As a writer, I'm jealous: It took Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask an economical 11 words1 to sum up everything there is, has been, or ever will be to say about the NHL playoffs. "It's do or die," he said Monday night. "You're either a hero or an asshole."
So true. And when it was all over, it was the Bruins who did and the Toronto Maple Leafs who died. The hero of Monday's first-round Game 7 in Boston, or one of them anyway, was Patrice Bergeron, whose overtime goal capped off a historically unprecedented Bruins comeback from a 4-1 third-period deficit. And who was the asshole? Well, to butcher the old joke about opinions, everyone.
There was this Toronto team, which loved and left its fans in astonishingly callous fashion: No team had ever lost a Game 7 after leading by three goals in the third period. But there were also Leafs fans themselves. What were they thinking, allowing themselves to believe, letting their minds wander to places like "If the Rangers win, we'll get home advantage in the second round"? You can't come on that strong. Don't laugh, Boston, you're not exempt: There were all the Bruins fans who left the TD Garden early but will no doubt convince themselves they remained all the way through2 just as there were the pundits who began writing Boston coach Claude Julien's eulogy halfway through the game and are now busy half-defending their logic. Let's just say that none of these people were exactly heroes.
It was a stomach-turning loss for Toronto, to be sure. But this is the postseason, and we must move along. The playoffs are like the Stanley Kunitz poem "The Layers," really, and Toronto is just one of "the milestones dwindling / toward the horizon / and the slow fires trailing / from the abandoned camp-sites" that we see when we stop and look back — before pressing forward, of course. We've got to.
So what can we expect in the second round? For one thing, NBC execs must be high-fiving. Bruins-Rangers could potentially feature some brutal hockey in all definitions of the word, but is nevertheless a marketable competition between two sports towns with no love lost between them. Senators-Penguins features a bitter backstory, some Canadian representation, and the most lustily followed hockey team in the U.S. (Don't forget that a Pittsburgh columnist dubbed the town "hockey's new Mecca.") A Detroit-Chicago tilt will be a ratings bonanza that will also spare us from complaints about major time zone traversal, while the often-ignored "late game" pits two of the playoffs' hottest teams against each other in the L.A. Kings and San Jose Sharks.
Of this season's six division winners, only the Penguins and Blackhawks made it to the second round; two 6-seeds and two 7-seeds instead upset the home favorites. And while it's difficult to know whether these underdogs will be able to put up the same fight this time around, it's certainly become clear that any team left is capable of beating anyone else. This week we preview the matchups while preemptively power-ranking them in descending order of "most likely to be an instant classic." Got it? Good.
No. 6 San Jose Sharks at no. 5 Los Angeles Kings
Series begins Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET
Backstory: The Sharks and Kings both enter this round on cruise control, with San Jose sweeping a shell-shocked Vancouver Canucks team and the Kings coming back from a 2-0 series deficit to St. Louis to win four straight. If both teams maintain their level of play — and if both continue to get great goaltending from Antti Niemi and Jonathan Quick — we could be in for a long Golden State series. When they met in the regular season, the Sharks won two games (one in a shootout) while the Kings also came away with two wins. Three of the four meetings were decided by one goal.
The Sharks' run comes after they were active trade deadline participants, making deals that got rid of longtime fan favorites like Ryane Clowe but brought in some sandpaper like Raffi Torres. Those weren't the only moves the team made: They also moved All-Star defenseman Brent Burns up to forward midway through the season, where he has been thriving. The Game 2 overtime winner against Vancouver was a Burns-to-Torres connection that made you wish you were watching the game in a box with Doug Wilson. But the Kings are in that scary state where they're good and only trending better. Dustin Penner is getting the bounces again, so watch out. Quick may have fumbled away Game 1 against St. Louis, but he was excellent by Game 6. Anze Kopitar had a quiet series but a big closeout game.
Big Questions: Who will star defenseman Drew Doughty — who was childhood friends with Logan Couture — focus most of his efforts on? What kinds of defensive adjustments will Sharks associate coach Larry Robinson make this series? (Last season, Robinson was on the Devils staff, so he became quite familiar with the Kings during the Stanley Cup finals.) Will the Sharks be getting players like Jason Demers, Martin Havlat, and Adam Burish back from injury? Which team's penalty kill will be tested more?
Any Bad Blood? Truth be told, the Kings had kinda been looking forward to facing their SoCal rival Anaheim Ducks in the second round. (To a Western Conference team, taking a bus to a playoff series would have been an unspeakable luxury.) But Bruce Boudreau's squad was eliminated in seven games by Detroit on Sunday. L.A. and San Jose have met only once before in the postseason, when the Sharks beat the Kings in six first-round games in 2011 in a series missing an injured Kopitar.
"It wasn't a very nasty series two years ago," Kings captain Dustin Brown told NHL.com. "The deeper in the playoffs you go, the more intense it gets. It should be a fun series."
Fun Fact: Kings general manager Dean Lombardi was GM of the San Jose Sharks in 1997 when the team snagged Patrick Marleau with the second overall pick. (No. 1 that year? Joe Thornton, to the Boston Bruins.) And Marleau's coach for his first five and a half seasons was Kings coach Darryl Sutter.
Bold Prediction: Most of my instincts are telling me to go with Los Angeles, which is why I'm going to pick the Sharks in seven.
Representative Song: Off an album called Hang Cool Teddy Bear, this 2010 Meat Loaf song "California Isn't Big Enough (Hey There Girl)" seems like the obvious choice. The chorus: "I can barely fit my dick in my pants, oh-oh, whoa-oh, whoa-oh / California isn't big enough for me, oh-oh, whoa-oh." I'm not making this up, and I'm also not convinced this whole thing (album cover included) isn't some elaborate Royal Half production. PS: Anytime you see or hear references to "California Love," "Californication," "Going Back to Cali," "California Dreamin'," or The O.C. theme song over the next few weeks: Drink.
No. 7 Ottawa Senators at no. 1 Pittsburgh Penguins
Series begins Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. ET
Backstory: Both the Senators and the Penguins entered the postseason at less than full strength, though only one team did so as a huge surprise. Erik Karlsson would have been a big enough loss for Ottawa this season on his own. But to have Karlsson go down in addition to Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek seemed almost insurmountable. The Penguins, on the other hand, have long been expected to compete at their usual high level whether or not they're at full strength. (It's telling that one of the big arguments against Sidney Crosby for the Hart Trophy is that the Penguins would have been just as good without him.) They mostly did so this season while adding veteran pieces to fill out their depth.
While the Senators thoroughly embarrassed the Montreal Canadiens in the first round, the Penguins nearly found themselves in a reverse position against the New York Islanders. Undisciplined and overwhelmed by the devil-may-care speed of the Isles, the Penguins lost two games before pulling themselves together for the 4-2 series win.
Big Questions: Will Spezza return from a back injury, or is all the secrecy swirling around his recent skating just playoff mind games? Will Karlsson, who returned to Ottawa's lineup in late April, and Marc Methot team up to cover Crosby, as they did in the pre-injury days of the regular season, back when the Ottawa Citizen was running headlines like "Crosby marvels at Karlsson's grace"?
Any Bad Blood? Oh, you know, pretty standard, really just one team's most prized possession having his Achilles tendon shredded by the other team's most notorious bad boy in a play that looked bad but was almost certainly accidental? Nothing to see here! There had already been rancor between the two franchises (much of it between Sidney Crosby and Bryan Murray). But after Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke — whose NHL career would have been in serious jeopardy if he hadn't mostly cleaned up his act last season — injured last year's Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson's ankle in February, things just got weird.
The strangest subplot involved Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, a pharmaceuticals magnate who lives in Barbados, owns racehorses, and bought the then-bankrupt Ottawa franchise in 2003. In an interview in late March, Melnyk said that he had assembled a crack team of "forensic doctors" in the wake of Karlsson's injury and that they were "putting together a case" that Cooke intentionally injured the 22-year-old defenseman. The whole thing was part CSI: Ottawa, part Dean Lombardi writing bizarre e-mails about coulombs; and part Don Corleone crying Look how they massacred my boy!
Fun Fact: When Evgeni Malkin won the Hart Trophy last season during the NHL Awards, he wrapped up the evening with a specific dedication to an important person in his life. "I just want to say one thing," he said. "I remember when I come to U.S. six years before. Different language different life and different game, it's not easy. And one guy who always supports me all six years and still best friend I want to give this trophy to him. And his name is Sergei Gonchar. He's my best friend right now, and always together, and I'm glad one day I meet him." The 26-year-old Malkin lived with the 39-year-old Gonchar for his first several years in the league, the two played together during the lockout in Russia and now they'll be meeting as opponents in the postseason.
Bold Prediction: I have this matchup ranked no. 2 because it seems to be the most unpredictable. We could see Craig Anderson recommencing his terrific, if truncated, season while Marc-Andre Fleury continues to flail, or we could be in a situation in which Anderson comes back down to earth while Tomas Vokoun holds steady.3 The Senators' speed could be a disastrous problem for Pittsburgh, who did not handle the Islanders' quick and cocky breakouts well. On the other hand, if the team and its coaches and players are as good as I think they are, they'll figure out how to adapt. Penguins in seven.
Representative Song: I was going to suggest "The Hurricane" by Bob Dylan because you could basically change a few names in the lyrics and it would turn into a song about Cooke, as written by Penguins fans. But then I realized that in honor of Melnyk, "Private Investigations" by Dire Straits is the way to go. The Penguins should incorporate it into their pregame pump-up video.
No. 6 New York Rangers at no. 4 Boston Bruins
Series begins Thursday at 7:30 p.m. ET
Backstory: The "Meltdown in Beantown," as writer James Mirtle coined it, wasn't the only Eastern Conference Game 7 taking place Monday night. Down at the Verizon Center, the New York Rangers cruised past the Capitals, 5-0, to eliminate Washington from the playoffs in seven games for the second straight year. While it lacked the epic drama of Toronto-Boston, the Rangers showed they could get the puck in the net — something they'd been struggling to do over the last several games. It was also Henrik Lundqvist's second straight shutout, both in elimination games for the Rangers. Still, the first round of the playoffs raised more questions than it answered for John Tortorella's increasingly confounding troops.
The Bruins, on the other hand well, you got the feeling on Monday night that they were Just Doing Bruins Things. "After Horton scored to make it 4-2 Lucic went by the bench, calm and confident, and said 'That's one,'" Tyler Seguin told CNNSE's Joe Haggerty. "I got really motivated when he said it." I love that — the cocky calmness, the climb back. You do that once, and suddenly other teams start to wonder, and start to worry too.
Big Questions: Snakebitten Seguin is going to bust out with, like, a four-goal game at some point, isn't he? Ditto the New York Rangers power play, right? Which team will totally lose its cool first? If Dennis Seidenberg is out for more than a game or two, how will this affect the Bruins D? Why was Lil Jon hanging out with his boy Stanley the Cup at a Manhattan Jamba Juice? Can Derick Brassard and Nathan Horton continue their hot scoring paces? Which goalie will capture more hearts: Rask or Lundqvist? Who will Patrice Bergeron — who ought to win the Selke Trophy as best defensive forward — match up against?
Any Bad Blood? You would think there'd be more. Sure, there was a time when the two teams faced off in the Stanley Cup finals (Boston won in 1972), and there was an era in which Rangers-Bruins games culminated in Boston coach Mike Milbury climbing into the stands to beat a fan with a shoe.
But when NBC unveiled its new "Wednesday Night Rivalry" programming this season with a New York–Boston game, it left many people scratching their heads. That's because more recently the teams, with their similarly unforgiving style of play and their elite goaltending, have almost seemed to have a mutual respect for one another. (Except for Brian Boyle. "I'm a big Red Sox and Patriots fan, but I hate the Bruins. I hate them with a passion," he said last season. "Last year they won and it's congratulations to them, but it really made me upset. I was pretty angry about it.")
Fun Fact: Sure, you may think that Tortorella is a surly man, what with the hostile press conferences and belligerence on the bench. But that's because you've never read this 2006 article from the St. Petersburg Times, published during Tortorella's time as coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Let's just say that the headline is "Third-graders pull power play on Bolt coach's heart" and the piece includes a joke about dumbbells. I'm actually contemplating spending the $44.92 for a used copy of Hey, Coach! on Amazon.
Bold Prediction: Everyone is already deciding to hate this series because the Rangers always seem to know how to turn gold into straw. (By blocking a lot of shots, basically.) But I'm going to stand by my initial feelings heading into the playoffs that New York would turn around its low-scoring game and anemic power play. The Bruins were an intimidating team to face even before their big comeback, and are even scarier now, but I think the Rangers can steal one of the first two on the road (or at least they can have Lundqvist steal it) and go from there. Rangers in six.
Representative Song: Van Morrison, "Hard Nose the Highway." I woulda done "Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)" in anticipation of some overtime (non)thrillers, but Styx is a Penguins band, you know? Maybe next round.
No. 7 Detroit Red Wings at no. 1 Chicago Blackhawks
Series begins Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET
Backstory: This series is weirdly bittersweet: It will be the last time the Red Wings compete in the Western Conference before realignment next season, marking the end of a long and storied Original Six rivalry with Chicago. (At least until the league re-realigns again in a few years or something.) The Blackhawks have marched a steady path to get to this point: their untiring regular season, their (mostly) businesslike work against the Minnesota Wild in five games. The Red Wings, on the other hand, struggled just to make the playoffs, with their postseason berth coming down to a final day game of musical chairs between the Wild (who made it) and the Columbus Blue Jackets (who did not). But they outlasted Anaheim in seven games to advance.
Big Questions: What will Mike Babcock do with Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg? Against Anaheim, he decided in the seventh game to split the two players apart, in part to prevent the Ducks from smothering just one line, and it will be interesting to see if he tries the same, given Chicago's defensive strengths. Will Detroit's defense be any match for the Blackhawks' offensive depth — particularly considering the return of Dave Bolland? Which goalie will emerge with more Sochi hype: American Red Wing Jimmy Howard or Canadian Blackhawk Corey Crawford?
Any Bad Blood? Like all great old-timey rivalries, this Original Six matchup has a recent past that doesn't quite live up to its broader history. (It's practically Ivy Leagueish in this way!) Adding to the gentility is the long-standing friendship and professional relationship between coaches Joel Quenneville and Babcock. In five out of six seasons beginning in 1960 the two teams met in the playoffs, and in the '80s and '90s they were regular postseason opponents. But none of Detroit's Stanley Cup victories went through Chicago, though they did defeat the Blackhawks twice to win the West — once in 1995 and again in 2009 — only to go and lose in the Finals.
Sure, there's been some controversy, like when Niklas Kronwall destroyed Martin Havlat during Game 3 of the 2009 Western Conference finals. But it was Havlat's eventual replacement on the Blackhawks who has caused the most controversy. Before signing with Chicago, Marian Hossa had spent a year in Detroit, but left after it became apparent that the team's salary-cap situation would not give them much room to sign him.4 The result is that some Detroit fans continue to feel somehow jilted, and enjoy booing Hossa with lust.
Fun Fact: According to Clark Rasmussen, the Red Wings haven't been the lower seed in a Chicago series since the 1985 Norris Division semifinals. In other '80s flashback news, a successful Kickstarter campaign has led to the creation of a 10-foot-tall bronze statue of RoboCop, though "the statue still does not have a definite location" within Detroit.
Bold Prediction: Sometimes the team that gets too long of a rest between games comes out flat, but Chicago has proven itself all season to be a focused and ambitious squad. Even after dispatching Minnesota in five games, no one on the Hawks seeemed satisfied with his own play. Beating Detroit will feel personal, which is what will make it an interesting challenge for a team many believe to be the league's best. The Wings did a phenomenal job of finding ways to win in Anaheim, and Mike Babcock is a genius — but the fact remains that they're not as deep as Chicago, and it's hard to see them being able to stay the distance with wave after wave of Blackhawk threats. Chicago in five.
Representative Song: "Two Princes" by the Spin Doctors, both because the series features two of the NHL's top two-way players in Jonathan Toews and Datsyuk and because the lyrics describe the beautiful contrast between Patrick Kane and Toews. (Also, because this is hilarious.)