A lot can change between tonight and the end of Thursday night, when three Game 7’s will determine what the Eastern Conference’s second round will look like. The first, second and third seeds could very well advance after going the maximum amount of games, making the East remarkably stable (1 vs. 5; 2 vs. 3). Of course, the reverse is just as plausible, which would strangely give the Philadelphia Flyers home ice in their conference.
Even if the higher seeds advance in the East, a lot of the mighty have already fallen in the NHL. For various reasons, I thought the Vancouver Canucks were one of the most reliable contenders going into the playoffs, yet the Los Angeles Kings dispatched them in dramatic (and swift) fashion. The Phoenix Coyotes might have had home ice, but the Chicago Blackhawks were probably given a coin flip chance in most peoples’ minds. Seeing the Detroit Red Wings get bounced in the first round is a pretty rare sight, too.
And, of course, the East's one final decision brought down its most fashionable pick, as the Penguins were humbled by the imbalanced and delightfully entertaining Flyers.
So with plenty up in the air in the East, what can we take away from the first round so far? Well, it might be obvious, but the importance of goaltending is as clear as ever in this year’s playoffs.
EAST GOALTENDING INTRIGUE
From the East’s side, Braden Holtby has been a fantastic short-term investment who could generate an extra round of bonus action if the Capitals beat Tim Thomas and the Bruins tonight. Oddly enough, the path could be quite clear for Thomas & Co. if Henrik Lundqvist gets bounced on Thursday, while the only truly interesting storyline in the Panthers-Devils series is probably the weird goalie storylines. (Martin Brodeur gets bounced, then a shutout; Jose Theodore gets a shutout then gets injured …)
Ilya Bryzgalov ranks as a huge wild card, too. Will the Flyers be as patient with him if the margin of error isn't the size of an 18-wheeler? Can he be more reliable once games tighten up? There are so many interesting questions still to be settled.
ELITE OPTIONS IN THE WEST
The West’s goaltending scenario might really determine the fate of the largest number of leagues, though - especially if goals end up being as hard to come by in the next two rounds as expected. I posed this question the other day, but it’s still a head-scratcher: Who would you rather have in net: a) Brian Elliott/Jaroslav Halak, b) Mike Smith, c) Pekka Rinne or d) Jonathan Quick?
On paper, the Kings have the team that can go all the way. With Jeff Carter’s added offensive boost, there’s no reason to believe that Los Angeles cannot do it. Yet at the same time, being the bottom seed means that any close series gets that much tougher; surely the Blues aren’t going to be an easy out considering their fresh legs and outstanding 30-6-5 home record from the regular season.
As far as goalies who impressed me the most in the first round, Smith might just take the cake. The Chicago Blackhawks absolutely dominated most of the action in their 4-2 series loss against the Coyotes yet Smith was clearly the difference. I don’t know if it’s fair to say that Corey Crawford was absolutely awful (my take: just “bad”), but Smith’s astounding work really made him look lousy by contrast. At this point, I think it’s silly to claim that Smith is just a product of Phoenix’s great system. Instead, his struggles in Tampa Bay might show that the Lightning rank as poison for netminders. (Dwayne Roloson just nodded his tired head.)
Yet for all that positivity regarding Smith, my gut reaction is to say that his team might fall to Rinne’s Predators. There’s so much on the line for Nashville, but more than that, they have a slightly better offense, an equal or better defensive group and perhaps the best goalie in the world. The Predators finished the season with 104 points to Phoenix’s 97, so there are a lot of reasons to believe that Nashville might win the series.
All things considered, if I could pick one West goalie right now, it would probably be Rinne because 1) Halak looms large behind Elliott if something gets sketchy and 2) Quick’s path to the Stanley Cup finals is far more hazardous.
Still, if you have one of those four guys on your roster, you’re probably feeling great about the future.
ROTO LEAGUE UPDATE
1. Jimmy Hascup: 193.20 points
2. Corey Abbott: 133
3. Marc Lapierre: 109.20
4. Ryan Dadoun: 101.30
5. Jared O: 98.40
6. Gus Katsaros: 97.40
7. Brian Rosenbaum: 82.70
8. My sorry team: 77.90
9. Kevin Brown: 77.40
10. Michael Finewax: 77.10
As you can see, Hascup is light years ahead of the rest of the league. His journey to the top has been propelled by Claude Giroux, Mike Smith and Jonathan Quick. About the only hope managers have of getting back into it is that he has quite a few Rangers on his roster – which might not be a problem for Hascup, either.
Obviously, your humble author’s team hasn’t done well. I cannot help but curse my first week mistake in which I didn’t set my lineup properly (it’s a long, sad story), losing one big output that jumps out more than anything else: Sean Couturier’s three-goal, one-assist explosion. Having that alone might have put me closer to sixth place, which still isn’t that great yet would at least reduce the amount of acidic regret in my gut.
On one hand, there are some reasons for optimism. My second pick is still alive as of this moment (Ilya Kovalchuk – 17overall) and I have a nice quantity of Flyers, Predators, Kings and Blues.
Any dreams of winning it all were probably dashed when the Canucks switched from my first pick (Roberto Luongo) to Cory Schneider in Game 3. I’ll admit I knew there was a risk with taking Luongo, but I honestly didn’t think the situation would erupt like it did. Instead, I thought Vancouver fans would learn to love an actually-quite-outstanding goalie again as they made another deep playoff run. They seemed to be a great choice as a contender, yet the very good but low-ranked Kings disrupted all that. Now the once-ridiculous Luongo trade rumors seem like a mere formality and a hugely interesting storyline for this summer.
While Luongo’s benching wounded the goaltending animal, the Chicago Blackhawks’ first round ousting put it to sleep. Despite not being wildly convinced of his skill, I figured Corey Crawford might be a good second goalie considering how slim the pickings can be for No. 2 netminders in these leagues. (There are 10 managers and maybe 20 potential starters, with that pool only shrinking as each round peels away.)
Obviously, things didn’t go well for Crawford, who was the obvious scapegoat in the first round.
Now my only remaining goalie is Sergei Bobrovsky, who still might see some action even though the Flyers have been hilariously stubborn about keeping Ilya Bryzgalov in net despite his consistent ineptitude.
ORIGINAL PICKS WHO ARE ELIMINATED:
Luongo, Crawford, Brent Seabrook and Tomas Holmstrom.
ORIGINAL PICKS AT RISK:
Alexander Semin, Kovalchuk, David Krejci, Dennis Wideman, Erik Karlsson and Michael Del Zotto.
LATE ADD AT RISK:
Raffi Torres got a 25-game suspension, providing the latest strange chapter in NHL discipline. He probably deserves a harsh penalty, but it does seem a little strange that the hammer came down so much harder on him … If your goalie pool is as shallow as mine, you might want to at least keep an eye on Florida prospect Jacob Markstrom. Jose Theodore is injured and Scott Clemmensen has been up-and-down, so if the Panthers advance, you never know … Patrice Bergeron is fighting pretty valiantly through some kind of injury, but might be less effective even if the Bruins advance … Marian Hossa’s concussion sounds pretty severe, though that’s obviously a next season worry … Hal Gill might be one of the biggest beneficiaries from the West getting some time off … Brian Boyle was a great force for the Rangers, but he might be done for quite some time with a concussion thanks to a Chris Neil hit … It appears that Nicklas Grossmann is dealing with a concussion of his own … The latest word on Halak is that he’s likely to miss at least the first two games of the Blues’ next series. Elliott is looking like more and more of a bigger steal, but I’d still worry a bit about Halak barging in. In fact, if you can “handcuff” the two, it might just be worth it. (Click here for the full injury list.)