Biggest Takeaways from the 1st Round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs So Far
Year in and year out, the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs offers the best entertainment of the entire NHL season.
We have hockey every day, practically 24/7, with lots of close-fought games that often extend well beyond 60 minutes. The best-of-seven series format offers plenty of time for rivalries to build and strategies to change. Just when we think a series is settled—BOOM!—another huge shift in momentum keeps us on the edge of our seats.
Here's a look at the biggest trends and takeaways from this year's playoff action through Monday night's games.
All stats courtesy of NHL.com.
New Format Makes for Rivalry Central
The NHL's new divisional alignment and playoff format was designed to amp up natural rivalries and build more drama between familiar foes. Nowhere has that strategy paid off better than in the Central Division.
Expectations were high for some top-flight intensity from the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks. Fans have not been disappointed.
The series started with a triple-overtime thriller. Tempers flared in Game 2, and the Blackhawks mounted an airtight defensive attack to get back into the series in Game 3.
Out in California, a much-anticipated rematch between the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings has fallen flat so far, but these teams have a history of winning their home games against each other. The tide could still turn as the series heads south.
Meanwhile, there's no love lost between new foes like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets, the Anaheim Ducks and Dallas Stars or the Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche, where young teams on the upswing are battling hard and making life difficult for their more experienced counterparts.
There were complaints that the new playoff format set the matchups with too much time remaining in the regular season, but no one can take issue with the quality of hockey that's been delivered in the early stages of the playoffs.
Old Dogs Don't Learn New Tricks
No matter how many times we're told that Matt Cooke has changed his reckless on-ice ways, it's never surprising to find him at the center of a controversial play.
Cooke's knee-on-knee collision with Colorado defenseman Tyson Barrie on Monday has earned him a meeting with the Department of Player Safety, per NHL.com. Early word from the Avalanche through NHL.com is that Barrie will be expected to miss four to six weeks.
Tongues have also been wagging over Milan Lucic, who was fined $5,000 for his ugly crotch shot on Danny DeKeyser, and Brent Seabrook's headshot on Blues captain David Backes. Though Seabrook is a first-time offender, his defensive partner, Duncan Keith, is not. The fact that Keith is believed to have been the player taunting a dazed Backes after the hit, per Randy Sportak of the Calgary Sun, makes the ugliness of incident a bit of a team effort.
Who's next? Raffi Torres has been scoring goals and keeping his nose clean so far with the San Jose Sharks—can it last?
Every Second Counts
More than once in these playoffs, teams have saved their best for last, potting late goals in the dying seconds of periods or late stages of games.
On Monday, the Pittsburgh Penguins were trailing the Columbus Blue Jackets by a score of 2-0 when Brooks Orpik got his team on the board with less than two seconds remaining in the second period. That set the stage for a three-goal outburst that ultimately allowed the Penguins to come back for the win.
Earlier in the week, the St. Louis Blues were able to erase two Blackhawks leads—with 1:46 remaining in Game 1, then with just seven seconds left in Game 2. The Blues went on to win both games in overtime, prompting Chicago coach Joel Quenneville to say, via CSN Chicago's Tracy Myers, "The other game was tough; it was tough (losing the lead) with a buck and change. But tonight was brutal.”
The Detroit Red Wings also did a number on the Boston Bruins in Game 1 of their series, when Pavel Datsyuk potted the only goal with 3:01 left on the clock in the third period.
As the players always say in those between-period interviews, they've gotta play the full 60 minutes!
New Faces Impress
One of the most exciting parts of every postseason is watching young players emerge and unexpected figures become playoff heroes.
Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche drew the early raves as he put up seven points in his team's first two playoff games. As my colleague Dave Lozo notes, "MacKinnon looks as if he will have every opportunity to produce the highest-scoring postseason for an 18-year-old in NHL history."
But on Monday, the man of the hour stood at the other end of the ice.
In his first-ever playoff start, Darcy Kuemper recorded a shutout, giving his Minnesota Wild a chance to put 46 shots on Semyon Varlamov before Mikael Granlund's diving shot finally won it in overtime.
Also on Monday, Jamie Benn potted his first playoff game-winner in his third-ever postseason game as the Dallas Stars got back into their series with the Anaheim Ducks.
Meanwhile, over in Montreal, the emerging star has been 32-year-old Rene Bourque, who has three goals in the last two games, including a game-winner. Before this year, Bourque had played just 10 playoff games in his eight-year NHL career, recording a grand total of four points.
Bourque can change the imprint of his entire career if he keeps his hot streak going for a while in these playoffs.
While the newbies and underdogs are grabbing the spotlight, some of the brightest stars in the game have been unexpectedly dim so far.
Sidney Crosby has four points in three games, but expectations are much higher for the regular season's best player. He hasn't scored or eked out a dominant moment to show that he's ready to take his Pittsburgh Penguins back to the Stanley Cup Final this season.
Then there's Patrick Kane, the 2013 Conn Smythe Trophy winner. He has just one goal in three games so far, possibly because he's still hampered by the knee injury he suffered in March.
Also, what about Rick Nash, who's flying under the radar with two assists? Or Detroit's late-season savior Gustav Nyquist, who's pointless in his last four games?
Winner of the 2014 William M. Jennings Trophy after his Los Angeles Kings surrendered the fewest goals in the NHL in the regular season, Quick has been under siege in the playoffs. He has given up 12 goals to the San Jose Sharks in just five periods, which is highly uncharacteristic. Quick surrendered just 10 to San Jose in the entire seven-game series in 2013.
Great players usually don't underperform for long. Don't write off any of these stars just yet.
Since the playoffs began last Wednesday, we've been treated to overtime contests almost every night.
Of the 21 games that have been completed so far, six have gone to extra time—that's more than 25 percent.
Dale Weise got the ball rolling when he scored an unlikely game-winner for the Montreal Canadiens on Day 1, setting the stage for his team's 3-0 series lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Fans of Minnesota and Colorado had to settle for just a single OT frame on Thursday, while the Blackhawks and Blues pushed into the third extra period before Alexander Steen settled the score.
On Friday, we witnessed a rarity, with all three games wrapping up in regulation.
Saturday, it was a double-OT thriller for the Blue Jackets' first-ever playoff win, along with just one extra frame this time for St. Louis.
Sunday, all games concluded in regulation, and on Monday it took more than 65 minutes before Mikael Granlund scored the first goal of the game between Minnesota and Colorado. It doubled as the Wild's overtime winner.
The stakes only get higher from here. Hold your breath as we watch teams battle, whether it's to advance their playoff hopes or simply to stay alive.