The long, arduous NHL regular season can get a bit monotonous at times, but as seen in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs, postseason hockey is simply a different animal.
With every team and every player scratching and clawing for every inch, it can be argued that playoff hockey is the pinnacle of sporting excellence. Almost every first-round series has been captivating to this point, and there is still plenty left to be decided.
Along with the latest television viewing info, here is some further analysis regarding how Sunday's playoff slate will ultimately play out.
|Flyers at Rangers||5||TIED 2-2||12 p.m.||NBC|
|Blues at Blackhawks||6||CHI 3-2||3 p.m.||NBC|
|Ducks at Stars||6||ANA 3-2||8 p.m.||NBCSN|
Flyers vs. Rangers (Game 5)
The New York Rangers have twice seized a one-game advantage in their first-round series with the Philadelphia Flyers, but Philly has managed to bounce back and even things up on both occasions. After the Flyers' comeback win in Game 4, the Eastern Conference Metropolitan Division rivals will lock horns in a pivotal Game 5 at Madison Square Garden.
Most observers gave New York a significant advantage heading into this series due to the presence of goalie Henrik Lundqvist. King Henrik is arguably the best netminder in the world, and he always gives the Blueshirts a chance to win. The Flyers were forced to ride Ray Emery for the first three games of the series with mixed results, but they made a much-needed change in Game 4.
Steve Mason hadn't started a game since April 12 due to an upper-body injury, but he came up huge in a clutch situation. Mason stopped 37 of the Rangers' 38 shots to earn the first playoff victory of his career. Mason's stellar play also seemed to inspire his teammates, according to ESPN's Linda Cohn:
Philadelphia now has the momentum ahead of Game 5; however, New York's return to home ice should be beneficial. Even though this series is tied, the Flyers have struggled offensively throughout. They are averaging just two goals per game, and it is difficult to imagine Mason repeating the performance he put up in Game 4.
With that in mind, the Rangers will rebound and push the Flyers to the brink of elimination.
Blues vs. Blackhawks (Game 6)
The St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks have been nip-and-tuck with each other for the past few seasons, and there was instant excitement among hockey fans when it became apparent that they would square off in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. So far, the Central Division rivals haven't disappointed.
Which of Sunday's NHL playoff contests are you most excited about?
In many ways, it isn't fair that the Blues and Blackhawks have to face each other this early, since they are both legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. This has all the making of a Western Conference Final, but circumstances are causing it to happen a couple rounds early.
St. Louis entered the series as the higher seed, but Chicago was considered the slight favorite due to its status as the defending Stanley Cup champion.
The Blues jumped out to a 2-0 series lead by winning a pair of 4-3 overtime games, but the Blackhawks have since take three straight, including two overtime wins of their own. Each and every contest has been up for grabs until the waning seconds, and there is no doubt that these teams are on an even plane.
Perhaps the biggest difference, though, is Chicago's big-game experience. The Blackhawks know how to win pressure-packed playoff games, and that has been quite apparent throughout this series. Blackhawks captain and former Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Toews scored the decisive overtime marker in Game 5, which caused Jon Morosi of Fox Sports 1 to pay him the ultimate compliment:
If I could start a hockey team with any player in the world, I would choose Jonathan Toews.— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) April 26, 2014
Most teams would love to have one player with that type of clutch ability, but Chicago has two. Patrick Kane is also a former Conn Smythe Trophy winner, and he has an overtime goal in this series as well. Even though this series has all the makings of a seven-game affair on the surface, Toews and Kane will ensure that Chicago closes it out in Game 6 on home ice.
Ducks vs. Stars (Game 6)
The Dallas Stars entered the playoffs as somewhat of an afterthought since Lindy Ruff's team was the last to clinch a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Dallas is an extremely young team, but it is talented as well. That talent was apparent when the Stars erased a 2-0 series deficit, although inexperience was their downfall in a poor Game 5 performance.
With Game 6 looming, the favored Ducks hold a 3-2 lead and have a golden opportunity to send Dallas packing. There is no doubt that the biggest difference for Anaheim from Game 4 to its 6-2 win in Game 5 was the presence of captain Ryan Getzlaf.
The NHL's second-leading scorer in the regular season missed Game 4 with an upper-body injury, but he returned in grand fashion Friday night. Getzlaf had a three-point performance, and he has been among the postseason's most complete and important players, per Pete Jensen of NHL.com:
Getzlaf's importance wasn't lost on his teammates, particularly forward Andrew Cogliano, according to NHL.com's Curtis Zupke:
He's a catalyst for the team - bottom line. He creates another dimension that you can't insert in the lineup. When he's in, it forces our lines to be in the right position - guys playing in the right spots. When he's not, guys aren't really in the right spots, and I think it speaks to our team ... I think he should be a strong nomination for the Hart Trophy. He's carried this team for a long time. It seems whenever he has a little injury or is dinged up, he plays his best hockey.
With Getzlaf back in the fold and Anaheim seemingly banging on all cylinders from an offensive perspective, the Stars are in a precarious position to say the least. Dallas put up a valiant fight, but the Ducks are poised to close out this series in six.
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