10 Burning Questions Midway Through First Round of 2013 NHL Playoffs
The 2013 NHL playoffs are at least two games old for each ongoing series, and several important questions have emerged already.
Heading into the playoffs, there were some obvious story lines. Many of those lines of thinking have already been twisted by the fates that the playoff hockey gods wield to keep us entertained. That's obviously the motivation, right?
So with several playoff games in the books, here are 10 questions to keep an eye on over the coming games.
Can the New York Islanders Continue to Hang with the Pittsburgh Penguins?
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The New York Islanders have already accomplished more than just about anyone thought they would against the Pittsburgh Penguins by winning a single game in the series. Can they continue to hang with the super-powered Pens squad?
If Game 3 was any indication, the answer is an emphatic yes.
If not for a soft holding call on Sidney Crosby in OT, the Isles could very well be up 2-1 heading into Game 4. That wasn't to be, as the Pens scored their third power-play goal of the game in overtime.
Things have an odd way of working themselves out over the course of a series, though, and Pittsburgh shouldn't be counting on 5-3 chances to erase two-goal deficits or weak holding calls moving forward. It appears the Penguins looked beyond New York a bit, and the Isles can still make this a very interesting series moving forward.
Will Special Teams Continue to Make or Break the Red Wings and Ducks?
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The Detroit Red Wings and Anaheim Ducks have played through an entertaining set of three games so far. The Ducks lead 2-1 right now, thanks in large part to their special teams play.
Overall, the teams have combined to score nine power-play goals through three games, and Anaheim even tacked on a short-handed goal in Game 3 to boot. To say that special teams have been paramount in this series would be an understatement.
Anaheim's power play is clicking at an enormous 33 percent, which is good for second in the NHL behind the Pittsburgh Penguins. Detroit's power play is coming along nicely at a pedestrian 25 percent, good for fifth in the NHL.
Meanwhile, both teams occupy two of the bottom five spots for the worst penalty killing teams so far in the playoffs. The Red Wings are second worst, with a nasty 66.7 percent. Ouch.
The team that manages to stay out of the box wins this series.
Is the San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks Series Really a "Coach Killer"?
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Todd McLellan and Alain Vigneault seem to have a lot in common, at least on paper. Both coaches have been the leaders of high-powered Western Conference teams for several years now. Both coaches inherited talented teams with Stanley Cup aspirations.
And most importantly, both coaches have failed to deliver the holy grail.
The window of opportunity may be closing soon for both the San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks, with winds of change blowing through both cities. For whichever team loses this first-round series, those winds will likely shift to hurricane-force gales, blowing one of these two coaches out of town.
Neither team seems likely to suddenly blow things up after years of sticking to the known guns, but a change will need to be made after a first-round exit.
That change will come by either McLellan or Vigneault getting shipped out upon losing.
Will Anyone Be Left Standing After the L.A. Kings and St. Louis Blues Finish?
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The St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings have personified physical playoff hockey in their first-round playoff series.
The hit totals from each game are staggering. The teams combined for 79 body checks total in Game 1. Both squads registered 38 hits apiece in Game 2. Game 3 topped the previous two contests by a landslide, with the Kings playing the body a staggering 53 times. St. Louis could only come up with 39 checks in that contest.
The heavy hockey has been wonderful to watch, but one has to wonder if anyone will be left standing once this thing is over. This is the kind of series that can take a toll heading into the later rounds, especially if it goes to six or seven games.
It'll be interesting to see if either team lets up at all heading into the back-half of this series. Don't count on it, though.
So who will be left standing to actually play in the conference semifinals?
How Loud Will Toronto Be?
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The last time the Toronto Maple Leafs had a home playoff game, there was no salary cap in place. That's an eternity for one of the most rabid and faithful fanbases in the NHL.
So when the Leafs take to the ice on May 6, just how loud will Air Canada Centre be? What does that much released frustration sound like?
Toronto has plenty of hockey left to play as the Boston Bruins aren't just going to suddenly curl up after dropping Game 2 at home, but the Leafs earning the split on the road is a huge step for a franchise that hasn't won a playoff series in seven years.
Or been to the Stanley Cup Finals in 44 years.
But a team has to start breaking droughts somewhere. Enjoy the home game, Leafs fans.
Would It Make a Difference If Niklas Backstrom Returned for the Wild?
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As of this writing, the Chicago Blackhawks are up 2-0 in their series against the Minnesota Wild. They've outscored, out-hustled and out-goaltended Minnesota at every turn and appear to be capable of sweeping the series if the Wild can't put things together in a hurry.
Josh Harding has done an outstanding job of filling in as the starter since Niklas Backstrom injured himself during the warm-up just prior to the start of Game 1, but it just hasn't been enough to stop the hungry 'Hawks.
Backstrom wasn't able to make the start in Game 3, but if the Wild manage to wrangle a win, would a Game 4 return shift the tides in Minnesota's favor at all?
Chicago has been just too deep for the Wild to hang with so far. The 'Hawks have pushed Minnesota around and taken the body at every opportunity. Goaltending hasn't been the issue in this series for the Wild. Effort has been.
And unless Backstrom returning suddenly reminds the Wild that these are playoff games and not preseason contests, his return wouldn't change the outcome of this series.
Is Braden Holtby Really This Good?
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If you take a peek at the NHL's current playoff leaders, you'll see who the new best goaltender in the NHL is. Or at least who the best goaltender in the NHL has been over the last week.
Braden Holtby has highlighted the New York Rangers' inability to score goals, posting a 0.47 goals-against average and a .983 save percentage through two games. Now, two playoff games does not a superstar make, but Holtby has pulled numbers like this out of his helmet before.
Through 14 playoff games with the Washington Capitals last year, Holtby posted a 1.95 GAA and a .935 save percentage. Not quite the same invincible numbers he's posted in 2013, but still stellar.
So while Holtby appeared to be just good enough for the Caps through the regular season, he's once again found the on-switch in the postseason. Could this become the norm for Holtby? Could he have the big-game bug that is found in only the best of the best players in the NHL?
Sixteen games may still be too small of a sample size to tell if this is his permanent playoff state, but he's played enough to show that he shouldn't be taken lightly at this point. He's currently out-dueling Henrik Lundqvist once again, and that's no small accomplishment.
Will Zach Parise Score a Playoff Goal?
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Zach Parise was brought to the Minnesota Wild to be their go-to goalscoring forward. He was a killer with the New Jersey Devils and seemed to bury every opportunity he had last season as he led the team to the Stanley Cup Final.
The same hasn't been the case so far in 2013, as the Chicago Blackhawks have put a clamp on the talented forward.
Through the first two games of the series, Parise has been held pointless, has gone minus-three and is getting crunched with body checks at every turn. His lack of goals isn't from lack of trying. In Game 2 alone, he snapped seven shots on goal.
He's engaged but seems to be snake-bitten.
All it takes is one goal, however, and most players seem to shake it off after that. The question is: Will Parise have enough time to pot a goal before the 'Hawks finish this series?
NOTE: Parise scored a goal during the third period of Game 3 against the Blackhawks, answering this question for sure.
Can Carey Price Outplay Craig Anderson?
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We know the two goaltenders can go tooth-for-tooth, but can Carey Price steal games for the Montreal Canadiens like Craig Anderson does for the Ottawa Senators?
Anderson hijacked Game 1, stopping 48 of 50 shots. Price yielded four goals on 31 shots, and goaltending was the difference in the game.
The roles were reversed in Game 2, with Price stopping 29 of 30 shots and earning the first star of the game.
Is this the way this series will continue to go? If it comes down to goaltenders the rest of the way, will Price be able to regain his early-season form? Anderson has seen no letdown in his play since returning from injury, and the Senators know what they are going to get from him on a nightly basis.
Will Price afford the Canadiens that same luxury of consistent goaltending and out-play Anderson the rest of the way?
Will Nasty Hits Continue to Steal the Spotlight?
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The NHL playoffs are obviously much more intense than the regular season. The adrenaline rush that comes from playing in the postseason seems to get to some guys at times when they go looking for a series-changing (or at least period-changing) hit on an opponent.
We've already seen several suspensions in the postseason, and we all know how these types of violent checks will be the focus instead of beautiful goals or game-saving efforts by netminders.
Justin Abdelkader's hit on Toni Lydman is a perfect example of the kind of hits that the NHL wants out of the game (per NBCSports.com). Abdelkader was ejected for charging, and he has a hearing with the disciplinary office for his actions (per Bob McKenzie).
The Stanley Cup playoffs is among the best tournaments in sports. It's too bad all the attention goes to knucklehead plays like this.