The Montreal Canadiens, who have generated plenty of attention as Canada's only team in the Stanley Cup playoffs, became the first squad to reach the second round with a surprisingly dominant series against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Seven spots remain up for grabs.
One thing the early portion of the opening round has illustrated is that there isn't a clear favorite in the chase for the Stanley Cup. Even top teams like the Boston Bruins and Anaheim Ducks have looked vulnerable at times, and Montreal wasn't viewed as a major title threat before the playoffs began.
It should make the NHL playoffs, which are already the best in the four major American sports, even more intriguing over the next couple months. So let's check out the updated schedule for the first round followed by a look at how things are shaping up around the league.
2014 NHL Playoffs: First-Round Schedule
|1st Round - Schedule and TV Info|
|Friday, April 18||Detroit 1, Boston 0||7:30 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Sunday, April 20||Boston 4, Detroit 1||3 p.m.||NBC|
|Tuesday, April 22||Boston 3, Detroit 0||7:30 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Thursday, April 24||Boston at Detroit||8 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Saturday, April 26||Detroit at Boston||3 p.m.||NBC|
|Monday, April 28*||Boston at Detroit||TBD||TSN|
|Wednesday, April 30*||Detroit at Boston||TBD||TSN|
|Wednesday, April 16||Montreal 5, Tampa Bay 4||7 p.m.||CNBC|
|Friday, April 18||Montreal 4, Tampa Bay 1||7 p.m.||CNBC|
|Sunday, April 20||Montreal 3, Tampa Bay 2||7 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Tuesday, April 22||Montreal 4, Tampa Bay 3||7 p.m.||NHL|
|Wednesday, April 16||Pittsburgh 4, Columbus 3||7:30 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Saturday, April 19||Columbus 4, Pittsburgh 3||7 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Monday, April 21||Pittsburgh 4, Columbus 3||7 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Wednesday, April 23||Columbus 4, Pittsburgh 3||7 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Saturday, April 26||Columbus at Pittsburgh||7 p.m.||CBC|
|Monday, April 28||Pittsburgh at Columbus||TBD||CBC|
|Wednesday, April 30*||Columbus at Pittsburgh||TBD||CBC|
|Thursday, April 17||NY Rangers 4, Philadelphia 1||7 p.m.||CNBC|
|Sunday, April 20||Philadelphia 4, NY Rangers 2||12 p.m.||NBC|
|Tuesday, April 22||NY Rangers 4, Philadelphia 1||8 p.m.||CNBC|
|Friday, April 25||NY Rangers at Philadelphia||7 p.m.||CNBC|
|Sunday, April 27||Philadelphia at NY Rangers||Noon||NBC|
|Tuesday, April 29*||NY Rangers at Philadelphia||TBD||TSN|
|Wednesday, April 30*||Philadelphia at NY Rangers||TBD||TSN|
|Thursday, April 17||Colorado 5, Minnesota 4||9:30 p.m.||CNBC|
|Saturday, April 19||Colorado 4, Minnesota 2||9:30 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Monday, April 21||Minnesota 1, Colorado 0||7 p.m.||NHL|
|Thursday, April 24||Colorado at Minnesota||9:30 p.m.||CNBC|
|Saturday, April 26||Minnesota at Colorado||TBD||TSN|
|Monday, April 28*||Colorado at Minnesota||TBD||TSN|
|Wednesday, April 30*||Minnesota at Colorado||TBD||TSN|
|Thursday, April 17||St. Louis 4, Chicago 3||8 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Saturday, April 19||St. Louis 4, Chicago 3||3 p.m.||NBC|
|Monday, April 21||Chicago 2, St. Louis 0||8:30 p.m.||CNBC|
|Wednesday, April 23||Chicago 4, St. Louis 3||9:30 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Friday, April 25||Chicago at St. Louis||8 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Sunday, April 27||St. Louis at Chicago||3 p.m.||NBC|
|Tuesday, April 29*||Chicago at St. Louis||TBD||CBC|
|Wednesday, April 16||Anaheim 4, Dallas 3||10 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Friday, April 18||Anaheim 3, Dallas 2||10 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Monday, April 21||Dallas 3, Anaheim 0||9:30 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Wednesday, April 23||Dallas 4, Anaheim 2||8 p.m.||CNBC|
|Friday, April 25||Dallas at Anaheim||10:30 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Sunday, April 27||Anaheim at Dallas||TBD||TSN|
|Tuesday, April 29*||Dallas at Anaheim||TBD||TSN|
|Thursday, April 17||San Jose 6, Los Angeles 3||10:30 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Sunday, April 20||San Jose 7, Los Angeles 2||10 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Tuesday, April 22||San Jose 4, Los Angeles 3||10 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Thursday, April 24||San Jose at Los Angeles||10:30 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Saturday, April 26*||Los Angeles at San Jose||TBD||NBCSN|
|Monday, April 28*||San Jose at Los Angeles||TBD||CBC|
|Wednesday, April 30*||Los Angeles at San Jose||TBD||CBC|
|NHL.com; *Denotes if necessary|
Updated Postseason Outlook
The most impressive thing about Montreal's first-round sweep was its offensive performance. The Canadiens knew the Lightning had too much firepower to shut down completely, which meant the 21st-ranked scoring team had to elevate its level of play on that end of the ice.
Players like Brendan Gallagher and Rene Bourque rose to the occasion, and suddenly the team's playoff outlook is far more hopeful. It also helps to have a goalie in Carey Price, who's coming off his best regular season and is capable of carrying the team on his shoulders.
The Canadian Press (via CBC) passed along comments from Max Pacioretty, who fell just one goal short of 40, about emerging from a brief slump to score the series clincher and how the team has benefited from more balanced scoring:
I knew I had to step up. I've been frustrated lately and the only thing that kept me sane was the team winning and other people scoring.
When you realize you can end the series with one shot, that frustration goes away for a brief moment and that's what happened.
Montreal has sported the talent necessary to make a deep playoff run all season, but only showed it in spurts during the regular season. It could be a situation where a team gets hot at the exact right time to make some major noise.
The other team turning some heads in the early going is the San Jose Sharks. They have raced out to a 3-0 series lead over the Los Angeles Kings, who were viewed as a potential championship sleeper due to their league-leading Fenwick for percentage (via ExtraSkater.com) during the regular season.
Instead, it's the Sharks, who ranked third in the Fenwick numbers, who have looked downright unstoppable at times. They have scored 17 goals over the first three games and could close out the sweep with a win on Thursday night.
A lack of attention, and the pressure that comes with it, could be helping San Jose. The Sharks have been viewed among the top contenders several times in recent years and failed to live up to the expectations. They generated less buzz entering this season's playoffs and now they are on a roll.
Closing out a team with championship experience won't be easy, though. The Sharks don't want to see the Kings win a game or two and start building confidence, or a potential sweep could get really tricky.
Perhaps the best overall series in the first round is the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks. The new playoff format made the road to the Stanley Cup Final much more difficult for both teams, in large part because they have to face each other in the opening round.
Whichever team emerges from the battle will be a Cup contender, but it's been a physical series and that's going to have a lasting impact for the side that does move on. That physical toll is something often overlooked in the long grind that is the NHL playoffs.
Then there's the cast of top contenders that are still searching for their best hockey. The Boston Bruins, Anaheim Ducks and Pittsburgh Penguins are still very much in Cup contention but are being seriously challenged in the opening round, and none are out of the woods quite yet.
It all goes back to the fact the postseason is still waiting for a favorite to emerge. That trio of teams are all in the conversation, but if they don't start playing better, it won't take long before they end up on upset alert. The margin for error is very thin this year.
That's good news for hockey fans, who get to enjoy the journey.
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