2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs: The 4 Most Important Storylines for Thursday's Games
There is a lot on the line in the four NHL Playoff games tonight.
All four series in which those games are involved stand at 2-1.
Four teams are facing the prospect of having their backs to the wall; the other four are trying to take firm control of their respective series.
It is not often that things converge quite like this to produce such drama and excitement—and all on one night no less.
Arguably, this will be the most important night in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs so far, and each of the four series is chock full of story lines, huge matchups and epic confrontations.
As we gear up for Thursday's action, let's take a look at the big storyline in each of these series.
1. Can Martin Brodeur Bounce Back?
Game 3 was not kind to Martin Brodeur.
But at least he did not have to endure it for very long.
One of the best playoff goalies ever got shelled in Game 3. He could not hold onto a 3-0 lead for his team and was pulled early in the second period.
It was his shortest playoff outing ever.
While some had wondered whether Brodeur would get the nod in Game 4 or whether Pete DeBoer might stick with Johan Hedburg, I really did not have any doubts.
Brodeur has not won three Stanley Cups because of luck. He is one of the best goalies of all time. With the prospect of a 3-1 series deficit staring you in the face, to whom would you turn?
I think Brodeur, as he almost always has done in the past, will have a true bounceback game.
Whether that is enough for the Devils to even the series might depend on who is between the pipes at the other end.
Panthers coach Kevin Dineen pulled Jose Theodore after the Devils had built the early three-goal lead and replaced him with Scott Clemmensen. All Clemmensen did was shut out the Devils the rest of the way, and all indications are that he will start tonight.
If the Devils are to even the series tonight, Brodeur will have to be on his game and the Devils offense will have to solve Clemmensen. If that does not happen, then the Panthers will return to Florida with a 3-1 series lead.
Maybe the Panthers were a legitimate No. 3 seed after all.
2. Which Version of Braden Holtby Shows Up Tonight?
You have the issue of whether the Caps can win without Nicklas Backstrom in the lineup.
You have Dale Hunter accusing the Bruins of head hunting and Claude Julien indicating he has no clue what Hunter is talking about.
You have the emergence of the Capitals star players colliding with the Bruins starting to play the type of game that won them a Stanley Cup last year.
To me, however, the big story is which version of Braden Holtby shows up in DC tonight.
Will it be the version that was so outstanding in Boston in the first two games?
Or will it be the version we saw in Game 3 where he let in at least one pretty soft goal and seemed genuinely unnerved by the pressure the Bruins were displaying the other night.
The Caps have to help their rookie net-minder out quite a bit more by not allowing the Bruins to get bodies to the net, which creates traffic and opportunities for deflections.
If the Caps are going to even this series up, Holtby will need to stand large in net. The Caps offense finally showed up in Game 3 and with a bit of a better effort from Holtby, Zdeno Chara's deflected goal late in Game 3 would not have been the difference maker.
But, if Holtby is not on his game tonight, the Bruins will head home with a chance to close the series out.
3. Will the Blackhawks Focus on Victory or Vengeance?
We have all seen the brutal hit that Raffi Torres laid on Marian Hossa in Game 3 about a hundred times now, in super slow motion and from multiple angles.
It looks worse every time I see it.
As bad as it was, however, the Blackhawks cannot let getting even, or getting payback for Hossa, detract them from the job at hand—winning Game 4 and evening the series.
The Coyotes have been one of the most "under the radar" teams in recent NHL Playoff history. The folks in Chicago are now learning what the people in the desert have known all season—the Coyotes are very, very good.
If Chicago wishes to return to Glendale with the series tied, then they must play hard and play aggressively, but they cannot afford to lose focus.
Another thing the Blackhawks should try not to lose is the lead. Chicago has scored first in all three games so far but has only one win to show for this. But for an 11th-hour goal in Game 2, the Blackhawks would be down 3-0 in the series.
Phoenix is a very opportunistic team that knows how to take advantage of an opponent's weaknesses.
If the Blackhawks play with just raw emotion and let that interfere with their strategy, the Coyotes will return home with a chance to end the series.
4. Will the Blues' Power-Play Success Continue?
A key reason the St. Louis Blues have a 2-1 lead in their series with the San Jose Sharks has been the surprising emergence of their power play—and the equally surprising inability of the Sharks to stop it.
The Blues tallied three power-play goals in Game 3 and have scored on five of 13 chances in this series so far.
And the Blues were far from a power-play juggernaut during the regular season as they ranked 19th in the NHL with a 16.7 percent conversion rate.
Perhaps it should have been expected as the Sharks were pretty poor as far as the penalty kill was concerned. San Jose ranked 29th in the league with a 76.9 percent penalty kill ratio.
Still, the Blues have more than doubled their regular season power-play success rate, and if the Sharks are going to even up this series, that, obviously, cannot continue.
What the Sharks could really benefit from would be if both teams special teams return to their regular season form. The Sharks were ranked second in the NHL in power-play percentage during the regular season, having converted on 21.1 percent of their chances.
In this series, the Sharks are a bit off that pace as they have only converted on the power play twice (18.2 percent). That is not a huge difference, but with the games between the two teams being as close as they have been, any small difference gets magnified greatly.
For the Sharks to even this series, they need to limit the Blues power-play opportunities, kill off those opportunities when they do arise and take advantage of their own power-play chances.