The harder they fall: two playoff giants ousted

As the picture above shows, the first round of the playoffs is drawing closer to a conclusion. Four of the eight series are complete and the two games tonight could add to that total.

Yesterday saw the Vancouver Canucks and Pittsburgh Penguins eliminated. Both teams were expected to make lengthy runs and in both cases there are a lot more questions than answers at the moment.

For the Penguins, most of the concern came from their own zone. They couldn’t stop the Flyers power play (12 for 23, 52%), they couldn’t stop Claude Giroux (6G-8A-14P) and they really couldn’t stop the puck at all. Probably the most telling story of this series was that Ilya Bryzgalov, with a 3.89 GAA and .871 SV%, was the better goalie.

Add in the hatred that these two teams had for each other going into the series (Flyers F Scott Hartnell said it would be a bloodbath) and the ungluing of the Penguins defensively led to an ungluing of their leadership. Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Sidney Crosby were all guilty of losing their composure, taking dumb penalties and generally allowing themselves to be distracted.

I predicted a close series, one in which Philadelphia could win, but I did not see them dominating the Penguins in so many areas and in such a bizarre series. The first four games saw 45 goals, three suspensions, a blatant missed offside call that led to a goal and the team scoring first lost every game. If you called that then I would like to hear your lottery picks, please.

As for Vancouver, this one has to hurt. A team that was supposed to go the distance, was focused on winning and had learned from their experiences, fell utterly flat against a Los Angeles Kings team that simply outworked them. By the time Vancouver woke up and started to play, they were already 3-0 down and still unable to solve goalie Jonathan Quick with any regularity.

Although Cory Schneider played admirably allowing only three goals in regulation over three starts, the Canucks simply couldn’t muster enough offense to make his efforts pay dividends. Without taking credit away from Quick, who was brilliant and an early choice for Conn Smythe talk if the Kings can move on still, the Canucks didn’t test him enough with quality chances.

Every play that developed in front of the net had 2-3 Kings players boxing out the lone Canuck who attempted to find a rebound or tip. In today’s game, where players block so many shots and the goaltenders are so adept at reading plays and cutting down angles, you just cannot score without having some physical presence in front of the opponents net. Who on this team is going to take a beating to get to that rebound? Mason Raymond?

The defense was also a problem. Alex Edler, at times in Norris discussions during the season (ok, maybe only on Vancouver radio, but still), disappeared during the playoffs. Actually, he didn’t fully disappear, he first gave the puck away. Hamhuis fell and gave up the puck on the season ending play while Sami Salo was making a line change. If that single play doesn’t sum up the playoff woes of Vancouver’s defense then perhaps this might help make my case:

The video is also a good example of the power play letting Vancouver down. They were 0 for 14 through three games and really only clicked once Daniel Sedin returned in game four. Before that it was actually a liability giving up multiple shorthanded goals. If Daniel weren’t injured, maybe the series ends differently. But in the playoffs, everyone deals with injuries, eventually.

In both cases I’ve mentioned little about the team that won the series. Credit has to go to both Philadelphia and Los Angeles for exposing the weaknesses on teams that everyone in the media predicted would have a long and fruitful playoff run.

Personally, I think the coaches deserve the most credit. Peter Laviolette is a master of motivation and Daryl Sutter has shown before in Calgary that he can get his players to buy in (at least for one playoff run and then they all stop listening). I don’t believe that either of these teams won in a fluke and their second round opponents had better not think so, either. Else they might find themselves asking similar questions to the ones asked of Vancouver and Pittsburgh.

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