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Friedman: This Might Be Best 1st Round NHL Has Had In Years

Nick Foligno #71 of the Columbus Blue Jackets is congratulated by his teammates after beating Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins for the game-winning goal during the overtime period in Game 4 of the First Round of the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

Nick Foligno #71 of the Columbus Blue Jackets is congratulated by his teammates after beating Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins for the game-winning goal during the overtime period in Game 4 of the First Round of the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

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By Daniel Friedman
» More Columns

There has been one major theme in the first round, and that’s blown leads.

Blown leads in games, blown leads in series. You name it, it’s happened. However, there are multiple explanations for this phenomenon, and the reasons vary from one matchup to another.

In some cases, like St. Louis and Chicago, these lead changes have been dictated by competitive balance. In others, like Pittsburgh and Columbus, defensive and goaltending lapses have been responsible for in-game collapses.

Add all of these elements together, and you have the ingredients for outstanding playoff hockey. We always say it, but this might be the best first round the NHL has had in years.

Here’s how your team is doing:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

BOSTON BRUINS VS. DETROIT RED WINGS (Boston leads series, 3-1)

The Bruins have shown that they are just too much for the Red Wings to handle. Tuuka Rask has been lights out, while his defense has done an excellent job shutting down Detroit’s young guns, namely Gustav Nyquist, Riley Sheahan, Tomas Tatar and Tomas Jurco.

Milan Lucic has still been a significant factor for Boston. He’s using his size to cause havoc around the Detroit net, among other things — some of which have been controversial.

I thought the Red Wings were much better in Game 4, but they were dominated in overtime and inevitably lost on a goal by Jarome Iginla. I just can’t see them tying the series. The Bruins have established their supremacy and are ultimately too strong. They’ll find a way to win. They always do.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING VS. MONTREAL CANADIENS (Montreal won series, 4-0)

With Ben Bishop on the sidelines, it was only a matter of time before the Habs knocked out the Lightning. Carey Price was everything he was expected to be and Montreal’s offense was able to match Steven Stamkos and Co. goal-for-goal when it needed to.

I was a little surprised that Tampa Bay didn’t manage a single win, but otherwise, this series went how I felt it would. The Canadiens will certainly have their hands full in the second round, regardless of whether they play Boston (their most likely opponent) or Detroit.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS VS. COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS (Series tied, 2-2)

I don’t even know where to begin here, so I’ll start with Marc-Andre Fleury.

Up until the third period of Wednesday night’s game, Fleury was playing his best playoff hockey in quite a while. Despite his erroneous actions in Game 4 and his recent history, I’ll reserve judgement on the beleaguered Penguins goaltender until his next outing. Can he bounce back? The talent is certainly there.

Columbus deserves a ton of credit here as well. Led by Ryan Johansen, the Jackets have been able to launch effective counteroffensives when trailing in games. Sergei Bobrovsky’s played well, too. He’s their best chance for survival.

Pittsburgh should win this series, and I think they will. But no matter the outcome, the Blue Jackets have made their point.

NEW YORK RANGERS VS. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS (Rangers lead series, 2-1)

The Rangers shot themselves in the foot during Game 2. The Flyers did to them precisely what they did to Pittsburgh; they got in their heads. We talk about how the Flyers are goons, but they’ve perfected it to a tee. They size you up, then figure out how to take you off your game. Maybe you’ll say it’s reckless, and to an extent it is. But I say it’s also very precisely calculated. They’ve boiled it down to a science.

It’s times like these where the Rangers could have used the no-nonsense John Tortorella. He always kept them composed. On the flip side, Alain Vigneault has a history of being unable to control his players in these types of situations. That was one of my biggest knocks on him.

However, to their credit, the Rangers bounced back in Game 3. They’re the better team and should win this series. As long as they play their game and don’t get suckered in by Philly, they’ll be fine.

I also think it’s safe to say that Martin St. Louis is finally comfortable in a Rangers sweater. He’s been a major factor in this series with five points in three games. New York’s top line is the best one they’ve had in years, and I absolutely think the Blueshirts are a dark horse to come out of the Eastern Conference. The Bruins are the team to beat, but to me, the Rangers are next in line.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

COLORADO AVALANCHE VS. MINNESOTA WILD (Series tied, 2-2)

After dropping the first two games in Colorado, the Wild has come back with two wins of its own and evened the series.

The Avalanche, lauded for its offensive firepower, managed just 12 shots on goal in Game 4. Semyon Varlamov, who was nominated on Friday as a Vezina Trophy nominee, was the only reason the Avs had a prayer. He’s been outstanding throughout this entire series.

Colorado’s lack of defensive depth has really been exposed over the last couple of games. It’s a huge issue for them, and it was before Tyson Barrie went down with an injury, too.

Another thing: Nathan MacKinnon is not Sidney Crosby. He will never be Crosby. This madness needs to stop. He’s going to be a great player, but I think things need to be kept in perspective; it’s very easy to get lost in the moment and, whether they’ll admit it or not, a lot of people did after Games 1 and 2.

If the Wild can get a little more production, it has a serious chance to win this series.

ST. LOUIS BLUES VS. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (Series tied, 2-2)

Many expected this to be the best series of the first round and, in several respects, it has lived up to the billing. Both teams have had their moments and there’s been lots of back-and-forth, end-to-end action. If I was trying to show a non-hockey fan how exciting the playoffs (and the sport) can be, I’d watch St. Louis/Chicago with that person.

There are two huge questions that the Blues must answer: When will David Backes return, and can they beat the Blackhawks without him? It’s been speculated that he could be back for Game 5, but if he isn’t, St. Louis will have a tough time. He’s a much bigger loss for them than Brent Seabrook (suspended for his hit on Backes) is for the Hawks. I’m not sure the Blues can defeat Chicago if they aren’t at full strength.

With or without Backes, they’ll continue to bank on Vladimir Tarasenko, who’s been red-hot in this series and is proving himself as a legitimate NHL sniper. I think he’s going to put up 70 points next year, assuming he stays healthy (which has been an issue in his first two seasons).

ANAHEIM DUCKS VS. DALLAS STARS (Series tied, 2-2)

The Stars have just gotten better and better as this series has progressed. They appeared to be lost during Game 1, but then dominated Anaheim in Game 2, outshooting the Ducks by a 36-19 margin but losing on the scoreboard, 3-2. Once the action shifted over to Dallas, they went full throttle and took both games on home ice to even the series, 2-2.

Sure, Anaheim played Game 4 without Ryan Getzlaf and Teemu Selanne. Getzlaf was a tremendous loss, but Selanne, for all he’s done in the past, is not even the same hockey player he was last year. The Stars weren’t one skater better than Anaheim on Wednesday night; they were eons ahead. They were skating circles around the Ducks and rattling them to the brink of meltdown. You’re not going to convince me that if they had Getzlaf they would’ve won. Anaheim’s issues stemmed far deeper than that.

Not that Frederik Andersen had been bad in this series, but I felt Jonas Hiller should’ve been between the pipes from the get-go. He replaced Andersen midway through the third period on Wednesday night and will likely start Game 5 in Anaheim. Regardless of who else is in the lineup, I think he gives the Ducks their best chance to win.

This series is up for grabs. Everyone expected Anaheim to roll right on through and, in doing so, completely underrated the Stars. I predicted that Dallas would pull off the upset before the playoffs commenced, but it really could go either way. It’ll be fun to watch, that’s for sure.

SAN JOSE SHARKS VS. LOS ANGELES KINGS (San Jose leads series, 3-1)

Raise your hand if you expected San Jose to be in command after four games.

Alright, now put your hand down, because you’re full of it.

If that’s not the biggest surprise in this series, then it’s the defensive ineptitude L.A. has shown thus far. Of all the things we expected from the Kings, that wasn’t even on the radar. The Sharks’ offense is extremely dynamic, and when you give them time and space in your zone, they’re going to take advantage.

I don’t think Jonathan Quick has been as bad as social-media pundits suggest, but he certainly hasn’t been a force field. Couple that with the defensive mistakes that have been made, particularly by Slava Voynov, and you have a recipe for disaster.

The Kings did win Game 4, and it wouldn’t shock me if they won Game 5, either. But they’ve reached the point of no return, in my opinion. This is too little, too late. Barring a miracle, San Jose will advance to the second round.

I sense a different vibe from this Sharks team. They’re playing with more balance and poise than in previous years. I think they have as much of a shot as anyone in the West at the Stanley Cup finals. Eventually, most bridesmaids become brides. Perhaps San Jose’s time has finally come.

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