It's always a bit sad to see the first round of the playoffs come to an end, which it will sometime Monday night after twin Game 7s in Boston and Washington, and with it all of the wackiness, controversy and head-shaking moments. Every year the opening round seems to be the most compelling ever and then the next year rolls around and the same sentiments are raised again. It has been no different this spring, with three of the eight series going the distance, two 7-seeds prevailing over favored 2-seeds, and the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins shaken to the core by the eighth-seeded New York Islanders. We saw goaltending controversies, dirty hits, a record-tying number of overtime games and the familiar roster of unknown heroes and high-profile goats.
Here's a look back ...
• Who will forget Josh Harding's dramatic appearance in Game 1 of the Minnesota Wild's series against the Chicago Blackhawks? Diagnosed before the season with multiple sclerosis, Harding missed significant time during the regular season dealing with medication issues but was pressed into service when Niklas Backstrom went down in warm-ups before Game 1. Harding was terrific, though, as the Wild pushed Chicago to overtime in Game 1 and then beat the Hawks in Game 3 in overtime before being injured himself. That the Wild lost in five games certainly wasn't a function of the gumption displayed by the inspirational Harding.
• Anyone who wondered if the sixth-seeded San Jose Sharks were for real didn't have to watch long to find out. Of course, given that the Sharks swept the Northwest Division champion Vancouver Canucks, if you waited too long to check in on the series you missed it. But kudos to Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski, the Sharks' next generation of leaders, who combined for seven goals and 16 points in the four-game rout. Every time the Sharks needed a big goal, one of the two delivered, and there's no reason to think it won't continue in the second round in what should be a grand tilt with the Los Angeles Kings, the Sharks' California brethren and the defending Stanley Cup champions.
• Heading into play Monday night, Pittsburgh boasted three of the top four point-getters in the postseason, but even though the Pens bested the Islanders in six games thanks to Brooks Orpik's overtime winner on Long Island on Saturday night, Pittsburgh was actually the second-best team in this series for much of the time. Kudos, then, to Isles coach Jack Capuano, who kept his players believing to the last minute that they didn't merely deserve to be in the playoffs, they deserved to win. Kyle Okposo was a revelation and John Tavares followed up a Hart-worthy regular season with a statement-making series. Can the Isles build on this after so many years of futility? After pushing the heavily favored Pens so close to the edge, they'd better.
• OK, guess the Detroit Red Wings aren't dead just yet. How often in the past decade have we said that? After falling behind 3-2 in their series against the Pacific Division champion Anaheim Ducks, the Wings turned to some familiar faces in captain Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk to drag them into the second round. The veteran forwards combined for 15 points and were keys as the series moved into its crucial latter stages, including Game 7, when Zetterberg scored early to set the Ducks on their heels. And let's not forget the oft-overlooked Jimmy Howard, who stopped 65 of 70 shots in two elimination games to guide the Wings into the second round after a disappointing first-round exit last spring against the Nashville Predators.
• Regardless of how Monday's deciding game in Boston plays out, it's hard to imagine a series that was as compelling as the seesaw affair that was the clash between the Bruins and Toronto. The Maple Leafs, of course, were visiting the postseason for the first time since 2004 and looked like they would be easy pickings for the battle-tested Bruins after being waxed 4-1 in Game 1. But the Leafs have shown remarkable resilience, forcing a seventh game in spite of falling behind 3-1 in the series. Netminder James Reimer has been heroic between the pipes in his first playoff appearance, and the Bruins seem to have grown more weary as the series has progressed, whereas the Leafs -- gutted in a Game 5 overtime loss thanks to a terrible play by defenseman Dion Phaneuf -- seem to be getting stronger. Phaneuf, by the way, was one of the heroes of Game 6. Go figure. Terrific scenes outside the Air Canada Center as thousands of fans have gathered on game nights to watch the surprising Leafs on a giant outdoor screen.
• Yes, we know the Wild weren't supposed to match up against Chicago, and they didn't. Still, a poor finish to the regular season forced the Wild into the eighth seed and a date with the NHL's top regular-season team, and that was followed by a disappointing first playoff appearance from Zach Parise, who had one goal and no assists in five games. He was minus-7 in the series. Worse, Parise's linemate and team captain Mikko Koivu was held off the score sheet entirely and was minus-6. But Minnesota failed to score a power-play goal in the series, so is this a question of not enough finish from the Wild players, or not enough finishers in the lineup? Discuss amongst yourselves, sons and daughters of the State of Hockey. GM Chuck Fletcher has said coach Mike Yeo will return, and we applaud that move. But next season looms as a significant one for a team from which much is expected and little has been delivered.
• Speaking of high expectations, was there a guy with a brighter spotlight shining on him in the first round than the New York Rangers' Rick Nash? The big winger had been coveted by the Rangers for a number of years, and after he was acquired via trade last offseason it was pretty much Cup or bust for the Blueshirts. Yet Nash, who had played in just four playoff games in his career -- all losses -- has not been a factor in the tightly contested Rangers-Washington Capitals series that will conclude Monday in Washington, with one lonely assist to his credit. At times Nash has looked dynamic, creating chances, and at others he's seemed out of sync. Through six games the Rangers had just two power-play goals in 26 opportunities, and Nash is a huge part of that power outage.
• Guess all of those alarmists in Montreal who fretted down the stretch about Carey Price's play were right to fret. While Ottawa Senators netminder Craig Anderson held his ground in a physical, sometimes violent, always emotional series, his counterpart in the Canadiens' net did not match his performance. Price finished with an .894 save percentage and 3.26 GAA in four games (he suffered a lower body injury at the end of regulation in Game 4 and was replaced by Peter Budaj in overtime and in Game 5), and when the Habs needed a big save they simply didn't get enough of them from Price to build on what was a terrific regular season for the Northeast Division champions.
• By any measure the Ducks-Wings series was a classic. Seven games, overtimes, controversial hits, and yet as Detroit skated off for a date with longtime rival Chicago, it was hard not to look at Corey Perry's performance and wonder what might have been. The former scoring champion and league MVP was held without a goal in the series and collected just two assists. Following a series as achingly close as this one, the Ducks' winger will have much to contemplate in the offseason.
• As was the case a year ago, there was a significant level of first-round mayhem this year, including the devastating hit by Ottawa's Eric Gryba on Montreal's Lars Eller and the ensuing name-calling and on-ice ugliness between the teams. Gryba was suspended for two games, ostensibly because the NHL didn't like the optics of a bloodied Eller lying on the ice. Andrew Ference was suspended for an elbow to the head of Toronto's Mikhail Grabovski. That was followed by Justin Abdelkader's blind-side blow to the head of Anaheim defenseman Toni Lydman, a hit that earned Abdelkader a two-game suspension. It must have been frustrating for the Ducks to see Abdelkader score a crucial short-handed goal in Game 7 while Lydman did not return to the lineup. That, folks, is justice NHL style.
• Hart Trophy finalist Alexander Ovechkin was held without a point for a fourth straight game Sunday as the Capitals could not push the Rangers over the playoff ledge, losing 1-0 and setting up Monday's winner take all affair at Verizon Center. It's hard to be overly critical of Ovechkin, though, who was blocking shots and rocking Rangers with big hits in Game 6. Still, the fact the regular-season goal-scoring leader has just one goal and one assist in the series goes a long way to explaining why the Caps are still battling to move on.