Over and overtime: A grueling first round wraps up

Even though none of the first-round NHL playoff series went the distance, fans got their money’s worth and then some. There were a record 18 games that went to overtime, with both the Caps-Leafs and Sens-Bruins series wrapping up Round 1 fittingly on Sunday with OT decisions.

In the end, there were shocking upsets, shocking near-upsets and even a few expected results. In the East, #8 Toronto gave top-seeded Washington all it could handle and something more in a series that featured six one-goal games (five of them going to OT). The Bruins and Senators similarly waged a dogged battle, but in the end, the injury-ravaged Boston was too depleted to send the series to a seventh game. The Rangers defeated Montreal in another tight six-game series, with Henrik Lundqvist outdueling Carey Price in a contest between two of the best goalies of our time. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, made short work of Columbus in five.

The West featured more decisive results, the most surprising of which was Nashville’s sweep of the Blackhawks. Anaheim also swept their series, taking out Calgary in four close contests, while St. Louis and a red-hot Jake Allen took out Minnesota in five. The Edmonton-San Jose series was the closest, at one point tied 2-2 after a 7-0 Sharks victory in game 4. But the Oilers bounced and took the next two to advance to the second round.

Round 2 kicks off Wednesday night with the Western conference action. Here are my picks for the second round (I went 4-4 in the first round, correctly picking Washington, Pittsburgh, Anaheim and Edmonton):

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Blues (3) vs. Predators (WC2)

This will be a battle of hot goalies, with Allen and Pekka Rinne coming off dominating performances in the first round. Both teams are playing extremely well, having dispatched teams in the previous round that many pundits thought would take them out. The Preds, who underperformed during the regular season, are heating up at the right time and will outlast the Blues.

Predators in 7.

 

Ducks (1) vs. Oilers (2)

This should be a fun series, with the veteran Ducks taking on the high-flying Oilers. Edmonton’s got speed to burn and will make things difficult for Anaheim, but the Ducks’ overall depth (bolstered by a returning Cam Fowler) will give them the edge.

Ducks in 6.

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Senators (2) vs. Rangers (WC1)

May be the one dud of a series as the defense-minded Sens try to lull the speedy Rangers to sleep. With home ice advantage, Ottawa hopes to keep games close and win some squeakers. But King Henrik and a balanced attack will leave the Sens overmatched despite having the best player on the ice in Erik Karlsson, who was dominant against the Bruins.

Rangers in 6.

 

Capitals (1) vs. Penguins (2)

Here’s the series everyone’s excited for: Ovie vs. Sid, 1 vs. 2, and two teams that don’t like each other and have battled often over the last several years. Pittsburgh has come out on top in eight of their nine playoff meetings, but this year will be different. The defending Cup champ Penguins have the same offense they had last spring, but they’re missing their number one goalie Matt Murray and top d-man Kris Letang. The Caps have four good lines, a solid defense corps and Vezina finalist Braden Holtby, who struggled a bit against Toronto but played well by the end of the series. Their scare against the Leafs will serve as a wakeup call for Washington. It’s just a shame this series is taking place in the second round instead of the conference finals.

Capitals in 7.

 

Here’s Cold As Ice contributor Phil Stacey’s round 2 picks:

Washington over Pittsburgh in 6: Capitals ride momentum of first round triumph over Leafs to get past defending champs.

 

New York over Ottawa in 5: Karlsson and Anderson might combine to steal a game, but this series should be a formality for the Broadway Boys.

 

Anaheim over Edmonton in 7: Should be the best of the four semifinal series’; fast, frantic and a fight to the finish. Game 7 could go OT.

 

Nashville over St. Louis in 6: Preds may have more confidence than any other team right now and use that to fight off the Blues.

 

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Of Easter Eve and multiple overtimes

Watching last night’s epic Leafs-Caps double OT classic took me back 30 years to April 18-19, 1987, when the Capitals and Islanders engaged in what became known as the Easter Epic.

I was home from college for the weekend and preparing to make one of my semi-annual appearances in church the following morning. My dad, my brother and I settled in to watch game 7 of the Patrick Division semifinals (aka the first round of the playoffs) at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. The Isles were a few years past their early ’80s run of Stanley Cup dominance, but they still had some of their stars from those teams, including Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy, who were the top two scorers that season. The Caps were a team on the rise after several years of bottom-dwelling, and they had taken a 3-1 lead in the series. The Isles bounced back to tie the series and send it to a decisive seventh game.

The game was broadcast on ESPN with Mike Emrick and Bill Clement handling the announcing duties; all the other series had already been decided. The Capitals were winning 2-1 until Trottier tied it up with five minutes left in regulation and it went to OT. Goalies Bob Mason for the Caps and Kelly Hrudey were outstanding throughout, but especially as the OT periods wore on. The Capitals had a sizable edge in shots, but weren’t able to dent the twine after regulation.

The game started at 7:30 p.m. and rolled on into Easter Sunday. I realized that I needed to get up at 6 a.m., but I wasn’t about to go to bed without seeing how the game ended. Pretty sure my brother bailed at some point, but my dad and I stuck it out. Things were getting loopy as the game moved into the 4th overtime period, as Emrick and Clement were letting their freak flag fly.

Finally at 1:58 a.m., about eight minutes into the 4th OT, Pat Lafontaine spun at the Caps blueline and fired a slapper at the net that somehow found its way past a bunch of players and Mason to win the game and series for the Islanders. I had been rooting for the Capitals, partly because they hadn’t won anything yet and also because a guy from my dorm at UNH, Steve Leach, was now on the team.  But I was also kind of relieved the game was over and I could go to bed. In the end, Hrudey had stopped 73 of 75 shots and Mason made 54 saves. The Islanders moved on to face the Philadelphia Flyers in the next round; the Flyers won the series in seven games and made it all the way to the finals, where they would lose to Wayne Gretzky and Edmonton. I don’t really remember much about going to church later that morning, but I’m sure there was plenty of yawning involved.

The Caps, meanwhile, still haven’t won a Cup, but they played in an even longer game in 1996 vs. the Penguins, when game 4 of the conference finals went to the final minute of the 4th OT before Pittsburgh’s Petr Nedved fired in the winner. I watched that one, too, but by that point, I was living by myself and was able to sleep in the next day.

Thirty years after the Easter Epic, the Leafs and Caps battled in game 2 of their opening round series. It was again a family-centered evening as we went out to dinner with my mother and my brother and his wife, who were in town from Northern Ireland for the holiday. We missed the first period, saw the second and then missed most of the third on the drive home. It was a white-knuckle ride through the OT periods, finally ending in the second OT when Kasperi Kapanen of the Leafs fired home his second of the game for the winner. The game was over not long after 11:30 p.m., so it wasn’t quite an Easter Epic, but it was pretty damn close.

Cold As Ice Playoff Preview: Here We Go!

We’re back on the cusp of the greatest postseason tournament in sports: the NHL playoffs. Everything takes on an air of desperation in the playoffs, making just about every game full of excitement and drama. And it’s a grueling death march to the Stanley Cup, with four best-of-seven rounds required to get to the top of the mountain. Rarely do things play out the way I think they will, but just for chuckles, here are my first-round picks.

Eastern Conference

Washington (1) vs. Toronto (WC2)

The Capitals are a team loaded with weapons that should have won a Cup by now but hasn’t, despite several years of regular season excellence. Led by the great Alex Ovechkin, the Caps boast a potent offense, a solid defense and one of the best goalies in the game in Braden Holtby. After years of early playoff exits, anything short of a Cup is failure for this crew. Meanwhile, you’ve got the upstart Leafs, who featured six rookies in prominent roles including the power trio of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner. Already not the strongest club defensively, the Leafs saw two of their regular d-men (Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak) suffer injuries in the last game of the season and number 1 goalie Frederik Andersen fall victim to a head shot by Pens goon Tom Sestito in the game before. They’re going to need all three to make any headway against Washington, but more than likely, it won’t be enough.

Capitals in 5.

 

Pittsburgh (2) vs. Columbus (3)

These teams don’t like each other. The defending Cup champ Penguins got some bad news last week when their top defenseman Kris Letang was ruled out for the playoffs after undergoing neck surgery. But they’ve still got Crosby, Kessel and a deep selection of offensive weapons, not the least of which is Evgeni Malkin, who is expected to return to the lineup after almost a month. Trade deadline pickups Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit will pick up some of the slack for Letang, but it will take some strong goaltending from Matt Murray to help the Pens go deep into the playoffs. The Blue Jackets had their best season ever, finishing with 108 points, but they stumbled through to the end at a 1-6 clip. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has been a beast, but the Jackets will need big contributions from the likes of Cam Atkinson, Alexander Wennberg, Brandon Saad and Nick Foligno to stand a chance at knocking off the Penguins. Look for John Tortorella’s squad to play a gritty, hard-hitting series to throw the Pens off their game. Pittsburgh has too much weaponry to be stopped, though.

Penguins in 6.

 

Montreal (1) vs. New York Rangers (WC1)

This is going to be a fun series. A true battle of great goalies: Henrik Lundqvist vs. Carey Price. There’s no love lost between the clubs, especially since NY’s Chris Kreider took out Price in the Eastern Conference finals three years ago. Neither team has much of an offensive attack, so look for a lot of low-scoring games and stud d-men Ryan McDonagh and Shea Weber to play major roles in the outcome. Ultimately, Price will come out on top again.

Canadiens in 7.

 

Ottawa (2) vs. Boston (3)

After canning Claude Julien in February, the Bruins turned their season around under assistant Bruce Cassidy. The new coach freed up his offense and the club was re-energized, led by pest-turned-elite-scorer Brad Marchand. The B’s will be put to the test by the trap-happy Senators, who can effectively put both opponents and fans to sleep with their defense-first style. Breaking out of the Ottawa malaise will be crucial if Boston hopes to advance. It won’t be easy, but they’ll do it.

Bruins in 7.

 

Western Conference

Chicago (1) vs. Nashville (WC2)

The Blackhawks are stacked with talent as always and even though they stumbled down the stretch, they still have to be considered one of the favorites to win the Cup. Kane, Toews, Keith and co. will do battle with a dangerous Predators team that’s built to succeed in the postseason. PK Subban had an underwhelming regular season, but all that will be forgotten if he can lead the Preds past the Hawks. It will be tough, but the Hawks will move on.

Blackhawks in 6.

 

Minnesota (2) vs. St. Louis (3)

The focus in this series will be on the coaches as much as the players. First-year Wild coach Bruce Boudreau has famously had strong teams in Washington and Anaheim that flamed out early. Meanwhile, Mike Yeo of St. Louis, who took over midseason from Ken Hitchcock, will be facing his old team. The Wild have a strong all-around team that took a big leap forward this year; the Blues are solid as always, but they won’t have enough to advance.

Wild in 6.

Anaheim (1) vs. Calgary (WC1)

There’s some bad blood between these teams after Calgary captain Mark Giordano took out Ducks d-man Cam Fowler with a knee-on-knee hit last week. The Flames have some strong young talent led by Johnny Gaudreau, but even without Fowler, the Ducks are too much to handle.

Ducks in 5.

 

Edmonton (2) vs. San Jose (3)

This series will essentially be the Young Guns vs. the Old Farts. In his second year, Connor McDavid took his place as the most electrifying player in the NHL, leading the league in scoring and taking over games with his blazing speed and ability. Cam Talbot solidified the Oilers with a 42-win season in goal and veteran pickups like Milan Lucic provided the jam the team had lacked. Meanwhile, the Sharks are ailing, with Joe Thornton and Logan Couture both missing time at the end of the season with injuries. Brent Burns had a monster year and the team still has offensive support from Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau, but it’s time for Edmonton’s kids to shine.

Oilers in 6.

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL: Washington over Montreal in 6.

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL: Chicago over Anaheim in 6.

STANLEY CUP: Washington over Chicago in 7.

CONN SMYTHE WINNER: Ovechkin

 

And while we’re at it, here are Cold As Ice contributor Phil Stacey’s picks to click in the postseason:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Bruins over Senators in 7: Pastrnak and Marchand come up with key goals as B’s win three games in OT for series win.

Capitals over Maple Leafs in 5: It’s now or never for the best team Alexander Ovechkin has ever played with in the NHL.

Rangers over Canadiens in 5: Henrik Lundqvist outplays Carey Price; Rangers’ physicality is a difference maker, too.

Penguins over Blue Jackets in 5: Injuries aside, the Penguins are built for playoff hockey and will prove it in this round.

EAST FINALCapitals over Rangers in 6

 

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Blackhawks over Predators in 6: I can see Nashville splitting the first four games before the Hawks take charge for good.

Wild over Blues in 4: Minnesota heads into the posteason with a head full of steam…and St. Louis doesn’t have the teeth to respond.

Sharks over Oilers in 7: Jumbo Joe, Patty Marleau & Co. have one last run in them, enough to hold off these young whippersnappers.

Ducks over Flames in 6: Anaheim will not only be battling Calgary, but the stigma that they too often fall flat in the playoffs.

WEST FINALWild over Ducks in 6

STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS: Wild over Capitals in 6

Conn Smythe Trophy winner: Zach Parise, Wild

The future is now: Leafs are back in the playoffs

When the Toronto Maple Leafs hired Mike Babcock as their high-priced, high-profile head coach in 2015, he warned that there was going to be some pain before the Leafs worked their way back to respectability.

And indeed, his first season behind the bench resulted in a last-place finish as the team unloaded veterans and contracts and loaded up on draft picks, ultimately landing the top pick in the draft courtesy of the lottery. The Leafs drafted much-touted Auston Matthews last June and while he was expected to make the team, not many expected the club to do much this season. Leaf fans were prepared for another year without a postseason appearance; after all, the team had missed the playoffs 10 out of the previous 11 seasons. The one playoff series was in 2013, a heartbreaking seven-game loss to the Bruins.

But Matthews and his merry gang of rookies (including William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Nikita Zaitsev) confounded all expectations and led the Leafs to the second wild card spot in the East. For his part, Matthews appears to have sealed up the Calder Trophy with his strong finish, ending up with 40 goals and 69 points. But he wasn’t the only weapon: Toronto had five players with at least 20 goals and five with 60 points or more. The special teams were strong and Frederik Andersen provided excellent goaltending.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. The defense can be sloppy at times and the Leafs had a tendency to cough up leads, although that seemed to have been remedied in the last few weeks of the season (until game 82, anyway). That last blown lead was painful, because the Leafs were up 2-0 vs. Columbus in their final game of the season and one point would have secured a higher seed and a first-round playoff series with Ottawa instead of powerhouse Washington.

So now the Leafs head to DC Thursday night to take on Alex Ovechkin and the Caps, who rolled to a league-leading 118 points and are looking to finally get that Stanley Cup that keeps eluding them. The Leafs, who finished with 95 points, are considered major underdogs against one of the best defensive teams in the league. Babcock noted Sunday night that all the pressure is on Washington, and he’s right. Toronto’s expected to lose, but don’t tell the Leafs that. Matthews and the kids are just having a blast and the few veterans (James Van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, Brian Boyle, Leo Komarov, Tyler Bozak) are gearing up for a battle. They’re young, but it would be foolish to look past the Leafs. Because someday soon, it’ll be their time.