Most Important Lessons from Round 1 of the 2013 NHL Playoffs
It is fitting that the Stanley Cup playoffs always coincide with final projects and exams for high school and college students. In each of those venues, toiling participants are learning and relearning in a rigorous fashion.
When it comes to the hockey action, at least, the observing bystanders will pick up on pointers as well.
Just like the material covered in a given academic discipline, those lessons can either be a refresher on past sessions or a new nugget of knowledge.
With the conference quarterfinals drawing to an end, here are five key concepts that those concerned with the NHL ought to have picked up so far in this tournament.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via NHL.com.
Cooler Heads Prevail
It did not take long for a potential turning point in the Montreal-Ottawa series to emerge when Senators defenseman Eric Gryba incurred a two-game suspension for an egregious, injurious hit on Habs forward Lars Eller.
Granted, the ruling can be assessed with enough credibility from multiple perspectives, and it would have been easy for the Sens to step out of line over it. It would have been easy for them to gripe over Gryba’s five-minute major and effectively relinquish Game 1 as a result.
Instead, they curtailed the Canadiens' power play well enough to raise the upper hand and usurp home-ice advantage.
Just the same, it would have been easy for Ottawa to be overwhelmed by a Montreal team resolutely rallying around the injured Eller and seizing control of the series by the time Gryba returned to action.
Instead, by Game 3, the second half of Gryba’s suspension, it was self-evident that the Canadiens were the ones unable to keep their cool. Meanwhile, their opponents had moved on after justice was served to their player.
Only four seconds after the Senators took a 4-1 lead in Game 3, a line brawl resulted in a combined 21 penalties, assessed at 7:04 of the third period. Four seconds later, the Senators augmented their lead to 5-1 and another rash of penalties fell in one lump less than 90 seconds thereafter.
That chaotic closing frame in a 6-1 Ottawa victory and the contrasting press conference attitudes of Habs skipper Michel Therrien and Senators coach Paul MacLean all but precipitated Ottawa’s cruise to a five-game series victory.
As it happened, Game 5 was another 6-1 decision characterized by a lopsided third period in both the scoring and discipline departments.
Superior Depth and Flexible Stars Make an Effective Combination
The top-dog Chicago Blackhawks surprised few, if anyone, by stifling the steadily resurgent Minnesota Wild in five games. But the way they ensured an expectably swift and assertive conclusion to the series bears some educational intrigue.
Following up on a Selke Trophy-caliber regular season, Hawks captain Jonathan Toews had a rare, unproductive stretch through the first four games. But he and his linemates were not entirely lacking in scoring opportunities whereas Minnesota’s top strikers had trouble generating anything when Toews was on duty in his own end.
Unlike the Wild, the Blackhawks could afford to have some of their usual suspects stall on the scoresheet because they had another batch of scorers living up to their capabilities. These included prolific playmaker Patrick Kane and multi-goal scorers Patrick Sharp, Bryan Bickell and Michael Frolik.
The fact that Chicago could afford to lean on scorers other than Toews made for a more efficient conquest as Minnesota struggled to cultivate enough widespread production.
By the time they were going through handshakes, the Wild’s stand-alone scoring leader was Matt Cullen with three assists, and not a single individual mustered more than one goal in the series.
The multiple points coming from the likes of Kyle Brodziak and Cal Clutterbuck might have gone to more noticeable use had Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle done more. But Toews and company were too strong, too resolute and given too much of a cushion by their allies to let that No. 1 Wild unit do much.
This is not to say that Toews cannot do more on offense as required going forward, but the fact that there was less to worry about on that end against Minnesota made for a smoother strategy. It paid dividends in that the captain was only on the ice for one opposing goal out of nearly 106 minutes played in the entire series.
Determination Can Defeat Derision
Before his Toronto Maple Leafs commenced their series with the Boston Bruins, his first postseason endeavor since the Bs swapped him to the Buds, Phil Kessel abstained from discussing the inevitable sidebar he would create.
Per James Murphy of ESPN Boston, Kessel insisted, “When you leave you’re always going to get the grief, right? It’s OK but I enjoy playing here.”
This was said, despite a seemingly never-ending slew of vinegary results against his former team, particularly in games held at the TD Garden, complete with the “Thank you, Kes-sel!” refrain. The ex-Bruin came into this series with a three goals and a minus-22 rating in 22 meetings with Boston.
He's coming out of the series with a performance that matched his words beforehand, tallying a 3-1-4 transcript in the first six games. His first point of the series was on enemy ice at even strength, a feat he had not achieved at any point in this matchup during any of the four preceding regular seasons.
The paradoxical shift from struggles in autumn and winter to success in higher-stakes spring contests is not what one could logically expect in a saga like this. But the fact that Kessel achieved just that speaks to the value of a timely rise in one’s compete level.
Fragile Parties Can Be Knocked Into Old Patterns
The 2012 first-round downfalls of the Pittsburgh Penguins, particularly Marc-Andre Fleury, and the Vancouver Canucks were not going to have any direct bearing on their 2013 postseasons.
They could have kicked ice chips over those memories and rinsed out the residual vinegar in a hurry had they confronted the same basic situation with better psychological preparedness.
That key element soon proved to be amiss. The Canucks, one year removed from an upset at the hands of Jonathan Quick and the Los Angeles Kings, once again ran into a Vezina Trophy finalist and a lower-seeded group of skaters in front of him.
As it happened, Antti Niemi and the San Jose Sharks had relatively similar luck to Quick’s Kings of a year ago. They rendered Vancouver winless on its home ice for the postseason with a pair of come-from-behind victories and reran their cardiac magic in Game 4, drawing a 3-3 knot on a power play late in regulation and finishing the sweep in the resultant overtime.
On the Canucks’ end, this represents a repetition of stumbles when they are ostensibly in command dating back to when they led the 2011 finals, 3-2. In turn, one can finally say enough has been seen to warrant major organizational shake-ups.
Fleury is not necessarily at that point with Pittsburgh yet. But here he is again, disassociating himself from his 2009 persona and letting the New York Islanders match his own team’s offensive spoils the same way he let the Philadelphia Flyers in last year’s opening round.
The chief difference this year: Pittsburgh has Tomas Vokoun to turn to, which it did en route to back-to-back wins in Games 5 and 6 to finish off the Isles.
Hot-handed Goalies Truly Are A Backbone
As noted in the previous slide, the Canucks led the Sharks in three of the four installments of their first-round bout. They struck first in Game 1, harbored a 2-1 edge for 12 minutes in the third period of Game 2 and turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 advantage around the halfway mark of the closing frame in Game 4.
But Niemi, building on a career year with a .924 save percentage and 2.16 GAA, never bent any further than that. He was not much different than he was for the better part of the regular season, and thus, doubtlessly instilled a vibe of confidence and drive to the rest of the San Jose roster.
His reward: three come-from-behind victories, one of which came in overtime after a last-minute equalizer and another in sudden death with a late power-play equalizer and power-play clincher. All of those favorable developments on the scoresheet speak to San Jose’s consistent conviction.
Could this have happened in a year more like any of Niemi’s previous four NHL campaigns? Not likely.
San Jose’s sweep, the only four-game finish to any first-round series in 2013, demonstrates the value of taking advantage and supporting one’s netminder while he is at his hottest. It might even pay additional dividends in the form of extra rest as the tournament continues.