Its that time of year again. Every baseball fan looks forward to October, every football fan looks forward to February, not too many people care about basketball but, everyone looks forward to April and the NHL playoffs have arrived.
The first games of the NHL playoffs were played last night and it couldn’t have started off any better. In the early game, the Tampa Bay Lightning took down the Detroit Red Wings 3-2. The game was tight throughout the first two periods until the Lightning scored what was thought to be the go ahead goal off a Victor Hedman goal but was the first ever playoff goal to be called off by a coaches challenge due to Jonathan Drouin being ahead of the play before the shot was released. Minutes later Alex Killorn deflected a Tyler Johnson pass out of mid air for the game winning goal.
Some takeaways from this game included the pick up of play for the absence of All-Star center Steven Stamkos. Nikita Kucherov stepped up big playing better than ever when he and Johnson connected on the opening goal. Kucherov isn’t a guy who was in the shadow a little bit of Stamkos the whole season. He still had the numbers closed to Stammer and also had great play, but now that Stamkos is out it was his time to shine and that’s exactly what happened here.
Tampa Bay had the go ahead goal in the third period and after they scored however they never gave up on the puck. They kept peppering shots on Detroit goaltender Jimmy Howard for the majority of the period and had a large amount of offensive zone time. Detroit just simply could not get the puck out until the later minutes when the time was nearly too late. A crucial play by Valtteri Filppula deflected a RedWings shot over the net. This would have been the game tying goal into an open net past a sprawling Ben Bishop. These later minutes showed that Detroit had fight still in them.
Last year yielded a seven game series between these two teams which could spur some feud between the two. There was plenty of physical play not even just late in the game but throughout. They weren’t afraid to lay a hit anytime. Look forward to another deep series for these teams. If Detroit can continue to create traffic in front of Bishop as they did last night for their two goals and be able to stop Tampa’s new top line of Kucherov, Killorn, and Johnson they’ll be able to pick up a few wins here. Tampa Bay will need to keep the play up to move on in the playoffs.
Another game featured third string goalie Jeff Zatkoff starting in net for the Pittsburgh Penguins and after the first period, second string Antti Raanta entering the game for the New York Rangers after Henrik Lundqvist caught a stick in the face and left the game. Zatkoff, who had struggled in the games he had played in during the season, never really saw any steady play but you would never know that by the way he played last night. He only allowed two goals on 37 shots on net. The Rangers even had 12 of the first 15 shots on net to start the game. This right here may have been the light in the tunnel for the Penguins early on.
The Rangers on the other hand fell apart defensively as a whole. Lundqvist completed their team and when he is either not on top of his game or even in net, they can’t make up for that loss. To add to that, the Penguins were just playing on another level last night. They were skating through the defense like Swiss cheese. Dan Girardi was nearly raped out there when he got lost on a dump in and allowed Hornqvist to be set up for one of his three goals. Sidney Crosby also blew by him for a breakaway goal.
A few missing pieces seem to be missing for the Rangers here with Lundqvist out and top defensive player Ryan McDonagh out as well. These guys lead New York to much of their success, as New York finished with more than 100 points on the season. I wouldn’t be surprised if they can string together one win in the series, but Pittsburgh definitely has the upper hand as of right now and with this kind of momentum they will make it deep in the playoffs.
The later game of the night featured the Chicago Blackhawks playing the St. Louis Blues, two rivals who once again meet in the first round. St. Louis goaltender Brian Elliot had a huge game in net with a 35 save shutout to take home game one of the series. He made great saves early on breakaways by both Jonathan Toews and Artemi Panarin. Then it all came down to him stopping 7 shots in overtime while his offense scored on a deflection off of a Chicago player to win the game.
Although the Blues did win the game, it wasn’t a quality win overall. The team had just 18 shots through 60+ minutes of play to Chicago’s 35. The Blackhawks were without their top defenseman Duncan Keith who they will get back for game two after serving a suspension. There wasn’t a shortage of opportunities for Chicago but a full team with all its leaders both offensively and defensively will make a big difference and hopefully a new strategy for the Blackhawks heading into game 2.
You’d expect a team like Chicago to at least score in the opening game of the NHL playoffs. They were taking shots left and right due to the Blues’ physical play throughout the game but still managed to get scoring chances that they didn’t cash in on. I think that the team will do some reevaluating in the off day and definitely come back stronger and controlling in game two and come through with the win.