The NHL playoff picture has gotten much clearer in recent days, as most series are reaching a conclusion. In fact, three teams have already advanced to the second round, as the Chicago Blackhawks, Ottawa Senators and San Jose Sharks dispatched their opponents in five games or less.
All three teams were impressive in the first round, but things can change moving forward. It is unclear which teams they'll have to face in the next round, but that should be sorted out over the next few days. Regardless of their next matchups, though, the Blackhawks, Senators and Sharks have strengths and weaknesses that could lead them to the promised land or cause them to fall just short.
Here is a complete breakdown of all three teams that have advanced thus far, including analysis of their chances to win the Stanley Cup.
The Blackhawks were the best team in the NHL from wire to wire this season, so it should come as no surprise that they made quick work of the Minnesota Wild in the first round by beating them in five games. Chicago was never really challenged over the course of the series, and it was clear that Minnesota was overmatched.
With the victory, the Blackhawks won their first postseason series since beating the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup Finals back in 2010, according to ESPN's John Buccigross.
There is a lot to like about the Blackhawks, but it starts with their group of forwards. Patrick Kane was fifth in the league in scoring during the regular season with 55 points, while captain Jonathan Toews added 48 points and probably deserved a Hart Trophy nomination. Add in the likes of Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, and it's clear why Chicago led the Western Conference in goal scoring this season.
Perhaps Chicago isn't known for its defense and goaltending as much as its offense, but the Blackhawks allowed just 102 goals during the regular season, which was the fewest in the league. The tandem of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook is as good as it gets defensively, and goaltender Corey Crawford has been spectacular.
Crawford sported a sparkling 1.94 GAA in 28 starts this year along with a .926 save percentage. Crawford has been the unquestioned No. 1 during the playoffs with Ray Emery ailing, and he hasn't disappointed with a 1.32 GAA and .950 save percentage. Provided Crawford continues to play at this level, the Blackhawks will represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals and potentially win it all as well.
Although the Senators are a No. 7 seed, it was obvious that they would be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs. The Senators dealt with more significant injuries than perhaps any other team this season, as they were without key contributors such as Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson, Craig Anderson and Milan Michalek for extended time. Spezza is the only one who is still on the shelf, though, so Ottawa is nearly at full health for the first time this season.
The Senators showed how dangerous they can be in the first round when they knocked out the No. 2-seeded Montreal Canadiens in just five games. While Habs goaltender Carey Price's injury helped the Sens take Game 4 in overtime and allowed them to decimate the Canadiens in Game 5, don't expect Ottawa to feel sorry for Montreal. The Senators were ravaged by injuries all season, so they were due to get some good luck for a change.
With that said, Ottawa deserves all the credit in the world. There is no doubt that the Senators were the better team, and their play in the third period and overtime proved that. According to ESPN, the Sens outscored the Habs 13-0 in those periods over the course of the five-game series.
A big reason for that was the Senators' sudden scoring depth. Karlsson is their top offensive player despite being a defenseman, but during his absence, the team got scoring from a number of different sources. Kyle Turris, Daniel Alfredsson, Mika Zibanejad, Cory Conacher and Jakob Silfverberg are just a few of the forwards who stepped up this season.
Ottawa tends to play close, low-scoring games, though, so the play of Anderson between the pipes is important. Anderson posted an unreal 1.69 GAA and .941 save percentage during the regular season. He was equally good against the Canadiens and must keep up his hot play.
A date with the No. 1-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins seems likely in the next round, and although the Pens will be favored, the Senators have as good of a chance as anyone to knock them off.
San Jose Sharks
The Sharks were a tough team to figure out this season, as they went through a series of peaks and valleys over the course of the year. San Jose came out of the gates on fire much like the Blackhawks, but the Sharks eventually cooled off and went into an extended slump. They turned it back on late in the year, though, as they went on an 8-1 run from late March to early April, which allowed them to solidify themselves as a playoff team and secure the No. 6 seed.
San Jose was the only team to sweep the first round, as it easily defeated the Vancouver Canucks in four games. The Sharks were banging on all cylinders, as their offensive firepower caused yet another goaltender controversy in Vancouver. Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider were chased from the net at various points in the series, and San Jose was never threatened.
Many observers were surprised by the Sharks' play, including former Shark and current NBC hockey analyst Jeremy Roenick.
San Jose's biggest problem during the regular season was a lack of secondary scoring. Aside from Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski, the Sharks got no offensive production from anyone else. That was once again the case in the first round against Vancouver, but the Sharks' overall dominance covered up that issue.
If the Anaheim Ducks dispatch the Detroit Red Wings in the first round, San Jose will have to face the Blackhawks in the second. The Sharks lost all three regular-season matchups, and it is unlikely that they will be able to knock off Chicago.
If Detroit comes back, though, the Sharks will face the Los Angeles Kings or St. Louis Blues and will have a much better chance of advancing to the Western Conference Finals.
Provided the Sharks play Chicago at some point, an interesting side plot will be San Jose goalie Antti Niemi facing the Blackhawks. Niemi led the Hawks to the Stanley Cup in 2010 and is a Vezina Trophy finalist this year. He would likely need to steal some games in order for the Sharks to knock off Chicago, but it's possible.
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