2011 NHL Playoffs: Six Lessons Learned from the First Round
The dust has just about settled from the first round of the 2011 NHL playoffs. No matter how the two remaining games Wednesday night fall (Montreal at Boston, Tampa Bay at Pittsburgh), those results will not be much of a surprise.
That makes now the perfect time to examine what we as fans and analysts learned so far to apply to the rest of the Stanley Cup playoffs...
Teams Are Not Defending Home Ice
Road teams are 25-22 so far, meaning regardless of the results of the final game tonight, they will finish with a winning record in the first round. Only one series (Vancouver-Chicago) had both teams finish with a winning record at home and only one other team (the Washington Capitals) pulled off that feat in the first round.
We can analyze reasons for teams struggling at home, but ultimately with over half the games of this Stanley Cup playoffs completed, it is no fluke. Teams would be wise to go into home games with a new mentality, and coaches would be wise to change the preparation before those games, perhaps even staying in hotels.
No Lead Is Safe
This is a common phrase uttered in the NHL, usually by coaches who want to spur their teams to continue to play hard. But now they have the evidence to back it up.
The San Jose Sharks had a four-goal comeback win and the Washington Capitals won a game they were losing 3-0 in the third. Heck, even the winless Phoenix Coyotes twice drew to within one after attaining deficits of three-plus goals.
In other words, literally almost no lead is safe in the modern NHL.
Goaltending Is Unreliable
In the first round, the 16 teams used 20 different starting goalies, almost all of whom won playoff games before. The list of those who had multiple bad games includes two of the three Vezina finalists as the best goalies in the league (Roberto Luongo and Pekka Rinne), last year's Stanley Cup-winner (Antti Niemi), and two All-Stars/Olympic medal-winners (Ilya Bryzgalov and Ryan Miller).
Philadelphia Flyers became the first team to win a series with three different starting goalies, but Vancouver won with two separate starters. Teams are averaging over three goals per game, a pace only 13 percent of the league was able to keep in the regular season.
Yet there have been no shortage of great goaltending performances, either. Eight shutouts in 47 games is a pace that no goalie in the league has accomplished since the lockout, and half the Game 1 losers in the league were held scoreless.
NHL Parity Means Exciting Overtime Finishes
Nine teams in the Western Conference finished within 10 points of one another, with 12 finishing with 86 or more points. The eighth playoff spot literally came down to the last game of the season and the team left out was just two wins from having home ice in the first round.
The Eastern Conference was top heavy, with five of the NHL's eight regular-season teams exceeding 100 points in the standings. But it was also deep, as 12 teams managed to finish with at least 80; it was the second year in a row there were 12 teams with 80-plus out east and 13 out west.
All of this parity resulted in more close games. The 13 overtime games to date represent the second-largest number for the first round in the last 10 seasons; with two overtime games this evening, tying the previous high remains a possibility.
Vancouver Canucks Are Not Title-Ready
The Vancouver Canucks did what only six teams before them had by blowing a 3-0 series lead. But they took the series in the final home game to advance.
The good news is that the previous three that blew the lead but won the series went on to win Lord Stanley's Cup. The bad news is they did not have to win three series afterward, and no team that needed seven games to advance in the first round has won hockey's holy grail since the 1992 Pittsburgh Penguins.
How they nearly lost tells us all we need to know about this team. It is one thing to not show up on the road when you have a 3-0 lead and the other team has lost one of the game's best defensemen. It is quite another to follow that embarrassment with another no-show, five-goal loss at home.
The Canucks were 4-1 in the games they competed in because they were that much better. If you lack the killer instinct to take out the team that ended your last two seasons, you do not have what it takes to win a title.
Moreover, they will face better opposition in the conference finals, as both teams feature more scoring lines than the cap-strapped Blackhawks did. Both also have the playoff experience. The Detroit Red Wings have won two of the last three conference titles and swept their first round opponent; the San Jose Sharks would be in their second-consecutive conference final and won three of the six games played in overtime, and they came back from a four-goal deficit.
But the End Result Is What We Expected
Actually, I do not know how accurately Barry Melrose has been this year or even how accurate he normally is. I do know that he is no better at picking Stanley Cup winners than I am, so since I am doing well, he probably is, too.
I correctly predicted all four Western Conference advancing as well as the two teams to advance in the Eastern Conference so far. More than that, the number of games has been off mine on three per conference and exactly right on the other two.
In the end, no matter how they go down the road less traveled, one with so many overtimes, so many home losses, so many comebacks and bad goalie play, they have gotten to right where we thought they would be.