Ranking the 5 Biggest Early Surprises in the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs

Al DanielCorrespondent IIMay 5, 2013

Ranking the 5 Biggest Early Surprises in the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs

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    During Sunday’s brief, inactive interlude between the end of Game 3 of Chicago vs. Minnesota and the start of Game 3 of Montreal vs. Ottawa, the top echelon of the NHL’s playoff scoring leaderboard was permeated with prime suspects.

    Evgeni Malkin stands alone at the top with six points, followed by a three-party tie for second between Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane and Jarome Iginla.

    Not that any of that is boring, but the Stanley Cup tournament is not in its prototypical form without some more intriguing performances. That, and some early underachievement from talented teams and individuals, whether self-imposed or the product of exemplary valiance on the part of their underdog adversaries.

    With some series trading venues as early as Saturday and all raring to hit the three-game mark no later than Monday, here is a quick look at the postseason’s top five head-turning developments so far.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via nhl.com and are through afternoon games of Sunday, May 5

5. Kessel 1, Seguin 0

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    The Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs have completed the first two games of their best-of-seven bout, each at TD Garden. This marked the ninth and 10th times the New England home crowd has witnessed a crossing of paths between Bruin-turned-Bud Phil Kessel and Tyler Seguin, who was acquired with a draft pick obtained in the Kessel trade.

    Kessel’s career against Boston leading up to the start of the playoffs consisted of 22 meetings, three goals (all on the power play), nine points and a minus-22 rating. Seguin, on the other hand, is a career-long point-per-gamer against his would-be employer with a 10-6-16 scoring log in 16 regular-season clashes.

    Both young men are at or close to the top of their respective teams’ lists of leaned-on goal-getters, and one ostensible advantage for Boston was putting Kessel into another psychological frostbite while the series was at the Garden.

    Instead, the series is tied 1-1 in the wake of the Leafs’ 4-2 victory on Saturday. None other than Kessel was credited with the deciding goal (at even strength, no less), whereas Seguin remains pointless even with 15 shots on net, easily the most among all playoff participants who have not yet cultivated a goal.

    The fact that Kessel delivered the haymaker is a classic case of skipping the cliché learn-to-walk process and beginning to run without delay.

4. Wade Redden’s 2-Point Night

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    A little more than three months ago, seasoned Blues defenseman Wade Redden ended a personal, 1,019-day absence from the NHL. He proceeded to toil through 23 games in St. Louis and six in Boston en route to earning a spot on the Bruins’ Game 1 roster in their series against Toronto.

    He validated that decision with a goal and an assist, his first multi-point effort at this level since March 10, 2010, as part of a 4-1 victory.

    There are literally hundreds of individual skaters—many of whom have consistently been in The Show while Redden was diverted to the AHL—who have tallied one or two fewer points in two or three playoff games so far than Redden has in one.

3. Jonathan Toews’ Pointless Skid

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    Of the first nine goals the Chicago Blackhawks have scored in their first nine-plus periods against the Minnesota Wild, captain Jonathan Toews has only been on the ice for two and has had a hand in none.

    Toews has fired eight shots on goal through three playoffs games, but Wild goaltender Josh Harding has had an answer for each.

    Other prime suspects from the deep Blackhawks strikeforce have permeated the scoresheet. The aforementioned Kane already has five postseason assists, Patrick Sharp has three points and Marian Hossa has two.

    Yet Minnesota has managed to stifle Toews through each of his first 66 minutes of ice time in this series. Game 3 marked only the second time the Blackhawks star has been kept pointless in more than two consecutive games in this calendar year.

2. Josh Harding’s Solid Substitution

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    As noted in the previous slide, Harding has handled each of the first eight biscuits Toews has thrust at him. Naturally, the intrigue lies within the fact that Harding was not likely banking on facing any tests from Toews and the Blackhawks prior to this series.

    All of the action Harding has seen in the playoffs was the result of colleague Niklas Backstrom suffering an injury during the warm-up period before Game 1. This meant resorting to a backup who saw action in all or part of five NHL games during the regular season.

    So far, Harding has handled the improvised challenge well enough to compile a 1-2 record, a 2.41 goals-against average and .928 save percentage. Not bad considering the opponent at hand.

    Furthermore, he has sandwiched two overtime games, which the contesting teams have split, with a four-goal game that can be forgiven easily enough. Harding confined the Blackhawks to two goals on 31 shots through two periods this past Friday before allowing two more on 16 shots in the third, which easily made for his busiest night in recent memory.

    By night's end, he had amassed 43 saves.

1. Pittsburgh’s Game 2 Loss

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    The easy approach to analyzing Friday’s result would be to label the New York Islanders’ victory the surprise, but frankly, the top-dog Penguins’ laxity was far less expected than the underdog Isles’ valiance.

    First-round losers in each of the two previous playoffs, Pittsburgh surged to the top of the East this regular season by matching general manager Ray Shero’s determination. All the GM did was bring on board Jarome Iginla, Jussi Jokinen, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray to amplify the team’s depth, veteran seasoning and insatiable hunger for postseason glory.

    One would think that a team of that structure would be able to resist human nature when their captain, Sidney Crosby, returned to the lineup for Game 2 on the heels of a 5-0 blowout in Game 1.

    Instead, Pittsburgh’s collective commitment receded just enough to let a 3-1 lead devolve into a 4-3 defeat and an early 2-0 hole in Game 3.

    Granted, they eventually recovered their identity to usurp a 5-4 overtime triumph to take a 2-1 lead in the series. But no one should have expected the Penguins to ease off the accelerator the way they did for chunks of Games 2 and 3.