- Scott Burnside, NHL
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Decompressed yet? Heart rate back to normal after the wackiness of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs?
Well, don't get too comfortable, because the second round is here. Let the roller coaster begin anew.
Here's a look at the top storylines of the second round.
The two are both two-time Olympic gold medalists and among the world's finest players. Crosby is going to win his second Hart Trophy as league MVP. But even though both Nash's New York Rangers and Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins emerged to face each other in the second round, the ongoing goal-scoring struggles for the two will continue to dominate discussion, especially if the drought continues for one or both. Crosby has gone 11 consecutive postseason games without a goal, while Nash has scored just once in 19 playoff games since being acquired by the Rangers in summer 2012. Both teams have shown they have the depth to win without scoring from their most talented forward, but logic suggests two things. First, the drought can't go on forever. (Can it?) And the player who emerges from the goal-scoring funk first or in a more dominant fashion exponentially helps his team's chances of moving on to the conference finals. Our guess? Crosby's more due than Nash.
Who will play goal for the Ducks?
In a first round absolutely chock-full of dramatic comebacks and mediocre goaltending, perhaps the biggest coaching decision of the second round rests with Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau, who rolled the dice in the first round and started rookie Frederik Andersen ahead of veteran starter Jonas Hiller and über-prospect John Gibson, who shone in a brief late-season stint with the Ducks. Andersen was good enough to get the Ducks to Game 6, but faltered and was replaced by Hiller, who was terrific as Anaheim overcame a late two-goal deficit in Dallas to win 5-4 in overtime on Nick Bonino's goal and dispatch the Stars. Now what? Logic suggests that Hiller will start against the red-hot Los Angeles Kings in the first postseason series between the two California neighbors, but if there's one thing Boudreau has shown, it's that he's not afraid to pull the plug on a goaltender. In other words, what it looks like in Game 1 might not be at all what it looks like later in the series.
Will the Kings continue to steamroll?
Speaking of the Kings, how many times will we see the term "juggernaut" attached to them following their epic first-round comeback against the San Jose Sharks? Over/under at 1,500, and take the over. You just have to shake your head at the transformation of that team in the middle of that series. Credit has to go to coach Darryl Sutter, veterans Drew Doughty, Dustin Brown and Justin Williams, who helped change the course of the series, and to young guys such as Tyler Toffoli, who had two game-winners in the series and scored the back-breaker in Game 7. So, is this like 2012, when the Kings absolutely bulldozed the opposition en route to the Stanley Cup, with just a little delayed reaction this season at the start of the Sharks series? Or will there be some wobble in them, as we saw last spring when they ran out of gas in the conference finals against Chicago? More to the point, can the Ducks provide the kind of roadblock that will disrupt the machine-like Kings? Most folks are all over the Kings bandwagon (if they weren't before), and with the Ducks' goaltending issues (see above), not many give Anaheim a chance. But I saw the Ducks and Kings play twice in a week in January (one was the outdoor game at Dodger Stadium) and it was fast, hard, big-boy hockey -- and the Ducks won both games. No intimidation factor here for two teams well familiar with each other -- and none too enamored with each other, either. Juggernaut? Maybe, but maybe naut for long. (Get it?)
Who will win the Olympics goalie battle?
Speaking of goaltenders, it should be a terrific duel between two Olympians, gold medal-winner Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens and bronze medal-winner Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins. Both were outstanding in the first round as the Canadiens swept the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Bruins had a surprisingly easy time with the Detroit Red Wings, beating them in five. Both teams will be well-rested, and each will need to rely on its respective depth to try to wear the other down. The big question for Price is whether he can elevate his game, as we saw him do with Canada at the Sochi Olympics. His previous playoff experience, last spring against the Ottawa Senators, wasn't so memorable. Rask is an old hand at this, having been the man for the Bruins in their march to the finals last spring.
How ugly will it get?
On the ugly scale (and given the history of said scale when it comes to these two longtime playoff rivals), how bad can things get between the Bruins and the Habs? Or will all of the talk of vitriol and spearing (hello, Milan Lucic) and hits that result in trips to the hospital (hello, Zdeno Chara-Max Pacioretty) dissipate in the face of needing to stay disciplined to emerge from this series? I'll go with the latter, but won't be at all surprised to see the former emerge at least periodically.
Will the Rangers wear out?
Got to love the NHL playoffs and the vagaries of the schedule. In the first round, the Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets endured extra days off between games twice. In the second round, the Rangers have a stretch that will see them play five games in seven nights, including two sets of back-to-back contests. They played Games 6 and 7 against Philadelphia on Tuesday and Wednesday. Their series against the Penguins opens Friday in Pittsburgh, and Games 2 and 3 are back-to-back -- with travel thrown in as the teams will move Sunday night from Pittsburgh to Manhattan for Game 3 on Monday. Game 4 is Wednesday. Building availability is a factor in all of this, but it still will be a bear for the Rangers, especially given that the Pens wrapped up their series Monday night in Columbus.
Can the Wild keep rolling?
And how great a story is the Minnesota Wild's comeback over the Colorado Avalanche? The Avs were the darlings of the NHL all season, and with good reason, given the tremendous job done by rookie coach Patrick Roy in not just guiding the Avalanche back to the playoffs, but also of making the team relevant in that marketplace again. But the Wild, who looked like they might go completely off the rails toward the end, never quit in spite of being down 2-0 and 3-2 in the series -- and then down by a goal four times in Game 7 before winning on Nino Niederreiter's overtime wrist shot. The series win might just have saved Mike Yeo's job, which is a good thing, too. Now, the question is the follow-up and, more to the point, where the Wild goalie carousel will stop for Game 1 and beyond. Rookie Darcy Kuemper, who saved the series for the Wild with three wins in four games, left Game 7 with an injury, and Ilya Bryzgalov came on in relief and did not surrender a goal, although he faced only one shot in 13 minutes, 15 seconds. On Friday afternoon, it was announced Bryzgalov would start Game 1 against the Blackhawks.
13dScott Burnside and Craig Custance