Top NHL Storylines to Follow in 2nd Round of 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs
It's hard to match the intensity of the first round of the NHL playoffs. Multiple games nearly every night kept you on the edge of your seat.
With 16 teams trying to make the cut, there were three Game 7s, 14 overtime contests, suspensions, cheap shots, spectacular goals, spectacular screw-ups and both new and reborn rivalries.
But there's a new series slate now and plenty of fresh and follow-up storylines to track in Round 2.
Here's a look at some of the things you might want to keep your eye on as the league's top eight teams scrap for Lord Stanley's Cup.
There have been so many dirty plays in the playoffs so far you could do a separate story on it. Oh, in fact, colleague Lyle Richardson did just that.
It's something partially spawned by the intensity of the playoffs, contributed to by the occasional forgetfulness of the referees to call every infraction, and a general sense on the players' part that they need to find ways to intimidate opponents to get the edge in a seven-game series.
It's for the last reason listed that I expect it to continue—although if they can help it, players will probably at least attempt to be a little more sneaky with their jabs to the groin and slashes to the wrists in the second round.
Maybe at least the kneeing will stop after the suspension of Matt Cooke.
A Wild Ride
There was so much adversity for the Minnesota Wild in the first round, it will be interesting to see what's next.
They lost goaltender Darcy Kuemper in Game 7 of their first-round series when he collided with teammate Ryan Suter behind the net and looked off in the minutes that followed. Ilya Bryzgalov came in and had to make just one save to earn the victory.
Youngster Nino Niederreiter rose to the occasion in the elimination games, and his line with veterans Dany Heatley and Kyle Brodziak is giving them the kind of scoring depth that may actually allow them to be competitive against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Well, that all hinges on the health of Kuemper or the ability of Bryzgalov to play a more consistent game than he has so far in the playoffs.
Adding a twist to this second-round series is the fact the Blackhawks crushed the Wild a year ago, winning their first-round series in five games and outscoring Minnesota 8-1 in the last two games. The regular season has been more kind to the Wild. They won three of five meetings and lost one in a shootout in Chicago.
Another upset isn't out of the question.
The New York Rangers came out on top in their battle against division-rival Philadelphia but have come up a bit short in the scheduling as they kick off the second round on Friday night.
After playing Game 6 and Game 7 on back-to-back nights this week, the Rangers face the less-than-attractive prospect of three games in four nights. That's a regular scenario in the regular season, but it's a lot to ask in the playoffs.
And with Sunday and Monday games scheduled, the Rangers will have suited up for five games in seven nights by the time Tuesday rolls around.
It's a tall order for any athlete, especially when you pour so much emotion into every game in the postseason. It might have the greatest effect on goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who was spectacular in Game 7 on Wednesday but will face plenty of rubber over the next few nights.
Rise and Shine Krejci
While scanning the points leaders through the first round, you may notice something odd.
Last year's top point producer of the postseason—the same guy who has led the league in playoff points in two of the previous three seasons—is nowhere near the top.
The Boston Bruins' David Krejci managed just two assists in the five games of the first-round matchup against the Detroit Red Wings. The good news? They came in the last two games, as he and linemates Jarome Iginla and Milan Lucic began to make a difference in the series.
Not only did they begin to become noticeable on the scoresheet, but they also shut down Pavel Datsyuk for much of the series.
Not to worry, though. Krejci typically piles up points because he plays a lot of games, so he has plenty of time to climb the leaderboard.
He has 75 points through 86 playoff games so far in his career and suggests, via Annie Maroon of MassLive.com, that he may discover a nice matchup against the Canadiens' top trio through the second round.
The rivalry between the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings is about to hit a whole new level.
Until now, it's been relegated to the regular season. These teams have never met in the playoffs. As big and physical as these two clubs are, you can expect the winner to be battered and bruised and the loser to be devastated both physically AND mentally with each of them expecting to make it into the Stanley Cup Final.
The Globe and Mail hockey columnist Eric Duhatschek tweeted this about the upcoming series: "Some compelling second-round matchups, but if you like physical hockey, Kings-Ducks has to be the best of the bunch."
Call it the "I-5 Freeway Series"; it's hockey's equivalent of the Subway Series in New York or the Battle of Alberta between the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers.
Fleury of Attention
It may be difficult to believe, but Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury's statistics through the first round—a .908 save percentage and 2.81 goals-against average—are actually an improvement over the past couple of springs.
Hockey fans watched and waited during the series against the Columbus Blue Jackets to see if Fleury would make any massive errors to potentially cost his club a game or two, and he didn't disappoint those who bet on it happening.
Misplaying a puck he never should have ventured out of his crease to attempt to corral late in Game 4, Fleury couldn't get back into his net before the tying goal was scored. He also let in a long game-winning overtime goal in the opening minutes of OT.
Rebounding with back-to-back wins in Games 5 and 6 took some pressure off, but it will ramp up in the second round against Metropolitan Division-rival New York, when he'll face one of the most reliable netminders in the business in Henrik Lundqvist and need to be nearly as good.
Net Gain in Anaheim
One of the more intriguing aspects of the Anaheim Ducks' series against the Los Angeles Kings will be the name on the back of the jersey of the starting goaltender.
Frederik Andersen started but did not finish every game of the team's first-round battle against the Dallas Stars, and head coach Bruce Boudreau hasn't publicly named his starter for Round 2 just yet, telling reporters he wants to make the opposition work harder for information, via Lance Pugmire of the Los Angeles Times.
Andersen was yanked in Game 4 of the six-game series versus the Stars, but he came back in to win Game 5. He was pulled again in Game 6 when the Stars scored four goals on 12 shots. Jonas Hiller, who was the starter for most of the regular season, had a rough stretch at the end of the year. This led to Boudreau's decision to start the rookie in the playoffs.
Hiller was clutch, stopping all 12 shots he faced in relief of Andersen in the clinching game as the Ducks came back from a 4-2 deficit to win 5-4 in overtime.
It put his name back in the conversation to start the next round, in which either goalie will have to be stellar to earn the edge over the Los Angeles Kings' Jonathan Quick.
Can Toews Keep the Conn Going?
Jonathan Toews was the definition of a slow burn that turned into a wildfire in the opening round.
Coming off an upper-body injury that kept him out of the last couple of weeks of the regular season, Toews looked rusty in the first couple of games against the St. Louis Blues upon his return. He took some heavy hits—right to the same shoulder that was impacted in the collision with Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik to sideline him initially—and was clearly not himself as a result.
Then the Chicago Blackhawks captain became "Captain Clutch" again. As the Hawks clawed back from a two-game deficit to rip off four straight wins, Toews scored three game-winning goals, including the overtime winner on a breakaway in Game 5 .
He has looked very much like the Conn Smythe candidate he was in 2010, when he finished with 29 points in 22 games to lead the Hawks to a Stanley Cup championship as the playoff MVP.
Against the Minnesota Wild, Toews will have every opportunity to show his Selke Trophy form. The questions going forward are how banged up is he, and can he avoid making it worse along the way?
Montreal Canadiens. Boston Bruins. Thirty-three previous playoff series dating all the way back to 1929.
Needless to say, there's a lot of history behind this second-round series.
Over time, the Canadiens have the edge with 24 series wins. However, the Bruins have won seven of the last 11, including a first-round matchup in 2011 that went seven games before the Bruins claimed the Stanley Cup. They came back from a two-game deficit in that series.
Boston won in 2009, too, in a four-game sweep after the Habs squeaked into the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.
There's no question the Bruins have been the beasts in the playoffs. The regular season, though, is another story. Montreal won three of four head-to-head battles against the Bruins this season. Whether that success can be carried forward in the postseason is a key storyline for the series.
There should be plenty of hostility with pests on both sides that are easy to take issue with on the ice. Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand will get under the skin of their opponents, and Brandon Prust and Brendan Gallagher are equally capable of riling the Bruins.
Besides, Lucic said, per The Boston Globe's Christopher Gasper, he literally hates the Canadiens.
Just being a part of this organization you just naturally learn to hate the Montreal Canadiens, and the battles we have had with them over the last couple of years have definitely made you hate them.
The Crosby Watch
The Hart Trophy favorite and widely regarded best player in the world has six points through six playoff games, his Pittsburgh Penguins are into the second round, and his reunion with fellow superstar Evgeni Malkin has resulted in some inspired passing from the Pens captain.
So why are so many people still wondering what's wrong with Sidney Crosby?
For one, his goose egg in the goal category over his last 11 playoff games—including the sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins in last spring's Eastern Conference Finals—is troubling.
Some believe he's playing hurt. Others, such as Pittsburgh Magazine's Sean Conboy, allude to Crosby's concussion issues changing the way he plays.
With how tight-lipped pro athletes can be at the best of times, you may never know if Crosby is hurt or compensating for a fear of battling in the hard areas at the most difficult time of year, but you can be sure all eyes will remain on him until he scores or the Pens are eliminated.
All stats courtesy of NHL.com unless otherwise noted.
Steve Macfarlane has been covering the NHL for more than a decade, including seven seasons for the Calgary Sun. You can follow him on Twitter @MacfarlaneHKY.
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