The Favorites Are Gone: Vancouver & Pittsburgh Bite The Dust

Two more teams advanced  in the Stanley Cup playoffs, at the expense of the smart money favorites to reach the Finals,  filling up half of the second round–and we’re assured of at least one Game 7. TheSportsNotebook looks back on an exciting Sunday and ahead to two more potential clinchers on Monday…

Los Angeles 2 Vancouver 1 (OT): The Kings completed their upset of #1 seed Vancouver by playing an excellent all-around hockey game. Vancouver scored early, when Henrik Sedin scored on the power play off an assist from twin brother Daniel, but that was the last we would hear of the Canucks’ offense. Daniel Sedin, fighting a concussion and having sat out the first two games of the series, got only one shot on goal. It still looked like it might be enough, as Vancouver’s belated insertion of Cory Schneider in goal for Game 3 had finally equalized the area where Los Angeles had a big edge with Jonathan Quick. On Sunday night the Kings were able to generate 37 shots and early in the third period center Brad Richards was able to tie it.

Both goaltenders warded off assaults at the end of regulation and then about five minutes into overtime, Los Angeles’ Jarrett Stoll just flat-out beat Schneider when he ripped a shot over the goalie’s right shoulder and the Kings—whose playoff berth was uncertain in the final week of the regular season, had dispatched the NHL’s most talented team in five games. In fairness to Vancouver a healthy Daniel Sedin likely wins this series. But before they get too carried away on excuses, the best team in hockey should be able to survive a 1-8 first-round matchup. For example, if Derrick Rose sat out the first round of the NBA playoffs for the Chicago Bulls, we’d expect them to still beat the 76ers, would we not?  If they can’t, maybe they aren’t really the best, at least when it comes to playoff-style action.

Philadelphia 5 Pittsburgh 1: There will be no miracle comeback for the Penguins. Marc-Andre Fleury found his old form in goal for the Penguins and coughed up four goals in only 22 shots. Pittsburgh center Evgeni Malkin came to play and was a productive factor for one of the few times in this series, getting six shots and scoring on a power play in the second period that cut the lead to 3-1. But Malkin’s counterpart Claude Giroux was locked in. The Flyer center had a goal and an assist in the first period to set the tone, and another assist in the second to open up a commanding three-zip lead. Danny Briere sealed the win with his fifth goal of the series and Ilya Bryzgalov finally played a good game in goal, turning back 30/31 shots from the talented Pittsburgh front line.

So both favorites for the Cup are gone, as Vancouver and Pittsburgh go home. The Penguins loss also debunks the idea you have to be hot going into a postseason. Of the 16 playoff teams, no one matched Pittsburgh’s 15-5 record in the final twenty games of the regular season, but it meant nothing in the playoffs.

Boston 4 Washington 3 (OT): In this space yesterday I panned the play of Boston goalie Tim Thomas, at least by comparison to Washington counterpart Braden Holtby. Thomas answered those criticisms in a big way. For one of the few times this series, the Capitals outstaked the Bruins, winning shots 39-31, and getting seven of them from Alex Ovechkin. Thomas was forced into several dramatic stick saves and back-across-his-body saves. He got help from Rich Peverly, who had a goal and an assist to create a 2-2 tie after two periods. Then Tyler Seguin, the Bruin boy wonder who’s been quiet this series, fed Andrew Ference for a 3-2 lead. Ovechkin came back and beat Thomas after the Caps won a faceoff and forced OT. Seguin then made a championship-caliber play, getting the puck on a breakaway, using the stick to get Holtby out of position and putting the puck in the net from a side angle. A series where every game has been decided by one goal and has been within one goal for all but a few minutes of Game 5, will now go to Boston for Game 7. I watched this game as Bruins fan with a Capitals fan friend of mine. I’ve already insisted that the B’s do everything possible to give their team heart failure. He’s insisted the Caps always find a way to rip their fans’ guts out. So far we’re both looking prescient and now all the money’s on the table come Wednesday night.

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*Ottawa looks to complete a stunning upset of the New York Rangers in Game 6. In the other three series involving 1 or 2 seeds, I felt like you could come up with a halfway logical reason why the underdog would win—i.e., reasons going beyond “this is hockey, anything can happen. There is no logical reason Ottawa should beat New York and this would be a mammoth shocker.

*The battle of Phoenix goalie Mike Smith against the waves of talent the Chicago Blackhawks bring offensively continues up in the Windy City. It’s Chicago who needs to survive and force a Game 7 in the desert.