OK, we’re sold. This new NHL playoff format is awesome. With the exception of Montreal-Tampa, the 2 vs. 3 division matchups have been heated, three of the four wild cards lived up to their titles and the games have been tight and tense.
The Blackhawks and Ducks cheated us out of Game 7s on Sunday, but there is still potential from the Wild-Avalanche, Kings-Sharks, Penguins-Blue Jackets and Rangers-Flyers series.
GAME OF THE DAY: Anaheim 5, Dallas 4 (OT): With far better depth, the Western Conference has boasted better first-round games. On Sunday in Dallas, the Stars and Ducks stole the spotlight. Dallas had control for nearly 58 minutes, but in the final 4:57, Anaheim forced overtime then won the game on Nick Bonino’s second goal of the game.
PLAY OF THE DAY: The Ducks’ never-say-die goal: Down 4-2 with a little more than two minutes to play, Anaheim got one back on a terrific shot from Bonino, but they weren’t done. Dallas goalie Kari Lehtonen wasn’t able to freeze the puck during a goal-mouth scramble and Ducks defenseman Devante Smith-Pelly made him pay, pulling the puck away from the prone goalie and flipping his second goal of the game into the net with 22 seconds remaining to force overtime.
1. D Duncan Keith, Chicago: Keith is one of two favorites to capture the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman. Sunday was a good exhibit for his candidacy. Keith had three assists and finished off Chicago’s scoring by batting a puck out of the air to post a four-point night and finish off the Blues.
2. C Nick Bonino, Anaheim: Bonino scored one of the Ducks’ two goals late in regulation to force overtime, then netted the game-winner and series-clincher 2:47 into the extra period.
— C Dominic Moore, New York: A gorgeous goal and an assist in the Rangers’ Game 5 win.
Series: New York leads, 3-2.
Key stat: The Rangers haven’t won a series in fewer than seven games since beating the New Jersey Devils in five games in the first round of the 2008 playoffs.
Key player: C Dominic Moore, New York: Moore’s inspirational story continued with a goal, an assist and an 86-percent success rate in the faceoff circle in the Rangers’ pivotal Game-5 win.
What we learned: Steve Mason couldn’t carry the magic with him to New York after a brilliant performance in Game 4. The Philadelphia goalie gave up a soft goal to Marc Staal to open the game when he over-extended his waffle and a fluttering shot caromed off the bottom of it and into the net. The Flyers never recovered, falling into a 3-0 hole before Claude Giroux gave them brief hope by cutting the lead to 3-2 late in the third period with his first goal of the playoffs. Given the tenor of this series, it won’t be the least bit surprising to see the Flyers force a Game 7 with a win Tuesday at home, but they’ll need their star to produce because there is a dearth of top-end skill on the Philadelphia roster. "I have to be better," Giroux told reporters after a game-high six shots, a goal, a 61-percent success rate on faceoffs and a minus-1 rating. New York still looks like the deeper team, but it may take seven games and that Madison Square Garden mystique to prove it. "We’re not looking at it like it’s the last game of our season," Giroux said of Game 6. "We’ve come back all season long when it matters."
Next game: Tuesday at Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m. EST.
Series: Chicago won, 4-2.
Key stat: The Blackhawks are 11-2 in playoff games where they could close out an opponent under coach Joel Quenneville.
Key player: G Corey Crawford, Chicago: The Blackhawks blew it open with four goals in the third period, but Crawford is the reason they were in position to do so. St. Louis outshot Chicago 17-6 in the second period, thanks in great part to four power plays, but Crawford (35 saves) stopped them all to keep the game tied, 1-1, heading to the third.
What we learned: No matter how unfocused they seem in the regular season, no matter what ills plague them over an extended period of time, Chicago has won two Stanley Cups and it is crystal clear after this series that the Blackhawks understand what must be done come playoff time. A penalty-killing unit that struggled in the regular season is ranked second in the postseason at 93.1 percent and a defense that often looked leaky held St. Louis, the NHL’s seventh-highest scoring team, to 2.33 goals a game (the third-best goals against average in the postseason). Chicago captain Jonathan Toews was brilliant throughout the series, but he saved his best for last, scoring the overtime game-winner in Game 5, then scoring the game-winner early in the third on Sunday to start Chicago’s onslaught. Toews led all scorers in the series with seven points. St. Louis had a terrific season again, but injuries plagued them late, calling into question the sustainability of their hard, heavy style. More than that, there is no denying that the Blues are now saddled with a dubious postseason reputation. St Louis has won just one playoff series since 2002. The greatest absence may be the Blues’ lack of a difference maker on offense. After scoring eight goals in the first two games, St. Louis scored just six times in the final four games. Maybe Vladimir Tarasenko (four goals) will evolve into one, but is that even enough? The Blues had four powers plays in the second period (six in the first two periods) with a chance to grab hold of the game. They did not score and when they analyze this final game, that will be the area they point to as the difference. Another long offseason of introspection awaits.
Next game: Chicago will play the Colorado-Minnesota winner in the conference semifinals.
Series: Anaheim won, 4-2.
Key stat: Anaheim goalie Jonas Hiller stopped all 12 shots he faced in relief of Fredrik Andersen.
Key player: Take your pick between center Nick Bonino and forward Devante Smith-Pelly, who both had two huge goals. Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau improved to 3-7 all-time in potential series-clinching games.
What we learned: First off, Dallas was worthy of the eighth and final Western Conference playoff seed despite a few hiccups down the stretch when it had a chance to seize that spot from Phoenix. The Stars gave Anaheim everything they had and were less than a minute from forcing a pivotal Game 7. There is plenty of budding young talent on this roster in Alex Goligoski, Valeri Nichushkin and Cody Eakin, but Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin will be the stars that carry this team for a long time. Dallas ended a six-year playoff drought and now must take baby steps in a loaded Western Conference. Anaheim finally got the monkey off its back, advancing past the first round for the first time in the past five seasons. The Ducks are deep and relentless, part of the reason they’ve come from behind in so many wins this season. They have their flaws, most notably in possession and with a still unstable goaltending situation heading into Round 2, but the maligned power play was superb in this series (26.9 percent), as was the penalty-killing unit (89.7 percent). And Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry played like stars with seven points each in the series. Next up, a California turf war with the winner of the Kings-Sharks series.
Next game: Tuesday at Anaheim, 10 p.m., EST
Final thought: It is good for the game that veteran Ducks forward Teemu Selanne will live to play another series. There is no greater hockey ambassador and there is no better human being in the game. Selanne was a healthy scratch in Game 4 — something that happened during the regular season to rest his aging body, but something few expected in a playoff run where his experience is invaluable. While his son didn’t take it well on Twitter, Selanne handled it with the same grace with which he has handled his entire career. Then he sent a message by posting two assists on Sunday. With that effort Selanne, 43, became the second oldest player to record a multi-assist game in the playoffs behind Chris Chelios.