2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs: 10 Things We Learned in Round One
The Stanley Cup is the holy grail of sports. The playoffs to win the cup are some of the best in sports. The first round did not disappoint, as four series went to seven games.
Of the 49 first round games, 14 went to overtime and 25 were won by one goal.
As we look forward to the second round of the playoffs, it is time to pause and look at 10 things we have learned from the first round.
The Caps Really Are That Good
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In previous years, Washington was known as a high scoring team. Over the off season the team changed their philosophy and adopted a defensive minded approach. This resulted in them becoming a middle of the pack offensive team; however their defense jumped to number four in the league.
Players such as Alex Ovechkin completely changed their style of play and bought into the new approach. His personal stats declined but the team has excelled, which was the goal. Of course he is still a capable and dazzling scorer, who can go off at any time. In the first round he scored three goals and had three assist.
An infusion of young defensive talent earlier this season has turned out better than hoped. John Carlson and Karl Alzner, ages 21 and 22 respectively, have grown into their roles this season. They are trusted to play in every situation and have done very well. These young guns played great in the first round series, and will only gain more experience and confidence with each game.
What really makes this team so strong is their goalie Michal Neuvirth. In his first season as the starter he played very well with a 2.45 goals against and a .914 save percentage. In the playoffs, teams hope that their goalies can turn it up a notch and play at a higher level. Neuvirth did just that in round one, as his goals against led the playoffs at 1.36 and his save percentage jumped to a crazy .946.
The Wings Are Ready
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The Detroit Red Wings stumbled into the playoffs, winning only ten of their final 23 games. To make matters worse, team leader Henrik Zetterberg was injured during the last week of the regular season and would miss the first round..
Detroit’s first round series was against Phoenix, a team that pushed them to seven games last year. There were many who predicted that the Coyotes would win the series. The Wings rose to the occasion though, and swept the Coyotes.
Players such as Pavel Datsyuk, Jimmy Howard and Niklas Kronwall have stepped up. In the first round 13 players scored a goal and 16 had at least one point. Even more impressive is that 13 players had at least two points. That kind of depth is the envy of other teams.
Zetterberg will be back for the second round, which instantly makes this team even better. Johan Franzen, who was injured during the series and missed game four, should also be ready to play as well.
Jimmy Howard, in his second playoff year, played better in this series than he did last year. While not overpowering, he did what was needed and kept his team in games, allowing them a chance to win. Judging by how many goalies have been pulled in these playoffs, Howard did very well and is poised for a long run.
Vancouver Is Not Invincible
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The President Trophy winning Vancouver Canucks were the easy favorites to win the Stanly Cup. They led the league in goals scores, goals allowed and power play, while being tied for second in the penalty kill. They had an all around impressive performance.
All appeared to be going as planned in the first round when they took a 3-0 series lead over the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks. Game four saw them lose 7-2, but the game was in Chicago and one would expect the Hawks to fight hard in an elimination game. Coming home for game five seemed perfect for the Canucks. That is, until they lost 5-0.
Star goalie Roberto Luongo had now given up 11 goals in less than two games (he was pulled in games four and five). Coach Alain Vigneault benched Luongo for game six, opting to give Cory Schneider his first ever playoff start. Once Schneider was hurt in the third period, Luongo came in only to give up the winning goal in overtime.
The Canucks ended up winning game seven and will continue their quest for the cup. The first round though, has shown that the Sedin brothers can be held in check and that Luongo can be scored on.
Will the Canucks use this tough first round as a springboard to the championships, or have their weaknesses been exposed for other teams to exploit? They had too good of a season for them to not still be considered a favorite, but Washington and Detroit have to be in that conversation now as well.
No Love for Goalies
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Only six teams have used their goalie for the entire series. The other ten teams have had to pull their starter at least once. Three teams have even changed starters during their series.
Somehow, Philadelphia juggled between three goalies and was still able to win a seven game series over Buffalo. Their odd path to victory was the first time since 1988 that a team used three goalies in a series and still won.
Other goalies, such as IIya Bryzgalov of Phoenix, should have been pulled, as he gave up at least four goals in every game against Detroit. Antti Niemi almost lost his starting spot going into game six. However, he was given the start and was able to secure the series win, and will retain his starting spot for now.
Tim Thomas, Roberto Luongo, Pekka Rinne and Jonathan Quick were the top four goalies in goals against during the regular season with a combined 2.11 GAA. In the playoffs, their combined GAA jumped to 3.08.
Goalies can be a fragile bunch and with all of the swapping that has occurred in this round, any mistake they make will play heavily on their minds. One has to wonder how many times goalies like Luongo, Niemi and the Philly goalie of the day will be keeping an eye on their bench instead of the play as the worry about being pulled.
There Is No Place Like Home…or Is There
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Home ice has been too inviting the road team as the home teams have a pathetic 21-28 record through the first round.
Only Washington and Detroit were able to be perfect as home.
It is often said that you want home ice simply for game seven. That is the only area where home ice was favorable in the first round. Three out of the four games that went to a game seven were won by the home team.
Do Not Underestimate Pittsburgh
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Pittsburgh has put together an impressive season. How many other teams could lose by far their two best players and still play at such a high level?
Added to those injuries was the suspension of defensive force Matt Cooke for the first round, meaning it looked like a short stay in the playoffs.
They drew the high scoring Tampa Bay Lightning, who, one would think would further exploit their missing players. Without one of their defense stoppers to help contain Stamkos, St Louis and Lecavalier, and without their scorers to match the Lightning output, it should have been a short series.
Instead, these Penguins fought as they have all season. Perhaps the loss of Crosby has the Ewing effect on this team, as they played a strong series against the Lightning. They did end up losing in seven games, but these Penguins should hold their heads up. Once the injuries hit many writers, including this one, predicted a quick demise, or Pittsburgh possibly even missing the playoffs. They proved many people wrong.
Time Zone Games Are Brutal
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Eastern Conference teams and fans really have no idea how lucky they are. Western conference teams such as Detroit and Nashville have to play late night game on the west coast. While it is no big deal for the players, this is where the fans suffer.
Predator and Red Wing fans, and to a lesser extent Blackhawks fans, suffer 2-3 hour time differences to watch their teams play. Those 10:40pm start times means that the games will be ending well after 1am. During playoff season it can become Zombie land around the office.
Also, I'm sure the bosses out on the west coast hate the 7pm Eastern start times in Detroit and Nashville, as work productivity must drop when it's a 4pm Pacific time puck drop.
Pushing these games that feature multi-time zone teams to a more neutral 8:30-9 local start time would be much better for the fans of each team.
It Aint over Till It’s over
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Boston and Philly both lost their first two games at home to start their series. Heading on the road, one would have thought that they were done. Both however, were able to fight back and win their series in seven games.
Chicago was looking at being swept entering game four. They to were able to fight back, forcing a game seven before finally falling in overtime.
Even within games it seemed as if no lead was safe. A two goal lead meant nothing, and several times teams fought back from three and four goal deficits.
No game or series is over until the final horn has blown.
There Is Always a First Time
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Nashville has finally won their first playoff series. Now that the wait and weight is over and off of them, there is no reason to think that they can’t keep going.
They are not an offensive-minded team, as they only ranked 23rd in goals per game this year at 2.56.
They finished the season on an uptick though, and continued that in the first round. They came out swinging against the Anaheim Ducks and averaged 3.65 goals against them.
The Predators strong suit is their defense, as they are lead by Ryan Sutter and Norris finalist Shea Weber. They helped lead the team to the second best goals against average during the regular season.
In net the Predators have Pekka Rinne, who played amazing throughout the season as he finished third in goals against average. While he did not have the best first round series, he was able to help his team win.
They were 6-6 against, Vancouver, San Jose and Detroit, the top three seeds in the West. Three of those losses were in overtime. They also were able to shutout both Vancouver and Detroit.
Although in new territory, they will not be intimidated against any of those teams. They have a tough draw in Vancouver, but many a series has been won by a hot goalie. Rinne is very capable of being that goalie.
Maybe the Regular Season Does Matter
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There are many who don’t believe that the regular season in hockey means that much. Over half the teams in the NHL make the playoffs and once in, it is anybody’s game.
Usually there are several upsets in the first round and at least one of the higher seeded teams fall. Chicago, Buffalo and Montreal each pushed their series to seven games against higher seeded teams but each ended up losing
The top three seeds in both conferences advanced to the second round. In nine of the past ten playoffs that has not happened.