2011 NHL Playoffs: The Biggest Questions Facing the 8 Remaining Teams
Eight teams moved one step closer to the Stanley Cup with series wins in the first round of the playoffs earlier this month and are looking to break through to the Conference Finals with four wins in the second round.
Each team left in the hunt for the Cup is strong in a number of areas, but in order to make a deep run they will have to answer any question marks they have and have a complete, solid team effort to play into June. Here's what each team needs to sure up in the second round.
Vancouver Canucks: Which Luongo Will They Get?
The Canucks answered their playoff critics in the first round by knocking off the defending champion Blackhawks, but it was an adventure, to say the least. They jumped out to a 3-0 series lead where Roberto Luongo was solid between the pipes, but Games 4 through 6 went to the 'Hawks behind suspect net-minding, which almost gave the series away to the Blackhawks before Alex Burrows won Game 7 in overtime.
Vancouver was outscored 12-2 in Games 4 and 5 where Luongo was pulled in favor of Cory Schneider, whom Luongo relieved in the sixth game. Luongo's poor outings in this series at one point ballooned his goals allowed average (GAA) over three before ending up at 2.52, an average number for a goalie with so much pressure on him this spring.
Luongo's play in net is going to be something to continue to watch and will be a huge factor if the Canucks bring home the Cup which they're favored to win.
San Jose Sharks: Will They Continue To Handle Adversity?
The Sharks had the biggest single-game comeback in the playoffs in their win Game 3 win over the Kings in the first round. They came back from a four-goal deficit to win in overtime, including a five-goal second period, a franchise playoff record. The Sharks advanced past the Kings in six games, and have started off the second round well with a win over the Red Wings.
But the main figure to take away from the Sharks' playoff run so far is how they have won. Four out of five of their wins have come in sudden death overtime. For a team that has had to try to shed a "choker" label for years in the playoffs, this spring could have potentially been very different for San Jose. They have handled a great deal of pressure so far, we'll see if they continue to roll through bumps in the road this spring.
Detroit Red Wings: Will They Become Worse for Wear?
The Red Wings have come out this spring firing on all cylinders sweeping the Coyotes in the first round, the only 4-0 series win in the playoffs that has otherwise provided a boat load of drama.
This year's matchup with the Coyotes went much smoother for the Wings than last year, when Detroit let it go seven games before winning the final game of the series on the road. The Red Wings proceeded to be ousted by the San Jose Sharks in five games in the next round, which spurred their greatest critics to wonder if their dynamic but aging roster were not able to show up in the next round because of a full series before.
The Red Wings and Detroit fans could not be happier for the result in this year's first round. They are well rested heading into their series against San Jose. While they dropped the first game in the series, the Wings are in much better condition to take on the Sharks this year in what is sure to be a great series.
So if they are able to get past the Sharks in what is sure to be close this year, will the lingering effects of a long playoff round hurt the Red Wings' game?
Nashville Predators: Will Rinne Need To Be a Hero?
Pekka Rinne was nominated for the Vezina Trophy along with Tim Thomas and Roberto Luongo, whom the Predators are facing in the second round of the playoffs. On a club that has been known throughout its history and now string of playoff appearances in recent years, Rinne is its greatest player in 2011.
While being in the top five in save percentage and GAA, Rinne posted six shutouts and backstopped the Predators past the Ducks and the Perry-Getzlaf-Ryan line as well as goal scoring leader Teemu Selanne in the first round.
Things are going to be tougher for the Preds after their first series win in franchise history as they take on the Canucks in the second round. Led by Rinne, the Predators will look to continue their great team-oriented offensive contribution along with Shea Weber and Ryan Suter leading on the back end against Vancouver.
That being said, the Predators are short on talent depth across the board against Vancouver and will need to have their best play this season to move on. Rinne should be steady in net. The Predators' support around him is what will be needed to move on.
Washington Capitals: Will They Stay Away from Old Habits?
Capitals fans remembered the rough stretch their team had earlier this season while coach Bruce Boudreau implemented a more defensive system for his team to play. While first met with criticism, the Capitals righted the ship and played smart in their own end the rest of the way. Their great play down the stretch helped them jump the Flyers for the top spot in the East and they quickly knocked out the Rangers in five games in the opening round.
With this strong team play and Michal Neuvirth playing great in net, the Capitals should be looking to stay the course as the playoffs continue. But the Caps dropped their first game against the Lightning in the second round, 4-2.
Tampa played desperate hockey and came back from a 3-1 series deficit to knock out the Pens and continued to play fast against the Caps, giving them the victory. It looks like Washington will be able to rebound from this first loss, but if they revert to much of what Boudreau referred to as bad habits, they could let the Lightning make things interesting.
Philadelphia Flyers: How Will Their Goaltending Hold Up?
So far it's looked like the Flyers' goaltending situation has continued to be a revolving door in the postseason. Last year's run to the Stanley Cup final included changes due to injury followed by good, timely returns from both Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton for the Flyers to get out of the East.
Philly has already played three goalies in these playoffs unfortunately because of poor play, not ailing health. While three netminders been in between the pipes, Brian Boucher is the only one with any wins.
While Boucher has held up relatively well compared to the other options the Flyers have put in net in these playoffs, he hasn't completely been the answer. He has let in the occasional soft goal and has sometimes just let things get out of hand, including the Flyers' Game 1 loss to the Bruins letting in five goals in an eventual 7-3 loss to Boston.
The Flyers may look to keep Boucher in as the steady starter, but their goalie situation is anything but stable.
Boston Bruins: Will They Be Able to Defend Speed?
The Bruins are a pretty complete team top to bottom and have solidified the back end with Tomas Kaberle for at least this spring. They have kept their identity of a big, physical team throughout the year that can really knock people around. They are an intimidating bunch that create chances by making room on the ice and getting to the net, while hitting and shutting down offenses on the back end.
The question regarding how Boston is able to defend against the highly-skilled Flyers' forwards is if they will be able to keep up with their quick creativity and overcome great forechecking from Philadelphia. If the Bruins are able to establish a physical edge and Tim Thomas continues to play well, Boston will have a shot at avenging last year's historic collapse at the hands of the Flyers.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Will Stamkos Turn It On?
Tampa was able to overcome a big deficit against a good Pittsburgh team in the first round to earn a spot in the Eastern Conference semifinals, coming back from down 3-1. The Lightning's great effort featured only two goals by their top scoring threat Steven Stamkos.
Many hockey fans were intrigued to see how this younger Lightning team would enter their first postseason, and were astonished how Stamkos only cashed in twice in the first round. But still, it says something about this group's effort to be able to still fight back and win without the largest contribution from their top goal scorer.
That being said, Stamkos scored his first great timely postseason goal with the winning marker against the Capitals in Game 1 of the second round in DC. Stamkos is going to be a factor with how this divisional series matchup ends up. Tampa is on a roll with only a few goals from him. The Lightning have a great shot if he really turns it on.