PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 11: A Pittsburgh Penguin fan dances during the game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers.
With half the party set now for Round 2 a little reflection on the series that have thus far been completed is in order. I managed to watch at least two games in every series.
There is a changing of the guard happening in the NHL landscape.
The Kings and the Blues have risen while previously deep running playoff teams have teetered with early surprise exits. It isn't just that they lost, it is how they lost in a convincing manner. It is either going to be shrugged off or lead to change in the off-season.
The Crowning of the Kings
The Los Angeles Kings have surprisingly dispatched the top ranked Vancouver Canucks (4-1). Since the arrival of Darryl Sutter in L.A. this team has righted the ship. From January on they slowly dug themselves out of an early hole. Never did the commitment to the defensive game slip but the results started to come.
They entered the playoffs as the team no one wanted to match up against and showed why. Next season they will be counted among the top teams in the West and given the age of their roster, have entered their Cup window. Even more impressive is the fact the majority of their roster is under contract and stable for several years.
The Canucks avoided the sweep but no one anticipated so few games to dispatch them. They still are, on paper, an elite team. Another year has gone by and they should still be considered in their Cup window for next year.
The only contract conundrum they will face in the off-season is the necessity of choosing between Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider for next season. Time is ticking away for them as the Sedins turn 32 for next season. They lack a true top D man with puck moving abilities.
Can Schneider or Luongo be moved for that top #1 D man? If so watch for the Canucks to once again be in the thick of the race with the top of the NHL next season.
The Rise of the Blues and the Sharks Decline
The Teal is fading in San Jose, after a decade at the top of the NHL. They have an impressive history of making the playoffs. In 14 seasons they have only missed the playoffs once but in all those dances never made it to the Cup finals and their Cup window is certainly closed now.
Change is on the horizon in San Jose. This team has contracts expiring and Doug Wilson has to face the fact that his crew has not been able to get it done in the post-season. He will be taking a hard look at Rick Nash this off-season.
The Blues are one of the surprise teams of the season. In pre-season most did not pick them to even make the playoffs, never mind rocket to the top of the NHL. One of those rare examples of when a coaching change actually makes a big difference, Ken Hitchcock has gone to work with this young team and the results have been impressive.
The performance of their goaltending corps in Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott is certainly a part of it but watching Blues hockey is watching a well-oiled machine where the whole performance is greater than the sum of the parts.
How deep they go remains to be seen but I am picking the Kings to take them down in the next round. An amazing season, no matter what happens, a lot of choices to be made in their off-season. 7 roster players go UFA and 3 go RFA. They will have some hard choices to make with some aging Vets and it remains to be seen how they will spend their dollars, to fill out the team next year.
But enough of next season, the Blues have won their first playoff round in a decade and the focus is on the now. They very well could take down the Kings and it will be a hell of a series but I will defer to the experience of the Kings over the youthful Blues.
The Mighty Red Wing and Nashville's Rise
The Red Wings are not a team anyone will write off. For years they have been that old team that somehow gets it done, year after year. They are becoming what the Habs used to be. I am not writing a post-mortem on them for decline because the fact is they are sitting on a wad of cash and should be the heavy hitters for the top UFA this off-season.
If Ryan Suter decides to walk from Nashville or Zach Parise from New Jersey watch the Red Wings to have a cheque ready this off-season. While Nicklas Lidstrom's future remains hazy, even at his age he could easily play another year and contribute. The Pedators may have got them this season but I don't expect the Red Wings to leave the playoff picture for next year, not with the core they have.
Nashville is an organization I have tremendous respect for, it may be one of the best hockey operations teams in the NHL. Constantly hitting above its Cap weight in performance, drafting shrewdly and building and building on a strict internal budget. I personally enjoy the success of this team because they show what can be done, even on limited dollars.
Whether they meet the Coyotes or the Blackhawks in the next round, I expect them to win but this may be a flash season. They face enormous potential upheaval next year and if they want to maintain their current team, dollars will have to be spent. Dollars from an ownership group that has been tight fisted with them.
A lot of question marks will surround this Predators team in the off-season. A team poised to take a strong top ten positioning in the NHL for the years ahead but if they cannot retain their elite players, it would be a tragedy for their fans. They have managed to do so much under such limitations.
A bizarre series with the worst collective example of playoff goaltending, I have ever seen in my over 30+ years of watching playoff hockey, no matter what happens with the Flyers going forward, they have to be concerned about Bryz.
I expect pre-emptive changes to hit the Penguins this off-season. Two first round exits cannot be acceptable to this team. The best player in the game in Sidney Crosby and the leading scorer this season in Evgeni Malkin and they could not get it done?
The problem in my view is not on the paper team. There is an intangible missing from this team. They should be running deep in the playoffs every year and even if you tag Marc -Andre Fleury with the responsibility this year, it doesn't tell the whole tale.
The Penguins for some mysterious reason appear to be stepping back? Whether they won the Cup too fast or whatever it is, they need to find that playoff hunger again because they certainly look to have lost it.
Paul Holmgren will at some point this off-season be saying 2 out of 3 ain't bad. He had mini-riots on the verge of breaking out with his Mike Richards and Jeff Carter trades. Then the monstrous contract for Bryz. His trades turned out to be literal gems with Brayden Schenn and the low in the draft falling Sean Couturier emerging as strong young NHL players but his impetus for these trades was to get a elite Goaltender locked down for the future.
Signing Bryz whose lackluster performance, lackluster at best, is looking like the birth of a nightmare in Philly. On the plus side Claude Giroux is emerging as a true elite super-star. Incredible play in the series by Giroux, just incredible, looking almost Crosby like, if he keeps it up the Flyers have a lot of depth at Center but will Bryz emerge to play to his potential?
The Flyers hopes in the playoffs will be intimately tied to him.