NHL Playoffs 2012: First Round Physicality
This year’s playoffs speak to the amount of parity and excitement the NHL has to offer. Unlike in basketball, where the elite teams can dominate early in the first round, the NHL postseason features no easy matchup. The league has truly earned its title as the toughest championship to win in sports, due to the amount of fireworks that can ensue due to crazy upsets and dramatic overtimes that have played out this postseason.
Pittsburgh, the Stanley Cup favorite according to many analysts, is down 3-1 in its first round matchup against rival Philadelphia Flyers. President Cup trophy winner Vancouver is also trailing 3-1 to the scrappy but resurgent Los Angeles Kings. The third seeded Florida Panthers are holding their own, while the defending champion Boston Bruins have an early series lead against Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals. The list goes on forever, but the point remains that every series has its own piece of drama.
Let's not forget the 10 overtime games that have already happened this postseason.
Overtime in hockey is the event in sports that has no time limit or gimmick rules, just that the best man winning whenever he can put the puck in the back of the net. This grueling struggle for offense can keep the fans on their feet seemingly forever, waiting for that one play that will decide the outcome.
In summary, nothing has come easy this postseason and every matchup has its own bit of madness and excitement. Let’s go into some more detail on the reasons why the NHL postseason has been extremely compelling so far.
This year, and the last few in general, speak to the amount of parity and strength that the league has to offer.
The success of the Kings, Flyers and even the scrappy play of the eighth seeded Ottawa Senators has made the road to the Cup for Vancouver, Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers, respectively, no easy task. The last time I can remember this type of parity was 2003, when Jean Sebastian Giguere led the seventh seeded Mighty Ducks all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals but fell short to New Jersey.
Parity is great for the league and allows for every game to be highly competitive and dangerous for all the favorites. No opponent can be taken lightly this season, and I expect the rest of the playoffs to be tight and come down to long, hard fought series. Add to that the fact that no series will end in a sweep this round. This may seem like a moot point, but it shows that no team is a pushover, and that every team in this postseason has talent and can strike at any moment.
Hockey is a physically draining sport, and the grind athletes take on a nightly basis is commendable.
The playoffs have shown the national public the true manliness and aggression that players can employ on their opponents.
In total, six players have been suspended or banned for their nasty hits this postseason. The league is taking a stance against brutal hits on defenseless players and is trying to incorporate some peace into the aggressive nature of its sport. The Chicago-Phoenix series has added its own drama when it comes to the hitting department.
This series stands alone in my mind as the dirtiest and most aggressive contest of the NHL playoffs.
In Game 2, Chicago’s Andrew Shaw got the dogs chirping when he crashed into Phoenix goalie Mike Smith. Many people are saying that Smith may not have been as injured on the play as it seemed, but nevertheless the shock waves from around the league have been heard.
The next game, Phoenix’s Raffi Torres decked Marian Hossa and knocked him out of the game. Each team knew that this series would be tough from that point on. In that contest alon,e 80 hits were delivered between the two teams with none being bigger than Torres' hit on Hossa.
Traditional Powers Falling
Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Vancouver, all of whom were considered title contenders, are trailing in each of their respective series.
This gives opportunities for teams like Los Angeles, Nashville and even Phoenix to break into NHL history and capture Lord Stanley’s Cup. For many years, the traditional powerhouses have dominated the NHL playoffs, but this season hustle, grit and youth are making their way into the league, allowing for new teams to take center stage on the national spotlight.
NHL purists will argue that playoffs without the traditional powers are bad for the sport. I believe that this year, adding some new faces to the winning circle only add to the excitement and buzz that the NHL can provide. Los Angeles, St. Louis and even Florida fans, who do not usually smell championships, would love to steal the spotlight. This adds viewers and makes the sport as a whole stronger, which will definitely improve, not decrease, the image of the league.
Goalies Putting their Mark on Series
Jonathan Quick, Jaroslav Halak and Pekke Rinne have come from nowhere to steal series for their teams.
Quick has propelled the Kings, who have had little recent playoff success, to a win and advance situation against Vancouver. Quick has been able to show off his athleticism and quickness (no pun intended) to cover crease to crease and set the tone defensively for the Kings.
Rinne has taken the lowly Nashville Predators and turned them into the favorite of the West at this moment. His tenacity and strength between the posts has propelled the Predators to a 3-1 series lead against Detroit and makes them a very tough matchup as the playoffs progress. Last season, Rinne went 6-6 in the postseason, watching his Predators lose in the second round, but this year his 2.01 GAA has pushed Nashville on their way to the second round.
Who can forget the magical run Jaroslav Halak took Montreal on last season, all the way to the Eastern Conference finals? New team, same story for Halak, who despite being only 1-1, is making great strides and using his 1.72 GAA to propel St. Louis to a 3-1 series lead over San Jose. Halak was the goaltender of last year's postseason by far, if it hadn't been for Tim Thomas, and this postseason is on track to do just the same.
These reasons alone make winning the Stanley Cup a tremendous challenge and allow for the hardest working teams that come together when it all matters to stand above the rest as champions. If these playoffs were all about talent, no question, Pittsburgh and Vancouver would play in the finals, but as Lee Corso always says “not so fast my friend."
The NHL playoffs will test the wills of all 16 participants for the next few weeks, and finally award Lord Stanley’s Cup to the most worthy champion. While we still can, let's enjoy all of the hard hits, high scores and drama that play out on a nightly basis throughout the playoffs.