Friday, May 13, 2011

The 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Conference Semi-Finals Recap

I still stand by my assertion that that was one of the best opening rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs in nearly 20 years, and nearly every game made me ecstatic for the game, the sport, and the league. That said, I made two mistakes while letting my thoughts and emotions get the best of me: 1) I imagined that, somehow, that electric Conference Quarter-Finals would both slightly diminish the number of haters and add a few members to the fan base; and 2) I figured this would mean an even tighter, more-action-packed Conference Semi-Finals.

Regarding the first, I haven’t exactly had the chance to poll the sports-viewing world, but there is one small sample from which I draw, and that would be the comments section from a Pro Football Talk post earlier this week. And really, that’s fine. I’ve got this new approach going, and it won’t make any sense if I don’t mention the old, which is this: Advocate for the game in any and every possible way, whenever possible. Watch as many games as possible, tweet about them, toss blog-post links on Facebook, e-mail cool YouTube clips, volunteer for hockey organizations in the community, and of course, continue to play and love the game. Be an unpaid ambassador for the sport, if you will.

The new approach looks like this: Change nothing regarding the energy invested in promoting the game, but adjust expectations. People in this country did not grow up with this game. They didn’t watch it, and they certainly didn’t play it, and for them, that’s simply not going to change. So forget about the people that make jokes about the game, joke about the National Hockey League, or throw out the same old excuses about why they can’t/won’t get into it. They are a lost cause, and the most valuable loss is their own. The focus will be the youth, the kids of today’s generation that are playing the game and watching the game, in numbers that continue to grow every year.

Facet two was simply an overestimation in my book: The Conference Semi-Finals have been exciting, but it would take some pretty awful hockey for me to think otherwise. That said, I’m the first to admit that round two delivered less of that roar of adrenaline the opening round produced. And the numbers support such a claim as well, but we’ll get to those in a bit.

The Round That Just Was

The first series to come to a close was the one between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Washington Capitals. I lobbed a prediction that the Lightning would make quick work of the Eastern Conference’s number-one seed, and handle them in six, to which Guy Boucher’s squad clearly took offense, as they handled the Ovechtricks in a clean four. I’m not going to change my dark-horse pick mid-playoffs, but thinking that the L.A. Kings were the secret bet was incorrect. And it seems foolish to say now that the Lightning is the Cinderella story. Their success as a franchise is already documented, and they’ve taken impressive strides to up the perennial ante by bringing in Steve Yzerman to handle the general manager responsibilities and by hiring Boucher, he crossed a big item off his to-do list.

What we didn’t know yet about these two teams: Predictions aside, we didn’t know that Tampa Bay would come in and just mow these guys down. Martin St. Louis and company eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins in the quarter-finals, but it took them seven games to do so. The assumption there was that they advanced almost entirely due to the absence of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, which is not to say that the Lightning are without talent of their own, but I would never’ve guessed that not only would Washington not score first once in an game, but that they’d only hold a lead for a total of 18:59 throughout the entire series.

What we already knew already about these clubs: Sometimes in sports, franchises have an identity associated with them over time. Tampa Bay is in its 18th season. This is their sixth playoff appearance, and they’ve already won one Stanley Cup. Pretty good start. Through 36 seasons, Washington has qualified for the post-season 22 times, which include one Conference Finals loss, one Finals loss, and a boatload of early exits. Tampa built a nucleus for their club, and they continue to feed it. Washington repeats the same cycle of having a star player -– Dale Hunter, Peter Bondra, Olaf Kolzig, Jaromir Jagr, and Alex Ovechkin –- surrounded by relative mediocrity.

We can be heroes, be we expected or otherwise: It’s no surprise that Vincent Lecavelier and St. Louis have been big –- a combined 25 post-season points –- but you have to two other Lightning right wings deserve equal credit: Steve Downie and Teddy Purcell have generated a combined three goals, 20 assists of their own. And of course, Dwayne Roloson has been huge in net.

While we have the brooms out, let’s talk Boston/Philly. Yikes. I said Flyers in seven, and I thought they had the motivation from last year, coupled with grit and the coaching edge, to handle the Bruins. I was a tad off the mark. The Bruins might be better poised to make a run at it than any of the either three clubs left. These two teams had to’ve been exhausted coming in to round two, as they each went the distance –- Philly with Buffalo, Boston with Montreal –- to advance to round two.

What we didn’t know yet about these two teams: The corps of this Bruins squad picked the right time to gel, and gel they have. Boston big man Zdeno Chara leads the league in plus/minus with an 11, and their last line of defense –- net minder Tim Thomas -– suddenly looks like the star of American-born goaltending, even though 2010 fellow Olympians Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller had decent post-seasons of their own. It was also unforeseen that the likes of Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Nathan Horton, and Brad Marchand would each produce double-digit point totals by this point in the tournament.

What we already knew already about these clubs: You can trot out a Running Back by Committee platoon in the National Football League, and you might have success. This practice does not translate to playoff goaltending. You have to pick a guy, and stick with him, even if he has an off night and costs you a game. Deciding to rotate the three Philly men in masks –- Kyle Bobrovsky, Brian Boucher, and Michael Leighton -- means you eliminate the possibility of allowing your main man in the crease getting hot and single-handedly winning a contest or two for your club. Additionally, every team that has ever had Chris Pronger on the payroll has suffered immensely when he is out of the lineup due to injury. The 2011 Flyers are just another notch on the post.

We can be heroes, be we unsung or otherwise: Nearly every year there’s an old man on a squad that you simply have to root for. We’ve seen it with Ray Borque, Dave Andreychuk, Chris Chelios, and perhaps to a lesser degree, Marian Hossa. More often than not, that story is of a guy near the end of his career that hasn’t won a Cup yet, and the goose-bump factor gets higher with every game his club wins. This year Boston has 42-year-old Mark Recchi –- two goals, five assists thus far in the playoffs -- on its roster, and he’s already got two rings –- one with Pittsburgh as a rookie, and another with Carolina when Rod Brind’Amour was the feel-good story. So we don’t root for Recchi because his name’s not yet engraved on the chalice, but because leadership like his affords the city of Boston to fully get out of the pro-sports dog house. I’m no Beantown homer by any stretch, but Bostonians have their Patriots dynasty, a pair of Red Sox championships, and a Celtics title, all in the last decade. Hockey is a sport that really jives with the Boston persona, and a championship for the Bs would be massive. As our pal Damon Amendolara tweeted, “Boston is electric” right now.

While the two victors in the east made quick work of their semi-finals foes, the teams out west have done the opposite. Vancouver jumped out to a 3-1 lead over the gritty Nashville Predators, but took until game six to knock them off via a one-goal victory. For those counting at home, that’s the only series in games that I got right. San Jose, on the other hand, had Detroit on the ropes, ready to knock them out in four straight, but the Redwings had other ideas.

At the Versus desk, Keith Jones and Jeremy Roenick said two things heading into the Vancouver/Nashville series, and those two things proved to be key. Jonesy said that the Sedin twins would have to step up and start producing, while J.R. mentioned that the Nashville defense would give the Canucks more fits than they’d seen against Chicago. Well, the Sedin twins did not step up, and therefore, the Predators –- courtesy of that D, some decent offense, and goalie Pekka Rinne –- did give Vancouver more fits.

What we didn’t know yet about these two teams: The Nashville Predators, previously having never gotten out of the Conference Quarter-Finals, could’ve just rolled over and gone home, satisfied with their first post-season advancement. They did not. Joel Ward came steamrolling out of the regular season, and as it stands now, leads the league with playoff goals (seven). We also knew very little about Pekka Rinne, but he played out of his mind for this Predz team, and looks to have a massive future ahead of him. The Vancouver Canucks were in a similar boat, having been eliminated in consecutive years by the Chicago Blackhawks, and narrowly escaping a third year of defeat against the defending champs. The role of Canuck goaltender Roberto Luongo is immense in these playoffs, because he simply must go out there each night and not give up foolish goals. Luongo and Vancouver could’ve shown up to the second round and folded up camp, content with just getting past Chicago. Not that many would’ve been surprised.

What we already knew already about these clubs: Nashville is a solid group of youth and league veterans, which is a crucial balance to find. They’re close but not yet there, so it’s no genuine surprise that their season is over. The reason behind this lack of surprise is this: You cannot dump and chase against this Canuck team. You cannot, and will not, outskate them, and you will almost certainly lose the majority of the loose-puck battles, no matter where you are on the ice. What’s more is that you can not expect to alleviate any particular attack by clearing the puck. Vancouver will find ways to keep it in the zone, which will almost always lead to larger numbers of generated shots. Also, Ryan Kesler. Nearing the conclusion of the second round is too early to identify what guy, out of all the teams remaining, is really going to elevate his game, and score when you need a goal, or deliver a picture-perfect pass with pinpoint timing. Kesler has emerged as that guy in this post-season.

We can be heroes, be we unsung or otherwise: Alexandre Burrows doesn’t appear to be significant in the varying stats columns. He doesn’t generate a lot of points. You won’t see him spend a ton of time in the penalty box, and he isn’t going to lead your club in ice time. But he will probably work harder than anyone on your team not named Ryan Kesler, and that’s saying a lot when your teammates include the Sedins, and Kevin Bieksa. The same can be said for Nashville’s Shea Weber, who generated shots, logged nearly 340 minutes of ice time, scored two power-play goals, and had a pair of assists through 12 playoff games.

As far as the San Jose/Detroit series goes, I look back to what I said regarding Washington and Tampa Bay. The Sharks have talent. They always have. They score, they bang bodies, play solid defense, and usually have an all-star in net. But for some reason, they can’t ever get it all too click in the post-season…Detroit, on the other hand, is arguably the most storied franchise in league history, and if you catch them on a down year -– or in this case, consecutive down years –- you better make quick work of them, or they will make you pay.

What we didn’t know yet about these two teams: There’s something to be said about leadership and experience, and these clubs have displayed practically polar-opposite examples of the notions in recent post-seasons. The Sharks have put together an impressive string of regular-season play, but the best it’s gotten them was a conference-finals appearance last year. Detroit, on the other hand, has been a franchise that many teams have tried to model themselves after, in that they sign and keep their good talent, cycle in key younger players that they develop, and ink end-of-the-line types, i.e. Brett Hull, Mike Modano, in case they’re bitten by the injury bug. This year they got bitten hard, and it severely cost them.

What we already knew already about these clubs: Detroit seldom falls behind in a playoff series, and is frequently capable of rallying back for a victory when they do. I think it was completely unforeseen that San Jose would go up 3-0, let the Redwings tie it up, and then stave them off in game seven. Not only was the sequence of victories a surprise, but the outcome was, too, but perhaps the biggest shock of all was that Detroit gave the Sharks everything they had in the final game, and San Jose was able to hang.

We can be heroes, unsung or otherwise: There’s not a single member of the Detroit Redwings organization that I wouldn’t dub some form of hero. They have been an admirably run club for as long as I can remember, and I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: Mike Babcock was probably the perfect successor to Scotty Bowman. He’s got his club skating hard in every game, and the talent pool there is frightening. Seldom can a club have immeasurably talented forwards, lock-down defense, and stalwart goaltending, and the ‘Wings manage to do just that season after season. As far as San Jose, Todd McLellan did an amazing job filling the role of pupil beats student, and you have to appreciate his honesty when his club completely tanks a game like they did in that sixth tilt.

The Round That’s to Be

Here’s where emotion can begin to get the best of hockey fans, in that you spend most of the quarter-finals and a chunk of the semi-finals loving all the action, but waiting to see who will emerge as true contenders. Then when the conference finals arrive, you immediately, albeit still eager, regress, knowing that the end of the season is near. These two matchups could pan out to be the most fascinating conference finals series the league has seen since the lockout, maybe since the turn of the century. Last year, there were only five third-round games played, as Chicago swept San Jose and Philadelphia only lost once to Montreal.

In the east, I don’t think you could ask for better in Tampa Bay/Boston. The skinny is this: Two clubs that have been independently on pace with one another in terms of developing the overall talent on the roster and the chemistry to make it this far in the playoffs. Neither has made the mistake of going the direction of Washington and depended so heavily on the talent of a marquis player, yet neither has achieved the competitive longevity of a Detroit, but both are on the Redwings end of the scale, not the Capitals. Both clubs have 50+ combined points from their top five scorers, and both squads are backed by a goaltender that’s playing at the top of their games. Both teams also have shrewd bench bosses rolling out the lines. Ultimately, this series will be decided by which team has a corps, or an individual capable of taking it to the next level.

The pick: Steve Yzerman, Guy Boucher, and the Lightning are on the right track, but they fall short of getting through a third time. Bs in seven.

Out west, there is potential for a great dog fight as well, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. San Jose was admirable in their fight with Detroit, and I’m still tremendously impressed that they fought back and won in game seven. It’s possible that the Sharks can overcome the fact that Vancouver has had extra rest since knocking out Nashville, but it is entirely unpossible that Scott McLellan’s team can overcome the fact that they, in direct comparison with their next opponent, are a slow-skating team. The Canucks are crafty, they’re skilled, and they play a brand unmatched anywhere in the league right now, and if the Sedin twins can get hot again, it won’t even be close. This difference is inflated further if Kesler continues to play at the level he attained through two rounds.

I don’t want to discredit the veterans on the Sharks roster, but when it comes down to creating scoring opportunities, Antti Niemi will be tested much more often than Roberto Luongo. This much is certain. The only uncertainty, in fact, is which Luongo will show up. One would like to think that the cobwebs between the ears of the Canuck goaltender have been cleared, that his back is free of monkeys, but death and taxes don’t buy you wins in the Stanley Cup playoffs, let alone the Conference Finals.

The pick: San Jose may find that a retooling is in order once their season is over. Vancouver in five.

The Rounds That’ve Come Before

Just like last round, a look at the previous 10 NHL post-seasons is in order, and then this time around, we’ll average them and compare them with this season thus far. As a reminder: Shots on goal are registered shots that would’ve been goals had they not been saved; we’re only looking at major penalties; overtimes refers to total number of overtime periods, not games in which there was an overtime.

1999-2000 Conference Semi-Finals (eventual champ: NJ Devils)
Goals: 97
Shots: 1280
Penalties in Minutes: 155
Overtimes: 7
Home vs. Visitor: 3/1 in favor of home teams
Average Number of Games per Series: 5.5

2000-2001 CSFs (eventual champion: Colorado Avalanche)
Goals: 115
Shots: 1299
PIMs: 30
OTs: 10
H vs. V: 2/2 tie
GpS: 6.25

2001-2002 CSFs (eventual champion: Detroit Redwings)
Goals: 138
Shots: 1373
PIMs: 145
OTs: 7
H vs. V: 2/2 tie
GpS: 6.25

2002-2003 CSFs (eventual champion: New Jersey Devils)
Goals: 118
Shots: 1322
PIMs: 55
OTs: 13
H vs. V: 2/2 tie
GpS: 6

2003-2004 CSFs (eventual champion: Tampa Bay Lightning)
Goals: 92
Shots: 1178
PIMs: 200
OTs: 6
H vs. V: 2/2 tie
GpS: 5.5

2005-06 CSFs (eventual champion: Carolina Hurricanes)
Goals: 107
Shots: 1203
PIMs: 100
OTs: 8
H vs. V: 2/2 tie
GpS: 5

2006-2007 CSFs (eventual champion: Anaheim Ducks)
Goals: 100
Shots: 1391
PIMs: 10
OTs: 11
H vs. V: 3/1, home
GpS: 5.5

2007-2008 CSFs (eventual champion: Detroit Redwings)
Goals: 117
Shots: 1208
PIMs: 75
OTs: 9
H vs. V: 2/2 tie
GpS: 5

2008-2009 CSFs (eventual champion: Pittsburgh Penguins)
Goals: 159
Shots: 1645
PIMs: 190
OTs: 9
H vs. V: 3/1, visitor
GpS: 6.75

2009-2010 CSFs (eventual champion: Chicago Blackhawks)
Goals: 150
Shots: 1518
PIMs: 80
OTs: 3
H vs. V: 2/2 tie
GpS: 6.25

2010-2011 CSFs
Goals: 114
Shots: 1360
PIMs: 40
OTs: 7
H vs. V: 2/2 tie
GpS: 5.25

How this year’s playoffs stacks up against the previous 10, through two rounds:

Previous Ten Playoffs (by average)
Goals: 354
Shots: 3324
PIMs: 345
OTs: 18
H vs V: 68/52, home; 56 percent
GpS: 5.73

This Year’s Playoffs
Goals: 401
Shots: 4416
PIMs: 415
OTs: 25
H vs. V: 8/4, home; 66 percent
GpS: 5.6875

What, then, do these numbers mean? Well, the first four categories are telling, in that you the league has seen a higher-than-usual number of registered shots, resulting in a higher number of goals scored, and as to be expected, the more goals that are getting scored, the higher the tempers will be, thus the increase in major PIMs. Even more interesting is that the increase in scoring has generated an increase in total overtime periods, to the tune of a 16 percent boost. And home-ice advantage is up 10 percent as well. The negative in these numbers is that the average number of games per series has dropped, a figure that, through round one was likely on par, if not higher, but two second-round sweeps dropped it below the average of the past 10 post-seasons.

What’s fascinating is that the increase in offense the league sought with the current collective-bargaining agreement has been a success, and, as we’ve discussed, it’s not a reflection of a lesser goaltending talent pool. What happens regarding games per series, though, is possibly a direct result of matchups, meaning, had Philly not faced Boston, or had Washington faced someone other than Tampa Bay, those series may have gone deeper than four games.

As I said in our last recap, it’s difficult to quantify the product we’re seeing in the league right now. Maybe the numbers are telling, maybe it’s because I don’t have a horse in the race, but this has been one of the best post-seasons of hockey I’ve ever seen, and the forecast for the final two rounds don’t indicate any signs of slowing down.