The most prominent series in the NHL playoffs are often decided by the most subtle of factors.
On the colossal stage of the conference semifinals, eight teams are currently battling it out for just four spots in the next round.
The handful of squads that get there will likely do so by the smallest of margins—one timely penalty kill, one spectacular save or one strategic line change that, in the end, made the biggest of differences.
As each Stanley Cup quarterfinals series reaches the stretch run, one crucial unit vs. unit or player vs. player matchup is beginning to emerge as a deciding factor. For some, a special teams advantage is paving the way to a string of victories; for others, one singular star—outperforming his counterpart on the opposing end—is leading the rest of his team onward.
An examination of each series' most important matchup falls on the coming slides.
From Carl Hagelin to the rest of the New York Rangers' offense, an extreme ineffectiveness on the power play is proving costly.
Blueshirts coach John Tortorella stated Saturday, to much criticism, that young winger Hagelin "stinks" on the power play. The following day, the Hagelin-less Rangers power play went 0-for-5 with just seven shots on goal in a 5-2 Game 2 loss.
That dismal goose egg drops New York's man-advantage unit to 0-for-8 against the Boston Bruins and 2-for-36 in the playoffs so far. The Bruins' penalty kill, meanwhile, is now being made out to resemble a brick wall despite their mediocre 16-for-21 mark in Round 1.
Those failed opportunities have buried the Rangers into a 2-0 series hole heading to the Big Apple.
Last round, however, the Blueshirts did use the home-ice advantage to score two man-advantage goals en route to Game 3 and 4 wins against Washington; this time, though, regaining productivity on the power play will be just, if not more, critical.
One year ago, Erik Karlsson was reveling in the glory of a Norris Trophy at the fresh age of 21. Paul Martin, meanwhile, was suffering through a summer of harsh trade rumors and little welcome in Pittsburgh.
This time around, the roles have completely reversed.
Karlsson has still yet to return to his pre-Achilles tear form, a controversial injury at the hands of Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke that caused the Sens blueliner to miss well over two months. The 22-year-old is still pointless through Game 3 against the Penguins, recording a minus-four rating and three minor penalties during that time.
Martin, conversely, is continuing to build upon the momentum of a dominant regular-season campaign. The 32-year-old rearguard opened the scoring with a Game 1 blast before assisting twice in Game 2, including on Brenden Morrow's eventual game-winner. Martin now has nine points and a plus-eight rating in just nine 2013 postseason appearances—and still hasn't taken a penalty.
For Karlsson, now is the time to push through the self-doubt and Martin comparisons and again grabs the lead reigns of the Ottawa Senators. Overcoming a 2-1 deficit and upsetting the No. 1 seed will be no simple task, but No. 65 and Co., when he's on top of his game, do have the ability to pull it off.
The Chicago Blackhawks captain has had a rather forgettable playoff campaign so far.
Coming off a 23-goal regular season, Jonathan Toews is still searching for his first lit lamp of the postseason. He has just three points—all assists—eight games into the 2013 playoffs.
Meanwhile, the 'Hawks team around him is beginning to feel the effects of his obscurity. The Blackhawks scored just once in each of the past two games, allowing the seventh-seeded Detroit Red Wings to grab a 2-1 series lead entering Game 4.
Against a Wings' defense with two top-four players (Jakub Kindl and Brendan Smith) making their first NHL postseason appearances and another (Jonathan Ericsson) making his first in a top-pairing role, the 'Hawks offensive struggles are absolutely inexcusable.
The inconspicuous Detroit back end has out-dueled the star-laden Chicago offense, and Toews, in particular, by a wide margin so far. If they can keep it up for two or three more games, the surging Wings could be back in the conference finals yet again.
The San Jose Sharks, currently trailing 2-1 in their series against the Los Angeles Kings, have an immense obstacle between their well-rounded scoring attack and rallying back to a six- or seven-game victory over the defending Cup champions.
His name is Jonathan Quick.
The Kings' impeccable netminder sports a stunning 22-7 playoff record over the last 13 months and is backing up his Conn Smythe-winning 2012 postseason with another sparkling body of work this spring. Quick leads the NHL with a 1.60 GAA and has aided his .947 save percentage with 101 saves in three meetings against San Jose so far.
The Sharks' only hope of surviving this series is a rapid breakthrough in Quick's seemingly-invincible persona. Young guns Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski—who have registered just three points on Quick so far after a combined 16 in Round 1—must find the blocker-side hole more often.
Franchise leaders Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton must blast it past the glove more often. The rest of the Sharks' forwards must find a way to occasionally push the puck past Quick, too.
Generating more offense is the only possible solution for San Jose moving forward.