Top Storylines to Follow as 2nd Round of 2014 NHL Playoffs Comes to a Close
One Game 7 is guaranteed, and any of the other three conference semifinals could also go the distance.
It's going to be a great week of hockey in the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs.
There are plenty of things to keep your eye on as the second round winds down. Click ahead to see some of the top storylines to follow.
Boston Brutes Are Back
The biggest and meanest of the Eastern Conference teams is playing like it late in the second round. And with a couple of opportunities to eliminate the Montreal Canadiens this week, you can expect the most vicious, nasty, heavy-hitting contests of the series to take place.
Milan Lucic was a force in Game 5, dishing out seven hits and none of them soft, glancing blows. No, his hits made defensemen think twice about picking up loose pucks.
Brad Marchand has picked his spots. A Zdeno Chara shove carries as much weight as a hit from most others, while veteran Jarome Iginla—although not making many highlight-reel offensive plays with pretty or powerful goals—is also throwing his weight around.
What it means is that the Bruins are back to being the Bruins. Barring a stellar couple of games from the Canadiens, they could be pushing their way back to the Stanley Cup Final.
Teemu Selanne Retirement Watch
Regardless of how the season turns out, veteran Anaheim Ducks forward Teemu Selanne is retiring at the end of these playoffs.
It's fair to say he's one of the most personable guys ever to play the game, and the league will miss his thoughtful interviews and flashes of his talent. It has depreciated but still presents itself in some big moments.
That's why it was so puzzling to see him as a healthy scratch in Game 4 against the Dallas Stars in the first round on a night leading scorer Ryan Getzlaf was out with injury. Whether it was the rest or the motivation or just the fact Selanne is still one of the game's most talented scorers at his age, the 43-year-old has made an impact in many games since.
Selanne had a pair of assists in the clinching game against the Stars and has two goals in four games against the Los Angeles Kings in the second round.
Thousands would love to see Selanne finish his career with a Stanley Cup, and with every win that storyline becomes one to watch.
Bryan Bickell for MVP
Quick, name the Chicago Blackhawks' leading goal scorer in the playoffs so far.
It's not Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp or Marian Hossa. As the slide's headline obviously gives away, it's Bryan Bickell.
In fact, Bickell's six goals have him tied with Evgeni Malkin, Marian Gaborik and Jussi Jokinen for the playoff lead.
He has as many points as Kane and more than Duncan Keith and Sharp.
OK, I'm not actually suggesting Bickell is a front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy, but he's definitely a great story from the second round with four goals and six points through five games against the Minnesota Wild.
Keep your eyes on him going forward.
Does Danny Play?
When the Montreal Canadiens signed Daniel Briere last summer, it was partially due to his playoff experience. That was paying off early, as the 36-year-old earned an assist on the game-winning overtime goal in Game 1 of a sweep against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round.
He added another assist in that four-game series and then put up a pair of points in four games against the Boston Bruins in the second round before finding himself a healthy scratch in Game 5—one in which the Habs could have used a scoring touch on the power play, where Briere may be the most effective at this point of his career.
With elimination at hand, will Briere suit up for Game 6? If not and the Canadiens extend the series, he's likely stuck on the sidelines until someone is injured or playing poorly.
Can Cookie Monster Behave?
When Minnesota Wild winger Matt Cooke returned from suspension in Game 4 of the second-round series against the Chicago Blackhawks, he made an immediate impact.
Not in the negative way that led to his seven-game suspension for a knee-on-knee hit to Colorado Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie in the first round, but in a positive manner for the Wild. Cooke was energetic and aggressive but disciplined, dishing out five hits and setting up a goal with one of them.
Cooke was a big part of the Pittsburgh Penguins' Stanley Cup success in 2009, and there's no doubt he can help the Wild make a real run for a spot in the Western Conference final—if he manages to stay in control.
That's a big if.
Does anyone else feel a little sorry for Anaheim Ducks goaltender Jonas Hiller?
He helped the Ducks get to the playoffs with a Pacific Division title and what turns out to be home-ice advantage through to the Western Conference Final. But because of a rough stretch late in the season, he took a backseat to rookie Frederik Andersen in the opening round.
When Andersen struggled in Games 4 and 6 against the Dallas Stars, Hiller came in as a reliever of sorts, winning the series clincher in Game 6. Hiller earned the starts for the first two games at home for Round 2 but the Ducks came up empty, and so Anderson became the starter again for Game 3. An injury to Andersen led to Hiller's return, and he was solid in relief to win the Ducks' first game of the series.
Here's where things get a little weird, or at least gutsy—neither Hiller nor Andersen got the call for Game 4. That went to freshman John Gibson, who had previously played all of three NHL games in his career.
Turns out the highly touted 20-year-old was up for it, blanking the Kings 2-0 to become the youngest goalie in the league to earn a shutout in his first playoff game. Maybe not the biggest surprise considering he also shut out the Vancouver Canucks in his regular-season debut in April.
"It's a tough situation that he's put in, with [Saturday] night maybe, possibly, their season on the line," said Kings forward Mike Richards, according to the Los Angeles Times. "It's now a best-of-three series, so it's a lot of pressure to put on a young kid."
Now, Gibson is the Ducks' starter for the foreseeable future. Head coach Bruce Boudreau did something he never does and named his starter well in advance of Game 5, via CBSsports.com's Chris Peters.
The big question here is what happens if Gibson falters? Does Hiller get another chance?
Martin St. Louis' Inspiration Factor
What an emotional weekend for Martin St. Louis.
His mother passed away Thursday, and he flew to Montreal to see his dad and family. Deciding his mom would have wanted him to play Friday (via NHL.com's Adam Kimelman), St. Louis returned to Pittsburgh to rally his teammates and played in a 5-1 victory.
On Mother's Day Sunday, he scored in the game's opening minutes to electrify the crowd at Madison Square Garden and get his Rangers going in another must-win Game 6. They pulled it off to force a Game 7, with St. Louis the first star. He later gave a nice postgame interview to NBC's Pierre McGuire.
Sometimes a tragic story can lead to an emotional turning point in sports, and it will be interesting to see where this wave of support for St. Louis may take the Rangers.
Home-Ice Disadvantage in California
You have to wonder if anyone in the Los Angeles Kings-Anaheim Ducks series will ever win on home ice. Monday is the Kings' opportunity at the Honda Center after both sides dropped a pair with last change privileges over the first four games.
The trend isn't exclusive to the California teams, though. Some quick math shows that through the playoffs so far, road teams are winning more than 38 percent of the time. In the regular season, visitors were winning around 23 percent of the games.
Teams on the road in the playoffs went 16-32 in April and are 10-10 in May through Sunday's games.
Can Things Get Any Worse for Crosby?
Taking a cue from the Columbus Blue Jackets, who used Brandon Dubinsky to shadow Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby in the first round, the New York Rangers stuck Dominic Moore on Sid the Kid in Game 6.
Crosby came up empty again on the scoresheet, and he was clearly frustrated.
It's been a tough playoff for the runaway Hart Trophy favorite, who has been blanked in two straight games and has had to constantly answer questions about his health and the fact he has only one goal in his last 17 playoff contests.
He could face a fine for spearing Moore during Sunday's loss, and he was embarrassed at the end of the game when goalie Henrik Lundqvist emptied his water bottle on the Pens captain's face after he was taken down in a post-buzzer scrum.
Yeah, that's probably a fine too.
Crosby is now facing a Game 7 against the Rangers on Tuesday—the perfect time to snap out of his funk and take over a game. If he's healthy enough, that is.
As Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Bob Smizik suggests, many are curious as to what Crosby may be suffering from in these playoffs, aside from a bruised ego.
Final Four Repeat Still a Possibility
The final four last spring were the Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings. It's possible we could see those four make it back this year.
Interestingly, they constitute the last five Stanley Cup champs, with the Blackhawks winning in 2013 and 2010, the Kings in 2012, the Bruins in 2011 and the Penguins in 2009.
The Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, Minnesota Wild and Anaheim Ducks have made it interesting in the second round, however, ensuring the series are no sure things for the former champs.
All statistics are courtesy of NHL.com and current through Sunday, May 11.
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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