NHL Playoffs 2011: Coming of Age Teams Make for Lopsided Series

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NHL Playoffs 2011: Coming of Age Teams Make for Lopsided Series
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
Joe Thornton's monster night Wednesday was the kind of signature game critics have been looking for.

So far in the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, the second round looks like it may end disappointingly early.

The first round featured 13 overtime games and had six of the eight series going at least six games. Only one series was a sweep, and three went the distance.

By contrast, the second round boasts three teams who have yet to win a game in a combined 10 tries. It is quite possible that only one team will survive beyond a full week from the first game of their series.

The first round of the playoffs is supposed to separate the pretenders from the contenders. So why is there such a disparity between opponents in the next round?

In reality, the disparity between the teams is not great. In just 13 games, there have been six more overtime contests and three other one-goal games; just two were decided by more than two goals.

So what is causing the large leads in the series? The difference for the teams always winning the close ones is they are coming of age, taking the next step in their development.

Perhaps no team epitomizes this as much as the San Jose Sharks. They were often viewed as soft in the playoffs—perhaps unfairly given that three of their last six playoff series losses were to the Western Conference champions and they had advanced to the conference finals twice.

Has Boston come of age in this year's playoffs?

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But there is no argument so far in this year's playoffs: They have won all five of their overtime games, all four of their road games and their only other one-goal contest. A further examination of their series against Detroit shows that this team has become one of the hardest-working in hockey.

Meanwhile, the young Tampa Bay Lightning have won seven games in a row. They knocked off the team that has represented the Eastern Conference in two of the last three years—doing so after being down 3-1—and the three-time top seed in the conference in a sweep in successive rounds.

And they did it because, in the words of a leader (Mike Knuble) for the latter team, they could get the big goal whenever they needed it.

Finally, there is the Bruins. Boston has a cloud hanging over it this time of year because the franchise has not won a Stanley Cup since 1972, and is a frequent choker.

Their first round was against a rival they have beaten in the playoffs just eight times in 32 tries. They proceeded to drop the first two games at home, and the panic button was hit again.

Only they came back to win in seven. Now they are up 3-0 on the team that led the Eastern Conference for most of the year.

Sure, they had the same lead on this very team in last year's second round, but this situation is different: Boston seemed fortunate to win the games last year, and those victories did not give them seven in nine games. Philadelphia did not have as many issues in net as this year, when, in five of their 10 games, they had to make a change in net.

What will the Stanley Cup finals match-up be?

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Because of last year, Boston cannot be considered to have come of age until it finishes off the Flyers. But anyone who sees a failure on the horizon is either a jaded Boston fan or an arrogant Philly fan... There are enough of both out there, but it does not make them rational.

The only real question left about who will advance is between Vancouver and Nashville. Even between them, there will likely be a coming of age for the winner, who will have gotten further than they have been in this decade.

In other words, watch this week's games closely and you will know who next year's contenders will be.

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