Tuesday, April 19, 2011

NHL Playoff Update: Eastern Conference

With all but one series (Kings-Sharks) through 3 games, the NHL Playoffs have not disappointed. With intense end-to-end action and spectacular goalie saves, these playoffs seem to live up to the hype every year. With all series' shifting to the lower seed's home-ice, we have seen two teams take commanding 3-0 leads, as well as two teams climb out of an 0-2 series hole, and temporarily avoid that fatal elimination game. Hit the jump to review this year's NHL Eastern Conference Playoffs thus far:
(Home teams in caps)

Eastern Conference

New York Rangers (8) vs. Washington Capitals (1)
Game One (OT)--CAPITALS 2, Rangers 1 (1-0, Washington)
Game Two-- CAPITALS 2, Rangers 0 (2-0, Washington)
Game Three--RANGERS 3, Capitals 2 (2-1, Washington)
Many skeptics out there feel the Washington Capitals simply do not have what it takes to win a Stanley Cup, even after finishing as the first overall seed in the Eastern Conference the past two seasons. It is tough to blame those people, after the Caps were ousted in 7 games one season ago by the 8 seeded Montreal Canadiens. However, after two home games in this series, Washington took care of business and defended their home-ice without much of a sweat. Michal Neuvirth was as close to flawless as it gets, allowing only one goal in that two game span.

With the series shifting to Madison Square Garden, the tide turned in Game 3. The Rangers were finally able to solve Neuvirth and won the game on a late Brandon Dubinsky goal. The game seemed destined for overtime, after Mike Knuble positioned himself in his office, right in front of the net-minder, Henrik Lundqvist, and scored the tying goal with only 5:12 left in the third period. However, New York was relentless throughout the entire game, applying constant pressure, and making Neuvirth uncomfortable for the first time in the series. Dubinsky's goal came with 1:39 left in the game. The Garden went into a frenzy after the goal, and continued after the clock hit 0:00. The Rangers are very much alive in this series, and if they can figure out how to win Game 4, they will be going back to Washington with momentum, against a Capitals team that is no stranger to losing to an 8 seed.

Buffalo Sabres (7) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (2)
Game One-- Sabres 1, FLYERS 0 (1-0, Buffalo)
Game Two--FLYERS 5, Sabres 4 (1-1, Tied)
Game Three--Flyers 4, SABRES 2 (2-1, Philadelphia)
Coming into this series, I felt if there was one high seed in the entire playoffs that needed to win Game 1, it was the Philadelphia Flyers. In their last 10 regular season games they were a measly 3-4-3, and were barely able to hang onto the 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. They were limping into the playoffs. Shows how much I know, and shows how much different the playoffs are than the regular season.

Boucher has been a calming presence for the Flyers

After last night's 4-2 victory in Buffalo, the Flyers took home-ice advantage back from the Sabres. Philadelphia has been the better team throughout the first three games, and would be up 3-0 if it was not for Ryan Miller's performance in Game 1 (35 saves, and 0 goals allowed). The series shifted when Sergei Bobrovsky was pulled in favor of Brian Boucher in the first period of Game 2, after allowing 3 goals on 7 shots. He did have an impressive performance in Game 1, allowing only 1 goal on 25 shots, but Boucher simply has outplayed "Bob." Since replacing the struggling Bobrovsky, Boucher has only allowed 3 goals on 58 shots and has .948 save percentage. Impressive, to say the least. Bobrovsky could very well develop into a star in this league, but the big lights of the playoffs clearly got to him. Luckily for the Flyers, they have a veteran presence in Boucher. When he entered Game 2, he really seemed in instill a calming matter to all his teammates, which continued into Game 3. As a result the Flyers are back to playing good hockey and are in position to grab a commanding 3-1 series lead.

Montreal Canadiens (6) vs. Boston Bruins (3)
Game One--Canadiens 2, BRUINS 0 (1-0, Montreal)
Game Two--Canadiens 3, BRUINS (2-0, Montreal)
Game Three-- Bruins 4, CANADIENS 2 (2-1, Montreal)
In my first article for SportStatistics, I wondered if it was time to panic in Boston. Considering the fact that Boston has been down in a series 0-2, 26 times and has never come back to win, the obvious answer is yes.

Boston got off to a quick start in Game 3, scoring 2 goals in the opening period, coming from David Krejci and Nathan Horton. Rich Peverley gave the Bruins a 3-0 lead 2:02 into the second period, and it seemed as if it was smooth sailing from there. However, Montreal made things very interesting. Goals from Andrei Kostisyn and Tomas Plekanec, caused reason for panic for Bruins' fans, as the score became 3-2, with over 15:00 left in the game. Tim Thomas, however, finally made his mark on the series. The likely Vezina Trophy winner stopped 34 shots and rebounded from two lackluster performances (5 goals allowed on 46 shots). Chris Kelly added an empty net goal, and Bruins' fans were able to breathe a sigh of relief. Carey Price came down to earth making only 21 saves on 24 shots, after having 65 saves on 66 shots, throughout the first two games.

While this is a good momentum builder for Boston, they are still not off the hook. The fact remains they have never come back from an 0-2 series hole. This along, with playing a solid Montreal team, who made the Eastern Conference Finals one season ago, will not make it an easy road, but it is important to take positives out of this. They are headed in the right direction, and are very much alive in this series.

Tampa Bay Lightning (5) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (4)
Game One--PENGUINS 3, Lightning 0 (1-0, Pittsburgh)
Game Two--Lightning 5, PENGUINS 1 (1-1, Tied)
Game Three-- Penguins 3, LIGHTNING 2 (2-1, Pittsburgh)
After stealing home-ice advantage way from the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Tampa Bay Lightning were unable to carry that momentum back to Florida. After an impressive 5-1 victory in Game 2, Tampa Bay never held a lead in Game 3, and were skating on their heels throughout the entire game.

Marc-Andre Fleury was impressive, stopping 25 on 27 shots.This coming after having one of the worst performances of his playoff career in Game 2 (4 goals allowed on 20 shots). Pittsburgh continues to thrive without superstars, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. While Malkin is sidelined for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL, the timetable for Crosby's return is unknown. He has been out since early January with a concussion, and the Penguins are taking every possible precaution necessary.They cannot be blamed for that, as he is the future of their franchise. Plus with the team playing this well, and still contending for a Stanley Cup, there is little pressure to rush him back.

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