The Second Round
No one counted on the Maple Leafs making the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Yet, hours after it all fell apart on a shocking, disappointing night in Boston, it's still rather hard to believe the Leafs aren't in the second round.
But eight teams are, including the Ottawa Senators, who now inherit the responsibility of trying to end Canada's two-decade run without a Stanley Cup champion.
Can the Senators pull it off against a Pittsburgh Penguins squad led by Sidney Crosby that entered the playoffs as the odds-on favourite to make it to the Cup final?
After going 7-1 with my first round predictions - only the Rangers tripped me up - let's have a look at the four remaining matchups matchups:
PITTSBURGH (1) vs. OTTAWA (7): The Senators dismantled the Montreal Canadiens with greater ease that most imagined was likely, clearly benefitting from the experience gaining a year earlier in a tough playoff loss to the New York Rangers. The goaltending of Craig Anderson may be the best in the league right now and the Sens play a grinding game that will severely test the patience of the Penguins. Pittburgh, meanwhile, survived a tough test with the young Islanders in the first round, and saw goalie Marc-Andre Fleury chased in favour of backup Tomas Vokoun. That unsettled goalie picture is worrisome. But then you list Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, and remain impressed with how veterans like Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz have become playoff warriors. We'll see whether the Matt Cooke vs. Erik Karlsson matter becomes a major series element.
WINNER: This one's going the distance. Unless Pitt's goaltending completely disintegrates, the Pens beat the Sens in seven.
BOSTON (4) vs. N.Y. Rangers (6): You can argue the Bruins should have been eliminated by the Leafs. Or you can marvel at the will of a champion that fought back with one of the best comebacks in playoff history. Either way, the Bruins emerge from that series beaten and bruised, particularly on the back end. Moreover, they remain a puzzle, sometimes a powerhouse, other times an enigma. Neither Tyler Seguin nor Brad Marchand scored in the first round, but Milan Lucic was a beast when it mattered. The Rangers, meanwhile, struggle to score, but they didn't allow the Capitals a goal in the final two games of their opening round series after falling behind three games to two. Henrik Lundqvist, it's fair to say, will pose a larger obstacle than inexperienced James Reimer, and New York is unlikely to struggle with protecting leads as did the Leafs.
WINNER: This a tricky one. Having thought before the playoffs started Boston would come out of the east, I'm no longer a believer. Rangers in six.
CHICAGO (1) vs. DETROIT (7): This is the last time these Original Six rivals will meet in a non-Cup final series before the Wings move to the Eastern Conference next season. The Wings struggled to make the playoffs, but then seemed to find their form over the course of a seven-game battle with Anaheim. Henrik Zetterberg was great when it mattered, and some of the young Wings came up with some big moments. Chicago, however, manhandled a pretty good Minnesota team in the first round and after being the best team in the NHL during the regular season are showing few signs they're headed for an early end to their spring. Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa were too much for the Wild to handle, and the Hawks won in five games without either Patrick Kane or Jonathan Toews contributing a goal. They're just that deep.
WINNER: If somebody's going to stop the Hawks, it won't be Detroit. Chicago in six.
LOS ANGELES (5) vs. SAN JOSE (6): An all-California matchup involving the reigning Stanley Cup champs from L.A. against a Sharks squad that dumped veterans at the trade deadline, still made the playoffs and then swept Vancouver. The Sharks are an excellent defensive team, strong at home and armed with a lethal powerplay, all elements that can carry a club a long way in the playoffs. Vancouver was unable to expose any vulnerabilities that may exist, and Patrick Marleau has shown a more aggressive playoff bite than we've seen before. The Kings, meanwhile, spotted the Blues a two-game lead then roared back to win four straight and advance. Goalie Jonathan Quick allowed only 10 goals in the series and seems to be back on form. At the same time, the Kings only scored 12 goals themselves and have to be a little beaten up after a vicious, punishing series.
WINNER: The upset special of the second round. It's almost impossible to repeat as Cup champions in this era, and the Kings will find that out. Sharks in seven.