The surprising Ottawa Senators stumbled near the end of the regular season, sending them down to the #8 seed, just behind the Washington Capitals, matching them against the #1 seed New York Rangers. The teams traded games and stellar goaltending performances until the series was tied 2-2. Craig Anderson outplayed Henrik Lundqvist in Game 5 to shutout the Rangers and give the Senators a crucial 3-2 lead in the series. The Rangers stole a game in Ottawa to force Game 7, where Lundqvist put the team on his back and held the Senators to just one goal, securing a 4-3 series victory for the Rangers. The Rangers flirted with disaster and almost because the second #1 seed to be bounced by the #8 team, but their resilient (and dare I say pesky) play was too much for the Senators, who has already surpassed every expectation of their season. MVP: Without a doubt Henrik Lundqvist. Had the Senators pulled off the upset it’d be Craig Anderson. This series was all about goaltending and it became a duel between the two. Key Stat: 1.70/.945%. That was Lundqvist’s GAA and Save Percentage through 7 games. Miraculously that incredible number was only good for 4th and 5th in the league, thanks to the Western Conference’s absurd goaltending.
The Bruins/Capitals series followed the same script as Rangers/Senators, with the teams trading games to a 2-2 tie, and then Washington jumping out to a 3-2 lead before being forced back to Boston for a Game 7. Young Capitals netminder Braden Holtby was thrown into the spotlight after taking over for an injured Michal Neuvirth and took the reigns of the Capitals organization and led them scratching and clawing to an eventual Game 7 overtime victory. Long gone were the days of the Capitals known for being offensive dynamos. Long gone were the days of a dominant Alex Ovechkin, who saw a significant reduction in ice time throughout the series. Enter the days of staunch defense and stubborness led by new coach Dale Hunter. The Capitals depth outplayed the Bruins depth and offense, while not absent, was hardly the deciding factor. The leading scorer of the series was Boston’s Rich Peverley with 3 goals and 5 points, not Ovechkin, not Nicklas Backstrom, and not Alexander Semin. The stars weren’t dominant, but they played their part and rode Holtby all the way to the semifinals courtesy of Joel Ward‘s overtime goal. MVP: Well Braden Holtby, obviously. The rookie made his mark and already being anointed the starting job next season. He led the team through the defending Stanley Cup Champions and completely shut them down. Key Stat: Alex Ovechkin’s average ice time of 19:39. He’s never averaged less than 20 minutes in a playoff run so far, will it keep up? The reduction in ice team signifies the team’s complete shift from an offense-oriented team to one that’s focused on defense. Ovechkin isn’t an afterthought, not by any means, he’s still one of the most talented players in the world, but now the Capitals are in a position where they don’t need to rely on the Great 8 to win games for them.
Before this series began, many hockey fans outside of Florida were having a hard time taking the Panthers seriously. They barely held on to the Southeast Division championship, and only held on thanks to the 18 (!) overtime/shootout losses, that thanks to NHL rules, gave them the points equivalent of 9 wins. Their 38 victories were the lowest amount for any division winner (and less than the Washington Capitals, who had 42). So when they were matched up with the talented New Jersey Devils, the easy assumption was that the Panther simply didn’t stand much of a chance in the playoffs. Despite the doubt, the Panthers forced this to Game 7, giving their fans the first home playoff victory since 1996, and giving Florida yet another reason to love hockey. Unfortunately, the couldn’t close out the Devils, and fell in the second overtime. MVP: Travis Zajac, who only played 15 regular season games while combating injuries, returned in a big way for the Devils. The young center totaled 3 goals and 3 assists in 7 games and led the series in scoring. Key Stat: 66.7%. That was New Jersey’s penalty kill percentage, good for 14th out of the 16 teams in the playoffs. The Devils penalty kill was eviscerated by the Panthers power play, and could have cost them the series. What it did do was open a gaping wound that the Philadelphia Flyers (#1 in power play percentage at an absurd 52.2%) will exploit and eventually use to dismantle the Devils if they can’t get a handle on it.
The most anticipated series of the year was also one of the most entertaining, bloody, and downright insane hockey series fans have had the pleasure to see in years. It was two teams comprised of some of the most talented individuals in the NHL, but what this series came down to was mayhem, goaltending failures, and eventually, the victory of will over skill. The Flyers took a 3-0 lead to start, including an 8-5 and 8-4 victory, before dropping two straight to the Penguins, including a 10-3 trouncing. The Flyers returned home for Game 6 and buried the Penguins, early Stanley Cup favorites, with a convincing 5-1 victory. MVP: Claude Giroux erupted in this series for 6 goals and 14 points. 14 points in 6 games. That’s the kind of production you rarely see these days. Giroux, who is quickly becoming the de facto Captain, took control of Game 6, scoring on the first shift after setting the tone with a vicious hit on Sidney Crosby. He’s one of the best players in the league and is intent on leading his team back to the Stanley Cup Finals. Key Stat: 314. The combined penalty minutes of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers. On more than one occasion the game’s collapsed into fist fights and brawls. The reason it’s so important is because the Flyers were built to do this, the Penguins were not. The Flyers took advantage of every Penguins weakness and exploited it, taking control of the series by making the Penguins lose focus. They bullied their way into the semifinals, but they sure as hell deserve it.