Thursday, May 05, 2011

Boston, Tampa Bay, San Jose Continue to Impress; NHL Increasingly Frightened

The Stanley Cup Playoffs never go as planned. Everyone says this, and then everyone picks top seeds to advance, only to watch in horror as the top seeds get bounced because that's what happens virtually every year.

This year, Vancouver and Washington were heavy favorites, because they were the top seeds.

Vancouver promptly blew a 3-0 series lead and needed an overtime goal to win Game 7 against Chicago. They're in a dogfight with Nashville now.

As rough as that sounds, they're in better shape on this day than the Capitals, who can plan tee times and draft meetings now.

The Tampa Bay Lightning finished off a stunning four-game sweep of the Capitals with a 5-3 win Wednesday night in Tampa. The Lightning played four great games and certainly deserved what they got, and so did the Capitals, a team that has by now should have sole possession of the "playoff disappointment" label that San Jose used to own.

For Washington, this series loss puts them at 2-4 in playoff series under coach Bruce Boudreau, and they have had home-ice advantage in every single one of those series.

Some will blame Alex Ovechkin for this loss, but while he may not have been incredible, he sure was the Capitals' best player. He was stuck, however, trying to do it all virtually alone. Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Semin were passengers when their team needed them most, an unacceptable trait for two players with their abilities, experience, and salaries. The goaltending was subpar, but not totally to blame, because Washington lost way too many battles in front of Michael Neuvirth. Their play in their own zone, from the defensive gaps to the battle level, was never good enough to beat a good team, which is why they beat the Rangers but could do nothing with Tampa Bay, a well-coached and well-prepared team that has good leadership on and off the ice.

The Capitals can claim barely any of those things, starting with Boudreau, who looked overmatched throughout the series. Talk in December -- with the team in the midst of a long slump -- was that Boudreau was in trouble. That almost has to be the case now, with the team having completed a fourth straight playoff disappointment.

For Tampa Bay, the layoff could be a killer, but Boston is facing a similar layoff before the likely Eastern Conference finals matchup, so it shouldn't be a huge problem. The Lightning are impressive so far, but possibly not quite as much so as the Bruins, who are steamrolling a Philadelphia team that many have tabbed all season as a Cup favorite.

No, Philadelphia isn't the same team without Chris Pronger, and as I said before this series started, it's not like Buffalo really had the ability to keep up with the Flyers. But the Flyers are still an impressive group, and the fact that Boston has so decisively won the first three games makes me think that they just can't lose this series the way they lost to Philly a year ago.

The Bruins are doing virtually everything right, from goalie Tim Thomas to talented forwards like David Krejci and Nathan Horton to captain Zdeno Chara to uber-rookie Brad Marchand, who has been very good so far. They've outscored Philly 15-6 in the first three games, and two of the wins have come by four goals each. They so quickly rallied from an early 2-0 hole in Game 2 that it's easy to forget they ever trailed the game 2-0.

Why is this happening? Well, it doesn't help that Pronger is not healthy, and he didn't look particularly good when he tried to play. It doesn't help that Jeff Carter isn't healthy. But the big killer -- as I said after the Buffalo series -- is Philadelphia's near complete lack of NHL-caliber goaltending. When given a chance to shore up the position over the summer, general manager Paul Holmgren spent the rest of his cap space on skaters.

While strong defense and a puck-possession attack can limit shots, good teams -- all you see in the playoffs -- can take advantage of a great skating team that has suspect goaltending. Philadelphia has that, and they won't go anywhere until they start employing NHL goalies instead of AHL goalies.

As Jose Theodore sat around and waited for a team to pick him up, the Flyers decided Brian Boucher, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Michael Leighton would combine to be good enough.


Theodore had a great season for the Wild, and the Flyers are pulling goalies like it's part of the game plan every night.

(In fact, the Flyers have yanked their starting goalie for performance reasons in four of their last six playoff games. Boucher briefly left Game 2 against Boston due to injury.)

As for Boston, if they can solve their power play woes, they have a very good chance of ending their long Stanley Cup drought. It's about the only thing that can trip them up at this point with how well they're playing.

In the West, San Jose now has a 3-0 lead over Detroit, and are on the verge of a second straight trip to the conference final. They're getting great contributions from longtime playoff punch line Joe Thornton, along with former captain Patrick Marleau and emerging star Devin Setoguchi, who had a hat trick in Game 3.

The Sharks are no longer a joke. They're a threat. Antti Niemi has shaken off a poor performance in the Los Angeles series and played quite well for the Sharks in this series. They're strong defensively, good on the wall, and tough in front of their net.

From the NHL's standpoint, is this a nightmare scenario? As Steve Lepore notes, it's bad enough that NBC might not air another playoff game until the Finals. The conference semis have been non-competitive in terms of the overall series, even though a lot of the games within the non-competitive series were close. NBC might not have a game this weekend, they definitely won't next weekend because of golf, and the conference finals might not last into the weekend before Memorial Day at this rate.

Not only that, but look at who could be in the conference finals. Nashville isn't drawing anything for national ratings, and Vancouver is in Canada. Either of those teams are a dead spot for NBC at this point. San Jose doesn't pull huge numbers, either, but at least they're a more familiar team that could play their way into earning more attention from the casual fans NBC needs to pull in to get good numbers.

In the East, Boston would be just fine, but Tampa Bay is another potential nightmare for NBC when it comes to ratings.

A Tampa Bay vs. Vancouver or Nashville Cup Final could be a disaster, and San Jose in that spot wouldn't be much better.

After some significant steps forward in terms of television numbers lately, the NHL should prepare themselves for a step back before the playoffs are done.

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