Just over a week into the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs, there have been no shortage of intriguing storylines. As is annually the case during the first round, there is always more to talk about thanks to the abundance of games that take place on a nightly basis. This year is no exception, as the NHL continues to reaffirm its reputation as the most competitive league among the four major sports in America. While each individual series takes on its own unique identity, I have selected what I deem to be the most dominant storyline in each one through the first week of the postseason.
Scott Has Been a Darling (Chicago vs Nashville)
After taking over from Cory Crawford midway through Game 1, Scott Darling has led the Blackhawks to three victories. With a chance to close out this series on Thursday, Darling’s play has been a pleasant surprise. Led by the play of Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa in particular, the Blackhawks are displaying the value of their skill and experience. Despite an excellent regular season, it appears that Nashville may be running low on fuel. Once again, the Blackhawks appear to be gearing up for a long playoff run.
Ovechkin vs Tavares (New York Islanders vs Washington)
The big storyline going into this series was the matchup of John Tavares and Alexander Ovechkin. Both players will likely be nominees for the Hart Trophy (MVP) at the NHL’s award ceremonies that precede the playoffs. With the series tied 2-2 heading into Thursday, both players each have a modest three points. However, John Tavares scored an overtime winner in Game 3 at Nassau Coliseum to give the Islanders a huge victory. This was likely the biggest goal scored by an Islanders player in the last decade, and considering this storied venue will be shut down after the season, the goal was particularly meaningful to Islander fans.
Wild West (Minnesota vs St. Louis)
Currently tied at two games apiece, this series has gone back and forth with much intensity. There have been high scoring games, and there have been low scoring games as well. With lots of pressure on both of these organizations to go deep into the playoffs this year, both teams know there is a lot on the line. Vladimir Tarasenko has put on a show of his own in this series for the Blues, and he currently leads NHL in post-season goals with five. Blues rearguard Kevin Shattenkirk is tied for the lead in playoff scoring with seven points.
Are they still a surprise? (Calgary vs Vancouver)
Going into Game Four on Thursday night, the Calgary Flames lead their series 3-1. After making the playoffs when nobody said they could, is it really a surprise that they are on the verge of eliminating the Canucks? Led by Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Jiri Hudler, the Flames are a young and exciting bunch. It should also be noted that this team has been a model of resiliency. After losing its captain and a potential Norris trophy winner to a season ending injury, the Flames did not mail it in. It would be hard to imagine head coach Bob Hartley not being nominated for the Jack Adams trophy.
Big Buff? Or Big Baby? (Anaheim vs Winnipeg)
The Winnipeg Jets were the first team eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs after four straight hockey games at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks. The Jets seemed to be in every single game, but failed to hold onto their leads on multiple occasions. Probably the biggest story to come out of this series was the lack of discipline that was on display by Dustin Byfuglien during and preceding Game Three in Winnipeg. After Corey Perry scored a goal (he leads the playoffs with seven points) for Anaheim, Byfuglien cross-checked him from behind, which resulted in Perry falling to the ice. Following the game, Byfuglien did his best Marshawn Lynch impersonation by responding to every question with the exact same answer: “If we stick together as a team, we’ll be okay.” For a guy who’s supposed to be a leader in the Jets dressing room, his behavior definitely raised a lot of eyebrows.
“The Role Players” (Montreal vs Ottawa)
With the Canadiens currently leading their best of seven series (3-1) against the Senators, the most prominent theme has been the play of Montreal’s depth players. In particular, they have greatly benefited from the play of forwards Dale Weise, Torrey Mitchel, Bryan Flynn, and Brandon Prust. Not only have these players set the tone with their aggressive fore-check and physical presence, but they’ve combined for four goals, and 10 points through the first four games of the series. Moreover, the impressive play of defensemen Tom Gilbert and Jeff Petry is noteworthy as well. All six of these players were brought to Montreal by Marc Bergevin, and Flynn, Mitchel, and Petry were acquired at this year’s trade deadline. After four playoff games, Montreal’s pro-scouting department is looking pretty good.
Problems in Pittsburgh (New York Rangers vs Pittsburgh)
In what has probably been the least entertaining series so far, the Penguins are on the cusp of losing to the New York Rangers for the second consecutive year. After a new general manager and a new head coach was brought in following last season’s second round playoff exit, it would appear that these moves have had no impact whatsoever. The Penguins struggled mightily down the stretch and just barely made the playoffs on the final night of the regular season. While the Rangers have by no means dominated Pittsburgh in any of the first four games, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will be under a lot of heat this offseason should they fail to mount a comeback.
Red Hot Red Wings (Detroit vs Tampa Bay)
Whatever question marks there were in goal prior to the series, Petr Mrazek is doing his part to put them to rest. He and his Red Wing teammates were not just satisfied with a postseason appearance, and they are playing like a team that plans on making some loud noise in 2015. Led by the veteran leadership of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, the Wings are getting contributions from all four of their lines right now. While most people anticipated that the Lightning were poised to dismantle the Red Wings in this series, Wings coach Mike Babcock had other plans. Right now, he is doing what he has done throughout his entire life: win.