Tonight’s NHL playoff schedule sees three games, and two of them are being played on the west coast. The only early game of the night is the pivotal Game 4 between Boston and Montreal. The home team has yet to win a game in this series, and the Bruins will be desperately trying to continue that trend as they look to even the series, take back home ice advantage, and talk their fans down from the ledge. Coming into the playoffs, the Bruins were a hot pick to win the eastern conference. This wasn’t really surprising to me, as most people won’t believe it from the #1 Caps until they see it, and the #2 Flyers were coming into the playoffs playing like someone told them the Stanley Cup was radioactive. While I didn’t take Boston as my favorite to win the east, I did pick them to lose the conference finals to Washington, so an opening round loss to Montreal would have to be classified as something I did not see coming. But in order for that to happen, I think Montreal needs this game tonight. If Boston is able to even it up and head home for two out of three, I don’t think Montreal has the depth and strength to swing the results back in their favor. From the start many people figured Boston was just too physical for Montreal’s undersized forwards, and perhaps it just took some time for this wearing down to show itself. Additionally, losing these two games at home would have to do a number on Montreal’s confidence and excitement. It would be tough for them to win Game 5 if they lose tonight, so expect the Habs to pull out all the stops. I view this series as dead even right now, which means whoever wins tonight should have the odds in their favor with regard to winning the series.
After the fourth game of that blood rivalry, we’ll get to see two late night (if you live in the eastern time zone like I do) games that should keep the intensity level going well into the morning. First, the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks will fight for their playoff lives again, this time in the unfriendly confines of Rogers Arena in Vancouver. A couple nights ago Chicago took Game 4 by a whopping score of 7-2, and the mood has drastically changed surrounding the series. Going into the game, even the Chicago supporters and media were saying there wasn’t much of a reason to hold out hope, but now trailing the series 3-1 you would think tonight was Game 7. And in many ways it might be more like Game 6.5 in fact. The consensus opinion is always that 3-0 series are over. But when it’s broken down to home games and momentum, once a 3-0 series becomes 3-1, most people figure that the team coming back only has to win the one road game to win the series. I’ve heard it said so many times that if a team comes from 3-0 to tie a series at 3-3, then they would be heavy favorites to win Game 7 based on momentum. Most people also figure that the team with its back against the wall won’t be eliminated at home (even though it happens all the time), and so it really comes down to that one needed road win.
I’ve got to say that while I understand the logic, and I’ve made it as recently as last season, I don’t think that tonight’s game is do or die for Vancouver. I liked their depth and superior two-way play coming into the series, and I’m not going to freak out and back off the pick now. This series reminds me a lot of one that we saw last year, and one that I frequently reference: Detroit at San Jose. We had the higher seed take a 3-0 series lead by winning each game by one goal. Then we had the lower seed score a ferocious five goal victory in Game 4, and cue the overreaction. I was guilty of claiming that Game 5 last year was essentially Game 7, but I have two rebuttals. First, I am a Red Wings fan, so I was feeling the electricity. Second, I wasn’t wrong. Sure, there’s no way of knowing that Detroit would have finished the deal in Games 6 and 7 had they gotten there, but in fact the winner of Game 5 did win the series. I think the winner of Game 5 tonight will be the Vancouver Canucks, but even if it isn’t, I still think that in the end the depth and overall quality of the Canucks will win out, especially given that they would still only need one win in two games. This Chicago team is still very talented at the top, it just isn’t nearly as deep, and that’s why they won’t be able to complete a 3-0 comeback on the Presidents’ Trophy holders.
The last game to start tonight is Game 4 between the visiting Sharks and the LA Kings. The most interesting part of this game will be to see how LA responds to losing a 4-0 lead at home in Game 3. If they are able to move on, I really don’t think there’s any reason to think that they are completely incapable of winning this series. I picked the Sharks in five games, but if I could have changed my pick after two games I would have. LA won Game 2 by a score of 4-0, then had a 4-0 lead in Game 3. It could have been argued, and probably was, that LA was the better team. And now here we are, wondering if a team playing against the Sharks can stay mentally sharp and get over a bad loss. Who would have ever thought?
There are very rarely goalie controversies within teams that hold series leads, but some people seem to have thought that Antti Niemi was on the chopping block after being pulled in Game 3’s win. It doesn’t appear to be so, as it has been widely reported today that Niemi will start Game 4, which should come as no surprise to anyone. He was pulled in Game 3 because they were down 4-0 and needed to do something. He’s back in net because without him the Sharks wouldn’t have won the Pacific Division, and you dance with the one you brought. Unless the one you brought gets consistently ugly. I think Niemi would have to have two more stinkers in a row before the Sharks would consider starting Antero Niittymaki. Happy Hockey everyone.