2011 NHL Playoffs: The Biggest Questions Facing the Eight Remaining Teams
With the Tampa Bay Lightning defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins, that ended the first round of the 2011 NHL playoffs. Once again, the NHL playoffs have not disappointed, proving that it is the best spectacle in all of sports.
This year's first round was one of the most exciting in recent memory, with 25 one-goal games, including 14 overtimes. We've seen players become heroes and goaltenders stand on their heads, but there are still questions remaining for the teams that moved on.
Here are the biggest questions facing each of the teams moving on to the next round.
Washington Capitals: Can Neuvirth Keep It Up?
Expected starting goaltender Semyon Varlamov began the 2010-11 season on injured reserve. Enter Michal Neuvirth. The rookie has been stellar for Washington this season, and he was even named the Rookie of the Month in October after getting off to a fantastic start.
Varlamov has a better playoff track record, but Bruce Boudreau still chose to go with Neuvirth and he certainly did not disappoint, posting a .946 save percentage and a shutout over five games against the Rangers. However, Boudreau has been quick to pull a struggling goaltender in the past.
If Neuvirth begins to falter, we could see Semyon Varlamov starting once again.
Philadelphia Flyers: Who's in Net?
Just when we thought the Flyers' goaltending situation couldn't get any shakier, they went and did this. By "this," I mean using an incredible three goaltenders in one playoff series. The Flyers have used 10 different goaltenders in the playoffs since 1997, and this year was no different.
After much speculation, rookie sensation Sergei Bobrovsky got the call in Game 1, but he was pulled in Game 2 after allowing three goals on seven shots. Brian Boucher replaced him and won the game, and was named their starter for Game 3.
Boucher performed well, but was eventually pulled in Game 5 in favor of last season's playoff hero, Michael Leighton.
Keeping with the trend, Leighton got the Game 6 start, but he was pulled for Boucher, who played well enough to win the game and get the Game 7 start. This time, it was all Boucher, as the Flyers rolled to an easy 5-2 victory and a series win.
As of right now, Brian Boucher will be the Flyers' starting goaltender for the next series, but I would not be surprised in the least to see Sergei Bobrovsky or Michael Leighton between the pipes at some point.
Boston Bruins: Where Is the Power Play?
The series between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens was another classic battle between the two teams. Montreal took the first two games, but Boston stormed back to win three straight before the Habs forced a Game 7. The Bruins won the overtime thriller, but it certainly wasn't thanks to their power play.
The Bruins' power-play line looks like a typo, as they went an unbelievable 0-21 through seven games against the Canadiens. The Bruins are certainly used to winning games with an unspectacular power play. They had the 20th-ranked power play during the regular season, yet still managed to finish fifth in the league in goals per game.
However, in the playoffs, where a single goal could mean everything, the power play will have to improve for the Bruins to go deep.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Seen Stamkos?
The Tampa Bay Lightning surprised a lot of people this season, making the playoffs as the fifth-seeded team in the Eastern Conference with an impressive 103 points. Resident superstar scorer Steven Stamkos began the season on a monstrous tear, leading some to ask if he could score 50 goals in 50 games.
Well, Stammer quieted down mightily in the second half of the regular season, with only seven goals in his final 31 games. The playoffs have been no different, as he was nearly invisible for the first four games of the series, with no goals and only five shots on goal (including Game 4, when he took zero shots in 30:36 worth of ice time in a double-overtime game).
He broke out in Game five, scoring a pair of goals and an assist in the Lightning's 8-2 victory over the Penguins. Those were Stamkos' only goals of the series.
If the Lightning hope to overcome the new defensive style of the Washington Capitals, Stamkos is going to have to become the offensive contributor he was during the first half of the regular season.
Vancouver Canucks: Can Luongo Hold Up?
Since the early days of his career, Roberto Luongo has forged a reputation as one of the best goaltenders during the regular season in the NHL. Unfortunately, recent years and struggles have also given him a reputation of a player who can't get it done in the playoffs.
The Canucks have a team that is about as stacked as you can get, and Luongo is the backbone of the team. Unfortunately for him, they ran into his arch-nemesis, the Chicago Blackhawks.
After taking a 3-0 series lead, it was looking like Vancouver had it in the bag, but the Blackhawks stormed back to win Games 4 and 5, scoring 10 goals on Luongo and chasing him in both games.
The Canucks started backup Cory Schneider in Game 6, but an injury forced Luongo into the game late in the third period, and Ben Smith beat him in overtime. The Canucks were able to defeat the Blackhawks in Game 7, staving off a historic comeback.
With his playoff demons seemingly vanquished with Alex Burrows' Game 7 overtime goal, Luongo will have to be as dominant as he was during the regular season.
He has proven that he can play under pressure as well, capturing the gold medal with Team Canada at the 2010 Olympic Games.
San Jose Sharks: Is This Their Year?
This is the question we ask every season. Since the 2005-06 season, the San Jose Sharks have been one of the NHL's best teams. That is, until the playoffs.
The Sharks, above all teams, have received the labels of playoff chokers due to their lack of success in the postseason.
However, last season saw them advance to the conference finals, where they were swept by the eventual champions, the Chicago Blackhawks. Joe Thornton is the team's captain, and despite his label as a lackluster playoff performer, he delivered the overtime goal that sent the Sharks into the semifinals.
As opposed to recent seasons, the Sharks also have Stanley Cup-winning experience in goal thanks to Antti Niemi, who won the Cup with the Blackhawks last season.
The Sharks are undoubtedly as talented a team as any out there, but they'll have to prove it and build on last season's success.
Nashville Predators: Can Pekka Rinne Be a Hero?
There is arguably not a team in the league that does more with less than the Nashville Predators. The team fully embraces a defense-first mentality, and it saw them advance to the semifinals for the first time in their history, despite five prior playoff appearances.
The key to the team's success, as previously mentioned, is goaltender Pekka Rinne.
This series has flashes of last season's battle between the Montreal Canadiens and the Washington Capitals. Despite facing an offensive powerhouse, Montreal prevailed on the back of their goaltender, Jaroslav Halak. Pekka Rinne will have to be this season's goaltending hero, and he has proven himself to be more than capable.
Rinne put together the best season of his career, including being named a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. Rinne was not quite as spectacular in the quarterfinals, but he has shown himself to be one of the NHL's elite goaltenders.
If the Predators hope to defeat the heavily-favored Vancouver Canucks, Pekka Rinne will have to be a large reason why.
Detroit Red Wings: Will Zetterberg and Franzen Be Healthy?
Another year, another playoff round conquered for the Red Wings. Despite aging and other Western Conference teams improving, the Red Wings remain one of the NHL's best teams. But as the playoffs move on, they are experiencing some injury woes.
The team's leading scorer, Henrik Zetterberg, has been sidelined since April 6th, and missed the first round of the playoffs. In addition to that, the team's goal leader, Johan Franzen, missed the last game of the sweep of the Phoenix Coyotes.
While both are expected back in the lineup for Game 1 against the San Jose Sharks, one has to wonder how they will fare against an elite team like San Jose, particularly Zetterberg, who is dealing with knee issues.
Zetterberg and Franzen are two of the league's best playoff performers, so if both are fully healthy, the Red Wings are a team that can certainly make a lot of noise.
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