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ST. LOUIS… I have been watching the National Hockey League for about 58 years now. I have seen the majority of the Stanley Cup tourneys in that time frame. In the advent of the salary cap era, the mantra the league and its many analysts have pushed forth has been that of a newfound “parity” in the league. After some rules changes that allowed for more free flowing play, some format changes in the tourney itself and realignment, I have felt that over the past 15 seasons that the Cup tournament has only gotten better by the year. Prior to this year’s playoffs I had been asking myself if this tourney would matchup with the quality of play that we have been treated to in these past few seasons. I kept thinking, you know, there IS going to be a clunker here somewhere along the way. I mean, how can this just keep getting better and better?
In viewing the first round thus far, those thoughts have been vanquished, gone with last periods Zamboni shavings. Some series began “hotter” then others, and a couple didn’t catch the “fire” that some thought they would, but overall, this tourney, when it is complete in about 6 weeks or so will go down as another great event. In my NHL Bracket Challenge submitted picks, in the West I had COL over CAL, DAL over NASH, STL over WINN and in a series with a seven heaven less than 24 hours away, I have the VGK over the SJS. In the East I had TBL over the CBJ, BOS over TOR, (not complete yet) the CAPS over CARO and I had an ill-fated pick in considering the PENS would eliminate the NYI. So, the Av’s did oust the Flames, the Blues did the same to the Jets, and just a few minutes ago the Stars eliminated the Preds in OT to take that series.
Back in the East, the CBJ not only beat the Presidents Cup winning Bolts to advance, they swept them. I was iffy on the Pens real chances of beating the Isles, but then, they have that core group and all that big game experience. The Isles swept them and never let them in the series. The Caps and Canes met in an elimination tilt this eve and the Canes survived it, winning 5-2. They will meet in a seven heaven on Wednesday eve. And as far as the Leaf-Bruin series went, I didn’t believe the Leaf’s had enough defensive depth, or that their forward group had enough playoff experience yet to beat the veteran laden Bruins. The Leaf’s could have closed them out in Toronto on Easter Sunday afternoon but came up short. So, Uncle Harold, get your heart medication ready for Tuesday night, because I think we are in for some high level, tightrope walking Stanley Cup excitement.
I know that I picked the Bruins in their series with the Leaf’s, but I would not be surprised if the Leaf’s go into Boston in G7 and oust the Bruins from the tourney. They have already won 2 of the 3 tilts played there in this series. In addition, there is substantial recent history here. The Leaf’s lost in seven to the Bruins in 2013 and just last season as well. I have a feeling the Leaf’s come into this game thinking the party is over here, we are going to prevail. For the Leaf’s, I like that this game isn’t at home. In the Isles-Pens series, the Pens stars never got unleashed, and in fact, I didn’t think that star players Crosby or Malkin looked like they were 100 percent. Credit must go to the Isles though too. They proved their season long defensive focus and upgrade wasn’t a fluke; they held the Pens to 6 goals in their 4-game sweep. Robin Lehner looked superb in goal and Pens netminder Matt Murray looked ineffective to me. His playoff numbers were .906 SV% and a 3.02 GAA.
If you know the game at this level, you know that the regular season and the playoffs are played at two totally different intensities. In the Bolts-CBJ series, the Jackets looked like they made sure to turn theirs up, and the Bolts didn’t. Whether it was the physicality or the skill level, Tampa just never seemed to make it up to the Jackets level. And every time it looked like they might the CBJ swatted them back down. For Columbus, netminder Sergei Bobrovsky finally notched a playoff series win. The next round will only get tougher, but they are on their game. In what will be the first featured seven heaven on Tuesday eve, the Caps and Canes will decide this series one way or the other. The Caps are a veteran club, can play the heavy game while also having plenty of skill to throw at the Canes. They have put a pounding on them thus far. But the Canes have stuck it out, outworking the Caps in some instances where you thought the Caps were about to run them off the rink. The road team hasn’t taken a game yet in this series, but I can see the Canes going into DC and stealing a victory.
Colorado put out the Flames and in my view play at such a higher pace then Calgary that the outcome wasn’t in question to me before or during the series. Av’s netminder Philip Grubauer was outstanding, holding CAL to 11G in 5 games. I didn’t think the Flames were that impressive in the final stretch of the regular season (6-4) and were vulnerable. Turned out I was right. As for the STL-JETS matchup, the Blues obviously had their problems at the start of the season, and they continued right up until they dismissed former Head Coach Mike Yeo. The change wasn’t immediate though, but from New Years forward STL had the second-best record in the league. It hasn’t hurt that an unknown 26-year-old netminder came out of nowhere and righted the Blues ship. I kept waiting for the league sharpshooters to figure him out, but he has maintained his game and the Blues have kept on winning. They will see DAL in the 2nd round.
Even though NASH went 7-3 to finish the regular season, I wasn’t seeing the jump in their game needed to win in the playoffs. On the other hand, the Stars were steadily improving their game toward what would be needed to win in the tourney. Even though they dropped 2 of the first 3 games in the series, they rattled off 3 straight, the last one in OT to take the series. They will take on STL and went 3-1 in the regular season with them. For Vegas and the Sharks, the VGK had a 3-1 lead in this series before dropping two straight. With a seven-heaven impending can they regain their touch? They beat the Sharks in every way possible in Sunday eve’s 2OT loss. Can they do that again and hope that the inconsistent Martin Jones is once again just that? We are about to find out in just a few hours here! I’m going with the road teams tonight, VGK and the Leaf’s… PEACE, Over and Out!