Published November 20, 2014
The San Jose Sharks find themselves down 2-0 in the best-of-seven Western Conference finals against the Chicago Blackhawks and must win the next two games in Chicago or risk this series coming to an early end.
The Blackhawks narrowly defeated the Sharks 2-1 in the opener thanks largely to the goaltending of Antti Niemi, who stopped 44 of 45 shots and was certainly Chicago's best player in an evenly matched, well-paced game that could've gone either way.
In Game 2, the Sharks started well, outshooting and outplaying the Blackhawks in the first half of the first period, but it was Chicago that drew first blood courtesy of a long wrister from Andrew Ladd, which surprised Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov high to the glove side.
That goal changed the course of the game as the Blackhawks took control on their way to a 4-2 victory.
The inability to match the Blackhawks' speed was a significant issue for the Sharks, as Chicago generated many scoring chances off the rush and seemed to catch San Jose's defenders flat-footed.
They also had trouble keeping the Chicago forwards out of Nabokov's way as most of the goals by the 'Hawks were a result of too much traffic around his net. The Blackhawks have iced a well-balanced attack in this series, getting offensive contributions from their entire roster.
When the Sharks generated scoring chances, they found themselves thwarted by Niemi, who's outplayed Nabokov in the first two games and looks like a seasoned playoff veteran rather than a rookie.
Another problem for the Sharks is most of their top scorers went quiet in the first two games, especially the second line of Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe and Devin Setoguchi, who failed to account for a single point. First-liners Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley only managed an assist each in those opening games.
For the Sharks to get back into this series they must find a way to either match or neutralize Chicago's speed and generate more traffic in front of Niemi. And their top scorers must make their presence felt. They cannot risk falling behind any further.
The Habs Nots Midway through the Pittsburgh-Montreal series, I suggested the Canadiens' postseason bubble would eventually burst.
At that point, the Canadiens had upset the heavily favored Washington Capitals and would go on to do the same to the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins with a strong combination of stellar goaltending, shot-blocking defense and clutch goal-scoring despite being outplayed by a wide margin.
In the opening two games of the Eastern Conference finals, it appears the Philadelphia Flyers have found a way to burst that bubble.
The Flyers humiliated the unprepared Canadiens in a 6-0 rout in Game 1 followed by taking a page from the Montreal playbook, employing stellar goaltending, stingy defense and clutch scoring to shut out the Habs again in Game 2 by a score of 3-0.
Although the Canadiens had a better effort in Game 2, they once again fell behind early. And while they outshot the Flyers in the first two periods, they were unable to take advantage of their opportunities.
A significant reason for the Habs' offensive woes is the lack of big offensive forwards who can outmuscle the bigger, physical Philadelphia blueliners to create scoring chances and pounce on rebounds. They have no one physically capable of screening Flyers goalie Michael Leighton, who successfully stymied the Montreal offense in the first two games.
Montreal's power play and penalty killing, so effective in the first two rounds, floundered in Philadelphia. The Canadiens failed to score on nine PP opportunities while nearly half the Flyers goals in the first two games came with Montreal short-handed.
More troubling for the Canadiens is the play of goalie Jaroslav Halak, who was the main reason they upset the Capitals and Penguins. He didn't play well in Philadelphia, raising concerns he may be wearing down from the heavy workload this spring.
The Flyers may have been outshot by the Canadiens in the first two games, but they've had the better offensive chances and done a better job cashing in on them by driving to the net, generating traffic in the slot and pouncing on rebounds -- something the Habs haven't been able to do.
Forwards Daniel Briere, Simon Gagne, Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell have been the Flyers' chief scoring threats, employing a "stop-and-go" style within the Habs zone which has drawn the Montreal defenders out of position.
With the series shifting back to Montreal, the Canadiens cannot afford to lose in the next two games or this series will be over in four or five games.
To get back into this series their forwards will have to do a better job driving to the net, pouncing on rebounds and generating traffic in front of Leighton, while Halak and his defense must do a better job against the Flyers speedy, opportunistic scorers.
The Canadiens have displayed an extraordinary ability in this year's playoffs to bounce back just when it seems they're on the ropes, but it's going to take an extraordinary effort to get back into this series.
Perhaps they can find a way just as they did against the Capitals and Penguins, or perhaps this time, their bubble truly has burst.