Biggest Takeaways from Thursday's NHL Playoff Action

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistMay 10, 2013

Biggest Takeaways from Thursday's NHL Playoff Action

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    As the first round of the NHL's 2013 playoffs moves into crunch time, Thursday night's action saw two teams clinch victories in their series and one favorite reassert its dominance on the back of an unexpected hero.

    Injuries to starting goaltenders ultimately proved to be the undoing of the Montreal Canadiens and the Minnesota Wild, who each bowed out of their series in five games.

    Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Penguins voluntarily banished their starter in net to the bench in favor of some fresh blood in Tomas Vokoun, who rewarded them with a shutout performance to help his team grab a 3-2 hold on its series.

    Here's a look at some of the key takeaways from Thursday night's action.

Canadiens Couldn't Overcome Injury Woes

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    After missing the playoffs in 2011-12, the Montreal Canadiens enjoyed a bounce-back season under new general manager Marc Bergevin. They rose from last place in the Eastern Conference to No. 2, capturing the Northeast Division title in the process.

    The satisfaction of that achievement didn't last long, however. Injuries took their toll on the Habs early and often in the playoffs, leading to their elimination in five games at the hands of the Ottawa Senators.

    Starting with Lars Eller's gruesome injury on Eric Gryba's open-ice hit in Game 1, Montreal also lost the services of captain Brian Gionta and forwards Ryan White and Brandon Prust as the series progressed.

    The final blow came when goaltender Carey Price went down near the end of regulation in Game 4 and didn't return for overtime. Despite a solid regular-season record of 8-1-1, replacement Peter Budaj couldn't cover long enough to give his team a chance to score. Ottawa won Gamd 4 in overtime, then torched Budaj for six goals on Thursday, winning 6-1, to punch its ticket to Round 2.

    As the summer progresses, Montreal fans will come to appreciate the progress their team made this year and the bright future ahead. For now, spirits are as wounded as the lineup.

Senators' Regular-Season Injuries Had a "Silfver" Lining

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    Goaltender Craig Anderson has been the backbone of the Ottawa Senators all season.

    But even the best backstopper needs some scoring if his team's going to win. Ottawa's young guns stepped up and filled the net in their first-round victory over the Canadiens.

    When faced with serious injuries to the likes of Erik Karlsson, Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek during the condensed regular season, GM Bryan Murray had no choice but to call the Binghamton Senators for reinforcements.

    Players like Jakob Silfverberg, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Mika Zibanejad, Eric Gryba, Andre Benoit and Patrick Wiercioch did time together on the farm during the lockout, then gained valuable NHL experience while the Senators veterans were on the shelf.

    When the postseason arrived, the farmhands were playoff-ready and combined with other youngsters like Kyle Turris and Cory Conacher to signal the start of a new era in Ottawa. New stars are being born before fans' eyes.

Tomas Vokoun Rose to the Challenge

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    Starting his first playoff game in six years, the Pittsburgh's Tomas Vokoun was perfect in stopping 31 shots on Thursday night. Pittsburgh picked up a 4-0 win and a 3-2 lead in its series over the New York Islanders.

    The Islanders came out flying in the first period, out-shooting the Penguins 14-7. Vokoun kept the door closed, and the Penguins were eventually able to get their feet back under them.

    Tyler Kennedy opened the scoring at 7:25 of the second period, during which the Penguins logged 18 of their 31 shots and scored three of their four goals in the game. Unlike Game 4, the Islanders were unable to answer every time the Penguins tallied.

    Pittsburgh is now just one game away from advancing to Round 2 and continuing its march to the Cup. At this point, it looks like it will be on the back of a 36-year-old with just 12 games of NHL playoff experience rather than on the Pens' 28-year-old Cup-winning stalwart, Marc-Andre Fleury.

All's Well with Sidney Crosby

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    The lower half of his face is swollen and distorted. The football-style mask protecting his jaw makes him look like a linebacker. He took a puck to the throat in Game 4 and blocked a shot with his foot in Game 5.

    But Sidney Crosby looks like he's right where he wants to be.

    In the four games since he's returned from his broken jaw, Crosby has put up eight points while leading the Pittsburgh Penguins forwards in ice time, averaging 21:58 per game. On Thursday, he scored his prettiest goal yet—an incredible individual effort that Yahoo! Sports' Puck Daddy called "Lemieux-like."

    Crosby and the Penguins played a complete game on Thursday and looked especially determined not to repeat their 2012 first-round debacle.

Corey Crawford Is Proving Doubters Wrong

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    After the Chicago Blackhawks' stunningly good regular season, some pointed to the team's goaltending as a weakness that could be their undoing.

    With backup Ray Emery sidelined with a lower body injury since the late stages of the regular season, the burden fell squarely on Corey Crawford's shoulders.

    Unlike, say, the Ottawa Senators, the Hawks are perceived as a team that wins despite their goaltending, rather than because of it. This dates back to 2010, when Chicago won the Stanley Cup with Antti Niemi in net but let him walk after an unfavorable arbitration verdict.

    Since then, Crawford has shouldered the load—and backstopped two underwhelming first-round playoff exits.

    The Hawks dominated in their 5-1 victory Thursday night, cruising through their opening series in five games. Crawford is leading the playoff goaltending pack with a 1.32 goals-against average and a .950 save percentage that ties him for the overall lead with the Sens' Craig Anderson.

    The Minnesota Wild are not known as an offensive juggernaut, but they played their hearts out in this series and put up a good battle despite losing starting goaltender Nicklas Backstrom to injury before Game 1. Crawford's timely saves are a key reason why Chicago is moving on this year.

Parise and Suter Were Not Worth $24 Million This Year

6 of 6 defines schaudenfreude as "enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others."

    In other words, it's what hockey fans in Nashville and New Jersey experienced on Thursday night as they watched the Minnesota Wild fall and eliminated by the Blackhawks.

    The Wild's big spending last summer helped get the team into the postseason for the first time in five years and prized acquisition Ryan Suter earned a Norris Trophy nomination. But Minnesota was behind the eight-ball before their playoffs began once Niklas Backstrom went down. Despite a valiant effort, the team couldn't find a way to get past the powerhouse Blackhawks.

    The Wild's two big free-agent signings were brought in last July because they were supposed to be difference-makers, especially in the postseason.

    Zach Parise was a stud when he guided the New Jersey Devils to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012. This year, he tallied just one point (a goal) and was a minus-seven, while Suter was useless with a minus-five.

    Parise and Suter are under contract to wear the Wild's forest green for 12 more seasons.

    Thanks for reading. Feel free to add your thoughts about Thursday night's action in the comments section below.

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