Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
When playoff time rolls around in any professional sport, there are a ton of adages that come out of the mouths of pundits and writers alike as they try to describe the magnitude of certain milestones. One of the most popular is “a series doesn’t begin until the home team loses.”
In the NHL playoffs this year, three series haven’t “begun” yet by that logic, with the Vancouver Canucks, Washington Capitals, and Detroit Red Wings all holding serve at their home rinks. By contrast, one series has begun twice over, as the Bruins dropped both games at TD Ameritrade Garden to their arch-rival Montreal Canadiens.
With all eight series now having two games already in the books, it is interesting to see the obstacles that those teams down 2-0 are going to face. The Bruins certainly are going to have the most difficult climb of all, with their next two games coming at what will surely be a raucous Bell Centre, but the other three teams returning to home ice facing the 2-0 deficit certainly aren’t celebrating their good fortune.
All of those squads are all facing down some grim numbers when it comes to their chances as well, with teams that go down two games losing over 85% of those series. A success rate of less than 15% isn’t exactly one that inspires confidence, but that being said, the question becomes this: which of the four teams that have dug themselves holes have the best opportunity to climb out of them?
-In case you weren’t aware, the Bruins are blessed with one of the best goaltenders in the NHL in Tim Thomas. Nearly a shoe-in for the Vezina this season, Thomas hasn’t exactly looked spectacular in the first two games of this series, but he has the potential to single-handedly win games for the B’s.
-The Bruins are also blessed with one of the best veteran leadership groups in the league, with Zdeno Chara serving as captain and other battle-hardened veterans like Mark Recchi and Tomas Kaberle providing plenty of playoff experience. This obviously helps the mood in the dressing room from getting too elated after victories or too rancorous after losses. Keeping an even keel is crucial in the postseason, and the Bruins should have no problem doing just that.
-As noted in the pros, the Bruins do have a very gifted goaltender in Thomas. Unfortunately for them, they are facing a team that has another extremely talented netminder in Carey Price. Booed heartily by Habs fans during the pre-season, Price has channeled his inner Jaroslav Halak (another Canadiens goaltender who got hot in the playoffs) and has looked cool and collected under pressure in the first two games in Beantown. If he remains unflappable on home ice, the Bruins could be faced with the prospect of busting out their golf clubs sooner than they thought they would have to.
-It cannot be understated how important the shift in the series to Montreal is. The Canadiens were barely above .500 on the road this season (20-19-2), but on home ice they were a lot better, going 24-11-6 at Bell Centre. Fortunately for the Bruins they had a very solid road record this year, but with the added pressure of being down 2-0 in the series, being on the road is even more challenging than usual.
It would be easy to dismiss the Bruins out of hand, but the reality is that they can still catch fire in this series. If their offense can start getting some pucks past Price, the momentum of this series could shift in a heartbeat. Unfortunately for them, it just doesn’t seem likely at this point.
-The Blackhawks started this series looking pretty bad against the Canucks’ aggressive defense, but as the game wore on Friday night, they finally started to expose some cracks in the façade. The Canucks were still looking to score more goals, so they took more chances on defense, and that allowed Chicago to get better rushes going up the ice and more scoring chances came as a result. If they can continue that trend, they will have a much better shot at winning Game 3 on home ice.
-The Hawks have been getting some very good production out of their role players, with guys like Viktor Stalberg and Ben Smith shining for the team in the early going. Considering that a big reason why they dropped from 2nd last year in the West to 8th this season was because of their gutted depth going into the year, that has to be considered a positive sign.
-With all of the moves they were forced to make this off-season, the Hawks ended up having to get rid of a lot of the role players they relied upon to go toe-to-toe with Vancouver physically last season. With those losses, the Canucks have clearly been the superior team in the checking game, and when Chicago tries to match that physicality, they lose sight of what they need to do to win games.
-They were relatively quiet in Game 1, but Henrik and Daniel Sedin looked like they found their groove on Friday night, combining for five points. If they continue to produce at a high-level for the Canucks, it is a surefire sign that the Hawks are having more blue line issues with guys like Duncan Keith and Brian Campbell, and that would be extremely difficult to overcome.
Game 3 is absolutely critical in this series. If the Hawks can come out and take charge of the proceedings early, it wouldn’t be out of the question for this series to quickly go 2-2 and set up a critical Game 5 next week. If they are unable to get out to that fast start and the Canucks gain an early lead again, things could very quickly spiral out of control and you could see a sweep in this series. Judging by their performance early in the first two games, the Hawks could be in a lot of trouble on Sunday night.
New York Rangers
-As opposed to Game 1 where they pretty much let the Capitals have free reign all over the ice, the Rangers really clamped down defensively in Game 2, only allowing the Caps to get 18 shots on net. This is impressive considering that the Rangers are starting three rookies on their blue line, and that bodes well for them going forward if they can continue to suffocate the life out of Washington’s offense.
-The guy playing behind that defense is a huge boost to the Rangers as well, with Henrik Lundqvist patrolling the New York crease. He has the power to shut a team down single-handedly (as evidenced by his 11 shutouts this season), and having an experienced hand in net behind a young defense is definitely an advantage.
-With all of the fresh faces in the New York lineup, it should come as no surprise that their power play unit has struggled in the first two games. They have gone 0-for-4 on the man-advantage, and that absolutely has to turn around if they want to reverse the momentum of this series on home ice.
-In a departure from previous seasons, the big strength of this Capitals team is their defense. They have only allowed 47 shots to get on net in the two games in this series, and only one has beaten goaltender Michal Neuvirth. If the Rangers can’t get more plentiful (and better looking) opportunities against Neuvirth and the Caps, then they are absolutely doomed.
The Rangers simply seem outgunned in this series. They are facing one of the best offenses in the league, and the Caps’ defense is downright impressive in the early going in this series. Fortunately for New York, their players have exhibited a never-say-die attitude all season, because they are going to need all of that confidence if they want to thrill the masses at Madison Square Garden with an epic comeback.
-The Coyotes finally started to find their groove toward the end of Game 2. With Detroit already leading 4-0, Phoenix slowly started chipping away at that lead, courtesy of three power play goals. Even though they were unable to overcome the deficit completely, it did show the desire that this team has to succeed, even when facing long odds.
-Going into this series, the Coyotes were blessed with a great leader in Shane Doan, and some really gifted offensive players like Keith Yandle and Ray Whitney. Fortunately for Phoenix, those guys have all shown up to play in this series, and if they can continue to do so, the rest of the team will certainly follow suit.
-If there is any team in the playoffs that relies more upon their playoff experience for success than the Red Wings, it isn’t readily apparent. The Wings are oozing with experience, with guys like Nicklas Lidstrom and Tomas Holmstrom leading the way. All of these deep runs have steeled the Wings against huge emotional swings that can overtake a more inexperienced team like Phoenix, and that cannot be overstated in this situation.
-Even though guys like Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby grab all the headlines, there may not be a flashier and more dangerous player in the entire league than Pavel Datsyuk. The Coyotes have been flummoxed in the early going of this series by the talented Russian, and if they can’t figure out a way to stop him, things are going to go south quickly as the series shifts to Glendale.
Judging by their performance in Game 2, and with the knowledge that Ilya Bryzgalov is a Vezina-caliber goaltender, the Coyotes have a decent shot at coming back in this series. Yes, the Red Wings are a very talented bunch, but the Coyotes don’t know the meaning of the word “quit”, and with guys like Doan and Yandle leading the way, they could very well surprise the Motor City denizens as this series wears on. They absolutely have to shut down Datsyuk if they hope to come back, however.