The Biggest Worry of Each NHL Playoff Team as Series Switch Locations
By the conclusion of Friday night’s Stanley Cup playoff action, six out of the eight first-round series will have completed two games and be ready to shuffle to the lower seed’s home arena. The other two will follow suit by the time the ice chips settle on Saturday.
For those that are already changing sites, there is more than enough from the first two games to assess what each party has to build on and what could become a problem, if it has not already.
For other matchups, even those that still have to play Game 2 before anybody travels, it does not hurt to anticipate the changes in store for the first change in venue. The fresh ice will constitute the blank space below questions that may have been immutably posed before the playoffs or even before the 2013 regular season began.
Whether the momentum is on their side or in opposition, whether they are leaving or going home and whether it pertains to the venue directly or just the complexion of the matchup, there will be at least one concern for each NHL team to confront as the conference quarterfinals take shape. One for each team is highlighted as follows.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via nhl.com.
Anaheim: The Red Wings’ Home Power Play
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Detroit enjoyed almost exactly twice as much special teams’ success on home ice than it did on the road during the regular season. Its overall 18.4 percent power-play conversion rate was the product of going 11-for-88 (12.5 percent) away from Joe Louis Arena and 23-for-97 (23.7 percent) in front of its own fans.
As it happened, the Ducks were decidedly less efficient on the penalty kill in opposing venues than they were at home. They killed only 78.3 percent to rank No. 20 in the league on the road, whereas they killed 84.8 percent at home for No. 14 on that leaderboard.
Special teams have already been a heavy-handed factor in this deadlocked series, with Detroit going a cumulative 4-for-10 on its power play and Anaheim going 3-for-9 through two games. The Ducks will now need to be more diligent to ensure those aspects work more in their favor.
Boston: Excessive Rough Stuff
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Although they roared back for a 4-1 win in Game 1, the Bruins initially fell behind when the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs converted an early power play. Moments later, seasoned defenseman Andrew Ference threw an illicit hit that eventually incurred a one-game suspension.
With the Leafs being the regular-season team leader with 1,626 hits, it is only natural that Boston will want to bring a matching physicality. But regardless of whether or not their penalty kill can show up in its characteristically stingy form, the last thing the Bruins need is to give their PK tank-draining work.
Chicago: The Last Change
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It is only natural that Selke-caliber center Jonathan Toews should be taking the majority of the shifts when Minnesota’s top forward unit of Charlie Coyle, Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise is in action.
Parise and Koivu, easily the Wild’s top two regular-season point-getters, have combined for one point (an assist by Koivu), a minus-six rating and 15 shots on goal against Chicago in four total meetings in 2013 so far.
But they are too good and too dogged to be contained forever in a given matchup, even by the Presidents' Trophy winners. The more these teams meet, the closer Minnesota’s top producers are to clicking.
For the opposing Hawks, it will be doubly harder to issue their most reliable defensive barrier when the scene shifts to St. Paul and Wild coach Mike Yeo gets the last change.
Detroit: Corey Perry
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Even though Corey Perry, the Ducks’ co-leader in regular-season goals with 15, is presently nursing his second-longest goal drought of 2013, it will be hard to keep containing him. He was not credited with a point but was at least on the ice for linemate Ryan Getzlaf’s strike at 7:50 of the third period, which sparked a three-goal rally.
That late rally, though it ultimately went to waste in overtime, is something for the likes of Perry, as well as Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and the rest of the Ducks to take away and eagerly build on.
They will try to do that as they venture into Joe Louis Arena, where Perry coincidentally broke his last hex with a 1-1-2 scoring log on Feb. 15, snapping his 11-game goal-less skid and pacing Anaheim to a 5-2 win.
As it happened, that game also saw Anaheim go on a multi-goal run, beginning with Perry’s 2-2 equalizer and culminating with an empty-netter to finalize the 5-2 upshot. Once their stars are allowed to get in a rhythm, the rest of the Ducks can follow suit.
Los Angeles: Bottom-6 Matchups
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So far, as one could have easily anticipated, the first two installments of the Kings-Blues series have been defensive goaltending duels, each ending in 2-1 upshots. Unfortunately for L.A., they have been on the wrong end of both, beating Blues backstop Brian Elliott on one out of 29 registered stabs each night.
If their topmost scorers cannot find a way around the St. Louis defense and cultivate anything more than a last-minute equalizer (Game 1) or a five-on-three conversion (Game 2), they will need to dig deeper. They need to ensure that every skater who dresses for action is an option to chip in on offense.
After Game 2, head coach Daryl Sutter himself told the Los Angeles Times about the need to get the better of the Blues’ fourth line. Per Helene Elliott, Sutter said, “Some of the boys that play on our fourth line have to play like big boys.”
Minnesota: 60 Minutes of the Blackhawks
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Josh Harding, hastily elevated to the starting job when crease colleague Niklas Backstrom was injured in warm-ups prior to Game 1, was at the bottom of the list of reasons for the Wild’s 2-1 overtime falter.
On the other side, though, the Blackhawks made no effort to mask the fact that they were not thoroughly engaged throughout regulation on Tuesday. As head coach Joel Quenneville told the on-site press corps at the United Center, “I’m not exactly sure why, but it wasn’t the pace we were accustomed to beginning games.”
As of Thursday, the eve of Game 2, Backstrom was deemed “doubtful” for Friday and, for all we know, may still be unavailable come Game 3. By that point, it would not be a surprise if the Blackhawks are rewarded for starting as assertively as they finish by inflicting infectious self-doubt on the likes of Harding.
If Backstrom does return to action, the Hawks can get to him in the same fashion. Only a select few, one of whom will be mentioned in another team’s slide, can come back from an injury and play unbeatably without hesitation and the Minnesota netminder is not one of them.
Montreal: Erik Karlsson and Carey Price
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Upon revisiting the highlights of Game 1, there is a noticeable common thread in the four goals the Ottawa Senators thrust behind the back of Canadiens’ crease custodian Carey Price. All were the product of a long-distance slapper, the last of which was buried after the goalie demonstrated poor rebound control.
In addition, well-rounded Senators blueliner Erik Karlsson was on the ice for three of those strikes and few are more capable of unleashing more of the same shots that were Price’s undoing than him.
Compounding the double whammy is the way Price stumbled into the playoffs, whereas Karlsson is quickly kicking ice chips over the fact that he missed two-thirds of Ottawa’s regular-season schedule.
Price must find a way to replenish his confidence and join his teammates in containing the kinetic Karlsson. Depending on the status and shape of Brian Gionta and Max Pacioretty, stingy goaltending could be in higher demand than before.
Otherwise, Karlsson and rest of the Sens could have an easier-than-necessary time feeding off of their fervent crowd in Games 3 and 4.
NY Islanders: Sidney Crosby
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Only a player as gifted and accomplished as Sidney Crosby can be conspicuous by his absence even while his team carries on without him to carry out a 5-0 drubbing of the opposition.
Mere minutes before noon on the morning of Game 1, the Penguins announced that their captain, still recovering from a broken jaw, would not be back in time for the playoff opener. Less than 10 hours later, Pittsburgh’s active roster had outclassed the vastly inexperienced Islanders.
But Crosby will be coming back at some point and the Isles know firsthand how he can come out with carbonation after an injury-induced absence.
In 2011-12, Crosby’s delayed debut for the season saw him amass two goals and two helpers as part of another 5-0 lashing of the Islanders. He would later be placed back on injured reserve, only to resurface again on March 15, 2012 and tally five assists over his next two games.
While no one can guarantee Crosby will throw himself the same welcome-back party in this series, preparation on the Islanders’ part is strongly advised. That goes not only for the Pittsburgh captain’s Game 2 return at the Consol Energy Center, but also the next two at Nassau Coliseum, at which point he should be getting into a full rhythm.
NY Rangers: Rick Nash’s Readiness
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The best-case scenario for the New York Rangers and prized offseason acquisition Rick Nash is that he defy his modicum of Stanley Cup playoff experience and make an instant impact, not unlike Ilya Kovalchuk after he went from Atlanta to New Jersey.
But the question as to whether the ex-Columbus captain can unhesitatingly acclimate to the atmosphere of Madison Square Garden in the playoffs shall remain unanswered until Game 3 gets underway. Nash’s response could very well be an X-factor in the course of this series.
For that matter, the same goes for depth forward Derick Brassard and defenseman John Moore, who were also career-long Blue Jackets until a separate deal brought them to Broadway for 2013.
Ottawa: PK Subban
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Although Karlsson is back in the same form that got him last year’s Norris Trophy, Montreal has a potential answer for that in PK Subban, who played 42 out of 48 regular-season games and gave a dazzling all-around performance.
As this series goes on, the Habs will doubtlessly lean on Subban to generate their own supply of offense with his point shot while curtailing the Ottawa forecheck with his no-second-thoughts physicality.
In Ottawa’s Game 1 victory, Subban had an assist and seven shots on goal, a reflection on his determination, which will eventually break through in the goal column even against the hottest of netminders if he continues to be given enough time and space.
The Sens need to be ready to propitiate their home crowd by actively minimizing the effects of one of the Canadiens’ most gifted and competitive skaters.
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The 18 skaters who suited up for the Penguins in Game 1 had gone into the action with a combined 856 games worth of NHL playoff experience. The Islanders, on the other hand, had combined for 90 man games among their forwards and defensemen.
That disparity is not going to shrink much at any time in the near future, especially when the likes of Crosby are reintroduced to the lineup. But every little bit helps for the Islanders, especially since they are only focusing on and facing one adversary for the next week-plus.
St. Louis: Wear and Tear Up Front
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So far, the Blues have stayed with the Kings in virtually every noteworthy category, and the hit department is no exception. En route to a pair of dramatic 2-1 victories, they were outhit by a slim margin of 41-38 in Game 1 and pulled even at 38-38 in Game 2.
However, the fact remains that L.A. was second only to Toronto in cumulative body checks with 1,446 in the regular season. Furthermore, the Kings throw their weight around decidedly more often at Staples Center, where they landed 837 checks and where the next two games of this series take place.
If the L.A. blue-line brigade in particular can percolate more of the same for its own fans, then the balanced Blues offense will need to bury every precious chance it gets and valiantly stave off bruise-induced weariness.
San Jose: Sustained Advantage in Depth
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Game 1 was good enough, naturally, with six individual Sharks charging up a point or two apiece to surmount the initial 1-0 deficit spotted by Kevin Bieksa’s unassisted goal.
As the series goes on, though, and especially when it goes back to San Jose, they will need to be wary of a down but determined array of Canucks strikers. This is one of the more even matchups in the opening round and Vancouver will thus have one of the better chances of recompensing a loss on its home rink by stealing one back from the Sharks’ domain.
In turn, San Jose will have to be preemptive in its plan to keep the likes of the Sedin twins, Alexandre Burrows, Ryan Kesler and Derek Roy muzzled while they sculpt a lead for Antti Niemi to protect.
Toronto: New Kids in the Spotlight
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Adam Proteau of The Hockey News had it spot-on when he assessed the Maple Leafs’ Game 1 loss in Boston. Here was the most outstanding paragraph in Proteau's column as to the team’s topmost concern in these playoffs:
“Indeed, it was no coincidence one of Toronto’s only players to show up for Game 1 was first-year Leaf James van Riemsdyk: the big left winger has the most playoff experience (39 games) heading into this post-season of any player wearing Blue and White and knew he had to raise the intensity of his game. Conversely, the grand majority of his teammates were getting their first taste of playoff action and their collective gag reflex was understandably sensitive.”
Although this budding core will have logged two games and sculpted some familiarity in this matchup by the time they return home, they will have to repeat the adjustment process. They will be in an amplified atmosphere in their building, which sits in arguably the most demanding fan and media market in the sport, to a degree they have not yet experienced.
Vancouver: Roberto Luongo’s Poise
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Is this the charm on the third try for Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo? That is, after melting under the lights of opposing barns en route to defeat in the 2011 finals and the first round of 2012, has he finally percolated the poise to withstand hostile crowds and do his job in the playoffs?
He very well could have. But he needs to prove it when his team ventures into HP Pavilion, at which point they will either be trailing the series, 2-0, or, at best, needing to steal a win to replenish home-ice advantage.
Until he gets the call and answers it, the Canucks and their followers can only wait, try to fend off the anxiety and hope Luongo does the same.
Washington: The First 40 Minutes
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With home-ice advantage for Game 1, the Capitals inflicted a first on the opposing Rangers in 2013. The Blueshirts, who were a sound 13-0-1 when leading after the first period during the regular season, harbored a 1-0 edge at the 20-minute mark on Thursday, only to spill it in the second as Washington triumphed, 3-1.
That comes as less of a surprise when you consider that the Caps were second only to Pittsburgh when trailing at the first intermission, going 9-9-2 in that situation in the regular season.
But what happens if the Rangers retain a lead for Henrik Lundqvist to protect, let alone on their pond, after two periods? No way to tell for sure, but for what it’s worth, this year’s Blueshirts are a pristine 16-0-0 when leading after 40 minutes, whereas Washington is 5-11-2 when trailing at that point.