The Biggest X-Factor in Each 1st Round NHL Playoff Series

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistApril 17, 2014

The Biggest X-Factor in Each 1st Round NHL Playoff Series

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    If history has taught us one thing about the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it's that nothing is certain.

    With multiple games every night unfolding at a fast and furious place, it's virtually guaranteed that we'll see crazy upsets, underachieving superstars and unexpected heroes.

    Night 1 of 2014 didn't disappoint with some fast, intense, wide-open hockey from teams that are just getting to know each other. The pre-existing rivalries will get underway later in the week.

    Here's a look at each series' unique X-factor, whether it's a person or a situation, that could play a key role in the NHL playoffs.

     

    All stats current through Wednesday April 16, courtesy of NHL.com.

Eastern Conference: Boston Bruins vs. Detroit Red Wings

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    X-Factor: Gustav Nyquist

    The Detroit Red Wings needed a late-season surge to extend their streak of consecutive playoff appearances to a 23rd year.

    Third-year pro Gustav Nyquist was a linchpin of Detroit's stretch run, especially when he scored 12 goals and notched two assists during a 10-game period from March 16 to April 2. The Wings went 6-3-1 during that span, driving them to the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, three points ahead of the Washington Capitals.

    In the first round, Detroit is up against the 2013-14 Presidents' Trophy-winning Boston Bruins, who boast the best defense in the Eastern Conference and one of the league's top goalies in Tuukka Rask. 

    Nyquist had two goals and an assist in two games against the Bruins this year. Will he be the offensive weapon Detroit needs to engineer an upset in Round 1?

Eastern Conference: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

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    X-Factor: Marc-Andre Fleury

    The Pittsburgh Penguins were 5-0 in their 2013-14 regular-season series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Backup Jeff Zatkoff played two of those games, recording one shutout, while Marc-Andre Fleury allowed just four goals in total during his three starts.

    Those numbers look promising for Pittsburgh—as long as Fleury can maintain his regular-season form. Since his 2009 Stanley Cup win, Fleury has failed to maintain a save percentage above .900 in four playoff seasons.

    Fleury's reputation has been especially beaten down during Pittsburgh's last two playoffs. In 2012, he gave up 26 goals in six games as the Penguins fell to the Philadelphia Flyers. Last season, he shut out the New York Islanders in Game 1 of Pittsburgh's first-round series, but was replaced after giving up 14 goals in the next three games. Backup Tomas Vokoun played the rest of the way, taking the Penguins to the Eastern Conference final.

    As the 2014 playoff campaign gets underway, Fleury's off to a satisfactory start. He allowed three early goals in Game 1 but shut the door in the late going so the Penguins could come from behind for a 4-3 win.

    At times on Wednesday, the fans at CONSOL Energy Center were chanting his name. He'll need to keep performing at that level if he hopes to exorcise his past playoff demons.

Eastern Conference: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Montreal Canadiens

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    Chris O'Meara

    X-Factor: Thomas Vanek

    During his eight full seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, Thomas Vanek appeared in just 36 playoff games. His last appearance was in 2011, when the Sabres blew a 3-2 series lead to lose their first-round series to Philadelphia in seven games. In his best postseason, when the Sabres reached the Eastern Conference Final in 2007, Vanek underperformed with just 10 points in 16 games.

    Vanek was acquired by Montreal at the 2014 trade deadline to help boost an offense that finished the season ranked 21st in the NHL. Playing on a first line with David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty, Vanek put up six goals and 15 points in 18 games with Montreal, helping to finish the season on a high note.

    In Game 1 of the Habs' first-round series, Vanek delivered Montreal's go-ahead goal in the third period, setting the stage for an overtime win. If he can manufacture a few more clutch moments this spring, Vanek has a chance to transform his reputation forever—and pump up the value of the contract he'll earn when he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

Eastern Conference: New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers

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    X-Factor: Steve Mason

    The Philadelphia Flyers found some stability in net this season when Steve Mason posted a 33-18-7 record in 61 appearances. After Mason was injured during the Flyers' final weekend of the season, Philadelphia will enter the playoffs without the services of its No. 1 netminder.

    Per NHL.com, Ray Emery has been announced as the Flyers' starter for Game 1 on Thursday. Mason is staying behind in Philadelphia to receive treatment for an undisclosed upper-body injury. 

    Mason's only career playoff experience came in a four-game sweep of his Columbus Blue Jackets by the Detroit Red Wings in his 2008-09 rookie season. Emery boasts a more substantial postseason resume, including 20 games for the Ottawa Senators when they reached the 2007 Stanley Cup Final. He has not appeared as a starter since filling in for an injured Jonas Hiller during the Anaheim Ducks' first-round defeat by Nashville in 2011.

    The Flyers have listed Mason as day-to-day. They'll want him back in their lineup as soon as possible.

Western Conference: Anaheim Ducks vs. Dallas Stars

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    Jae C. Hong

    X-Factor: Stephane Robidas

    Most "sellers" at the NHL trade deadline are teams outside the playoff hunt, looking to accumulate picks and prospects for the future.

    The Dallas Stars bucked the trend when they dealt impending free agent Stephane Robidas to the Anaheim Ducks for a fourth-round draft pick. They may come to regret that decision, as they're facing Robidas and the Ducks in the first round of the playoffs.

    The upstart Stars have a tough enough challenge ahead without having to face their long-time teammate. Robidas was part of the Dallas organization for 11 seasons and served as a mentor to young players like Brenden Dillon in recent years. He's a savvy veteran who will also be able to share insight into the Stars' strengths and weaknesses with his new team.

    At the time of the trade, Robidas was sidelined with a broken leg suffered in late November. He returned to action with Anaheim on March 18 and has seen his icetime increase steadily over his 14 games, topping out at 24:37 in the Ducks' season-ending game against Colorado.

    Robidas had an eventful first game against his old team, finishing minus-one and taking an accidental high-sticking penalty on Ray Whitney in the second period that allowed the Stars to get back into the game after falling behind 4-0. The favored Ducks hung on to win 4-3 and should have no trouble eliminating Dallas if Robidas brings his steady play and the odd dose of inside information along the way.

Western Conference: Colorado Avalanche vs. Minnesota Wild

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    X-Factor: Ilya Bryzgalov

    If Forrest Gump was a hockey fan, he'd almost certainly say that Ilya Bryzgalov is like a box of chocolates. The Minnesota Wild are learning that you never know what you're going to get from the mercurial goaltender.

    With a big hole in net at the trade deadline, Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher looked like a genius when he snatched Bryzgalov from Edmonton for a fourth-round draft pick. With a 7-0-3 record in his first 10 games with the Wild, Bryz looked unbeatable—until the last game of the year. 

    In two periods against Nashville in that final game, Bryzgalov gave up five goals on 21 shots before he was replaced by Darcy Kuemper, raising questions once again about whether he can find the consistency needed to succeed in the playoffs.

    After being bought out of his nine-year contract by the Philadelphia Flyers last summer and working his way back into the NHL through the minor leagues, Bryz has a chance to write a sweet redemption story if he can help the Wild win their first playoff series in more than a decade.

Western Conference: San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings

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    X-Factor: Home-Ice Advantage

    When the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks met in the 2013 Western Conference Semifinal, the home team won every game of the series. Los Angeles had home-ice advantage and ultimately advanced on the strength of a 2-1 win in Game 7 at Staples Center.

    This season, the tables have turned. Revenge is very much on the mind of the Sharks, who will open the series at home and have a chance to play that crucial Game 7 at the HP Pavilion if the series extends to the limit.

    All told, San Jose had the second-best record in the league on home ice in 2013-14, going 29-7-5 at the Shark Tank. The two teams met twice in Los Angeles this year, with the Kings winning both games. The Sharks hosted three times, winning once in regulation, once in a shootout, and dropping a 1-0 shutout decision to the Kings in January.

    Whichever team can snap the other's home-ice dominance in this series is likely to prevail and move on to the next round.

Western Conference: St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks

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    X-Factor: Stanley Cup Hangover

    After their wonderful wire-to-wire season in 2012-13, the Chicago Blackhawks have looked decidedly more human this year.

    The 'Hawks still led the league in goals, but they weren't as defensively tight and suffered from some slumps, key injuries and underperforming players.

    Chicago's still built from the same core, and stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are expected back in the lineup for Game 1 on Thursday. But no team has repeated as Stanley Cup Champion since the Detroit Red Wings won back-to-back Cups in 1997 and 1998. The odds are against the Blackhawks.

    The St. Louis Blues drew plenty of attention as prospective Cup favorites at the beginning of the season. They've struggled down the stretch but should have no trouble motivating themselves to play their arch rivals. The Blues will have first crack at ensuring that Chicago doesn't add to its legacy by repeating as champion.