Monday, April 25, 2011

Best of the Best

With three of the eight first round NHL playoff series now complete, I find myself mired in seventh place in the ten team Fraters league in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs Challenge. I actually picked two of the three series correctly, but you also get points for picking the length of the series and I’ve missed on that so far.

While I was confident that the Red Wings would defeat the Phoenix Winnipeg Coyotes, I did not foresee them doing so quite so easily. I picked the Wings in six and they won in four. Of all the series so far, this was definitely the least interesting.

I also was confident that the Caps would topple the Rangers, but thought they would have to go the distance to do so. Even though Washington won the series in five, it featured plenty of drama including two overtimes games. Game Four was obviously the turning point as the Caps overcame a 3-0 deficit after two by scoring three times in the third and then beating the Rangers in OT thanks in no small part to former Wild player Marian “The Groin” Gaborik. It was just one of the stunning comebacks that we’ve witnessed in the NHL playoffs thus far.

I completely blew the Preds-Ducks series. I thought Anaheim would open the playoffs the way they ended the regular season, but instead it was Nashville that continued their sizzling play. I watched very little of this series and although there were some compelling moments, it really didn’t do much for me overall.

Of the five series that are still underway, I’m only feeling good about my picks in one right now. Despite the Kings victory in Game Five to stay alive, I think the Sharks will eventually prevail and my pick of the series going seven has a good chance of coming true.

From there it gets pretty ugly. Without Malkin and Crosby, I figured the Pens were ripe to be knocked off by the Lightning. And they still might. It’s been a strange series so far. After the Pens won Game Four in OT in Tampa to go up three games to one, I thought it was over. But the Lightnings exploded for an 8-2 win in Pittsburgh to claw back to 3-2 with Game Six coming up at home. If they can force a Game Seven, anything can happen, but I’m certainly not counting any chickens here.

The Bruins-Canadians and Flyers-Sabres series have seesawed back and forth so much that it’s enough to drive a man to drink (even more). I have the lower seeds in both series and have alternated between patting myself on the back for my hockey genius and questioning my sanity.

When the Habs went up 2-0 by winning both games in the Boston, I thought it was over. Montreal lost Game Three at home, but lead Game Four 3-1 in the second period and 4-3 in the third. They blew both leads and eventually lost in OT 5-4. Then, in Game Five in Boston they scored late to send it to overtime before falling 2-1. What will happen tomorrow night in Game Six? Who knows, but I gotta think Montreal’s best chance to win this series has eluded them.

Meanwhile, the Sabres are absolutely killing me. Picking seventh seeded Buffalo to upset the second seeded Flyers was my way to separate from the pack. After the Sabres won Game One, it looked like a brilliant pick. It lost some of its luster after they dropped games Two and Three, but their Game Four victory restored some of the shine. When they opened up a 3-0 lead early in Game Five, it was again back to being brilliant. When the Flyers mounted a furious comeback to tie the game, it was looking less so. When the Sabres ended up winning Game Five in OT, I was back on the brilliant bandwagon again. When they opened up leads of 2-0 and 3-1 at home in Game Six, I was thinking about the crowing that would commence once the game ended. When the Flyers rallied to tie the game and then win it in overtime, I found myself thinking less about cawing and more about the crow that I might soon be eating if the Flyers prevail in Game Seven. Whatever the outcome, Tuesday’s series finale should be a barn burner.

There’s no doubt that the best series so far is Vancouver-Chicago. The defending Stanley Cup champs who barely made the playoffs versus the team with the best regular season record meeting for the third straight year in a playoff series was a perfect dramatic set up and it has not disappointed. After the Canucks jumped out to a 3-0 series lead, it appeared to be all but over. However, if we learned anything in this year’s playoffs it’s that it ain’t over ‘til it’s over, be it a game or a series. The Blackhawks have been scrappy and resilient and the Canucks have been, well the Canucks. A great team with tons of talent, but perhaps missing something when it comes to between the ears and between the pipes. Going into the playoffs, the one area that everyone knew could be Vancouver’s Achilles heel was goaltending. And despite having had a tremendous regular season, the Canucks Roberto Luongo is once again fitting nicely into that heel role.

After only giving up five goals in his team’s first three victories in the series, Luongo surrendered twelve in losses in Games Four and Five. He was benched in favor of Corey Schneider in Game Six, but when Schneider was hurt after trying to stop a penalty shot in the third period, Luongo was pressed into duty. The Hawks didn’t challenge him in regulation, but when he started seeing more rubber in overtime you could see that he was fighting the puck. On the game winning goal, he was flopping and flailing after a routine shot from the point and was in no position to stop Ben Smith’s rebound. I can’t imagine anyone in Vancouver has any confidence that he’s the guy they want in net for Game Seven and if there’s any way Schneider can play, I imagine he will. If not, the high hopes and elevated expectations that accompanied Vancouver’s amazing regular season may well come crashing to earth on Tuesday night.

And despite the fact that I picked the Canucks to win the series in six, I would love to see that happen. Either way—as is the case with the Flyers-Sabres—it’s always great to see a Game Seven. And all these overtimes. We’ve already had twelve overtime games so far in these playoffs and we’re still not through the first round. The Stanley Cup playoffs always feature the best hockey of the year and so far this year’s playoffs have been the best we’ve seen in years. Even though I haven’t necessarily seen it coming, I certainly have enjoyed watching it unfold.