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Thoughts on the early portion of the Eastern Conference’s playoff series

Controversy in Tampa!

Toronto Maple Leafs v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Three Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Happy Sunday, hope you enjoy your day. With it all quiet on the Penguins front, let’s go around the league and make a few points and notes about the active playoff series in the NHL. The playoffs seemingly just started but with everyone having played three games, it’s already at (or past) the half-way point of the first round for many of them. We’ll start right now in the East.

Carolina vs. New York (I)

Carolina Hurricanes v New York Islanders - Game Three Photo by Josh Lobel/NHLI via Getty Images

This has largely played out as expected: Carolina has the edge in shots, but Ilya Sorokin has been excellent and allowed New York to hang close. The Hurricanes are an endless loop of chip the puck in deep, grind and win a wall battle down low, cycle the puck, move it low-to-high for a point shot, look for a rebound, recompose in the neutral zone, win the puck back, chip it in deep and repeat.

Also as expected, Carolina has had trouble scoring with only three 5v5 goals in the three games so far. Sorokin’s been a part of that, but the skill level for the Canes hasn’t been high enough. That took a further hit when an Islander slash broke the hand of Teuvo Teravainen and knocked him out for the rest of the round.

The Hurricanes are up 2-1, but one win was in overtime and they’re coming off a decisive 5-1 defeat. This doesn’t feel solidified by any means.

NYI’s key moving ahead: As it tends to be this time of year, the Islander power play is not helping at all (0-for-8 in the first three games). If they start getting something, anything out of that group, it could well tip the scales of this series.
Carolina’s key moving ahead: Figure out a way. A way to score more goals (of their top five goal-scorers from the regular season, only Sebastien Aho has scored, and only once. Martin Necas, Jesper Kotkaniemi, Brady Skjei and Brent Burns have been shutout so far). A way to get more saves - Frederik Andersen looks ready to play Game 4, after Anti Raanta stumbled in Game 3. Carolina has to go to the well and find a way to win.

Toronto vs. Tampa

NHL: APR 22 Maple Leafs at Lightning Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Huge controversy erupted last night in Tampa, when Morgan Rielly boarded and injured Brayden Point and chaos ensued. If you’re keeping track of the mind games situation, you now have Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe manipulating the refs by pointing out that the Lightning were manipulating the refs during the ensuing melee.

Ryan O’Reilly continues to pay dividends, scoring the game-tying goal with a minute left in the third last night. Then Rielly would score in OT to boost Toronto to a 2-1 series lead. An emerging theme of this series so far has been Toronto overcoming the adversity. They got blown out 7-2 in Game 1 and everyone (with good enough reason) thought it was the same old “LOLeafs” and another playoff debacle. They shrugged that off to win the next two games. Toronto’s also managed to overcome the self-imposed adversity that Michael Bunting put on them by getting himself suspended by hitting Erik Cernak.

Point was able to somehow return to the game last night but Cernak hasn’t been back since he took his shot. Victor Hedman missed Game 2. Andrei Vasilievskiy looks more human than other years. Tampa has already been through the battles of attrition and the party is just starting. How much more can they take?

Toronto’s key moving ahead: Avoid a Game 7. No not for the jokes, but some teams (like NYR and Washington in the 2010’s) get seemingly addicted to playing Game 7’s and not being able to have the instinct to put a team away. Up 2-1, Toronto has to keep it up and close it out. Just because it’s a best-of-seven series doesn’t mean it has to go all seven games.
Tampa’s key moving ahead: Total resolve. Point showed a lot of heart to come back last night. He also had a questionably disallowed goal in the game. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov have both played very well. The leaders are leading, but the Lighting are going to have to show some of that champion’s resolve to dig their way out of this hole. They’re one team you can’t count out.

New York (R) vs. New Jersey

New Jersey Devils v New York Rangers - Game Three Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Was last night’s game a bump in the road for the Rangers, or a major turning point in the series for the Devils? That’s the big question after Dougie Hamilton’s OT goal put New Jersey right back in this series.

For the first two games, it was all Rangers, all the time. Everything was clicking for the Blueshirts and the Devils looked very tight at home.

New Jersey made the switch in net from Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid, and it paid off gang busters. As ESPN noted about a million times, Schmid does present a very cool and composed figure in net, and it seemed to rub off on his team for Game 3 as well. Of course, more important than that is stopping the puck, and Schmid did that plenty too with 35 saves in his NHL playoff debut.

Can the Devils keep it going? Winning a game should grow their confidence and free them up. For a while, it looked like the Rangers might have an easy series on their hands and make quick work of NJ with the way that the games were unfolding. Then Game 3 happened, and the outlook could have shifted.

NYR’s key moving ahead: Solve Schmid. This could still end up being a quick and tidy resolution for the Rangers if they are able to do what they couldn’t in Game 3 and score on Scmid. If that happens, this series is all but over. The Ranger power play was been incredible and worked out almost perfectly in the first two games. Get back towards that and they will be moving ahead.
New Jersey’s key moving ahead: Breakout. It is very obvious that Timo Meier is getting the classic Ranger treatment in the playoffs of targeted physically at every chance and even elbowed in the head when the situation pops up. Nico Hischier has been very quiet. Tomas Tatar and Dawson Mercer are practically on the side of the milk carton. Ondrej Palat was brought in for this time of year and hasn’t showed up yet. Jesper Bratt didn’t do much until his very nice setup for the OT winner. If the Devs want to make it a series, these are the guys who need to get it in gear and help Jack Hughes, who has been tremendous.

Boston vs. Florida

Boston Bruins v Florida Panthers - Game Three Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

This series has not been the walk-over or easy route that many in the hockey world and particularly the north east expected it to be, but Game 3 might have shifted it back towards going the predictable outcome. The Bruins are up 2-1, and finally ended the magic of the Lyon King by chasing Alex Lyon in the third period of Game 3. He’s no Moose Hedberg in terms of staying power of an unlikely AHL to NHL playoff story in a magical spring, but it was quite a ride just to get this far - both for the goalie and his team.

Boston has been hobbled with captain Patrice Bergeron not playing at all and David Krejci joining him. Trade deadline addition Tyler Bertuzzi has been perhaps the B’s best player in the early going, certainly the most visible with his pesky antics and productive with three goals. (On a related note, Bertuzzi would make a mighty nice potential Jason Zucker replacement, assuming he doesn’t price himself up too highly this spring, but that’s a different story for a different day..)

It’s been by committee in Florida, eight different Panthers have a goal and only one (defenseman Brandon Montour with two) has more than a goal. That’s been good to have some scoring coming from everywhere, but the key players have been limited by Boston’s best-in-class team defense. Aleksander Barkov (two assists), Aaron Ekblad (no points) and Carter Verhaeghe (one goal) have all been too quiet for what will be required for any hopes of an upset, and that needs to change before Florida finds themselves headed towards elimination.

Boston’s key moving ahead: Health. They keep swearing Bergeron will be back for Game 5. We’ll see. Krejci and Linus Ullmark also need to get on the right track in that department. Boston has a marathon ahead, and while they’re not exactly stumbling out of the gates, they’re not in all that comfortable of a spot right now in the big picture..
Florida’s key moving ahead: Playing with house money. The Panthers needed to be great in the last 10 games of the regular season just to get in. They were. Many dismissed any chances they had to be competitive with Boston. For long stretches they’ve been right there with the mighty Bruins. Florida has nothing to lose, they’ve shown themselves well at this point.

Down 2-1 club

For fun, here’s the order from highest chance to lowest of teams in the 2 games to 1 hole right now of what we would call.

  1. Tampa - can’t count out this team until the bitter end
  2. NYI - If NHL teams were UFC fighters, they would be content fighting from the underneath position
  3. New Jersey - Game 3 gives them something to build on and get back to playing as well as they did in the regular season
  4. Florida - Anything can happen, but Boston’s team flu bug looks behind them and they look like they’re getting stronger. The Panthers do not