Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 29, 2010

Alex Exits Early

Every so often events conspire to remind us yet again that there’s a reason why they play the games. In the first round of the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs, fully one-half of the eight match-ups ended in upsets. At the end of the fortnight, the biggest surprise of them all came in the last series to be decided.

Last Friday the Philadelphia Flyers, seventh seed in the Eastern Conference and the last team to secure a spot in the playoffs with a victory over the New York Rangers on the regular season’s final day, became the first team into the second round with a five game drubbing of the New Jersey Devils. In their four wins the Flyers outscored the Devils 12-4, despite being marginally outshot 102-97. Philadelphia goaltender Brian Boucher picked an excellent time to get hot, and the Flyers’ special teams excelled, scoring eight power play goals in the series while holding the Devils to just four goals in thirty-two power plays.

Three days after the Flyers advanced, the Boston Bruins gave the Buffalo Sabres the chance to make some early spring tee times, eliminating the higher seed four games to two. Once again the story was netminding and special teams. Boston’s twenty-three year old Tuukka Rask, who replaced Tim Thomas as the #1 goaltender in midseason, outplayed U.S. Olympic hero Ryan Miller. While he was doing that, the B’s, so horribly anemic on offense during the regular season, scored six power play goals while completely shutting down the Sabres’ power play (0-22 with the extra man advantage).

One day after the celebration in Boston, Hockeytown rejoiced as the Western Conference Detroit Red Wings eliminated the Phoenix Coyotes in seven games. Phoenix had the misfortune of suffering a number of injuries to key players at the very end of the regular season, but the fifth seed still had to outplay the fourth seed to advance.

While each of those three series ended in upsets, there were some advance signs that made the outcomes not completely unexpected. When the underdog Flyers sent New Jersey packing, they were doing so for the third consecutive year. While the Bruins regular season performance was disappointing as a whole, they did win four of the six regular season contests against division rival Buffalo. And the Red Wings had the advantage of playing a banged-up Phoenix squad.

But there were no early warning signals at all for the final surprise; the shocking upset of the Washington Capitals by the Montreal Canadiens. During the regular season the Capitals led the NHL with the most wins (54), fewest losses (15), most points (121), most goals scored (318), and greatest differential between goals scored and goals allowed (+85). Led by captain and two-time league MVP Alex Ovechkin, the Caps were an offensive juggernaut. They were facing off against the team with the fewest points of any playoff squad; in effect not just the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference but the sixteenth and last seed overall.

Given the apparent mismatch, it was no small surprise when Montreal drew first blood by winning game one 3-2 in overtime. The Canadiens focused on stopping Ovechkin, blanketing him throughout the contest, often with more than one player. As a result the young Russian superstar failed to have a single shot on goal.

Order seemed restored when the Caps won game two 6-5 in overtime, with Ovechkin notching a goal and Nicklas Backstrom getting a hat trick. The series then shifted to Montreal and the Washington offense began to steamroll the Canadiens, winning the next two games by scores of 5-1 and 6-3. Since the current playoff format was introduced in 1994, no number one seed had ever lost to a number eight after opening a three games to one series lead. Surely the result was no longer in doubt.

Except that no one had told that to the Canadiens. Professional hockey’s oldest club, Les Habitants celebrated their centennial during the regular season. Having played for a hundred years, they were not yet ready to go home. For game five head coach Jacques Martin went back to Jaroslav Halak in goal. Halak had been in the crease for the game one win and the overtime loss in game two, but had been on the bench since being pulled midway through game three. It was a decision likely made as much from desperation as from hope, but it turned the series on its head. For the next 180 minutes of hockey Halak seemed possessed by the spirits of Montreal’s legendary backstops. Was it really the young Slovak in net, or was it Georges Vezina, or Jacques Plante, or Ken Dryden, or perhaps Patrick Roy? Over three games the previously unstoppable offensive machine threw 134 shots at Halak. Only three got by him, one in each game

Maybe it was the ghosts of goaltending legends. Maybe it was Washington’s wide-open offensive style not being well suited to the pressures of playoff hockey. Maybe it was karma. Alex Ovechkin is one of the two greatest players in the NHL at the moment. Whether one ranks Sidney Crosby or Ovechkin first, there is no doubt that the other is a close second. But unlike Crosby whose Penguins are the only Eastern Conference favorite still skating, Ovechkin is an overly agressive, borderline dirty player. He was suspended twice this season for cheap and brutal hits on opponents. Maybe Alex needs to grow up a bit before the hockey gods will allow him to hold the Cup. Whatever the reason, by scores of 2-1, 4-1, and 2-1 again, lowly Montreal put a sudden stop to what many had assumed was Washington’s certain run to a championship. One hundred years young, the Habs are skating into the second round.

I still believe that there is a sufficiently large gap between the overall ability of a handful of top Cup contenders (Pittsburgh, San Jose, Chicago) and the rest of the league that by the time the finals roll around, the underdogs from Montreal, Boston, Philadelphia, and Detroit will be playing golf. But that takes nothing away from all that they did these past two weeks to make the first round dramatic and very exciting. And having seen what just happened, I’ll stop short of making any firm predictions. After all, the Bruins and Flyers face off against each other in the second round, so at least one of the upstarts is assured a berth in the conference finals. The only certainty, as always, is that they all still have to play the games.

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