearly 11 periods of hockey (Game 2 went double-overtime), there have been a mere nine goals. Gee, I think the play of goaltenders Marc-Andre Fleury and Jonathan Quick might have something to do with it.
The one breakout on offense saw Vegas score three times in the third period of Game 3, taking a commanding 3-0 series lead.
The Kings’ record of rallying when down 0-2 in a series, is 3-11 all-time, but those three wins came in the most recent six series – including the 2014 rally from 0-3 down to San Jose.
There is no indication L.A. will be able to rally from this one.
Sharks-Ducks: San Jose knew they were in the playoffs back in October; Anaheim came out of the quagmire of early-season injuries to barely qualify for the postseason pool.
No wonder the Sharks won the first two games in Anaheim, where they often do well anyway (win streak has now reached five).
But don’t go with San Jose just because. Anaheim went 0-2 down at home to Edmonton last spring, yet eventually won in seven games. And the Sharks know a thing or two about blowing early-series leads; like the historic 0-3 debacle to L.A. during the Kings’ second Cup run in 2014.
This go-around, it’s less likely the Ducks can rally with virtually no secondary scoring, as Sharks goalie Martin Jones is better than either John Gibson (still hurt?) or Ryan Miller (done nothing in the playoffs since ‘07 with Buffalo).
Predators-Avalanche: Colorado, the 16th and bottom seed among this year’s Stanley Cup contestants, is playing carefree and easy, thus giving the favorites in the Western Conference all they can handle.
Still, the final scores list Nashville as the winner. With rest being an important factor before “Smashville” meets Winnipeg in the Division Final, expect the Predators to get by and win in Denver, too.
Jets-Wild: Because of Nashville’s lackluster playoff start, suddenly a ton of money is on Winnipeg – the team no one in America knows anything about – to come out of the West. The Jets led the Central for most of the season until Nashville kicked it up in late January.
You’ve heard about the “year away” factor, but that was Nashville last season in falling to the Penguins in the Cup Final. Thus, it’s going to be hard for many to take action on the Jets.
However, the Manitoba boys have the size, speed, scoring and defense, plus top-flight goaltending to get the job done without that “failure” year interfering with Canada’s final hope for a Stanley Cup.
Note to the Wild: Take a shot once in a while.
Penguins-Flyers: Philadelphia is playing like a deer looking into headlights, not knowing what to do in a given situation.
Too many turnovers, too many dumb penalties, and getting out-worked, especially on the forecheck. The Penguins simply waited for an opportunity, then counter-attacked to rack-up goals.
I don’t exclusively blame Flyers G Brian Elliott – the blame can be shared roster-wide – but he started the horrible, sloppy play on the very first goal of the opening game.
In baseball, when a batter bunts the ball, it needs to go down the first- or third-base line – never to the pitcher. Not Elliott. He uses his blocker pad but knocks the puck forward into the slot rather than the corner. Rebound. Goal. And Pittsburgh piles it on, including a Stanley Cup record-tying two goals in five seconds (Detroit ‘65) in Sunday’s Game 3.
Sure, the Flyers may extend the series to six games after splitting the first two games in Pittsburgh, but as stated in this column at least twice this season, Philadelphia will be a contender next season… after they obtain a new goalie.
Capitals-Blue Jackets: On Feb. 9, Washington completed a home-and-home series sweep from Columbus, dropping the Jackets to .500. Over the ensuing two months, CBJ goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has posted among the best records in the NHL (15-4-2), including a 5-1 revenge win over the Caps.
Meanwhile, the Caps have alternated between floundering goalie Braden Holtby (an 0-4-2 skid in February sent him to the bench) and Philipp Grubauer. Sure, Holtby came back to go 6-2, but only one victory came against a playoff team (Toronto).
Considering which team has the goalie in better current form, plus the unsavory playoff history of the Caps, is anyone really surprised they lost both games at home?
Lightning-Devils: New Jersey deserved to be in the playoffs. They also deserve to be among the first teams eliminated as Tampa Bay, which coasted to the finish line in the regular season, found another gear on offense.
However, the Bolts are scrambling on defense – the Devils did sweep the season series – which in a look-ahead to a Division Final with Boston makes me think about taking the Bruins.
Bruins-Leafs: Sorry, Toronto. You had all of the advantages in the final two months of the season, yet you failed to seize the opportunity. Besides, your total of 105 points is so artificial. The Leafs led the NHL with seven shootout wins, a tie-breaker not utilized in postseason play.
Over the Leafs’ final 23 regular season games, only nine came against playoff opponents, posting a 3-6 ATS record. That’s anything but playoff-ready; they allowed a dozen playoff goals in Boston in the first two games.