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Historic first round a contrast of excitement and hockey’s dark side

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Coyotes winger Mikkel Boedker is one of the poster boys for this postseason’s exceptional spate of close games: he’s scored two OT goals, one shy of the single year record. (Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

It’s been a remarkable first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, historic in many ways. Some of that history is worth celebrating and some is not, but the fact that we’re not even through it yet could make this year’s tournament one we’ll all remember for a long time.

Consider:

  • We’re witnessing a shifting in the balance of power in the NHL, with marquee teams like the Red Wings, Canucks, Sharks and Penguins all out early and the Rangers, Bruins and Blackhawks a loss away from elimination. Some may decry the departure of familiar teams, but the chance to see a bunch of new clubs in the second round and expose new, up and coming talent in the NHL is pretty exciting.
  • The fresh-faced teams advancing to the next round include the Predators, Blues and Kings, who had a combined one series victory during the last eight seasons: the Preds’ first round triumph last year. And if the Panthers — who haven’t even been in the playoffs for 10 years — can get past the Devils in their game on Tuesday, it won’t change that stat at all.
  • Of the first 42 games played, 27, or 64 percent were one-goal decisions, a pace that’s better than the record 63 percent set in 2007.
  • There have been nine third-period comebacks to victory so far in the first round. Last year that happened only six times.
  • In eight games, the tying or winning goal was scored in the last five minutes of regulation time. That happened only three times in the first round last year.
  • There have been 14 lead changes in first round games so far this year. Last year there were six.
  • In 83 percent of the playing time, the teams were either tied or separated by only one goal.
  • Two of the teams that many predicted would meet in the Cup final, the Penguins and the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Canucks, are both gone.
  • All five games in the Blackhawks-Coyotes series have gone to overtime, tying the record for most OTs in a series (the 1951 Cup final between the Maple Leafs and Canadiens). Game 6 in that round is tonight in Chicago. The Blackhawks scored three very late third period goals, two in the final minute, and one in the last two to send games to overtime.
  • With 13 OT games so far (31 percent of the first 42) and considering how close most of the games have been, there’s a chance we could approach the record of 28 for one playoff year set in 1993 — 33 percent of the 85 games.
  • Each of the six games in the Capitals-Bruins series has been a one-goal decision.  The decisive game in that round is on Wednesday.
  • The insane Flyers-Penguins series saw 56 goals scored in six game, totals that approach the lofty heights of the goal-happy 1980s. The Flyers averaged five per game, the Pens over four.
  • From the bizarre stat department: The Senators have led in their series against the Rangers for only 50 minutes 40 seconds, but they are ahead in the series three games to two.
  • Seven goalies who played the majority of their team’s games — Cory Schneider, Jonathan Quick, Brian Elliott, Henrik Lundqvist, Pekka Rinne, Craig Anderson and Mike Smith — have save percentages over .940, which is Tim Thomas territory. Braden Holtby, arguably the biggest surprise of the playoffs, isn’t too far behind at .935.
  • Claude Giroux, who leads all scorers with six goals, eight assists and 16 points, and is plus-6,  asserted himself as an elite player and team leader for the Flyers, outplaying Sidney Crosby in the opening round.
  • With two consecutive OT goals, the Coyotes’ Mikkel Boedker is only one away from the record of three in one year, set in 1939 by the Bruins’ Mel Hill (who did it in one series) and equaled by the Canadiens’ Maurice Richard in 1951.
  • The Kings’ Dustin Brown tied a record first set in 1963 by Toronto’s Dave Keon and later shared by 11 other players when he scored two shorthanded goals in a game against the Canucks.

The Pittsburgh and Vancouver sagas are the most interesting. The Penguins let the Flyers suck them into playing Philly’s physical style and they came out second best. They didn’t get consistent contributions from two of their three big centers, Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Only Jordan Staal was a presence in each game. Their defense corps seemed clueless in the face of the onrushing Flyers, with important blueliners like Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik underperforming. Their penalty killing was abysmal. Marc-Andre Fleury played poorly in goal, unable to bail out his club when it was ineffective in front of him. Mostly, the Penguins suffered from a lack of leadership in turning their game around, staying out of the penalty box and focusing on hockey. Give credit to the Flyers; they are faster, more skilled and more resolute than many expected and their ability to play through the major injuries on their defense corps was a big key to the series win.

The Canucks came within one game of the Cup last year; this time they only won one game. As Sportsnet’s Mark Spector wrote in a good analysis of Vancouver’s failure, “Everything that worked for this team last spring went the other way this time around.” Roberto Luongo, the perennial whipping boy of Canucks Nation, wasn’t the problem this time; he played pretty well and Cory Schneider was even better. But the defense corps in front of them looked frazzled as they came under bombardment by the heavy forecheck of the big Kings forwards, and most of the Canucks’ forwards vanished, most notably Ryan Kesler (no goals, three assists) and Alex Burrows (one goal, no assists). The Kings are big, they bang and they had Quick, who is a difference-maker in goal. It certainly didn’t help Vancouver that Daniel Sedin missed most of the round with the aftereffects of his concussion caused by Duncan Keith’s awful elbowing foul as the regular season wound down. It might well have been a different series with a fully healthy Daniel in the lineup.

And that brings us, inevitably, to the bad that has transpired so far,  unfortunately overshadowing all that great stuff above.

  •  Prior to Saturday, the NHL had levied eight suspensions in 32 playoffs games, a rate of one every four postseason games. That doesn’t count the 25-game ban given to Raffi Torres, which had yet to be determined, but he’d already missed one game. During the entire pre- and regular seasons, Brendan Shanahan handed out 44 suspensions over 1,338 games, or one every 30.
  • Torres’ ban tied for the third longest ban in NHL history.

Torres’ hit on Marian Hossa became a huge exclamation point on how lawless the start of the round had grown. Until then chaos, and not the officials, ruled. We noted that the league-wide nature of it was unprecedented and many agreed. Even Al Arbour, the former Islanders coach  — who was in enough wild series as a player during the Original Six Era and as a coach during the Dark Ages of the ’70s to know better than anyone — was concerned while watching from his home in Florida.

“It surprises me,” Arbour told the Associated Press last week . “Never mind what it was in our day. It’s getting carried away. They’re getting carried away with everything. They’re reckless in what they’re doing right now….Yes, it does bother me. It bothers me a lot.”

The open question is whether Torres’ hit and suspension will chill the proceedings. While some hope it serves as the punctuation mark that helps divide the early mayhem from what follows in this postseason, it’s too early to say that order has been restored. Certainly, Chris Neil’s hit on Brian Boyle in Saturday’s Senators-Rangers game came very, very close to crossing the line of what’s allowed under the rules, and was still as violent a check as one can imagine. Boyle is concussed and won’t play in Monday’s Game 6.

After Game 5, Rangers coach John Tortorella tried to make the case (video) that all the NHL needed to do was follow “the blueprint” it had established after the Torres hit and rule the same way. He called Neil a repeat offender, which he wasn’t,  and said the hits were identical, which they were not. Neil didn’t launch himself, and Boyle had just finished cutting through the middle of the ice and shooting the puck, a situation in which NHL rules allow the kind of contact Neil made. As the league saw things, Neil did not “pick the head” but administered a full body check, one in which the head was part of the contact. It’s a very crucial distinction for the way the NHL looks at this play and — especially if you think the league was wrong letting Neil off — you can read more about it in this post I wrote for Hockey Inside/Out over the weekend.

Regardless of what the NHL finds acceptable, the loss of Boyle is bad news for the Rangers and their fans. We noted last week that Boyle had become a valuable member of the team and you can be certain that Neil, already angered by Boyle’s rough treatment of Ottawa’s star defenseman, Erik Karlsson, relished the chance to lay Boyle out.

This was a situation in which Neil could administer a head shot and get away with it, one of the limitations that still exist under Rule 48. Even though the rule was greatly strengthened this season from the original blindside and lateral criteria, a player like Neil, trained in inflicting physical punishment, knows by now that he can get an opponent’s head within the rules if he also gets his chest at the same time. In the words of Shanahan, who has ruled on such hits before, “When cutting through the middle on a play like this, all players  accept and understand the danger and expectation that a full bodycheck may be looming.”

The NHL GMs decided when they strengthened Rule 48 that they still wanted that sort of hit to be legal, even if the head is contacted. But it can obviously do as much damage as one in which only the head is hit. Maybe outlawing that hit and telling players that they’ll have to make it without head contact will be the next step in the evolution of Rule 48.

It’s probably folly to believe thAT we’ve definitely seen the last of over-the-top play this spring, and that the necessarily harsh punishment of Torres fixed everything. But considering how amazing the playoffs have been otherwise, it would be a pity if we had more of it.

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  • Published On Apr 23, 2012
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