2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs: The Most Intriguing Stories of the Postseason

Alison Myers@AlisonM_110Correspondent IJune 17, 2011

2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs: The Most Intriguing Stories of the Postseason

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    Another June, another hockey season in the books.

    The 2010-11 NHL season had its highlight reel goals, its controversial moments and one of the craziest Stanley Cup Finals in recent history. This year, it was the Boston Bruins who came away victorious, as they won a seven-game match with the Presidents' Trophy winning Vancouver Canucks.

    The playoffs kept fans glued to their televisions and engaged in conversations on various message boards. It seemed like there was hardly a game without some interesting angle for fans and experts to explore.

    Here are some of the storylines that generated a lot of buzz.

14. Manny Malhotra Returns

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    Prior to the finals, Malhotra had not played since a March 16 game against the Colorado Avalanche. He had been struck in the eye by a puck and required two procedures to save his vision.

    Although he had been on hand when Vancouver received the Presidents' Trophy (he got a standing ovation when he accepted the trophy with Henrik Sedin), it didn't seem like he would be back for the rest of the season.

    But before the finals, the team announced that Malhotra was participating in light, no-contact workouts. He eventually was able to return to the lineup for Game 2 of the finals.

    Malhotra did not make an impact on the score sheet, but he did play nearly 15 minutes in Game 3. He also ended up second on the Canucks with a 52.1 percent faceoff win percentage.

    The return of Malhotra was a great feel good story for Vancouver players and fans.

13. Pittsburgh Penguins Try to Compete Without Superstars

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    Coming into the postseason, the Pittsburgh Penguins were the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. However, without top forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, many were not expecting the Penguins to do anything.

    The Penguins began to prove their doubters wrong early in their series against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Marc-Andre Fleury earned a shutout in Game 1, while James Neal scored in double overtime of Game 4, to help the Penguins get out to a 3-1 series lead.

    But Pittsburgh couldn't finish the job. They dropped the next three games, including two at Consol Energy Center, to blow the series lead and lose to the Bolts.

    Although most Penguins fans knew this wouldn't be the team's year, it was still a tough pill to swallow. Dropping a 3-1 series lead is seen as unacceptable regardless of which team does it, and many were left scratching their heads wondering how it happened.

12. Detroit Red Wings Attempt a Miracle Comeback

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    The Detroit Red Wings and the San Jose Sharks were meeting in the Western Conference Semifinals for the second straight year. San Jose had won the series last year, eliminating Detroit in five games.

    Just like in 2010, the Sharks jumped out to a 3-0 series lead. However, this year, they won two of the first three games in overtime.

    But in Games 4 and 5, Detroit bounced back with identical 4-3 wins. Nicklas Lidstrom had two goals in Game 4, while in Game 5, four different Wings chipped in goals. Jonathan Ericsson scored his first postseason goal in that game.

    Detroit also won 3-1 in Game 6 to force Game 7, but the Sharks avoided embarrassment in the elimination game. They won 3-2 as Devin Setoguchi and Logan Couture each put up their sixth goal of the playoffs.

    The failed comeback was the end of an era for one Detroit player. Brian Rafalski announced his retirement recently. It could have also been the last game for Lidstrom and Mike Modano, neither of whom has officially announced their retirement as of this writing.

11. Washington Capitals Collapse in Semifinals

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    This could have been the Washington Capitals' year to finally break through in the postseason. The last three years were disappointments, especially 2010, when the Capitals blew a 3-1 series lead against the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens in the quarterfinals.

    The Capitals again started the playoffs as the top seed in the East. They had 117 points in the regular season and were Southeast Division champions and regular season Eastern Conference champions.

    They started things off on the right foot by defeating the eighth-seeded New York Rangers in five games. They were set to play Tampa Bay in the semifinals, and they were the heavy favorite. Although Tampa had bounced back against the Penguins, many thought the Capitals high-powered offense would be too much for the Lightning to handle.

    How wrong these critics were. 

    The Bolts came in to the semifinals and swept the Capitals, shocking the hockey world and the Capitals fanbase, who were upset about yet another playoff failure.

    Capitals fans didn't know who to blame. Was it the fault of head coach Bruce Boudreau? Was it because Nicklas Backstrom, a top forward, had just two points in nine playoff games? Were Ted Leonsis and George McPhee not building this team correctly?

    Something needs to change to get the Capitals ready to truly compete in the postseason, but what should it be?

10. Chicago Nearly Knocks off Vancouver...Again

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    The Canucks and the Chicago Blackhawks were getting well acquainted with each other in the postseason. The teams had met in the 2009 and 2010 Western Conference Semifinals, with Chicago reigning victorious in both of the previous seasons.

    In 2009, the Blackhawks won in six games. The last game of that series included a 7-5 thumping of the Canucks, and Patrick Kane got a hat trick to lead the Hawks to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 1995.

    In 2010, Chicago again won in six games. They went on to defeat the Sharks in the Western Conference Finals and the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup Finals to win their first title since 1961.

    But in 2011, things were a little different. Vancouver had won the Presidents' Trophy after posting 117 points in the regular season, while the Blackhawks, who had had their Cup winning team decimated due to salary cap issues, were the eighth seed in the West.

    Vancouver won the first three games to put Chicago on the brink, but the Blackhawks didn't appreciate that and started a furious rally. They thumped the Canucks 7-2 in Game 4, and Patrick Sharp posted two power-play goals in the third to help Chicago hold off elimination. 

    The two teams returned to Vancouver for Game 5, where the Hawks shut out the Canucks by a 5-0 score. Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith each scored two goals, and Corey Crawford stopped 36 shots for his first postseason shutout.

    Michael Frolik, a deadline acquisition for the Hawks, scored on the first playoff penalty shot in Hawks history, to help Chicago win Game 6. Rookie Ben Smith scored the game-winning goal in overtime.

    But in Game 7, Vancouver exorcised their demons with a 2-1 overtime win. Jonathan Toews scored a shorthanded goal with 1:56 left in the third to force overtime, but Alexandre Burrows tallied his second of the game in the extra period to finally lift his team past the Hawks.

9. Roberto Luongo Struggles; Still Can't Shed Choker Label

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    If someone looking at Roberto Luongo's stats had never watched hockey, or at least hadn't paid attention to the Finals, they'd see this stat line:

    15-10, four shutouts, .914 save percentage, 2.56 GAA

    Luongo was second in the NHL in wins and tied for first in shutouts. His save percentage was ranked seventh, while his GAA was ranked eighth.

    The oblivious person looking at his stats might go "Hey, that's not bad at all!"

    Luongo's stats are definitely solid, but as we know, statistics don't tell the whole story.

    He was pulled three times in the postseason, starting with Game 4 against Chicago when he made 22 saves on 28 shots. He didn't even get to start Game 6 that round and only got to see the ice because Cory Schneider got injured.

    Luongo appeared to silence his critics during the next two rounds against the Nashville Predators and the Sharks, but things got ugly again in the Finals.

    In Game 3, he was not pulled from the game, but he gave up eight goals, making 30 saves on 38 shots. However, he was pulled in Game 4 after allowing four goals on 20 shots as the Bruins tied the series with a 4-0 shutout victory.

    Luongo was sent to the bench in Game 6 after allowing three goals on eight shots in the first period. The kicker was that the three goals came 3:04 apart in the opening frame.

    He could not rebound in Game 7, either, surrendering three goals on 20 shots as the Bruins again won 4-0 and captured the Stanley Cup.

    Going into the playoffs, some felt Luongo could perform in big games and had shed his choker label. After all, he had played in the gold medal game in the 2010 Olympics, in Vancouver no less, where Canada won the top prize.

    Canucks fans are still waiting for Luongo to lead them to a Stanley Cup, and he needs to put pressure on himself to get over this hurdle.

8. Boston Gets Revenge on Philadelphia

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    The Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers were squaring off in the Eastern Conference Semifinals for the second year in a row.

    Boston came in with thoughts of 2010 on their minds. They remembered it like it was yesterday. They had a 3-0 series lead and lost it all when Philadelphia was inspired by the return of forward Simon Gagne. The Bruins had even given up a 3-0 lead in Game 7 to lose the series.

    That was not going to happen again.

    The Bruins got things started right with a 7-3 win in Game 1, which saw David Krejci and Brad Marchand score two goals each. They went on to win Game 2 in overtime by a score of 3-2. Philadelphia had a 2-0 lead in that game, but the Bruins answered the Flyers' two first-period goals with two of their own in the opening period. The game remained scoreless until Krejci scored in overtime.

    Boston made a statement early in Game 3, as Zdeno Chara and Krejci scored 33 seconds apart (Chara's goal came at 30 seconds, while Krejci scored at 1:03) to help Boston win 5-1.

    Finally, in Game 4, Milan Lucic had two goals, and the Bruins scored four times in the third, as they finished off the Flyers with another 5-1 win. To make things even sweeter, Game 4 was at TD Garden, where the Flyers had completed an epic comeback just the year before.

    Mission accomplished.

7. Nashville Predators Make a Name for Themselves

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    The Nashville Predators were a team accustomed to playoff disappointments. They had been in the postseason before, but never advanced past the second round.

    Little did they know that was all about to change when they faced the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Quarterfinals.

    The Ducks and the Preds exchanged wins in the first four games, but Nashville broke the deadlock in Game 5 with a 4-3 overtime win. Kevin Klein and Jerred Smithson each scored their first goal of the playoffs, and it was Smithson's goal that won the game and gave the Preds the 3-2 series lead.

    In Game 6, Nick Spaling scored two goals to give Nashville a 4-2 win in the game and the series. David Legwand also scored for the Predators; he added an empty net goal in the final minutes of the third period to punch Nashville's ticket to their first Western Conference Semifinals.

    The Predators marched on to face Vancouver in the semifinals. They won Game 2 in double overtime thanks to Matt Halischuk, and Ryan Suter also scored.

    Vancouver won the next two games to take a 3-1 series lead, but in Game 5, the Predators forced a Game 6 with a 4-3 victory. Legwand and Joel Ward had two goals in the game.

    Although the Preds lost in Game 6 and were eliminated, they made history this year. They also had some great pieces to lead the way, including Vezina finalist Pekka Rinne (6-6 with a .907 save percentage and 2.57 GAA) and Jack Adams finalist Barry Trotz. Ward, who isn't exactly the most well-known NHL player, quietly led the Preds in scoring with 13 points. Trade deadline pick-up Mike Fisher had seven points in 12 postseason games.

    Nashville definitely set the stage for future playoff success, and it would be nice to see them get even further in the coming years.

6. Tampa Bay Lightning Play the Role of Cinderella

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    The Lightning were in the playoffs for the first time since 2007. They were the fifth seed in the East, a remarkable turnaround from their 12th place finish the year before.

    However, no one gave them much of a chance of doing anything in the postseason. 

    Sure, they had offensive talents such as Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier. But on the downside, they had a questionable defense, and while Dwayne Roloson was a veteran netminder, he hadn't had much postseason success since he was in the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals with the Edmonton Oilers.

    Tampa became this year's Cinderella story in the playoffs. They fought back from a 3-1 series deficit against the Penguins and swept the top-seeded Capitals. Unfortunately, they fell short of their ultimate goal against the Bruins, but it was hard to deny that they had made such a good run.

    The Bolts were guided by first-year head coach Guy Boucher, who is one of the most successful coaches in hockey. Boucher has had success on the minor league levels, and he should be partially credited for Tampa's turnaround this season.

    St. Louis and Lecavalier proved they could still put up big numbers when it counted. St. Louis finished third in the NHL with 20 points and was third with 10 goals. He was also second with four power-play goals.

    Meanwhile, team captain Lecavalier was sixth in the league with 19 points and sixth with three power-play goals. He was also second with three game-winning goals.

    Teddy Purcell also emerged as a star in the playoffs, finishing ninth in playoff scoring with 17 points. He had a pair of two-goal games (Games 4 and 6 against Boston).

    As for the 41-year-old Roloson? He finished the playoffs with a 10-6 record to go with a .924 save percentage and 2.51 GAA. He was third in wins, fourth in save percentage and seventh in goals against.

    Although Tampa eliminated my team in the playoffs, I thoroughly enjoyed cheering for them in later rounds. It's too bad that St. Louis and Lecavalier couldn't get back to the finals, as they truly deserved the opportunity (that's not to say Boston did not).

5. The Emergence of Nathan Horton

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    Horton played with the Florida Panthers from 2003 to 2010 and had a respectable career there, posting four 50-point seasons. However, because the Panthers were never in the playoff picture, Horton didn't always get the attention he deserved.

    That began to change this year when he was traded to the Bruins in the offseason. He tallied 53 points and was ninth in the NHL with a plus-29 rating during the regular season. In the playoffs, he finished ninth in scoring with 17 points and sixth with a plus/minus rating of plus-11. He was also second with three game-winning goals. 

    Unfortunately, Horton sustained a concussion in Game 3, which was one of the scariest moments in the playoffs. His remarkable postseason came to an end, but he was still one of the biggest parts of the Bruins' playoff run.

    And finally, the rest of the NHL began to take notice.

4. Philadelphia Flyers Goaltending Carousel

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    The Bruins came into the playoffs with Tim Thomas as the clear starting netminder. The Blackhawks had put their faith in rookie Corey Crawford. In New York City, Henrik Lundqvist was once again goaltending royalty.

    The Flyers put their Cup hopes in the hand of first-year pro Sergei Bobrovsky.

    No, wait; they actually stuck with Brian Boucher, a member of the 2010 Flyers team that went to the Cup finals.

    But, but...I heard that Michael Leighton would be the playoff hero again. So what if he only played one regular season game in the NHL this past season?

    OK, I give up. Who did the Flyers count on?

    That was something no one could really answer.

    By the time Philadelphia was eliminated in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, they had played 11 games, but they had changed goaltenders in six of those games.

    Bobrovsky was pulled in Game 2 of the quarterfinals against the Buffalo Sabres after surrendering three goals on seven shots. After that, he did not see the ice again until the semifinals against Boston, where he took the loss in Game 4.

    Boucher was taken out by Peter Laviolette three times during the playoffs, twice in the semifinals. He was also injured in Game 2 against Boston, which didn't really help the Flyers. However, he was good to go in Game 3, but was pulled after allowing four goals on 20 shots.

    Leighton had spent the majority of the regular season with the Adirondack Phantoms of the AHL, and he came in to the playoffs a little rusty. He took the loss in Game 5 against the Sabres after replacing Boucher, but he only managed to let up one goal.

    There is really no question that the Flyers' inability to stick with one goaltender hurt an otherwise talented team these playoffs. They will need to sign Ilya Bryzgalov, whose negotiation rights they acquired from the Phoenix Coyotes, to prevent this from happening again.

3. Boston Ends Stanley Cup Drought

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    The Bruins knocked off their bitter rivals in the Montreal Canadiens, they got revenge on the Flyers with a sweep and they ended the Lightning's Cinderella run.

    Of course, there was only one thing left to do: Win the Stanley Cup.

    Boston was back in the Finals for the first time since 1990, where they lost to the Edmonton Oilers, who captured their fifth Stanley Cup. Twenty-one years later, they were taking on another Canadian team, the Canucks.

    The Bruins won all of their games in Boston and broke the home-ice advantage in Game 7 with a 4-0 win. It was their first victory since 1972, when they defeated the Rangers in six games with the help of legendary defenseman Bobby Orr.

    Tim Thomas won the Conn Smythe Trophy after finishing the playoffs with a record of 16-9 to go with a .940 save percentage and 1.98 GAA while posting four shutouts. He was the top-ranked goaltender in all major categories.

    Rookie Brad Marchand also became a star in the postseason. He led all NHL rookies in playoff scoring and was second in the league with 11 goals and sixth with 19 points. His totals included one shorthanded goal and a three-point night (two goals, one assist) in Game 7.

    Captain Zdeno Chara won his first Stanley Cup. He had nine points in 24 games and was first in the league with a plus-16 rating.

    Claude Julien, whose job was in danger after last year's playoff embarrassment, can sleep easier this summer, as his job is definitely safe for another year.

2. Vancouver Riots

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    For Game 7, the city of Vancouver had set up big screens downtown for fans who could not secure a ticket to the game. More than 100,000 people came out to have a good time and hoped to see their Canucks hoisting the Stanley Cup at the end of the night.

    But when that didn't happen, things got ugly. Actually, they got REALLY ugly.

    Fans started by throwing beer bottles at the giant TV screens, and it was all downhill from there. Rioters were overturning cars and jumping on them. Many vehicles, including Vancouver Police cruisers, were set on fire. Some of the troublemakers even tried to run through the fires.

    As a horrified hockey community watched on Canadian television, things got more out of hand the as the night wore on. Rioters were breaking windows of banks and other businesses, and people were running inside stores and stealing items at their leisure. A man trying to stop the looting was beaten on by several people. Others were stabbed and cut with broken glass.

    Explosions occurred throughout the night, and on TV coverage, you could hear fire and security alarms blaring in the background. The innocent people who wanted to leave the mob scene could not, as transit was backed up or not running, and bridges were shut down. All they had left to do was stand around and shake their heads at the people gleefully taking pictures of the damage.

    Police from throughout British Columbia were dispatched, and officers were in full riot gear. Police dogs and horses were also on scene. The officers tried tear gas and flashbangs to disperse the crowds, but nothing seemed to be working.

    By the time things were said and done, 150 people had been treated at local hospitals. One man is in critical condition after taking a fall from 15 feet off the ground and hitting the sidewalk outside Rogers Arena. Vancouver police are asking for people to send photos from social media sites so that they can make arrests, and Vancouver residents were left cleaning up a damaged town that saw some stores suffer millions of dollars in damage.

    It was a scene that people are still talking about almost 24 hours later, and it won't be forgotten anytime soon.

1. The Finals Get Wild

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    Usually, the Stanley Cup Finals are a time when penalties are few and far between. Fighting is absent, and while physical play occurs, it usually doesn't escalate into much more than typical body checks.

    That wasn't the case this year.

    More than 200 penalty minutes were called in this year's series, and many issues broke out aside from just typical pushing and shoving.

    Alexandre Burrows was accused of biting Patrice Bergeron. Aaron Rome will finish serving a suspension next season after laying a hit on Nathan Horton. Even a legal hit from Johnny Boychuk on Mason Raymond drew ire from Canucks fans, especially when Raymond was diagnosed with a broken vertebrae.

    Then of course, everyone who wasn't a Vancouver fan insisted the Sedin twins were embellishing hits. Roberto Luongo carried an attitude that he could make saves Tim Thomas could not.

    Somewhere in all of this, the Bruins came out as Stanley Cup champions. And hockey fans, regardless of their allegiances, were reminded of why they love the sport.

    The 2011 Stanley Cup Finals was a series for the ages, and it was the best storyline of this year's playoffs.