2011 NHL Playoffs: The X Factor for Each Remaining Team
You don't just make it into the playoffs by accident. And you don't just win your first series and advance past the conference quarterfinals by accident.
For each of the eight teams remaining in the 2011 NHL Playoffs, they've all already discovered that 'X' factor; the player, the unit, or the style that makes the difference between winning and losing. For all of these teams, they found that X Factor in Round One. But, as the competitors are cut in half again in the upcoming Second Round, will they be able to, once again, use that X Factor to their advantage?
In this slideshow, we'll examine what statistic was, in many cases, the deciding factor for each team during their first series, and also take a look at how they might be able to pull it out of the bag again in the Conference Semi-Finals.
Washington Capitals: Goaltending
23-year-old Michal Neuvirth, a rookie this season, was spectacular in the first round of the playoffs, avoiding falling fate to another Capitals collapse as he shut down the New York Rangers in five games.
Neuvirth was second among all goaltenders in the Conference Quarterfinals with a .946 save percentage and led all netminders with a stunning 1.38 goals-against average (GAA). Neuvirth held the Blueshirts to just a single goal in the series-opening and series-closing games and also posted a 22-save shutout in Game Two.
However, Neuvirth is still quite young, and those five postseason games were the first five of his career. Will he fall prey to the mounting pressure and tougher offenses, such as the Lightning's devasting combination of Stamkos, St. Louis, and Lecavalier, down the stretch? Quite possibly. And, if so, the Capitals don't have much else to turn.
Backup Semyon Varlamov is also very young, just 23, and had just 25 starts this past year, rendering him at least a little rusty. Additionally, Varlamov was fine in last year's first round but was still the goaltender who was in goal as Washington blew their first round series against Montreal. Beyond Varlamov, the Caps can only turn to another prospect, Braden Holtby, who was spectacular in limited NHL regular season action yet was 2-4 with a 3.01 GAA and .893 save percentage in a first round loss in the AHL playoffs.
The Capitals new defensive style and stronger goaltending base helped them win at least one series, but could such an inexperienced group of goalies come back to haunt them? We think it might, and that's why we'll call it a huge X Factor for the second round.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Special Teams
Power Play and Penalty Kill played a big role in the Bolts seven-game series win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Round One, where they recovered from a 3-1 series deficit to move on. Tampa Bay converted on eight power plays against the regular season's number one penalty kill while stopping the high-powered Penguins a whopping 34 out of 35 times, as well, a stunning 97.1 percent ratio.
As would be expected, the Lightning were tied for first among all first-round teams in powerplay goals and a runaway first in penalties killed. They were also second in PK percentage, as Montreal did go 21 for 21 (you must take into account, though, that they were tested much less), and among only four teams to score a shorthanded goal.
The man-advantage unit will face another tough test in the second round as Tampa Bay has happened to draw the NHL's second-best penalty kill, the Washington Capitals. With stars such as Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Niclas Backstrom on the other side, the near-perfect penalty-killing unit will also have to remain on top of their game. If the Bolts are to pull off what would arguably be the biggest upset of the second round and advance, their special teams will certainly have to be fantastic.
Philadelphia Flyers: Danny Briere
Danny Briere lit up the Flyers' first round series against the Sabres almost like he had not missed a stride since his incredible performances in last season's playoffs. The 33-year-old had six goals and an assist in seven appearances including four goals in the last three games of the series as he became a key factor in Philly's series comeback.
A year ago, Briere had 12 goals, 18 assists, and a plus-nine rating in 23 games as the Flyers fell just two wins short of a Stanley Cup championship, continuing to solidify his reputation as a fantastic playoff player. The year before, though, Briere had only one goal and four points in six games as Philadelphia dropped their only series of the 2009 postseason.
If Philly wants to keep alive their hope to complete their ultimate goal this spring, Briere needs to stay hot and remain a huge emotional and statistical leader of this team.
Boston Bruins: Depth Scoring
The Boston Bruins were aided little by their biggest stars in their first round series victory over Montreal. Tim Thomas allowed three or more goals in three different games, massive defenseman Zdeno Chara had just one assist, newly acquired Tomas Kaberle had only two assists, and offensive stars David Krejci and Milan Lucic combined for a mere one goal, two assists, and minus-one rating in fourteen man-games.
However, it was the depth scoring that stepped up and carried the Bruins in crunch time. Patrice Bergeron had two goals and five assists, leading Boston at the moment with seven playoff points, former Senator Chris Kelly had three goals and three assists, Brad Marchand and Rich Peverley each had five points, and tough guy D-man Andrew Ference added his own four points. Furthermore, bottom-pairing defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Adam McQuaid were a combined plus-six.
The Bruins will not only need a dramatic increased production from their top-paid stars but also even more offense from the unlikely heroes that aided them in Round One if they want to overcome last year's devasting loss to Philadelphia in this year's series.
Vancouver Canucks: Roberto Luongo
Veteran netminder Roberto Luongo has carried the weight of the Vancouver Canucks from the moment he arrived just before the '06-'07 season. The former fourth overall pick has a 193-101-33 record with Vancouver over the past five seasons, as well as a .920 save percentage and 2.28 GAA.
However, he has never taken the 'Nucks past the second round of the playoffs, despite his regular season mastery. Luongo is only 21-20 all-time in the postseason, despite a .916 save percentage and 2.53 GAA that almost rival his regular season numbers.
Luongo showed that inconsistency under pressure when he was a key reason why Vancouver blew a 3-0 series lead (though they eventually survived in Game Seven). The Montreal native allowed three goals on 26 shots (an .885 save percentage) in a win in Game Two, six goals on 28 shots (a .786 save percentage) before being pulled in a Game Four rout, and four goals on just 12 shots (a .667 save percentage) in another rout, this time in Game Five.
On the other hand, Luongo also limited the Hawks to one goal or fewer in three other games, including a 32-save shutout in Game One and two one-goal performances in the decisive games Six and Seven.
For the President's Trophy-winning Canucks, they'll need strong play from their backstop netminder if they want to win the Stanley Cup, too. Luongo, despite his stardom status, is, most definitely, the X Factor in Vancouver.
Nashville Predators: Defense
The Ducks-Predators first round matchup was expected to be a series of low-scoring, defensive affairs. It wasn't.
The two teams, combined, averaged 3.5 goals per game, and, instead of the 1-0 and 2-1 scores that we expected to see frequently, the games ended up working the scoreboards a whole lot more, with finals of 4-1, 5-3, 4-3, 6-3, 4-3 and 4-2.
For a Nashville defense that was third in the league during the regular season, giving up just 2.32 goals per game, their 3.33 goals per game mark during the six-game series wasn't anywhere close to what they were looking for. Bobby Ryan's spectacular shredding of the defensive pair of bewildered captain Shea Weber and lost-looking David Legwand in Game Five pretty much exemplified the reliability of the typically consistent Predator 'D' in their first round series, which will need to improve a lot if they want to shut down the Sedin brothers and their very capable teammates.
Not many would've expected Nashville's back end to come into question during the postseason, but it already has. Can the Preds' X Factor play to their advantage in Round Two, or will it send them packing.
San Jose Sharks: Star Scoring
The Sharks got past the Kings in an exciting first round series, winning three of their four victories by a single goal. However, both losses came as decisive routs in the confines of the Shark Tank, with San Jose being outscored by a combined total of 6-1 in the two.
However, their offense was unstoppable for much of the rest of the series, as the Sharks put up six goals twice and then won the series-deciding Game Six in overtime as Joe Thornton put up San Jose's fourth and final goal of the night. As it turned out, it was star players like Thornton that made the difference in this series and will need to continue to as the opponents get tougher.
In addition to Thornton, top-end leaders like Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, and Ryane Clowe have been productive. Clowe added two goals in both games Three and Four in the Staples Center, helping lead the Sharks to an eventual 3-0 record at Kings ice, Marleau ended the series on a four-game point streak, and rookie of the year candidate Couture had five total points over the course of the series.
With defending Cup champion goaltender Antti Niemi struggling, San Jose was able to rely on their offense and, in particular, these elite players. Will they be able to survive against a much more experienced Red Wings team just by putting up a lot of goals? That's yet to determine.
Detroit Red Wings: Veteran Leadership
With the only sweep of the first round, a four game rout of the Coyotes, the Red Wings have nine days of rest heading into tonight's game in San Jose. Another advantage the Wings have: veteran leadership. And even better is those leadership players also know how to score.
The Wings' top eight scorers for their first round series have a combined 724 man-games of NHL playoff experience, or a little over 90 games of postseason appearances per player. That number is equivalent to about 16 or 17 playoff series of experience each. Names in that list include old stars like Pavel Datsyuk, Tomas Holmstrom, Todd Bertuzzi, and Johan Franzen.
...And then they also have guys like Niklas Lidstrom (251 playoff appearances), Brian Rafalski (158 playoff appearances), and, despite his injury problems, Mike Modano (175 playoff appearances) "in the back pocket", so to speak.
Needless to say, its a star-packed, leadership-packed, experienced-packet lineup for the aging yet extremely dangerous Red Wings, who appear as poised as ever to bring another Stanley Cup to Detroit. They averaged 4.5 goals per game during their first four games of the 2011 postseason, and look to do the same against the potentially vulnerable San Jose goaltending duo of leaky Antti Niemi and uncertain Antero Niittymaki.
X Factor? More like the "Win the Cup Factor", we dare to predict.