The San Jose Sharks are the only NHL team to punch their ticket to the second round of the playoffs so far. They took down the Vancouver Canucks in a four-game sweep that's sure to send shockwaves through that organization.
Back on the ice, there is still a lot of hockey to be played, with seven other series yet to be decided.
Although there are 3-1 series counts to go around, the Eastern half of the bracket is far from decided. Two top seeds are entrenched in 2-2 draws after four games against their lower-seeded opponent.
Three games will get underway on Thursday evening, each capable of defining the rest of the postseason.
Both No. 1 seeds—the Chicago Blackhawks out West and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the East—will be in action tonight. Chicago will try to close out the Minnesota Wild while Pittsburgh tries to take a 3-2 series lead back to New York for a destined Game 6.
Two series could end on Thursday and another could give way to an upset. It is time to look at a couple of previews and predictions of all the action as the 2013 NHL playoffs push toward the Stanley Cup Final.
No. 8 New York Islanders at No. 1 Pittsburgh Penguins
Series Count: 2-2
When: Thursday, May 9 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Consol Energy Center; Pittsburgh, Penn.
Watch: TSN, NBCSN, MSG PLUS, ROOT (check local listings)
Pittsburgh can't be happy with a 2-2 tie, largely because it has scored at least three goals in each of the four contests with the Islanders so far. Goaltending and sloppy defense led to the Pens dropping another game on Tuesday, and the upstart Islanders can take command of the series with a win on Thursday.
Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma isn't making excuses for his team as it returns to Consol Energy Center for what is now a best-of-three series (h/t Penguins' official Twitter):
"We've scored plenty of goals. It's about limiting their chances and not getting into an up-and-down game" - coach Bylsma— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) May 8, 2013
Since scoring goals has not been the problem, Bylsma is going to have to look elsewhere for help on defense—mainly in the net. It's one of the reasons Marc-Andre Fleury will not be tending the goal on Thursday and Tomas Vokoun will instead get the start (h/t ESPN).
As noted by longtime hockey analyst Stan Fischler, this is really the only move Pittsburgh could make.
The Islanders have rebounded nicely since getting shut out by Fleury in Game 1. They are playing well right now and come into this game hot.
That is one of the reasons Vokoun—who went 3-1 against the Islanders this season, including a shutout at home in late March—is getting the start for Bylsma.
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jerome Iginla are all playing well for the Pens. Putting Vokoun in net to help shake things up should give Pittsburgh the advantage at home in Game 5. The Islanders have proven they won't go away easily, though, and this should be anything but a blowout on either side.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 4, New York 2
No. 7 Ottawa Senators at No. 2 Montreal Canadiens
Series Count: 3-1, Senators
When: Thursday, May 9, at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Bell Center; Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Watch: CBC, RDS, CNBC (check local listings)
The upstart Senators have taken three of the first four games of this series and have done so in thrilling fashion. Game 4 went into overtime after Cory Conacher's late goal, and who can forget Game 3's penalty-filled clash (h/t Numbers Never Lie):
The 236 penalty minutes between the Canadiens and Senators are the most in an NHL playoff game since 1991 (DET-STL had 298)— Numbers Never Lie (@ESPN_Numbers) May 6, 2013
The Canadiens don't want to go out in front of their home fans after an overall disappointing start to this season, so it's do or die for Montreal in Game 5. Unfortunately, the Canadiens will be without the services of top goalie Carey Price, who is out for the remainder of the first round (h/t ESPN). Peter Budaj will get the start in his place.
Budaj has been quite good so far this season, compiling an 8-1-1 record in 10 regular season starts. However, he did give up Kyle Turris' game-winner on Tuesday, and that is a tough spot to be in after replacing the injured Price.
For the Canadiens, getting better in the third period will be the biggest key. According to ESPN's Stats & Info, the two teams are polar opposites in the first two periods compared to the final one and overtime.
Canadiens have outscored Senators 8-4 in first 2 periods in series. Senators have outscored Canadiens 10-0 in 3rd period/OT— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 9, 2013
While conventional wisdom would suggest that Montreal figures out how to avoid elimination at home, it will also be missing several key contributors not named Price. Captain Brian Gionta, Ryan White and Brandon Prust have all been ruled out for Game 5 (h/t NHL.com), leaving the Canadiens with a long way to climb to force a Game 6 in this series.
The Senators have been clutch. They are also highly motivated to get this series over with and move on to face the winner of the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers series.
It won't be easy in front of Montreal's home crowd. But the Senators have some momentum and they twisted the knife in deeper after the overtime goal on Tuesday.
Expect Ottawa to pull it out for good on Thursday evening.
Prediction: Ottawa 3, Montreal 1
No. 8 Minnesota Wild at No. 1 Chicago Blackhawks
Series Count: 3-1, Blackhawks
When: Thursday, May 9, at 9:30 p.m. ET
Where: United Center; Chicago, Ill.
Watch: CBC, RDS2, NBCSN, FS-N, FS-WI, CSN-CH (check local listings)
Unlike the Penguins, the Blackhawks managed to escape from the road with a 3-1 series lead. Chicago now has a chance to close out the No. 8 Wild on Thursday night at the United Center.
However, Chicago has played nothing like a No. 1 seed in control of the series with that kind of lead. The Blackhawks have suffered through injuries, a disappointing start on the power play and an intensity that doesn't match the urgency this club should feel after getting booted from the postseason in 2012.
As Brian Hamilton of the Chicago Tribune writes, there is still plenty of time for the Blackhawks to play their best hockey of the postseason. And they won't have to scramble from behind to do it:
They are not at full strength, not with center Dave Bolland and goaltender Ray Emery again doubtful to play. The power play remains rickety and in need of a tuneup. They don't believe they have put together a thorough single-game effort — though a Game 2 throttling came close — and they don't believe they've summoned playoff intensity yet.
Again: They lead a Stanley Cup playoff series three games to one.
Corey Crawford's high-quality play in net has really helped the Hawks so far. In fact, they are only an overtime loss away from getting a sweep in this series.
Despite some questionable aspects of their team approach that have not been clicking, Chicago is in position to put it all together on Thursday night.
Which outcome is the biggest lock on Thursday?
The question remains: Is it because Chicago is facing Minnesota, or is it because the Blackhawks have taken a little longer to warm up than we originally expected? Either way, there was little doubt that Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Co. wouldn't take a 3-1 lead after the way things have gone so far.
With a chance to close this series out and get some much-needed rest for the second round, don't expect Chicago to disappoint.
Prediction: Chicago 3, Minnesota 0
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