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SENShobo

These Playoffs A Compelling Lot

Who could ask for anything more?

Playoff series have always been filled with motivation, excitement, and bad blood by the end. This season it’s gone into overdrive, and left, right, and centre, every one has been a promising player in the mind, even when a brief on-ice pause may have been in effect (see Washington’s play against New York last night, periods one and two).

For 14 teams’ fans, April brought much of the excitement to a close, another 8 now joining them, but the storylines have managed to put up quite a fight in the meantime.

San Jose vs. Anaheim
For years, they have danced around each other, lining up for a playoff bout but always one team, the other (and sometimes both) failed to make it to the first Californian playoff series in history. It came close this season, with the Ducks managing to scrape in as the team with the worst record to make the playoffs, drawing their stately brother, owner of the League’s best record. One one side, the gritty but spunky group, knowing each other so well, and managing to break through modest reviews twice, once to the ultimate prize. On the other, the recently tuned beast, exceeding all other highly-touted versions, even as they all failed to deliver. Sheer force of will (or is it momentum I’m thinking of?), and the upset was the real story of the first round.

Detroit vs. Columbus
One represented the pinnacle of playoff achievement of this generation, the other a franchise entering the foray for the first time in their existence. Head to head a great pair of coaching minds, each having a Cup to his name along with hard-earned respect. No pair further on the ice than Osgood and Mason, but no pair more closely watched and compared. One the owner of a great career, Stanley Cup rings, and yet sporting a miserable set of season stats, the other a rookie, recently not even seen as the organization’s top netminding prospect, and yet becoming the first goaltender to guide the franchise to the promised land of the postseason, securing a Vezina nod in the process. That it was a sweep was no big surprise, only highlighting the offensive and defensive disparity of the two teams, along with the playoff pressure performance effects and the drastic performance turnaround highlighted nowhere more so than in the netminders’ reversal of fortunes.

Vancouver vs. St. Louis
Not to discount their own efforts, the Canucks benefited greatly from the downfall of their divisional breathren in taking the Northwest crown, cresting to a good finish, whereas the Blues fought tooth and nail, playing a month of playoff hockey and reeling off incredible stretches filled with points to reclaim a berth in the postseason. After fighting his own battles time and time again, Mason laid healthy claim to the Blues’ net, Luongo never having been in doubt to continue his reign despite injury and a stretch of losses to mark his return (quickly becoming a great run of wins). It was a feat of note that the Blues climbed into the playoffs, but it was destiny that the Canucks would finally climb into serious playoff contender status.

Chicago vs. Calgary
Certainly not a theme limited to this series, it was the experience, size, and brute force of Calgary being challenged by end of season and ultimately season ending injuries, facing the return to playoffs exuberance, speedy skill, and youth of Chicago being challenged by the gritty, painful nature of the stretch drive. Keenan faced the team he had once coached to the Cup Finals, only to be relieved of that duty immediately after the feat. Aching, uninspired play by his team could see him face the same, if now more justified fate.

Boston vs. Montreal
Not just an original six matchup, but one of the best possible original six matchups you could see. A year ago, it was the Bruins who snuck into the playoffs to face the then Conference-leading Canadiens, nearly unseating them in an impressive seven game bout, perhaps helping to tire them out enough to let Philadelphia trounce them in the second round. A year later, and the roles were reversed completely. The steady success of the Bruins this season was foiled by the steady on- and off-ice decline of the Habs in their centennial, and no better crater was available than the four game sweep.

Washington vs. New York
Bruce Boudreau had come up from below, coaching the AHL’s Hershey Bears to a Calder Cup in back to back appearances in the Final, guiding Washington to steadily successful seasons. John Tortorella had been thrown out from the top, taking Tampa Bay to their first Stanley Cup only to be ejected into TSN’s panel, eventually parachuting in to stave off a serious decline and malaise in New York. At least to start, the series featured the mismatched battle of Lundqvist’s continual Vezina-worthy seasons butting up against the question mark (now answered) that was Jose Theodore’s play. On the ice, the most exciting offense pressing up against a team long coached to be Lunqvist’s ultimate defense, including a pair of on-ice statement-makers (never mind that one made his statements with everything he did witht he puck, the other with everything he did without it). In the end, Lundqvist was felled after a dramatic return from a 3-1 hole in the best of seven series, and the exciting guns will keep on blazing.

New Jersey vs. Carolina
Distinct playoff themes emerging, and yet again it is the goaltending and coaching that shows up. Behind one bench, the sophomore NHL coach who will forever be followed by his and his family’s on ice legacy, swirling with rumours that he may step down to return home to them at the season’s conclusion. Behind the other, the youthful old face of Maurice breathed new life into the Canes, and only one year and one team behind schedule he guided his team to the playoffs to compete for the Stanley Cup, as promised. In net, despite their generation gap, Brodeur and Ward had the credentials, but also the question marks. Ward stole the show in leading the Canes to the Stanley Cup in the first post-lockout season, but along with the team was unimpressive in the following seasons. Seemingly without regard to the team in front of him, Brodeur had always been impressive, but just as many question marks remained as he returned from a months-long injury, the team buoyed by the excitement of Clemmensen’s success along with the thought of a rested Brodeur heading into the playoffs. Along with the Washington vs. New York series, this one seemed the next most primed for upset, and nothing could have been more upsetting than to see the Devils lose game four on a goal with 0.2 seconds remaining, and to lose a game seven in which they were leading on a pair of goals in the final pair of minutes.

Pittsburgh vs. Philadelphia
The year before the two had clashed in the Conference Finals, bad blood abound, and the rematch was no less tense. The Flyers looked more healthy and primed than in their loss to the Penguins one year ago, and it seemed as though it would be a fight to the bitter end, even home ice waiting until season’s end to be sorted out with the tiebreakers. A seventh game could have given it a more even finish, but it remained one of the series to watch end to end, minute to minute, enjoying wings and beer with friends. At least that was my recipe for it.

As great as that was, it’s not over yet, and the best will always be saved for last.

Detroit vs. Anaheim
It’s not their first meeting, and the memories will still remain of the Niedermayer/Pronger double team hit that gave Pronger his first of a pair of one-game suspensions en route to the 2007 Stanley Cup. Considering the five games meted out to Brashear this time around, the physicality might not be as unchecked, but the exuberance will still be there. Once again, Osgood will face off against youth at the other end, but it will be the credentials earned in this postseason rather than regular season that could make things more interesting. The Red Wings want to control the puck, and the whole lot of the Ducks is always more than happy to crush anything that crosses their way en route to getting it. Whoever makes it out of this battle will find themselves sporting the first real scars of this playoff season.

Vancouver vs. Chicago
It wasn’t so long ago that he was too old, too tired, and too expensive to keep around. Now, however, Khabibulin has more than firmly supplanted the long-term-signed Huet as Chicago’s backbone, and he will stare down the ice at Luongo, the man who was never in question, maybe adding a little more heat to the fire that’s been burning for a couple weeks now in his crease. Chicago’s young guns have found their stride, and will look to set a fierce tone for Luongo to follow, just as the oft-questioned Sedins and Vancouver offense have too found theirs. Much to the delight of any hockey fan, both teams have also managed to find a little bit of a nasty streak, and stretched out enough over several games and we could have another rivalry brewing.

Boston vs. Carolina
The team with all the pressure faces the team with nothing to lose. Seeing Chara smash into bodies never goes out of style, and the overall physicality of the Bruins compared to the Canes brings back thoughts of the Calgary Chicago question. Can it be answered twice? Ward found a way to prove himself against the most stalwart goaltender, and now he’ll be up against the most unorthodox and incredible to watch. Not motivated to watch? Might just be because of what else the Eastern time zone has to offer.

Washington vs. Pittsburgh
It might as well be called Ovechkin vs. Crosby, because that’s the way it will be billed in all the media. Sure, the Penguins have had more postseason success, more season series success, and Crosby has outscored Ovechkin in those matchups. But this is the playoffs. Ovechkin and crew found a way to get under the skin of the team that features Sean Avery to come back from a 3-1 series deficit to advance to what will be the most hyped matchup in memory, possibly to stand for a long time. Pressure to win the series? How about the pressure to live up to the billing that will be on the walls for days? No surprise that this will be the final matchup to start, on Saturday. Malkin and Ovechkin opened up at the All-Star Game, but this could fire them up more than a sock to one’s manager’s face. Semin may not have meant to suggest anything negative of Crosby’s accomplishments and skills in a comment earlier this season, but if either one could still draw fire from this, expect it to come up again and again. Seven games gives you time to get into the heads and minds of your opponents; these two teams are already there, have been there now for years. The bleakest of recent economies will be matched by this most oft dreamed of matchup, and countless cameras will be rolling, millions of eyes watching. Don’t be the one to miss out.

Filed in: NHL General, | SENShobo | Permalink
 

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About SENShobo

Native of Northern California.  Hockey fan since 1998... sort of... there's a hiatus in there that I still can't explain.

I want to know about anything and everything related to the sport and the spectacle.  I watch, I react, I write it down.

My interest in the Sharks was initially a matter of geographic convenience and regional loyalty because that seemed to be how it worked.  I had no prior interest (at all-- AT ALL) in professional sports of any kind.  When I met hockey, it might have set off a chain reaction of general sports fandom.  It hasn't, I don't think it will.  At all.

Since then, that interest developed into full blown (mostly sort of usually almost completely) exclusive loyalty to the Sharks.

I started blogging a couple years ago on wordpress. I still occasionally put things there that I don't think fit here because they are not about the Sharks. Wherever my words wander, here on Kuklas Korner, they will (usually) hang on to a teal thread.

I can be found in cyberspace on Twitter @petshark47, or emailed at talkingstick@petshark.net