The margin of error in the Stanley Cup playoffs is razor thin. There were 17 overtime games in the first round. A timely goal or two made the difference in many series.
The Penguins won both of their overtime games with the Islanders. If the Islanders score in overtime once, the series would have gone seven games. If they had scored twice in overtime, the Islanders would have pulled off a huge upset and the Penguins would be sitting at home.
The Red Wings and Ducks played four overtime games, with the Red Wings winning three of them before finally getting a win in regulation in Game 7. The Bruins won Games 4 and 7 in overtime against the Maple Leafs. The Senators’ overtime victory in Game 4 was a huge turning point in their series with Montreal.
Every game between the Kings and Blues, both in overtime and in the regulation 60 minutes, was decided by one goal. That’s how small the gap between elation and dejection was during the first round.
This is a long-winded way of saying it took some good fortune for me to correctly pick all eight first-round series. In case you missed that, let me repeat it. I was 8-for-8 during the first round!
Ron Opher compiled a 3-5 record during Round 1. He and I both correctly picked the Penguins, Rangers and Blackhawks to win their series. Ron went 0-5 in the series in which we disagreed, but, as I’ve pointed out, one or two goals the other way and we could have finished the first round with identical records.
But fortunes can change from round to round during the Stanley Cup playoffs. Goats can become heroes and heroes can become goats. Similarly, Ron could go 4-0 during the conference semifinals. Considering we only disagreed on one series, I’m hoping Ron goes 3-1.
The following are our previews for the conference semifinals. (Seeding in parentheses)
PENGUINS (1) vs. SENATORS (7)
Ron’s analysis: The big news in Ottawa’s win over Montreal was not the injury to Canadiens goalie Carey Price. While Price’s absence helped the Senators, it was Ottawa’s extremely physical play – starting with Eric Gryba’s illegal hit on Lars Eller – and coach Paul MacLean’s reaction to it (blaming the passer, Raphael Diaz, in the ultimate “head game”) that established their dominance over the Habs from a very early point in the series. With the Islanders also getting physical and giving Pittsburgh fits, plus the Pens’ goalie troubles, it’s fair to say that Ottawa looks like they are for real and Pittsburgh looks vulnerable. For what it’s worth, last year’s No. 7 seed in the East (Washington) also beat the Nos. 2 and 1 seeds, so Ottawa has recent history on its side. Senators in 6
Eric’s analysis: The Penguins needed two overtime victories to put away the Islanders in six games. On the other hand, they might not have been in that predicament if not for goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s second consecutive poor postseason. The Penguins better hope that veteran Tomas Vokoun solves their goalie problems. If not, the Senators could take advantage. As I wrote before the first round, Senators coach Paul MacLean has done as good a job as any coach in the NHL. He kept the Senators on track for the playoffs despite a ton of injuries. The Senators are tough and skilled. I’d love to pick them to beat the Penguins … but I can’t do it. Penguins in 7
BRUINS (4) vs. RANGERS (6)
Ron’s analysis: Flip a coin in this series. Both teams are talented, but always seem to make things harder on themselves than necessary. I picked the Rangers to win the East before the season started, so I might as well stick with them. Rangers in 7
Eric’s analysis: The Bruins almost blew a 3-1 series lead against the Maple Leafs. They required a miraculous rally in Game 7, scoring twice with the goalie pulled in favor of an extra skater to tie the game, and then winning the game and series on Patrice Bergeron’s overtime goal. The Rangers also needed seven games to defeat the Capitals, although they closed out the series with a convincing 5-0 victory in Game 7. Upon closer inspection, though, the Rangers didn’t lose in regulation after Game 1. As was the case during the regular season, the Rangers seemed to round into form just in time. These two defensive-minded teams figure to produce a low-scoring series. In a low-scoring series, I like the team with the better goalie. Rangers in 6
BLACKHAWKS (1) vs. RED WINGS (7)
Ron’s analysis: Not only did Chicago play the best hockey of any NHL team during the regular season, but the Blackhawks look just as primed now that the playoffs are in gear. There does not seem to be a weakness on the Hawks. Detroit is scrappy, but it remains to be seen whether they will parlay their good fortune against Anaheim – which they beat 4 times by a single goal, 3 times in overtime – into a roll against the President’s Trophy winners. Blackhawks in 5
Eric’s analysis: As Ron pointed out, the Red Wings sneaked past the Ducks by the slimmest of margins while the Blackhawks handled the Wild in five games. There aren’t many questions about the Blackhawks. The questions are all about the Red Wings. Goalie Jimmy Howard used to be considered a vulnerability for the Red Wings. Now he’s a strength. These aren’t the Red Wings of old, but they still have Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. Don’t be surprised if the Red Wings give the Blackhawks a run for their money. Blackhawks in 6
KINGS (5) vs. SHARKS (6)
Ron’s analysis: I said the Sharks-Canucks winner was one and done, and I still feel that way. Sure, San Jose looked impressive sweeping Vancouver, but the Canucks looked like a disinterested team in total disarray and in dire need of an overhaul. Meanwhile, the Kings also won 4 in a row – after spotting St. Louis a 2-0 series lead. I know Eric likes the Kings to repeat – and I think it’s fair to say that the Stanley Cup Final will be played out between the Hawks and Kings in the Western Conference. Kings in 5
Eric’s analysis: The Sharks were terrific at home this season (17-2-5) and struggled on the road (8-14-2). But how much does a “road” record mean in this all-California series? (And, yes, I know San Jose and Los Angeles are about 325 miles apart.) The Sharks beat a Vancouver team that was accurately described by Ron as appearing disinterested and in disarray. The Kings beat a Blues team that was tough and competitive, and they did so after dropping the first two games. The Kings have a better goalie (Jonathan Quick), the best defenseman (Drew Doughty) and better weapons (including former Flyer Jeff Carter). Kings in 5