Biggest Takeaways from Thursday's NHL Playoff Action

Nicholas Goss@@NicholasGoss35Correspondent IMay 3, 2013

Biggest Takeaways from Thursday's NHL Playoff Action

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    There were four games on the NHL schedule on Thursday, and each one provided the excitement and physical play we expect from playoff hockey.

    This was the highest-scoring night of the postseason thus far, with an average of 5.5 goals in each game. Not only did fans get to watch plenty of offense, three of the four matchups were decided in the third period or overtime, which created some great late-game drama.

    Let's take a look at the biggest takeaways from a thrilling Day 3 of the 2013 NHL playoffs.

    But first, here are the scores of Thursday's games:

    • Washington 3, Rangers 1 (Capitals lead series 1-0)
    • Ottawa 4, Montreal 2 (Senators lead series 1-0)
    • St. Louis 2, Los Angeles 1 (Blues lead series 2-0)
    • Detroit 5, Anaheim 4 (Series tied 1-1)

Eric Gryba Creates Suspension Debate with Hit on Lars Eller

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    Just a few hours after the NHL suspended Boston Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference one game for an elbow to the head of Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mikhail Grabovski, the league's department of player safety had another play to review that could involve Rule 48.

    An Ottawa Senators defenseman was ejected from Thursday's game after he delivered a huge open-ice hit on Montreal Canadiens center Lars Eller, who laid on the ice for a few minutes before being taken to the hospital.

    The referees decided to give Gryba a five-minute major penalty for interference and a game misconduct. The Canadiens capitalized on the power-play opportunity with a goal from rookie Brendan Gallagher to take a 2-1 lead.

    Here is the latest update on Eller's condition, per Dave Stubbs of The Montreal Gazette:

    Eller: head injury, loss of consciousness, facial and dental fractures, in hospital overnight for observation #Habs #Sens

    — Dave Stubbs (@Dave_Stubbs) May 3, 2013

    Gryba told reporters after the game that he wasn't trying to injure Eller (via Ian Mendes of Sportsnet):

    Gryba on hit: "My elbow was down and there was no intent to hurt him whatsoever. I hope he's okay....It's never good seeing that."

    — Ian Mendes (@ian_mendes) May 3, 2013

    After watching this play live, it appeared that Gryba was guilty of a nasty headshot, but after looking at the replay from several different angles, the hit was clean.

    It's always difficult to determine the intent of a player in this type of situation, but it looks like Gryba drove his shoulder into Eller's chest instead of making contact with the head. This photo provides a decent look at the point of contact (h/t @BonksMullet).

    Here's the best screenshot I could get of the Gryba hit on Eller. #Sens #Habs…

    — Radek Bonk's Mullet (@BonksMullet) May 3, 2013

    Gryba did not charge, elbow, interfere or leave his feet to collide with Eller. The hit was reckless and contact with the upper body was made, but it would be surprising if the Senators defenseman was suspended.

Craig Anderson Proves He Is the MVP of the Senators

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    The Ottawa Senators earned an impressive 4-2 Game 1 victory on the road at the Bell Centre despite being out shot 50-31.

    Senators starting goaltender Craig Anderson was the deserved first star of the game with a franchise record 48 saves—for a playoff game that ended in regulation—many of which were made on the five power plays that Montreal earned, including a 5-on-3 power play in the third period.

    Anderson finished the regular season with an outstanding 1.69 GAA and a .941 save percentage, but he only played in 24 games because of an ankle injury. If he played a full season, Anderson probably would have been a lock for the Vezina Trophy.

    Now that Anderson is fully healthy, the Senators will rely on him to carry this team because it entered Game 1 with the lowest-scoring offense of all 16 playoff teams.

    The Canadiens ranked fourth in goals scored, fifth in power-play percentage and have a highly skilled blue line that includes the league's leading scorer among defensemen in P.K. Subban. With that said, Anderson must continue to be the Senators' best player in this series for Ottawa to upset Montreal and reach the second round.

Alex Ovechkin Shines at Both Ends of the Ice

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    Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin came into Game 1 of his team's first-round series with the New York Rangers as the league's leading goal scorer in the regular season, with 24 goals in his final 20 regular-season games.

    After falling behind 1-0 in the first period, the Capitals' captain tied the game with a power-play goal. It was Ovechkin's 31st career playoff goal, which is also a Capitals record. From that point on, Washington seized the momentum and scored the next two goals to complete a 3-1 victory.

    For the Capitals to continue their success offensively against a Rangers team who is strong defensively with an elite goaltender, Ovechkin must continue to be aggressive in the attacking zone. He finished the game with five shots on goal and set up many other scoring opportunities with some slick passing.

    In addition to his contributions offensively, Ovechkin also shined in the defensive zone. He was often criticized in last year's playoffs for not giving enough effort on defense, but that wasn't the case on Thursday.

    He back-checked, played a physical game with several big hits (five hits total) and even threw his body on the ice late in the third period to block a shot.

    This is the kind of two-way game that makes Ovechkin one of the best players in the league.

Rangers' Special Teams Must Improve

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    Special teams will be one of the biggest X-factors in the Rangers vs. Capitals first-round series.

    If New York is unable to defend Washington's top-ranked power play, it's going to be difficult for John Tortorella's team to reach the second round. Alex Ovechkin led the NHL with 16 power-play goals, and he also tied teammate Mike Ribeiro for the league lead in power-play points (27).

    The Blueshirts were the least penalized team in the NHL during the regular season, but they gave the Capitals five power-play opportunities in Game 1. Ovechkin's power-play goal in the second period tied the score and allowed the Capitals to take over the game.

    The Rangers were also 0-for-4 with the man advantage—including a missed opportunity on a 5v3 power-play—on Thursday and failed to create many quality scoring chances. Too many of the team's shots were from the outside, and there was not enough traffic in front of Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby.

    Washington had the worst regular-season penalty-killing percentage of all 16 playoff teams, but its performance short-handed was excellent in Game 1.

Resurgent Power Play Helps Detroit Avoid Collapse to Tie Series 1-1

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    The Detroit Red Wings gave up a 4-1 third period to allow the Anaheim Ducks to send Game 2 of their first-round series into overtime, but the veteran team from Hockeytown earned a split in California with a game-winning goal by Gustav Nyquist.

    Ducks defenseman Sheldon Souray was called for a slashing minor at the end of the third period, which allowed the Red Wings to start overtime on the power play. After Valtteri Filppula made a sweet pass to Nyquist off a filthy toe-drag move, the 23-year-old forward scored his first career playoff goal to help Detroit prevent an epic collapse.

    If not for their power-play success, the Red Wings would be facing an 0-2 deficit heading home. Detroit scored three times with the man advantage, which proved to be the difference in the game, since Anaheim was just 1-for-5 on the power play.

    The Red Wings don't have as much scoring depth as the Ducks, so it's very important for Mike Babcock's team to take advantage of its power-play chances.

    Going down 2-0 to a Ducks team who finished with the second-most road wins in the Western Conference this season would have made winning this series a difficult challenge for the Red Wings. But Detroit did not allow its failure to close out the game in regulation to impact the team's performance in overtime.

    Now the series will shift to Joe Louis Arena, where the Red Wings are 13-7-4 this year, including a 4-1-1 record in their final six games at home to close out the regular season.

Poor Starts to Periods Prevent Ducks from Taking 2-0 Series Lead

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    It's highly important in the playoffs to start each period strongly and not allow the opposing team to grab the momentum with an early goal.

    The Anaheim Ducks failed to do this in Game 2 of their first-round series on Thursday by allowing the Detroit Red Wings to score a goal in the first two-and-a-half minutes of the first, second, third and overtime periods.

    Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf, who started the team's third-period comeback with his first goal of the series, talked about Anaheim's failures at the start of each period after the game (via Dennis Bernstein of The Fourth Period):

    #Ducks Getzlaf on major factor tonight 'we weren't ready to play at the start of any period.' Bobby Ryan 'we gave them 2nd and 3rd chances'

    — Dennis Bernstein (@DennisTFP) May 3, 2013

    Luckily for the Ducks, fixing this problem won't be difficult. This team just has to begin periods with a higher level of focus and realize that a veteran team with a roster of former Stanley Cup champions will capitalize on foolish mistakes if given the opportunity.

Unlike Last Year, Blues Finishing Games Versus Kings

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    The Blues were unable to close games with good third-period performances against the Los Angeles Kings in last year's Western Conference Semifinals, which the defending champs won in four games.

    Through the first two games of this season's series, the Blues have capitalized on their late-game chances, and as a result, they will take a 2-0 advantage to Los Angeles.

    St. Louis started the third period of Thursday's game facing a 1-0 deficit against a Kings team who had lost just twice in regulation over their last 117 games when leading after 40 minutes.

    Just under four minutes into the final frame, Patrik Berglund tied the score, and then with 51 seconds remaining in regulation, veteran defenseman Barrett Jackman scored his first career playoff goal to help the Blues secure another victory in what has been a thrilling series.

    St. Louis finished the regular season with the third-fewest third-period goals in the league, so it was encouraging for head coach Ken Hitchcock to see his team not only generate a good amount of quality scoring chances but also take advantage of them in high-pressure moments.

    The Blues showed a lot of resiliency in these first two games and have kept their composure against a physical Kings team with a lot of playoff experience. After losing seven straight games to the Kings dating back to last year's West Semis, winning these two games at home will do wonders for the Blues' confidence going into Game 3.

Blues Shut Down Kings' Top Forwards for Second Straight Game

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    During the Los Angeles Kings' Stanley Cup run last season, this team got timely scoring in important late-game situations from many of its top-six forwards.

    Through the first two games of this year's first-round series with the St. Louis Blues, several of the Kings' top scorers have failed to produce offensively, which has resulted in the defending champs heading back home for Game 3 down 0-2.

    You have to give credit to the Blues for shutting down Kings forwards Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards through the first two games.

    These three players finished first, third and fourth on the Kings in scoring this season, respectively, but they have combined for zero goals and two assists in this series. Kopitar has failed to find the back of the net in 18 straight games.

    St. Louis has a deep, talented blue line and a hot goaltender in Brian Elliott, who is full of confidence after finishing the regular season with an 11-2 record in his last 13 starts. With that said, Los Angeles needs its top-six forwards, specifically Jeff Carter—who finished fourth in NHL with 26 goals—to score goals and not force Quick to be perfect each game.

    Nicholas Goss is an NHL lead writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston. All quotes obtained firsthand.