Hockey's greatest players have always risen to the occasion when the NHL's second season starts in mid-April, but it is the unlikely heroes born in the post-season that are often most-recognized in playoff lore.
Claude Lemieux, a world-class agitating forward in the regular season, had that knack for upping his game when the season was on the line, often posting more goals in the playoffs than in the 82 games preceding. Love him or hate him, Lemieux's ability to reach a higher level of play when it mattered most has made him a playoff legend.
In 2008, the first round included names like Iginla, Crosby, Thornton, Ovechkin, Jagr, and Datsyuk; a fair share of playoff heroics were on display from other sources.
In Washington, Niklas Backstrom potted four goals and six points while the Flyers focused on keeping Alexander Ovechkin at bay. Usually content to set up Ovechkin with his superb passing abilities, Backstrom made things tough on Philly by adjusting his own game and to act as triggerman. Though his Capitals did not advance, the rookie helped stretch the series to its limit.
On the other side of the ice, Daniel Briere shook off a less-than-stellar regular season performance to prove to Philadelphia fans why he is worth the big contract he signed over the summer. Briere led all first-round scorers with six goals and 11 points, not necessarily a surprise based on his past playoff performances, but inspiring nonetheless.
The New York Rangers were led offensively by former Devil Scott Gomez and the superb goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist, but Marc Staal deserves big-time credit for his bounce-back ability. New Jersey picked up its only win of the series when a John Madden centering pass took an unfortunate bounce off Staal's skate in overtime and squeaked past Lundqvist, earning the rookie defenseman goat status in Manhattan.
Instead of allowing the own-goal to shake him up, Staal made a big statement by scoring his first NHL playoff goal in Game 5, which would prove to be the series-clinching tally.
Though he may have made headlines for all the wrong reasons, Sean Avery inarguably stole the show in both New York and New Jersey, using innovative, if not questionable, tactics to knock the usually unflappable Martin Brodeur off his game. Whether it worked or not only Brodeur knows, but Avery also averaged a point per game, including a game-winning goal, proving that he could back up his mouth with on-ice ability.
The Boston Bruins deserve major kudos for their ability to turn what many were predicting to be a laugh in to one of the first round's most entertaining series. Phil Kessel, a healthy scratch in games two, three and four, deserves as much credit as anyone for Boston's valiant comeback to force a decisive Game 7.
Kessel, held scoreless and neutralized completely in Boston's Game 1 defeat, shot out of the press box and on to the scoresheet, scoring three goals over the next two games to lead Boston's rally from a 3-1 series deficit. His scoring exploits included a pair of goals on home ice in Game 6, a big confidence boost for the young man who many pundits were calling too soft to ever be a real difference maker in the NHL.
In Pittsburgh, the biggest advantage for those heavily favored Penguins was their depth up front. Every third- and fourth-line player on the roster made their presence felt with timely goals and superb defensive play, an effort that Ottawa's lower two lines simply could not match. Thumbs up to Pittsburgh's role players for ensuring the team could exploit its offensive advantage over the deflated Senators.
Out West, rangy Sharks winger Ryan Clowe, who missed 67 regular season games recovering from a blown ACL, led the high-powered San Jose offense with four goals and eight points. He also used his body to punish Calgary's big, rugged defense and create room for his linemates, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski, who also turned in big-time performances.
The trio's consistency at both ends of the ice helped alleviate some of the pressure from Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo, who took a few games to find their stride, and Milan Michalek, who finished the series without a single point.
Though they lost in seven games, the Calgary Flames got an impressive effort from former San Jose captain Owen Nolan, who may just have re-kindled a once-great career by proving that he can still bring it when the chips are on the table. Nolan, who had 16 goals in the regular season on an offensively challenged Flames squad, was easily Calgary's most consistent forward after Jarome Iginla, who was also an inspiring force each and every shift.
The underdog Predators got a glimpse of how bright their future could be in net, as Dan Ellis held his ground valiantly and kept Nashville's upset hopes alive, facing more than 40 shots in three straight games while allowing just two goals in each. The Predators fell in six, but likely would not have made it past four if not for the play of their rookie goaltender.
Stu Barnes, who has long been known as a clutch playoff performer, did nothing to dispel that thought with his performance against the defending champion Anaheim Ducks. Barnes had two points, including the winning goal, in the Stars' Game 4 victory, ensuring a split on home ice and giving them a 3-1 stranglehold on the series rather than returning to Anaheim deadlocked at two games apiece. Barnes also netted the winning and series-clinching marker in Game 6, the second in a four-goal third period outburst that eliminated the reigning champs.
Sixth-seeded Colorado rode the resurgence of the former Hart and Vezina winner manning their nets, getting 200 saves on 212 shots from Jose Theodore. The Avs netminder finished up against the Wild with a 1.88 GAA and a .940 save percentage, second only to Marc-Andre Fleury among goaltenders who appeared in all of their team's first-round contests.
In what was a very entertaining opening round of playoff hockey, there was only one blemish. Canadiens fans and the city of Montreal in general should be fairly ashamed of the way they reacted to victory. Violent rioting, setting police cars on fire and destroying public property to celebrate a first-round playoff win over an eighth-seeded team that couldn't even manage a single victory in eight regular season contests between the two clubs? Give me a break.
Grow up, Montreal fans, and do it fast, because the hockey world is now watching intently.
1) Montreal vs. 6) Philadelphia
Philadelphia would be wise to use its few days off in the video room, watching game tapes of Montreal's first-round series against Boston. The Bruins played Montreal tough, forechecked with intensity, and generally outplayed their higher-seeded counterparts. Philadelphia has the ability and makeup to adopt Boston's successful game plan, but the personnel and talent to really make Montreal pay. If the goal-challenged Bruins could take Montreal to a seventh game, the Flyers may just have what it takes to knock off the East's top squad. Philadelphia in seven.
2) Pittsburgh vs. 5) New York Rangers
This should be a series for the ages. Both teams are loaded with scoring talent up front, and while Pittsburgh may have a bit more talent on its blueline, the Rangers have quite a few more Stanley Cup rings on their roster. In net, it's a toss-up between two of the game's best young netminders. Fleury has the better numbers, while Lundqvist has the track record. Crosby has the league hanging on his every move, but does he have the experience or savvy to outperform Jaromir Jagr, arguably the greatest player of the 1990s? Here's hoping this one goes the distance: Rangers in seven.
1) Detroit vs. 6) Colorado
Vegas has the Wings as odds-on Stanley Cup favorites. I don't have them making it out of this round. The Predators, who were lucky to put 20 shots on goal, managed to give Detroit a decent scare. The Avalanche, with Statsny, Forsberg, Sakic, Smyth, Brunette, Hejduk and company up front will not be held to 20 shots a game. Osgood and Hasek, regardless of who gets the nod from coach Babcock, will be exposed in a way they simply were not against Nashville. And if Hasek's first-round performance and Osgood's trip to the All-Star Game were any indication, they've been hiding behind Detroit's dominant possession game.
The Avs, not a great team in their own zone, do possess what could turn out to be a secret weapon in Scott Hannan. As current teammate Peter Forsberg will attest, the recently struggling Hannan is at his best when focusing on the "simple" task of shutting down the game's top performers. If Colorado can get a big performance from Hannan against the likes of Datsyuk and Zetterberg, they've got the offensive potency to give Detroit fits. Colorado in six, though who doesn't want to see this one go to seven?
2) San Jose vs. 5) Dallas
San Jose answered some big questions with a gutsy, but often inconsistent, seven-game effort over the Calgary Flames, while Dallas is riding high after eliminating last year's Stanley Cup champs with relative ease.
This series will likely come down to who takes advantage of their home ice, as both teams have actually been better against one another on the road than at home. The season series was split 4-4, and the top performers from each team were present and accounted for in their first-round matchups.
If San Jose is going to live up to its billing as the favorite, they'll need Evgeni Nabokov to match Marty Turco's performance, and they'll need Joe Thornton to be better than his first-line counterpart, Mike Ribiero. The Stars relied heavily on a potent and opportunistic power play, but the disciplined Sharks will likely give them less time with the extra man than the heavily penalized Ducks. Goaltending, special teams, and home ice: the cliches are present and accounted for in this Pacific Division showdown.
The only real X-factor lies with the second-line centermen for both squads: Both Patrick Marleau and Brad Richards are proven playoff studs, and it may come down to which second line outperforms the other. If San Jose's Game 7 scoring outburst was any indication of the offensive balance that it'll be getting in the near future, it may be hard not to give the Sharks the edge in that department. San Jose in six.