Well, that's over with. The quarterfinals, that is. Was it good for you? I freely admit that I've had better sports moments, but despite a lot of bogus officiating (Isn't it funny how the more we demand safety, the more rigged our lives get? Where are you when we need you, Ben Franklin?), somehow the right outcomes were achieved. I think.
A lot of chokers got exposed. A lot of weaknesses that seemed insignificant during the regular season suddenly became glaring. And four presumably good teams got to the Cup semifinals. The West now clearly has back the Cup advantage it had at the beginning of the season before Boston ran roughshod through the Western Conference and finished with the best record.
How did all that happen, quickly?
MTL 4 BOS 3:
Montreal had an advantage on Boston in their few regular season matchups, but that wasn't significant. Their win was capsule-summarized by some as speed being Boston's Achilles Heel. But everyone knew they had speed. That wasn't it. Subban got a lot of ink and played well, but even he wasn't it, and was largely neutralized in later games. Price was great in goal, but you expected that too. And Montreal played up to their best abilities. So what? Everybody's supposed to do that in the playoffs.
The truly significant things were mostly on the Bruins. In no particular order:
Item 1: Boston's star players choked. David Krejci didn't score a goal. Sometimes that happens. What doesn't usually happen is that he also gets almost no assists. That speaks not only to him but to Milan Lucic and Jerome Iginla, who failed to put the puck in the net. Tukka Rask was exposed as a non-top-tier goalie despite his shining stats. He always is by Montreal. Brad Marchand spent the entire playoffs missing wide open nets. Too much more on this topic to treat here.
Item 2: Claude Julien failed to get his team properly prepared. The Bruins were capable of storming Montreal, as they did in game 1 (to great futility thanks to Price). But they didn't keep the pressure on, and allowed themselves to get frustrated by ill fortune (of which they had plenty). Their discipline broke down at all the key moments even when they had a huge advantage in puck control.
Item 3: Despite all this, they did, as alluded, have a lot of plain bad luck. They hit posts left and right. It wasn't because Price made them do it. Add to that total their misses of open nets, and about a dozen goals were left off the scoreboard. But the misses aren't anyone's fault but their own. The clangs? Some bad luck, some also just bad shooting. And the national announcing crew bemoaned their total lack of 'puck luck'. It was true, but you have to fight your way out of those situations. It ain't always handed to you.
Item 4: When Denis Seidenberg went down for the season, a collective groan went up. But at the time the Bruins weren't playing all that well, and their finishing streak put consistent weaknesses shown by some of their young defensemen on the back burner. It came back to haunt them big time. No one watching the first minutes of the final two games could possibly have missed it, as absurd miscues by the defense (and by Rask) led to quick Montreal leads that they would never relinquish. Even Chara got in the act, permitting Pacioretty to slide by him while Rask did his impersonation of a hypnosis subject. There was no defensive communication, at least none that showed, during those situations. Why Boston went out of its way to get Mezaros to shore up the D late in the season, then sat him in favor of the embattled Bartkowski, is a question mark only Julien can straighten up.
But, despite all the analysis paralysis, the series went to Montreal because they played better clutch hockey. And they clearly tried harder. That almost always wins in the postseason, even against the President's Cup winners.
NYR 4 PIT 3:
It's a little hard to remember Pittsburgh having a 3-1 lead in this series, with sages in sports/politics rags like SI showing smiling Crosbys and Malkins all over (when they were showing hockey at all) and claiming they were just too much.
Too much for what? Yes, New York seemed to get an infusion of purpose from Martin St. Louis' family loss (should have been from the coach, one would think) and fight back with heretofore unseen persistence and intensity, but the series was in Pitt's back pocket. That New York should play harder didn't seem to be enough. Dan Bylsma lost again, and probably lost his job too, but he wasn't outcoached. Neither coach seemed to provide much inspiration.
Item 1: For the first several game of the series Pittsburgh was all over Lunqvist, and King Henrik looked like he was about to be deposed. Meanwhile, the Penguins' weak link in goal, Marc-Andre Fleury, was outplaying the King. That all turned around. Lundqvist began to nip Pittsburgh rallies in the bud with the sort of play he's known for, and Fleury largely reverted to form under added Ranger pressure.
Item 2: The vaunted Pittsburgh stars choked. Crosby, the supposed 'best player in the world', stunk. There was no excuse. He's not even the best player in the NHL East. In this series, he wasn't even the 10th best player on the ice. No real superstar goes underground like that. His vaunted teammates didn't do much better.
Item 3: As mentioned, neither coach seemed to have motivated his troops. What did motivate one team was a set of extenuating circumstances. Apparently it was enough. We saw a series between two teams that were not exactly what you would call self-starters.
CHI 4 MIN 2:
For a while there it seemed the energetic Wild Stars (bear with me) had enough juice to simply wear out a somewhat worn-looking set of Black Hawks. Despite having a coach who looks like a Professor of Geekology, Minny (the name I will use for the rest of this segment) was running all over the ice and generating havoc. It seemed the series would certainly go 7 games. Why didn't it?
Item 1: The Champs got the calls when they needed them. It ain't much, but it tipped a series that was so evenly played it's hard to fathom how it ended in six games.
Item 2: Chicago may not have matched Minny's speed, but when game 6 went to the late moments, Chicago's passes were still accurate and their puckhandling still effective. Minny was still skating at 100mph, but their passing accuracy collapsed and their ability to handle hard passes when they got them deteriorated also. Bad passing and stickhandling led to fairly consistent Black Hawk pressure.
Item 3: Crawford isn't generally considered a top-tier goalie in the NHL, but he played like one. Conversely his counterpart Bryzgalov, who played well, wasn't quite up to Crawford's heroics.
Item 4: Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Minny has a ton of fine players, but nobody truly in these guys' class.
LA 4 ANA 3:
Somehow this series didn't seem very close in the end, with LA turning on the jets. The Ducks resiliantly climbed from an 0-2 hole (both losses on home ice) to a 3-2 series lead. How did they let it slip away? Was it a case of LA just turning it on when they had to? Perhaps. But there was more to it.
Item 1: Like Boston, Anaheim failed to put its best foot forward in the clutch, while its dutiful opponent did. There's probably no way LA should have won the series with the pressure Anaheim could bring to bear when they turned it on, and with LA behind 3-2 to boot. Problem is, they didn't turn it on often enough when it really counted. LA did. Their performance to open the seventh game was clearly the deciding factor.
Item 2: The series began with Anaheim in a goalie controversy. Not good. John Gibson, a highly regarded rookie but a rook nonetheless, was brilliant in the Anaheim comeback run, outplaying his highly regarded rival Jonathan Quick. That evaporated a bit in game six, and disappeared totally in game seven. He had been the third goalie Anaheim played in three games. He's a kid. His mental stamina likely wore out.
Item 3: LA has Cup pedigree, and in this series it showed.
So where do we go from here? It's easy to summarize the important factors in each quarterfinal series.
1. Better goaltending won the day every time.
2. Lack of performance from star players was a decisive factor in several series.
3. Coaching made a difference sometimes.
Sounds like every year. Let's put on our turbans and try to predict what we'll see in the two series that follow.
NYR vs. MTL:
First the pre-series logic. Price is a good goalie and can be great. His opposite number is already considered great. New York plays a soft-hitting, cycling, skating and passing game. Montreal plays a defensive, hitting game and relies on fast-break hockey when the opponents are stuck in the Montreal end.
It looks like the perfect setup for Montreal. The caveats are that
1. the Rangers have good speed, and
2. the Rangers have King Henrik.
But it's hard to pick a team that seemingly needed to draw inspiration from a teammate's loss against a team that drew its inspiration from playing its opponent. A question is whether Montreal will either be spent from their effort against Boston or suffer a letdown when they see the comparatively innocuous Blueshirts across the ice.
I don't think anyone else could have beaten Boston. Montreal was my clear pick until I saw game one. Now I don't know what to think, but I'll have a good idea after games 2 and 3.
I do have a theory on the back burner that the Habs were built, like the NY Jets, for one purpose... to beat the leviathan in their own division. That would be the Bruins for Montreal, and the Patriots for the Jets. Sometimes that works too well. Game one is giving that theory some practice.
CHI vs. LA:
This is a heck of a matchup. Both teams have some star power, both have recent Cups (2 for Chicago), and both have had great goaltending.
It's as hard to pick against Chicago's Toews-Kane-Hossa troika. It's hard to pick against Quick, Kopitar, Doughty et al.
I have no idea who wins this, so I have to go with home ice. And home refs. Chicago.