|ESPN.com: News & Opinion||[Print without images]|
Stellar goaltending, riveting rivalries, and some interesting playoff facial hair will be on display when the semifinals heat up.
Vancouver's Roberto Luongo and Nashville's Pekka Rinne are finalists for the Vezina Trophy, honoring the league's top net-minder. Both had their ups and downs in the opening round, but their play going forward will be key. It's tough to say how the Canucks' seven-game series with the Blackhawks, which culminated in an overtime thriller Tuesday night, will affect them going forward. On one hand, they were finally able to slay the dragon, beating the team that had eliminated them the previous two years. On the other, they blew a three-games-to-none lead. The Canucks polished off the Ducks in six games, so they will benefit from a few more days of rest heading into the series opener (tonight, 9, Versus).
Last year the Flyers did something only two other teams had done: They came back to win a playoff series after falling behind 3-0. They will always be remembered for that accomplishment -- but so will the Bruins, the team that allowed the Flyers to win four straight and steal their spot in the next round. Will Boston go up early and get the chance to choke again, or will the mere sight of Flyers orange render the Bruins incapable of competing? We'll find out when they take the ice for a rematch of last year's second round (Saturday, 3 p.m. NBC).
The Red Wings know a thing or two about the San Jose Sharks. The teams have met in the postseason three times since 2007, and a total of five times. Just last year, the Sharks eliminated the Wings from the postseason in the semifinal round. This year, Detroit enters the series rested and ready; a sweep of the Coyotes in the quarterfinal round earned the Wings a nine-day vacation before Friday's series opener at San Jose. While the Wings are inspired by revenge, the Sharks are motivated by a desire to rid themselves of their reputation as postseason chokers. (Friday, 10 p.m. Versus)
Tampa Bay's 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson vs. Washington's 23-year-old Michael Neuvirth: a man who has now played in 40 playoff games takes on a rookie net-minder who finished his first postseason series just last week. Roloson's 6-0 record in elimination games, including a 2-0 mark in Game 7s, lines up against Neuvirth's lack of experience in elimination games of any kind. While the Caps are the favorite, the Lightning boasts a more proven player between the pipes. If it comes down to the final line of defense, will the rookie have what it takes (Friday, 7 p.m. Versus)?
As the playoffs roll on, the beards will grow. While the big, bushy beards are most impressive, the strange and unusual hair patterns of the boyish younger players are far more entertaining. This year's postseason should produce another crop of cringe-and applause-worthy beards -- Nashville's Shea Weber is well on his way to a classic. It's just too bad we won't get to enjoy the Wolverine/Mutton Chops of one Jonathan Toews or the lush, Mountain Man face-sweater of Paul Mara for a few more series.