Emerging Storylines to Follow in 1st Round of 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs
The 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs are underway with eight division semifinals. Each series got off to exciting starts. Three games on opening night (April 16) were decided by one goal, of which one went to overtime. The following night (April 17) saw two of the four games finish in overtime.
While it's still early in these divisional series, some interesting stories are developing. Whether it is high-scoring starts, injured stars, the renewal of rivalries or goaltending duels, there are no shortage of intriguing scenarios.
Here's a look at the emerging storylines worth following over the course of the NHL divisional semifinals.
8. Renewal of Rivalries
A longstanding rivalry between two teams considerably increases the intensity of a playoff series. In this year's divisional semifinals, three rivalries have been renewed.
The San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings began their “Battle of California” in the 2011 conference quarterfinals, which the Sharks won in six games. The Kings got their revenge last year in a hard-fought conference semifinal that went the full seven games. The Sharks opened this year's series with a 6-3 victory.
While the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers have a long history with each other, this year's series marks the first time since 1997 they've met in the playoffs. The Rangers drew first blood with a 4-1 win in Game 1.
The Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues met frequently in the old Norris Division days. This year marks the first time since 2002 they've faced off in the postseason. They didn't disappoint in Game 1 of this series, a 4-3 triple overtime win by the Blues.
7. Plenty of Scoring
NHL fans are used to playoff games being low-scoring affairs, as teams place more emphasis on tight-checking defensive play. While the opening games of most of the divisional semifinals were close in score, they certainly weren't low-scoring contests.
The Montreal Canadiens and Colorado Avalanche won their respective series-openers in overtime by scores of 5-4. The Canadiens took a 2-0 series lead over the Lightning with a 4-1 win in Game 2.
The Anaheim Ducks, Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues opened their respective series by identical 4-3 scores, with the Blues requiring triple overtime for their victory.
Other series-openers were more lopsided. The San Jose Sharks doubled up the Los Angeles Kings 6-3, while the New York Rangers downed the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1. The Boston Bruins-Detroit Red Wings series was the only one to buck the offensive trend, as the Red Wings edged the Bruins 1-0.
As these series progress, the goal production could decline as goaltending and defense tightens up. Still, the early offensive pace stokes the promise of more scoring excitement to come.
6. The Skating Wounded
Every NHL team enters the Stanley Cup playoffs feeling the physical effects of the long regular season. Many of the clubs in this year's divisional semifinals have at least one banged-up or sidelined star.
Anaheim Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf suffered facial injuries in Game 1 against the Dallas Stars but returned for Game 2. Chicago Blackhawks forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, New York Rangers blueliner Ryan McDonagh and St. Louis Blues forwards David Backes and Vladimir Tarasenko only recently returned to action.
Several notable players remain sidelined. Their absences could factor in the outcome of several divisional semifinals.
Philadelphia Flyers goalie Steve Mason, Tampa Bay Lightning netminder Ben Bishop and forward Ondrej Palat and St. Louis Blues forwards T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund remain questionable for their respective divisional series.
Others, such as Colorado Avalanche center Matt Duchene (knee), Columbus Blue Jackets winger Nathan Horton (abdominal surgery) and Detroit Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg (back surgery) are expected to miss the entire opening round.
5. Russian Goaltending Duel
The blog Greatest Hockey Legends observed history was made in Game 1 of the Colorado Avalanche-Minnesota Wild series. Two Russian starting goaltenders—Colorado's Semyon Varlamov and Minnesota's Ilya Bryzgalov—faced each other for the first time in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Varlamov was the Avalanche starter throughout the regular season, winning 41 games and carrying his club to its first playoff appearance since 2010. Bryzgalov was a late-season acquisition by the Wild, taking over from sidelined rookie Darcy Kuemper down the stretch.
It was Varlamov who emerged victorious in Game 1, as his Avalanche downed Bryzgalov's Wild, 5-4, in overtime. This historic goaltending matchup could provide a fascinating subplot to this series.
4. Playoff Rookies Make Their Mark
Several of these series involve teams with a number of young players making their first-ever playoff appearances. A number of them quickly made their presence felt.
Colorado Avalanche stars Nathan MacKinnon (three assists), Ryan O'Reilly (two points) and Gabriel Landeskog (one goal) contributed to their club's 5-4 victory in Game 1 over the Minnesota Wild. The Wild's Charlie Coyle also scored his first NHL postseason goal.
Dallas Stars forwards Jamie Benn (one goal), Colton Sceviour (two points) and Cody Eakin (one assist) got their first playoff points in their club's 4-3 series-opening loss to Anaheim.
Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz scored their first playoff goals in the St. Louis Blues' 4-3 triple overtime victory over the Chicago Blackhawks. San Jose Sharks forward Tomas Hertl notched two points in his club's 6-3 win over the L.A. Kings.
The Tampa Bay Lightning opened their series against the Montreal Canadiens with several rookies in their lineup. Four of them (Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, J.T. Brown and Cedric Paquette) collected points in their first playoff games.
3. Shaky Starters
One key to NHL playoff success is strong goaltending. Several notable netminders, however, got off to poor starts to their respective divisional semifinals.
Carey Price allowed four goals on 25 shots but got the win, as his Montreal Canadiens edged the Tampa Bay Lightning, 5-4, in the opening game of their series. Price bounced back in Game 2 with 26 saves in a 4-1 win.
Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury (three goals, 34 shots) and Columbus' Sergei Bobrovsky (four goals, 32 shots) each gave up some soft goals in the Penguins' 4-3 opening-game victory over the Blue Jackets.
Dallas' Kari Lehtonen (four goals, 31 shots) didn't acquit himself well in his club's 4-3 series-opening loss to the Anaheim Ducks. Lehtonen also allowed three goals on 19 shots in the Stars' 3-2 loss in Game 2.
Los Angeles' Jonathan Quick got the hook after surrendering five goals on 28 shots, as the Kings fell 6-3 in Game 1 against the San Jose Sharks. Colorado's Semyon Varlamov allowed four goals on 33 shots in his club's overtime win over the Minnesota Wild.
Several of these goaltenders enter this year's playoffs with something to prove. Price last won a playoff series in 2008. Fleury is trying to overcome the stigma of consecutive playoff meltdowns over the last two years. Bobrovsky, Lehtonen and Varlamov have yet to prove themselves as clutch playoff goaltenders.
2. Follow the Leaders
In every playoff series, a team looks to its leadership for inspiration and clutch scoring. There's already been several examples of team leaders making significant early-series contributions.
Three captains led by example. Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf, Montreal Canadiens winger Brian Gionta and Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos each collected two points in their respective series-openers. Getzlaf followed up with another two-point effort in the Ducks' Game 2 victory over the Dallas Stars.
Several alternate captains also stepped up. Brad Richards led the way with three points in the New York Rangers' 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. Paul Stastny potted the game-tying and overtime goals to carry his Colorado Avalanche to a 5-4 win over the Minnesota Wild. Pavel Datsyuk notched the only goal of the game, as his Detroit Red Wings edged the Boston Bruins 1-0.
Alex Steen scored in triple overtime to lift his St. Louis Blues to a 4-3 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks. Columbus Blue Jackets' winger Mark Letestu scored in his club's 4-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
1. Overtime Heroics.
Overtime is always a highlight of the Stanley Cup playoffs. NHL fans didn't have to wait long to enjoy some overtime magic in the divisional semifinals.
Three of the seven series-opening games required extra periods to determine a winner. The Montreal Canadiens edged the Tampa Bay Lightning, 5-4, on a goal by forward Dale Weise. Colorado Avalanche center Paul Stastny was the overtime hero in a 4-3 victory over the Minnesota Wild. Alexander Steen tallied the game-winner in triple OT, as the St. Louis Blues downed the Chicago Blackhawks 4-3.
In the opening round of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs, 17 games went to overtime. The all-time record for overtime games in one playoff year is 28, set in 1993. The most in one series is five, set in 1951. Time will tell if these records are broken this year.