Emerging Storylines to Follow in 1st Round of 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs
We're less than a week into the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs, and already some teams are facing big holes to climb out of. Others are deadlocked with the outcomes as sure as a coin toss. Nothing has been decided as of yet in the eight first-round series.
While it's still early in the postseason, however, there are some emerging storylines to follow. There has been no shortage of excitement—from goaltending controversies to controversial video-replay challenges, to dominant starts on some of the scoresheets.
Click ahead to take a look at some of the things we're keeping an eye on in the first round.
Jimmy Howard was two and out for the Detroit Red Wings, the Philadelphia Flyers may want to consider a switch after Steve Mason allowed the "worst goal ever" from about 100 feet away and the Anaheim Ducks have started the postseason 0-2 while sitting the guy who got them to the Western Conference Final a year ago.
Yes, goaltending question marks are prevalent already.
The switch to Petr Mrazek worked for the Red Wings. They blanked the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-0 in Game 3 on Sunday. Other teams might follow suit. They should at least be thinking seriously about it.
The Ducks stuck with John Gibson after he had a rough time in Game 1, and although he's not the reason the team is winless while the Nashville Predators have their first ever 2-0 playoff series lead, he's not been the Ducks' best player. Frederik Andersen played 16 playoff games last year and might get a look in Game 3.
The Flyers are in a desperate situation, and head coach Dave Hakstol wouldn't answer questions about his next starter after the 4-1 loss in Game 2. Michal Neuvirth has played only one game in the last month because of a lower-body injury, but he had a great season with an 18-8-4 record, 2.27 goals-against average and .924 save percentage in 32 games. If he hadn't been injured, he may have been the starter for Game 1.
These netminder situations are worth watching.
Tyler Johnson Is the Key to Beating the Red Wings ... Again
Tampa Bay Lightning center Tyler Johnson is once again the pivotal player in a first-round series between the Bolts and the Detroit Red Wings. Over the first two games of their 2016 matchup, Johnson had a pair of goals and six points. Not coincidentally, the Lightning won both of those contests.
In Game 3, though, the Red Wings iced a new checking line and started a different goaltender just to keep Johnson off of the scoresheet.
It worked, which is impressive considering Johnson finished tied for the most points in the 2015 playoffs with 23 in 26 games. In 10 games against the Red Wings in the past two postseasons, he has eight goals, five assists and 23 shots on goal.
It's Annoying Getting Things Right
Anyone watching Game 2 of the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues series had to be cursing at the television when play was stopped for a significant amount of time. This happened not once, but twice during what was an otherwise thrilling and competitive game.
The first was a goal by Vladimir Tarasenko that was ultimately waved off because the entry into the Blackhawks' zone was offside. Later, Andrew Shaw's go-ahead goal was reviewed twice when the NHL took a look to make sure that the goal was legitimate. Then, Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock took a shot at having it overturned based on the notion of goaltender interference by Shaw.
Earlier in the week, Tampa Bay Lightning's Jonathan Drouin was also offside before setting up what would have been his first assist in these playoffs with Tampa Bay, and on the weekend, both the New York Rangers/Pittsburgh Penguins series and New York Islanders/Florida Panthers experienced challenges with different results.
The Rangers' Derick Brassard's go-ahead goal in the Saturday matinee was ruled legal. Florida's Aaron Ekblad's goal was overturned because teammate Jonathan Huberdeau's heel crossed the blue line just before the puck got kicked in.
In the end, it's important to get calls right, and that seems to be happening, but be prepared to see every important goal challenged in the hopes that the play that brought the puck into the zone was offside.
Kari Lehtonen Is No Weak Link for the Stars
Kari Lehtonen's playoff performance was so poor last year that the team went out and made a trade and signed a deal for Antti Niemi in the offseason. Lehtonen's career postseason numbers are abysmal—a 3.19 goals-against average and .892 save percentage.
And that includes his strong numbers from this spring.
While it is true Lehtonen hasn't had to face a couple of the Minnesota Wild's top offensive players with Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek nursing injuries, the 32-year-old veteran netminder has still been tested.
He stopped all 22 shots he faced in Game 1—a 4-0 Stars win that was back-loaded with shots with 20 of them coming in the final 40 minutes. In a 2-1 victory in Game 2, Lehtonen was especially strong in the dying minutes as the Wild pressed for a tying goal. He stopped 25 of 26 shots faced in that one, and he has a .979 save percentage and 0.50 GAA so far this spring.
With the league's top offense this season, the Stars were not worried about scoring goals in these playoffs, but there was plenty to wonder about when it came to the netminders. Lehtonen had a mediocre .906 save percentage and 2.76 GAA in the regular season. He got the start because Niemi's numbers were equally as bad, with a .905 save percentage and 2.67 GAA.
The team may have to turn to Niemi at some point in the postseason. But for now, no one is looking at Lehtonen as the weak link they might have expected him to be.
Can the Kings Erase Another Intimidating Deficit to the Sharks?
The last time the Los Angeles Kings were down 2-0 to the San Jose Sharks in the first round of the playoffs, they won the Stanley Cup in the 2013-14 season.
The Kings overcame a massive three-game deficit two seasons ago, and the confidence from that comeback carried them all the way to the championship.
In the rematch, it already looks like another remarkable wall will have to be scaled in order to have another chance at a title. The Sharks won the first two games at the Staples Center in Los Angeles—both by a single goal. Unlike the 2014 series, the Sharks have won both games on the road so far. That might, at first glance, seem like a huge advantage, but the Men in Teal were actually a sub-.500 team at home during the regular season.
If the Kings are going to climb back into the series, then they'll need a lot more from their star players. While Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton have been hot for the Sharks, the Kings' stars are ice cold. Anze Kopitar has one assist over the first two games. Drew Doughty took 10 shots in Game 2, but he didn't hit the net even once thanks to errant aim and blocks.
The past collapse may weigh on the Sharks at some point, but so far it looks like a much different team capable of keeping the pressure on the Kings.
The Captains' Club
There are some incredible performances taking place by some of the NHL captains in the first round, with John Tavares of the New York Islanders, Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars, Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks and Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals among those having a huge early impact on their series.
Tavares' Islanders have a 2-1 lead in their series against the Florida Panthers. He had three points in Game 1 and has totaled a pair of goals and six points through the first three games.
Benn scored the winning goal late in Game 2 to give the Stars a two-game lead over the Minnesota Wild. He has a pair of goals and four points over the two contests but has also been a wrecking ball with big hits, and he's one of the team's top penalty killers. He does it all.
Pavelski has teamed with Thornton to become one of the deadliest duos in the opening round. He is tied for second in the league with three goals so far, and he has four points in two games.
While so many leaders are silent right now—Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings and Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks—the captains we mentioned here are emerging as some of the top leaders in the game.
Braden Holtby Is a Proven Playoff Performer
While his counterpart is struggling in the Flyers net, Braden Holtby is proving to be an even better playoff goaltender than a regular season backstop for the Washington Capitals. He has stopped 60 of 61 shots in two games against the Philadelphia Flyers, which results in a save percentage of .984.
The favorite to win the Vezina Trophy after an incredible year that saw him tie Martin Brodeur's single-season win record at 48 games, Holtby still has to prove that he can play at a high level when the stakes are high.
Combine his early start with his past performance in the postseason and there is a large enough sample size to state that this 26-year-old thrives under pressure.
Holtby has played 38 games in the NHL playoffs spread out over four seasons—2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016—and has a .938 save percentage and 1.84 goals-against average. He's been their best penalty killer, and the Caps have killed all seven shorthanded situations in the series so far.
It's way too early to start talking Conn Smythe, but Holtby could be the early front-runner.
Reilly Smith Is a Breakout Star
The surprise scoring leader, so far, is none other than Florida Panther's Reilly Smith, who has been traded by both the Dallas Stars and Boston Bruins the past few years. The Panthers are the fortunate (or brilliant) beneficiaries of the 25-year-old's emergence.
He had a 25-goal, 50-point season for the Panthers this year, finishing sixth in team scoring. He ranks first in the NHL playoffs with four goals and eight points through three games. He's also averaging five shots on goal per game.
His team is down 2-1 in the series, but Smith has been the most consistent player on either roster so far, and he's giving the Panthers a fighting chance. Both Panthers losses have been by a single goal.
Equally adept at making plays in the defensive zone, Smith is showing the league how talented and versatile he can be.
All stats courtesy of hockey-reference.com, unless otherwise noted.