First-round surprises: Expect the unexpected in the playoffs

ByScott Burnside via ESPN logo
Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The playoffs are not yet two weeks old and the first round is moving inexorably toward its close. Here are some things that have made us go, "Hmmm" during what has been a rocking postseason ride.

  • Few people liked the Pittsburgh Penguins to upset the Presidents' Trophy-winning New York Rangers. And in the end few people were wrong, as the Rangers cruised to a 4-1 series victory, squeaking out each victory by a 2-1 count with two of those going to overtime. Clearly the Rangers are comfortable winning the close ones, but, given the battered nature of the Penguins, our guess is the Rangers will have to up the ante considerably when they square off against the Washington Capitals. The Penguins brought a physical element to their game periodically over the five-game set, but nothing compared to what went on in the Isles-Caps series.
  • Have to feel for Pens netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, who ended his playoff year with a .927 save percentage in five games and allowed more than two goals just once (in the Pens' 4-3 win in Game 2). The former whipping boy was the team's best player by a country mile, not that you'll hear much about that in Pittsburgh, where another disappointing playoff exit will sharpen the calls for further change in personnel and beyond.
  • At some point, we're going to stop being surprised by the Ottawa Senators. But it won't be today or tomorrow or even the day after that. Down 3-0 against the Montreal Canadiens, having lost three straight one-goal games (two in overtime), it looked as though the magic had finally run out for the plucky Sens. Not so fast. Two games later and the Senators had the Habs in nervous mode as they pushed them to an enthralling Game 6 ultimately won by the Habs 2-0 thanks to a controversial winning goal byBrendan Gallagherand more magic fromCarey Price, who was unbeatable in Montreal's net.
  • The series-clinching goal in the Montreal-Ottawa series is another indication that the NHL isn't using video replay the right way to determine the validity of goals. Gallagher first batted a puck out of the air with what appeared to be a high stick and then played it to himself before scoring. According to the rule, only the actual act of scoring is reviewable, so the goal was clearly good, but the play that led to it was definitely in question but not subject to review. That means the hockey world watched as a likely illegal play -- the whistle should have blown the moment Gallagher touched the puck after making contact with the high stick -- not only continued, but resulted in the most important goal of this series. We get that video review is a tricky, possibly problematic issue, but is it any more problematic than having a crucial goal count that shouldn't have?
  • Speaking of the Senators, how good did head coach Dave Cameron look having made the bold move of replacing the popular Andrew Hammond, the Hamburglar, in favor of veteran Craig Anderson? It's a move that could have easily backfired, yet Anderson was a rock. And Cameron might have delivered some of the best one-liners in the postseason, at one point describing his team in weather analogies -- "overcast, a little damp" -- after falling behind 3-0 in the series. If there's one guy who had fun this spring in spite of the pressure or maybe because of it, it's Cameron, and we expect a big, fat extension coming his way given his stellar work with the Sens down the stretch and through the first round.
  • And another impressive team with a never-say-die attitude, kudos to the Nashville Predators, who lost captain and star defenseman Shea Weberto a dislocated right kneecap, which the team refused to reveal until they after they were eliminated. The Preds' top two-way center Mike Fisher also missed time in the series, but the Predators defied skeptics in thumping Chicago in Game 5 to keep the series alive. But as was the case throughout the series, they could not close the deal despite scoring three times in the first period of Game 6. Small consolation to the Preds, but it was a pretty terrific series for rookie Filip Forsberg, who led the team with six points on four goals and two assists. Mike Ribeiro and Colin Wilson also performed well, which, if they can return pending free agent Ribeiro, bodes well for the future. One question? Had to figure Pekka Rinne to have a significant edge over Scott Darling/Corey Crawford, but it didn't turn out that way, with Rinne finishing with a .909 save percentage, well off his regular-season mark of .923.
  • Colleague Craig Custance and I have discussed this a number of times, but it's even more topical: When we looked at the Minnesota Wild-St. Louis Blues series, most hockey folk -- including the hockey group -- acknowledged how close this series was apt to be. Custance described it as a coin flip after taking in the first two games. Yet few people were willing to take the Wild. I had the Wild going to the Western Conference finals last fall in our preseason predictions but lacked the gumption to take them over a Blues team that (once again) looked ready to roll in the spring. But (once again) the Blues were not ready, and the Wild snuffed out the Blues' playoff hopes. Once again, the Blues could not get the goaltending they needed when they needed it most. Jake Allen showed nerves in a big 4-1 loss at home in Game 5, and then was yanked after the Wild scored two weak goals against him in Game 6. He is a terrific, young talent, but once again a terrific Blues team is home early because it can't get the job done. Hard to imagine St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock escapes this disappointment.
  • Not going to throw Ryan Miller under the bus, but Vancouver fans have to be feeling more than a little let down as the Canucks were steamrolled in Game 6 of their first-round series against the upstart Calgary Flames by a 7-4 count. The Canucks could not hold a 3-0 first-period lead and then, when Eddie Lack was replaced by Miller, they could not hold a 4-3 lead as the Flames torched (sorry, couldn't resist) the Canucks for four third-period goals to advance to the second round for the first time since their trip to the 2004 finals. Miller ended up allowing four goals on 25 shots. Coming off injury, Miller likely shouldn't have been playing, which speaks to his character, as he helped extend the series with a win in Game 5. But the results were certainly not what the Canucks were hoping when they signed the former U.S. Olympic hero and Vezina Trophy winner to a three-year deal last summer.
  • This probably hasn't gotten enough attention. OK, maybe it's gotten more attention than it deserves. Regardless, when the hockey gang at sat down to hammer out a consensus Stanley Cup winner, my suggestion of the Anaheim Ducks was immediately shouted down. In fact, both Custance and Pierre LeBrun (and they weren't the only ones in the hockey media) picked theWinnipeg Jetsto win that series outright, presumably because they looked at my record of prognostication over the years and simply assumed I would be wrong. Of coursethe Ducks, who showed tremendous resolve in coming from behind throughout their four-game sweep of the Jets, are home awaiting the Calgary Flames, who upset the Vancouver Canucks in six games. In our estimation, the Ducks are strong favorites to win this series; just, you know, pointing that out. In case anyone forgot.
  • And speaking of our consensus-pick process, we finally came around to the Chicago Blackhawks beating the Tampa Bay Lightning to win the Stanley Cup. Have to wonder if the Lightning's season might have turned in the final minutes of Game 4 when they scored twice late in regulation to tie Detroit and then went on to win in overtime with Tyler Johnson playing the hero. It happens almost every year, a Cup winner or finalist getting a healthy scare and somehow using that scare to galvanize their will. We'll see if the same thing happens to a Tampa team that rose to the occasion when facing elimination in Game 6 to force a Game 7 against Detroit.

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