By Steve Silverman
Massive third puts Bruins over the top
The Boston Bruins were losing their grip on the season, and when they came out for the third period of Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs on TD Garden ice, they were down by a 4-3 margin against an opponent that could smell a series victory.
Compounding the issue was a shaky effort by goalie Tuukka Rask, who was not at his best in the winner-take-all game.
But the Bruins were the lords of the third period, getting an early goal by Torey Krug to tie and a sensational go-ahead by rookie Jake DeBrusk. Those two early goals stunned the suddenly shaky Leafs and Boston went on to a 7-4 victory.
The Bruins were a 112-point team in the regular season, and they kept their season from going down the drain with a heroic third period. Defenseman Zdeno Chara was the architect of the comeback, as the 6-foot-9 behemoth raised his voice and challenged his teammates between the second and third periods.
DeBrusk's goal was a combination of speed, power and guts as he took a feed from David Krejci, sped down the right side, cut inside shaky defenseman Jake Gardiner and beat Frederik Andersen five-hole before being thundered into the boards by the Toronto blueliner.
The Garden venerated with noise, and goals by David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand sent the Bruins into the second round against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Those two were the best teams in the Eastern Conference this season, and another seven-game series would not be a surprise.
Boston's overwhelming joy was matched by the shock and disappointment in the Toronto lockerroom.
It is now 51 years and counting since this hallowed franchise knew the satisfaction of winning the Stanley Cup.
Getting close in the first round is simply not good enough, and head coach Mike Babcock has to figure out a way to get more from this talented team.
Is it finally the Caps' time?
The Pittsburgh Penguins had a couple of issues with the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round, but in the end, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions were able to rely on their own offensive skills and Philadelphia's defensive issues and lack of depth to survive the series in six games.
The Penguins advance and go into their usual second-round series against the Washington Capitals. This is the third consecutive year that the two teams have met in the second round, and we don't have to tell you which team has won the previous two.
That's because the Penguins are the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. That's also because the Capitals have not been past the second round in the Alex Ovechkin era.
The Pens with Crosby have a mental edge on the Caps with Ovechkin, and that part will remain intact until Ovechkin can do something to flip the script.
There is less pressure on the Capitals this time around than there was either of the last two years. Washington was the Presidents' Trophy winners in each of the last two years. The Caps were a good team this year, but far from great in winning the Metropolitan Division.
Seven teams – including the expansion Vegas Golden Knights – finished with better records than the Caps. However, this year's team was resilient in falling behind Columbus 0-2 and then winning four straight games.
This series is not – and really never has been – Crosby vs. Ovechkin. The Capitals have been getting balanced scoring since they turned things around vs. Columbus, and Ovechkin has been joined by Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom with eight points in the first round, while defenseman John Carlson has a team-best nine points.
Ovechkin may have the huge shot and the big goal total, but Carlson, Kuznetsov and Backstrom are as important as the Great 8 and all three are playing well.
There is a quiet determination on the Washington bench that has been missing in the past.
Will that be enough to get the Caps past the Pens? Much depends on the goalie matchup between Washington's Braden Holtby and Pittsburgh's Matt Murray, but the Caps appear to be relishing their opportunity now instead of fearing what can go wrong.
The Pens seem to recognize that the Caps have balance among their offensive stars. "They have the firepower up front," said Conor Sheary of the Penguins. "They have really good lines that are hard to match up against and they have a dynamic power play that's hard to defend."
Of course, the Penguins have the same kind of scoring depth with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin (out for Game 1, lower body) , Phil Kessel and Jake Guentzel, but Holtby will be a more difficult goalie to solve than the wretched Philadelphia combination of Brian Elliott (4.75 goals-against average, .856 save percentage) and Michal Neuvirth (4.40 GAA and .847 save percentage). Petr Mrazek also saw 30 minutes worth of action, and he was ordinary as well.
Holtby should be strong for the Caps, but if they are going to flip the script on the Penguins, Carlson, Kuznetsov and Backstrom will have to get the job done with Ovechkin in a supporting role.
While playoff games are often thrilling and unpredictable, playoff matchups are seemingly written in stone.
Any ordinary sports fan could have said before the season that the Penguins and Capitals would meet in the playoffs, because that's what they always do.
A Toronto-Boston matchup was fairly predictable as well, as was the San Jose-Anaheim in the Western Conference.
The current divisional setup is fine in the regular season, but we propose a radical approach to the playoffs. Forget about the divisional matchups. Rank the top 16 playoff qualifiers – the four division champions and the 12 other teams with the highest point totals – 1 through 16.
Have the top-ranked team face the No. 16 team, the No. 2 team play the No. 15 team and follow in a similar manner for the first round, and then reseed with the highest and lowest rankings meeting each other in subsequent rounds.
This will create true playoff matchups and actually promote new rivalries around the league. Everyone knows the Rangers and Flyers hate each other, as do the Kings and the Ducks, Blackhawks and Blues along with the Canadiens and Bruins.
Those hatreds will remain intact. But what's wrong with a Philadelphia-Chicago rivalry, a Vegas-Montreal battle or a Washington-L.A. Kings war
We know everything about the Penguins and Capitals. We need new matchups to add pizazz to the postseason.
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