NHL playoffs: Series-by-series storylines for the second round
As the grueling battle for the Stanley Cup continues into a fresh round of matchups, here are the key storylines and questions to ponder for the eight remaining teams:
• Can the Penguins keep their cool? Although they were outplayed by the surprising Islanders for good portions of the first round, the Penguins maintained their composure and prevailed, a testament to their considerable postseason experience. Their superstar veterans -- Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla and Kris Letang -- took turns dominating at times and the team also got key contributions from Pascal Dupuis, Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik (when he was healthy). Plus, the Pens excelled on special teams. But their best players will have to be their best players even more consistently against the Senators in what promises to be a physical series.
There has been some media chatter that the bad blood generated by the February incident in which Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke severed the Achilles tendon of Ottawa's Erik Karlsson could spill over in brawls and cheap shots, but I think each team realizes that the stakes are too high to get carried away. That said, Ottawa's physicality could wear down -- if not sideline -- Pittsburgh's key players, who all have a history of injury problems. Whatever physicality the Senators throw at them, the Pens will have to stand up to it without losing their discipline while handing out some punishment of their own. If the going gets rough and the Pens lose their cool, it could tax their penalty killing and cause trouble. Other causes for concern will be if they run into problems on their power play or don't get solid goaltending. As for the latter, coach Dan Bylsma opted to go with steady backup Tomas Vokoun instead of the jittery Marc-Andre Fleury for Game 1. Vokoun seemed to settle the team down during the Isles series.
• What do the Senators do for an encore? The Senators won't make too many drastic changes after an impressive opening round. As they did against Montreal, they'll have to try to negate Pittsburgh's skill and firepower with excellent team defense and counterattacking, finding soft spots in the Penguins' defensive corps -- something that worked well for the Islanders. Ottawa will also want to limit Pittsburgh's second chance opportunities on Craig Anderson (who some believe is the best goaltender in the tournament), and get pucks and bodies on Pittsburgh's net.
Ottawa imposed its style and physical play on the Canadiens while winning that series, exploiting a size advantage to dictate how the round went. The Senators also played well on the road, winning three games in the Bell Centre, not an easy thing to do. Led by Karlsson and Sergei Gonchar at the point, their power play clicked very well, at 6-for-25. They also got great leadership, as they have all year, from coach Paul MacLean and a core of veterans led by captain Daniel Alfredsson. As good as it has been, this is still a team with lots of young players and while they are growing impressively, they may be overmatched by the Pens' experience and superstar talents. Pittsburgh's offense could be too much to handle and it may be more difficult for Ottawa to have its way with the Penguins, who have more size, physicality and depth at center than Montreal did.
• Looking Kingly again: Los Angeles showed its Stanley Cup pedigree by not caving in after going down 0-2 against St. Louis before winning four straight. The banging was ferocious and the Kings prevailed by absorbing as much punishment as they dished out and not taking too many penalties. Their experience from last year's Cup run eventually gave the series a sense of inevitability, even though each game was decided by the slimmest of margins. While the Kings did lose a pair on the road -- compared to last year's run when they dropped three away games in four rounds -- it didn't deter them from playing their game. Drew Doughty raised the level of his game on the Kings' blueline and Slava Voynov emerged, playing big minutes and earning a team best plus-5 rating, tied for the top mark among NHL defensemen. The penalty kill, one of L.A.'s strengths last year, looked formidable again. Despite allowing a few softies, goalie Jonathan Quick fought back to reach his Conn Smythe form. So don't expect Darryl Sutter's team to do anything different than it's done during its past five playoff rounds.
Do the defending champs, who were such a postseason juggernaut last year, have any weaknesses? Getting out of the Blues series in six games gave them four days to rest, but it's worth wondering if the pounding that St. Louis delivered will diminish the Kings' ability to punish the Sharks. Expect the Kings to target San Jose's Dan Boyle, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski for a bruising. Quick will have to stay sharp and the Kings will want to, as always, control the play in the corners and in front of each net. Their offense isn't prone to explosions, but as long as someone scores the big goal every night -- whether it's Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Justin Williams, Mike Richards or someone else -- the Kings will get what they need. Yet because their margins of victory are so thin, an injury to a key player like Doughty or Kopitar would have a serious impact.
• Do the Sharks have enough depth? San Jose is fairly healthy, and may get winger Martin Havlat back at some point, but the Sharks won't have injured winger Adam Burish, whose feisty style would be an asset against the Kings. And while their ability to withstand L.A.'s heavy game may be the axis on which this series swings, another concern has to be their opponent's depth at every position. One of L.A.'s biggest strengths is that it can play four lines and get contributions from them all. When you get down to the third tandems and the fourth lines, the Kings could have a marked advantage.
The Sharks do have some formidable resources. Goalie Antti Niemi has a Stanley Cup ring and Vezina Trophy nomination. They can put Raffi Torres on Logan Couture's line to ward off the Kings' heavy hitters. Patrick Marleau had a big series against the Canucks, but increasingly, it's not Marleau and Joe Thornton who propel this team as much as Couture and Joe Pavelski, who led the scoring parade in Round 1. Coach Todd McLellan's shift of Brent Burns from defense to wing has produced nearly a point per game. Plus, Burns is 6-foot-5, 230 pounds and hits like a defenseman. The power play is potent (seven goals in four games against the Canucks) and San Jose has gained a ton of confidence, thanks to the first sweep in franchise history -- against a quality opponent and divisional foe, no less. One of the biggest contributing factors was that the Sharks were finally able to win on the road after being one of the league's worst road teams during the regular season. Maintaining their dominance at the Shark Tank will be crucial because the Kings have home ice advantage. If their road woes return, that could be a bad situation. Also, the Sharks have not played since May 7 and there could be some rust in their game.
• Rust never sleeps, even in Chicago: After doing pretty much everything right in their five-game first-round win over Minnesota -- their four lines and six defensemen looked overwhelming, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp were constant scoring threats and Duncan Keith appeared to be back to Norris Trophy form -- the Blackhawks are rested and coming off a series with easy travel compared to what Detroit went through against Anaheim. But Hawks coach Joel Quenneville must make sure that his club does not take the Red Wings lightly. Detroit has more Cup experience than the Blackhawks and is battle tested after knocking off Anaheim in seven games. If the Hawks are overconfident or rusty early in the series and the Wings take advantage by stealing one of the games on the road, it can help them gain the belief that they can prevail as they did against favored Anaheim.
Other concerns: Should starting goalie Corey Crawford get hurt, Ray Emery -- who was injured and has not seen game action since April 15 -- will take over. Emery played well this season, but his long layoff could affect his sharpness. The power play, one of the few troubling aspects of Chicago's game -- only 2-for-13 versus the Wild -- must wake up and start cranking. And while captain Jonathan Toews did many things well in the last round, neither he nor Patrick Kane scored a goal. It will help Chicago's cause immeasurably if its two regular season top scorers light the lamp. Failing that, the Hawks will need others to be ready to pick up the slack.
• The Motown chemistry class: Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has gotten well-deserved praise for the job he did all year adding younger players into the mix with his team in transition from the Nicklas Lidstrom era. Babcock's splitting of key veterans Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk for Game 7 against Anaheim was just one of his adjustments that paid off. Their leadership, and defenseman Niklas Kronwall's, was huge. The Wings responded, from old hands like Johan Franzen to the younger group that includes forwards Justin Abdelkader, Damien Brunner and Gustav Nyqvist as well as defensemen Brendan Smith and Jonathan Ericsson and Jimmy Howard, who battled in goal on every shot. The power play excelled, and strong team play was palpably emerging by the end of the series.
Be sure that Babcock will be looking for a way to have his club wear out Chicago's Toews, who is central to everything the Hawks do. Detroit can get momentum in games if its penalty kill frustrates the Hawks' power play, but Chicago is a speedy, skating club that also has guys who can throw their weight around and they will seek to wear down key Red Wings. If Toews can neutralize Datsyuk, that will take a major weapon away from Detroit. So as well as the younger Wings have played, they will be up against the NHL's best team. The experience gap, not to mention the superior depth everywhere in Chicago's lineup, could prove to be more than the Wings and their wizardly coach can overcome during the course of the series.
• The Jekyll-and-Hyde Bruins: Like flipping a light switch, the Bruins decided to turn on their best game when it mattered most against the Maple Leafs -- in the waning minutes of Game 7. Had they played with that resolve earlier, their series with Toronto never would have gone the distance. But the B's gave their opponent confidence and if they attempt that stunt against a more experienced Rangers team, it could very well doom them. Boston has a strong club, no doubt, but the desire needs to be there at all times, too.
That's not coach Claude Julien's only big worry: He may go into the second round with only half of his regular defense corps, as the uncertain injury status of Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ferrence and Wade Redden could deprive the B's of three experienced blueliners. Matt Barkowski played a good Game 7 against Toronto, but he's been in all of two postseason contests while rookie Doug Hamilton has lost the poise he showed during the regular season -- and Boston will still need to add a sixth defenseman if all three damaged backliners can't return. Still, the character displayed by Boston's best players -- namely Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, Tyler Seguin, David Krejci, Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic -- helped pull off that miraculous comeback. The question now is, did the Bruins' near-death experience scare them into playing up to their potential or is there something wrong with this team?
• King Henrik's Broadway burden: Let's face it: If someone told you two weeks ago that the Rangers would eliminate the Capitals in seven games, but Rick Nash wouldn't score a goal in the series, you'd have told them to buzz off. That's what all-world goaltending can do in the postseason, and the Rangers largely have King Henrik Ludqvist to thank for advancing to Round Two -- that and a team-wide commitment to shot-blocking. Broadway Blueshirt players got in front of more shots in the first round than any other team; their 161 put them 20 ahead of the falling Leafs. Four of the top 15 shotblockers in the first round were Rangers: Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Ryan Callahan and Anton Stralman. There's great courage there, but also the chance of injury, especially when Boston's Zdeno Chara is the one firing the pucks. Losing any one of those guys would put more pressure on Lundqvist and harm New York's chances of advancing.
Putting aside the possibility that the Rangers could deplete themselves, they are probably going to have to get some points from their best offensive players to get past Boston. It's good to have secondary scoring, but when Aaron Asham has more goals than Nash, Brad Richards, Michael Del Zotto, Ryan Callahan or Mats Zuccarello, that's a concern. Fortunately, the first round was a coming out party for Derick Brassard, whose two goals and seven assists put him among the league leaders. If the others could pick up the slack, coach John Tortorella might smile a bit more often. Well, maybe not, but King Henrik would surely be happy.