Cold as Ice

Popblerd’s resident hockey mavens Stephen Mapes and Jay Kumar reflect on the first round of the NHL playoffs, with two series heading to decisive seventh games tonight.

Stephen:  So I guess we might as well start with tonight’s game. After looking outmatched early, the Leafs—especially Reimer—have hunkered down and taken the Bruins to a full seven games (and kept my crazy prediction a possibility). How are you feeling about your team going into the last game of the series?

Jay:  I feel terrific! Momentum’s an overrated concept, but I like the way the Leafs have played really since game 2. Even when they lost games 3 and 4, they were much more aggressive. And then to see Leafs goalie James Reimer come up huge in games 5 and 6 to force the seventh game, well, it’s awesome to see. Not to mention the fact that the Leafs scratched center Tyler Bozak right before game time; the guy who takes the majority of faceoffs and centers the top line. And they didn’t miss a beat. The defense has tightened up, they’re getting clutch scoring and big-time goaltending. I feel great about their chances in game 7 Monday night.

Stephen:  And you should. The Bruins went from dominant early to showing serious weaknesses, and even in their wins, they were leaning heavily on Rask standing on his head. They’re still a capable team, but like you said, the momentum seems tilted towards the Leafs.

Though, I’d say even if they don’t make it, the Leafs showed they deserved to be in the big dance, and look like a team poised to do damage next year.

Jay: Yeah, I’ve gone into the last two games feeling as though even if they lost, it would still be a great season for the Leafs. After that disastrous game 1, people were joking that the Bruins would win in 3 games, and it was hard to disagree with them. But the Leafs have been resilient, as they have been all season under Randy Carlyle, and they’ve overcome injuries and some initial screwy lineup choices by Carlyle to take this series to the limit. After nine years in the non-playoff wilderness, this is nirvana for Leafs fans.

Stephen:  And I must add the Leafs fan base, by and large, has been classy as can be this series. Especially tonight. They really came out to show their appreciation for this team.

So there’s another game 7 of interest to Leafs fans as well, and that would be the Rangers/Caps game tomorrow.

Whoever wins will get to face the winner of the Bruins/Leafs series.

Jay: Yeah. Honestly, it could go either way, but I’m giving the edge to the Rangers just because of King Henrik Lundqvist in net. He made a ridiculous kick save in the dying seconds of game 6 to preserve the win for the Rangers. It’s been a pretty even series, though, no doubt. Not really a surprise.

Stephen:  Yeah, and the Caps have really dropped the ball on closing this series out. Ovi is a dynamic player, and Holtby can hold his own, but King Henrik can never be counted out, and with Nash waking up tonight with a goal, I think game 7 is New York’s to lose.

Jay:  Truth. So you must be relieved that your Penguins wrapped up their series with the Islanders last night, although the Isles gave them much more than they bargained for. Of course, in the process, number #1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was chased from the net after having a disastrous series and backup Tomas Vokoun saved the day for Pittsburgh. You must have some mixed feelings about the state of the Penguins right now as they prepare to face Ottawa, who walloped a hurting Montreal team.

Stephen:  To be fair to Fleury, a huge part of his early struggles can be pinned on our terrible defensive play, and just being out skated by the Isles. They weren’t blocking shots, they weren’t clearing pucks, and they weren’t doing any forechecking. Game 5 was bad for him, but Fleury plays best when he has help out front, and he had precious little. That said, we’re always able to score needed goals thanks to our offensive arsenal, and Malkin and Crosby were both field marshals in the final game. That said, the Isles deserve all the credit in the world, taking the presumed Eastern Conference champs to six games, and really causing some serious doubts about them. They’re fast, they’re gritty, and they’re going to make some noise next year.

And lastly, I don’t envy Byslma’s choices for the next round. Does he ride the hot hand of Vokoun, or place his hope on his #1?

Jay:  The Pens have to go with Vokoun right now. And really, that’s why they got him. When Fleury imploded last season against the Flyers, there was no answer. Vokoun gives them a decent replacement in net. Of course, the Islanders took them to 6 games with a shaky D and an even shakier goalie. It’ll be interesting to see how the Pens fare against a much better goalie in Craig Anderson of Ottawa. Still, I’ve gotta think Pittsburgh is a much better team than the Senators. Of course, that doesn’t really mean anything as we’ve seen so far.

Stephen:  If we use the regular season as any precedence, the Pens owned the Sens this year, going 3-0-0 against them. But of course we shouldn’t: the playoffs are a whole new game. And the Sens looked dominant against the Habs, even though they were already falling away before the series started.

Jay: You can’t sell the Sens short. Paul McLean has done an incredible job with them the last two seasons. I still think the Pens win, but it won’t be easy. Pittsburgh in 6. So let’s turn to the West. I certainly did not expect San Jose to sweep the Canucks. Is this the year of the Shark? Vancouver’s goaltending was a problem once again, as Cory Schneider couldn’t play like a number one goalie and Roberto Luongo wasn’t the answer, either. But give the Sharks credit for taking it to a seemingly better Vancouver team.

Stephen:  As we predicted, if they didn’t find a clear #1, they were done for, and neither goalie gave them much. But the Sharks looked far more dominant as a lower seed than they have in previous President’s Cup winning seasons. They’ll face either the Hawks or the Kings next round, but I think they’ll give either a run for their money. They look like they can do some damage in the West.

Jay:  Well, the Hawks as expected won easily over Minnesota in five games, but the Kings had to work to beat St. Louis, losing the first two games before reeling off four straight to win in 6. St. Louis saw a real lack of offense from its top players, with only Alex Steen doing anything of note. And now it’s down to Detroit, which has continued to claw back against Anaheim, to make things interesting in the West. The Wings are dangerous, and at this moment are leading 2-1 in the first period of game 7.

Stephen:  I don’t even know if I’d call their win that easy, given that the Wild fell down to their second and third goalies and still managed to steal a game from the Hawks and really challenge them in game 2. The Hawks are still the team to beat, but they showed a bit of weakness. Quick basically carried all of LA on his shoulders. Every game was a one goal deficit, and that series could have EASILY swung to the Blues were Quick not rocking an insane .950 save%.

But now we’re down to the Ducks v. Wings, and while I really like the Ducks and picked them to go, the Wings will not go quietly and hold the win in their hands after one.

They’ve been aggressive, they’ve found ways to score, and over the past few games, have really seemed to crack Hiller.

Jay: Any team with Datsyuk and Zetterberg is deadly.

Stephen:  Both of whom have been instrumental in their last few wins.

Jay: So we don’t know all the second round matchups, but what we do know is that the first round has been outstanding. Just incredible hockey in just about every series, even the ones that ended quickly. It’s what you hope for each year. For me, it’s nice to still have a rooting interest. I’m hoping to still have one after Monday night.

Stephen:  Best of luck to the Leafs tomorrow night, and if the hockey gods are just, maybe this can turn from civil playoff chat to all out grudge match in round 3.

In other words, a Leafs vs. Pens conference final would be amazing.

Jay: Ha ha, let’s hope so. I’m not getting ahead of myself, though. I’ve been very careful to say as little as possible in terms of boastful claims about my team, whereas Bruins fans have been pretty cocky (and really, who can blame them?). It’s been nice to stay humble and see good things happen, so I’m going to stick with that game plan (even though it has no bearing on what happens on the ice).

Stephen:  I like that plan. Win or lose, we can do a round 2 blow-by-blow in the coming week.

Jay: Definitely. Good luck!

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