As always, the first round of the playoffs featured plenty of surprises. In the East, the lower seeds provided a greater challenge than expected and came through with a couple of upsets. In the West, it was surprisingly predictable, as the general favorites all came through to the second round. We'll start with the West as we try to make sense out of what's to come over the next two weeks of playoff action.
San Jose Sharks (1) -vs- Detroit Redwings (5)
This isn't the first time in history that these perennial powers have clashed. In previous encounters, they've always produced memorable series and franchise-altering outcomes. 1994 gave us one of the biggest upsets in NHL history when the 8th seeded Sharks took down the top-ranked Redwings in 7. In 2007, Detroit got their revenge when San Jose choked in the Western Finals. The Sharks are favored to win, based on points and home ice advantage, but few onlookers would be shocked to see Detroit moving on to Round 3.
While both teams enjoyed quality goaltending during the regular season, the edge going into Round 2 has to go to San Jose. Despite one shaky performance, Nabokov has been very steady for the Sharks in the postseason, posting a GAA of 1.76 up to this point. In Detroit, Howard has been very inconsistent. He allowed 4 or more goals in all 3 of their losses, but ended the series on a high-note, allowing just one fluky goal in game 7 against the Coyotes.
If there's one thing that both of these team have to spare, it's depth on offense. Both squads feature several lines of playoff tested forwards who can put the puck in the net. The big guns for Detroit picked up steam as Round 1 went on, culminating in an impressive 6-goal outburst in game 7. Henrik Zetterberg is tied for 2nd in post-season scoring with 11 points. He rounded out the series with 6 goals, while Pavel Datsyuk netted 5.
The Sharks managed to conquer Colorado without much help from their top line. That could be good or bad news. On one hand, they demonstrated they can rely on their other lines to pick up the slack. Joe Pavelski, Ryan Clowe and Devon Setoguchi all averaged at least a point a game. On the other hand, Detroit is not Colorado. San Jose is going to have to get their big guns scoring to outrun the Wings.
One of the more shocking statistics coming out of Round 1 is the number of shots that Detroit allowed. The traditionally stingy Redwings allowed an average of 30+ shots against to a Phoenix team not known for running up the score. If Howard is forced to stop 30+ shots a night against the likes of Heatley, Marleau, Thornton and Pavelski, this could be a short series. On the plus side, Detroit had four defensemen with 5 or more points in the first round.
As for the Sharks, both Dan Boyle and Douglas Murray contributed offensively in round 1. They managed to hold the speedy Avalanche to about 25 shots a game.
It's just a matter of time before Thornton, Heatley and Marleau get on track. If San Jose's second line can keep up the pace, the Wings won't be able to give Howard the help he needs to get through to the Western Conference finals. Sharks in 6.
Chicago Blackhawks (2) -vs- Vancouver Canucks (3)
Nothing like a Round 2 rematch to get heat things up. Everyone remembers Luongo's final performance against the Hawks last season. He'll get a fair shot at redemption over the next two weeks.
Luongo's numbers in Round 1 give Canucks fans a lot to worry about. 2.92 GAA and .893 save % were good enough to get by LA. It won't be nearly good enough against the Hawks. If Vancouver wants any prayer at avoiding a repeat, Luongo is going to have to find his game. The good news is that he got better as Round 1 went on, and played very well in their final game.
As for Chicago, Niemi has put to bed the doubts in this position. He finished with 2 shutouts in his first 6 playoff games. With a GAA of 2.15, his play hasn't changed following a great rookie season. The play of either man could easily determine the outcome of this series.
Vancouver and Chicago were far and away the top scoring teams in the West, separated by just one goal in the regular season. Both teams feature some serious top end talent that should make this series a fun one to watch. The Hawks were held in check a little better in Round 1 by a hot Pekka Rinne, while the Canucks kept the train rolling through their first 6 games, averaging 3.5 goals a game. Mikael Samuelsson is tied for 2nd in the playoffs with 11 points.
Neither team demonstrated much offensive help from the back end in Round 1. That wasn't much of a shocker coming out of Vancouver, but the Hawks have come to depend a bit more on scoring from their defense. Expect the likes of Keith, Seabrook and Campbell to be a bit more active in this series than they were against the Predators.
With so much fire power up front on both rosters, this series will ultimately be decided by goaltending. Luongo still has a lot to prove in net, while Niemi is still showing the world what he can do in his first go at the postseason. Right now, I'm looking at Niemi as the stronger option. Chicago in 6.