NHL

Cullen: Surprises wrap up a few first-round series

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Scott Cullen
4/23/2012 11:06:46 AM
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The Flyers, Blues and Kings advance, while the Capitals and Bruins are even. The Senators, Panthers and Coyotes are looking for one more win.

Scott Cullen looks at an exciting weekend of playoff action.

FLYING HIGH AGAIN
The Philadelphia Flyers cruised to a 5-1 win in Game Six, ousting the Pittsburgh Penguins from the first round of the playoffs.

Philadelphia's win on Sunday was keyed by the performance of Claude Giroux, who opened the game by decking Sidney Crosby and then scoring a goal on the first shift of the game, on his way to a three-point game, with a plus-2 rating in 24:48 of ice time.

Just as importantly for the Flyers, though, is that G Ilya Bryzgalov came up with a solid effort in goal, stopping 30 of 31 Penguins shots. Considering how much he had struggled throughout the series (4.54 GAA, .848 SV% in first five games), it was fair to question whether Bryzgalov would play competently enough to get the Flyers their fourth win of the series.

Bryzgalov received a lot of help from his defence corps in Game Six, in particular as the Flyers blocked 40 Penguins shots, while Pittsburgh only blocked 14 from the Flyers. Matt Carle, Braydon Coburn and Andreas Lilja each blocked six shots. Coburn played 29:27, his most in a game since April 17, 2009 (also against the Penguins).

D Erik Gustafsson logged 22:09 for the Flyers in Game Six, a total he has surpassed only once in his brief NHL career. He was required to play more when Pavel Kubina was limited to only 4:31 of ice time. Others playing fewer minutes for the Flyers on Sunday? D Kimmo Timonen played 15:44, and RW Wayne Simmonds skated a season-low 8:42 for Philadelphia.

While there was not just one Penguin to blame for the defeat, both in Game Six and in the series altogether, G Marc-Andre Fleury is going to take the brunt of the criticism. In the clinching game, Fleury let in four goals on 22 shots, lowering his save percentage to .834, fractionally worse (.834395 to .834437) than Jim Carey with Washington in 1995 for the worst save percentage by any goaltender in one playoff year with a minimum of six games played. In six playoff seasons, Fleury has recorded a save percentage above .910 just once (.933 in 2007-2008), so this isn't the first time that he's run into postseason problems.

This year, there were just too many instances in which pucks found their way past Fleury and too many that appeared stoppable.

Rest assured, however, this loss did solely fall upon the goaltending. Sidney Crosby, for example, put up eight points in the first four games, but even though he played a season-high 26:02 Sunday, Crosby finished the last two games of the series with no points. Like many on the Penguins roster, Crosby's overall point totals were more than respectable, thanks to the high-scoring nature of this series, but when games were getting away from the Penguins, they needed their best players -- Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang -- to lead the way and, generally, it didn't happen often enough.

Now the Flyers move to the second round with a chance to be a Cup contender, if only they can get some semblance of reasonable goaltending from Bryzgalov.

BLUES BURY SHARKS
On Saturday, the St. Louis Blues continued their stifling defensive effort, beating the San Jose Sharks 3-1, taking the series four games to one. The defensive tone was set by St. Louis when they held the Sharks -- fighting for their playoff lives -- to three shots on goal in the first period.

The Sharks trio of Ryane Clowe, Martin Havlat and Patrick Marleau combined to go minus-7 in the deciding game, wrapping up a tough series for Marleau, who had no points and only nine shots on goal in five games. Averaging 1.8 shots per game, down from 3.1 per game in the regular season, is a decent indication that Marleau wasn't effective.

While Joe Thornton (five points) and Logan Couture (four points) were productive, too many other Sharks forwards struggled. Clowe had three assists, Havlat had three points, but only one after scoring two goals in Game One, and Joe Pavelski ended up with zero points and a minus-3 rating.

For the Blues, they had a balanced effort for the most part. Andy McDonald and Patrik Berglund combined for 15 points, but were the only St. Louis scorers with more than three points. D Alex Pietrangelo recorded a team-high six shots in Game Five and was strong in his own end, too, blocking six Sharks shots.

An observation throughout the series: D Kevin Shattenkirk, who played 33:06 in the Game One OT loss, saw his ice time decline after that, to a career-low 14:43 ice time in Game Five, while Roman Polak logged 22:09 in Game Five, a total he surpassed six times in 81 regular season and playoff games.

KINGS UPSET CANUCKS
Jarret Stoll's overtime goal in Game Five gave the eight-seeded Los Angeles Kings an upset five-game series win over the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks.

Vancouver started the series in a tough spot, missing LW Daniel Sedin, and quickly fell behind three games to none, but even with Daniel in the lineup for the last two games, Vancouver's offensive woes continued. It's not altogether surprising, going up against Vezina candidate Jonathan Quick in the Kings' net, but there were too many Canucks forwards that were counted on to produce offensively that didn't get the job done.

The Sedins combined for seven points in seven games played in the series, but Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows, David Booth, Mason Raymond and Chris Higgins combined for one goal and six points in 25 combined games.

Burrows, Kesler and Raymond each averaged more than three shots on goal per game, so it's hard to completely dismiss their efforts -- they couldn't finish on one of the game's best goaltenders -- but Booth managed a total of seven shots in five games. There was a time (2010-2011 with Florida) that Booth was putting up 3.5 shots per game and even with reduced ice time this year, he averaged 2.6 shots per game with the Canucks, so his first go through the NHL playoffs was far from a rousing success.

With that lack of offensive production supporting him, G Cory Schneider played games three through five for Vancouver and, despite a 1.31 goals against average and .960 save percentage, he finished the series with a 1-2 record.

So now the Canucks head into the offseason earlier than expected with many questions to answer? Will G Roberto Luongo play another game in a Vancouver uniform? Do the Canucks need to address the lack of offence shown in this series, or was it an outlier, the function of running into an elite-level goaltender?

Quick was the backbone for the Kings, posting a 1.59 goals against average and .953 save percentage and only two Kings scored more than one goal -- captain Dustin Brown, who tallied four and Stoll, the Game Five OT hero.

One issue for the Kings to watch going into the second round: RW Jeff Carter, coming off a late-season ankle injury, didn't score a goal in the first round. Going back to the regular season, he's now in a nine-game goalless drought. 

GOING SEVEN
The Capitals and Bruins played twice on the weekend, splitting games and running the 3-3 series to a deciding Game Seven on Wednesday.

As the Capitals have pushed the favoured Bruins to the brink in this first-round series, it's been fascinating to see the role of Capitals sniper Alexander Ovechkin, who registered a team-high five shots and five hits in 15:34 of ice time Saturday. He played less than 15:34 just once all season, but the Capitals won Saturday, so there wasn't much about which to complain.

On Sunday, Ovechin put up seven shots on goal and scored the game-tying goal off a face-off in the latter half of the third period while playing 22:34, the second-most among Capitals forwards. Perhaps Ovechkin has been hurting, the wear and tear of going to battle against Zdeno Chara can do that, but it's strange to see his ice time vary so much.

While on the subject of players that are hurting, Bruins C Patrice Bergeron played 12:55 Saturday (only played less once all season) then, while playing a more customary 19:41 on Sunday, took only one face-off. This from a player that averaged 20.25 face-offs per game in the regular season. Fortunately the Bruins have options in the circle, so Rich Peverley (Boston's leading scorer with five points in the series) and David Krejci both took 24 draws on Sunday.

Boston RW Tyler Seguin scored the game-winning goal in overtime Sunday, keeping Boston's season alive, and possibly this could be something that sparks Seguin, who now has two points in six games.

While his ice-time has gone down in the last couple games, Capitals D Roman Hamrlik, who seemed like a good bet to be traded at the deadline after a public spat with coach Dale Hunter, has been among the most reliable on the Washington blueline, registering three points and a plus-5 rating while playing more than 22 minutes per game. The 38-year-old played 19 minutes per game in the regular season.

RANGERS REELING
Craig Anderson's 41-save shutout Saturday lifted the Senators to a 3-2 series lead as they head home to Ottawa for Game Six. Coming into the series, I suggested that there wasn't a huge difference between the talent on the Senators and the Rangers, but that Anderson would need to play at a level comparable to Lundqvist for the Senators to pull off the upset. With a 1.79 goals against average and .943 save percentage in the first five games, Anderson is doing his part.

Jason Spezza scored both Ottawa goals Saturday, the second one into an empty net, moving him ahead of Kyle Turris and Nick Foligno for the Senators' playoff scoring lead.

Junior scoring sensation Mark Stone made his NHL debut Saturday, finishing with an assist and a plus-1 rating. Stone, a big winger with soft hands, scored 123 points in 66 games for Brandon of the WHL this season and Daniel Alfredsson's continued absence created room in the lineup for Stone to get a chance and he seemed to fit alongside Spezza and Milan Michalek. (Another Ottawa prospect, Jakob Silfverberg has arrived in Ottawa after a tremendous season in the Swedish Elite League. He could be inserted into the lineup at any time too.)

As the Senators may be getting Alfredsson back in the lineup for Game Six, the Rangers are also going to have rookie LW Carl Hagelin back in the lineup, after serving his three-game suspension for elbowing Alfredsson.

On the Rangers side, they have to find an answer for Anderson. Brad Richards and Derek Stepan both had seven shots on Saturday, with nothing to show for it. Richards leads the Rangers with 26 shots, but only has one goal. A bigger problem for the Rangers is that one of the players that has finished most effectively, C Brian Boyle (three goals on 18 shots) could miss Game Six after he was decked by Senators RW Chris Neil in Game Five.

Considering that Boyle and D Anton Stralman have combined for five goals, there are more significant Rangers that need to pick up the scoring slack. Stepan, Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov are all looking for their first goals of the series and Anisimov was benched in Game Five, playing just 8:45.

Rangers sniper Marian Gaborik has just one goal and, more troubling, nine shots in five games. Gaborik averaged 3.37 shots per game during the regular season, so 1.8 per game in the playoffs isn't good enough.

PANTHER POWER
Widely considered the weakest of playoff teams when the postseason started, the Florida Panthers are one win away from eliminating the New Jersey Devils after a 3-0 win on Saturday.

G Jose Theodore, who was on the bench for Game Four, returned to the cage and stopped all 30 shots the Devils sent his way.

As the story has been all season for the Panthers, they get their offence from a variety of sources. RW Kris Versteeg, one of Florida's higher-profile scorers, had a couple of points Saturday and is now one of eight Panthers to have at least three points (none have more than four).

Saturday's game brought some heavy hitting from the fourth-liners. New Jersey RW Steve Bernier had six hits in 8:13 of playing time, while Florida C Jerred Smithson tallied nine hits in 11:10.

The Devils return home, needing more from their own high profile scorers. Travis Zajac leads New Jersey with four points, but Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias, Adam Henrique have combined for nine points between them and Kovalchuk is a team-worst minus-3. If New Jersey is going to take the last two of the series, they likely need more production from their big guns.

WORKING OVERTIME
Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews kept Chicago's season alive, scoring the overtime winner Saturday, giving the Blackhawks a 2-1 OT win. Toews was also 14-4 on face-offs in the game.

It was the second straight game in which the Blackhawks held Phoenix under 20 shots on goal and the Blackhawks are now outshooting the Coyotes by an average of 12.6 shots per game in the series.

Blackhawks LW Viktor Stalberg, who had 34 penalty minutes all season, picked up four minor penalties.

With C Martin Hanzal out of the lineup, the Coyotes have to give big minutes to centres that wouldn't otherwise warrant such playing time. Veteran Daymond Langkow has averaged 19:56 of ice time per game in the series, after playing 14:04 per game after the All-Star break. Boyd Gordon has eaten 21:19 of time, up from his career-high average of 15:56 per game during the regular season. There is some overtime factor involved -- since all five games have gone to OT -- but the point remains that they are being asked to play more significant roles in the absence of Hanzal.

Even though they hold the series lead, the Coyotes are fortunate to be where they are and need G Mike Smith to steal them one more game if they are going to knock off the Blackhawks.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

Crosby and Giroux shake hands (Photo: Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)
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