Three playoff teams in big trouble
Less than a week into the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Boston Bruins, Phoenix Coyotes and defending-champion Chicago Blackhawks find themselves in deep holes.
The Bruins once again are struggling with their longtime playoff nemesis, the Montreal Canadiens.
Entering the playoffs as the third seed and Northeast Division leader, the Bruins were picked by some experts as a Stanley Cup contender, especially after adding puck-moving defenseman Tomas Kaberle at this year's trade deadline.
But the Canadiens hold a 2-0 series lead, countering the Bruins' physical and offensive advantages with speed, opportunistic offense, solid team defense and outstanding goaltending from Carey Price.
It has been suggested the Bruins placed too much pressure on themselves entering the playoffs, which could explain why they struggled in the first two games.
Tim Thomas, considered a lock to win the Vezina Trophy as this season's top goaltender, has struggled at times against the pesky Habs, especially with his rebound control. As for Kaberle, he has been a non-factor in this series, but so have many of the Bruins' best players. They have been out-hustled and out-worked by the Canadiens.
Team captain and top defenseman Zdeno Chara has been battling an illness, which hampered his performance in Game 1 and forced him to the sidelines for Game 2. Losing Chara's intimidating physical presence and cannonading slap shot seriously hurt the Bruins at both ends of the ice.
For the Bruins to get back into this series, they will need a much better effort.
They need better rebound control from Thomas, or backup Tuukka Rask if coach Claude Julien opts to change things up between the pipes.
The defense must do a better job of clearing rebounds and must become more physical in front of their own net. Getting Chara back healthy certainly would go a long way toward addressing those needs.
Their forwards must use their size and strength to create more havoc around the Canadiens' net to generate more scoring chances.
The next two games in Montreal are must wins for the Bruins. Winning one won't be good enough, as the Bruins would then face returning to Boston down 3-1, which could have a devastating effect upon their fragile psyche, still haunted by the playoff disappointments of the recent past.
The playoffs have provided no respite for the Phoenix Coyotes from speculation they could be playing elsewhere next season.
Hours before the puck dropped in Game 1 against the Red Wings, there were reports out of Toronto claiming a deal to sell the team to businessman Matthew Hulsizer were all but dead, potentially clearing the way for the Coyotes to be sold and relocated back to Winnipeg, Manitoba.
The Coyotes, however, have been used to reports about their future for two years. It certainly wasn't a factor in their falling behind 2-0 against the Detroit Red Wings.
In Game 1, the Wings simply overpowered the Coyotes, wiping out a one-goal lead with three goals in the second period and skating to a fairly easy 4-2 victory.
It appeared the Coyotes were going to be run out of Joe Louis Arena in Game 2 as Detroit jumped out to a 4-0 lead, but they battled their way back with their gritty physical play to within one goal of tying that game before time ran out.
That could give them some hope heading back to Phoenix for Games 3 and 4, which cynics suggest could be the last NHL games to be played in Arizona.
Still, the Coyotes' physical style in Game 2 extracted a toll upon the Red Wings. If the Coyotes can also play a more disciplined defense, they could claw their way back into this series.
Ultimately, their hopes depend upon goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. Considered by most observers the main reason the Coyotes made this year's playoffs, Bryzgalov has not looked comfortable. He has been lit up for eight goals while posting a bloated 4.09 goals-against average and a weak .881 save percentage.
That's simply unacceptable for a goaltender of Bryzgalov's caliber. He must elevate his game. or the Coyotes' hopes of finally advancing beyond the first round for the first time since 1987 — when they were the Winnipeg Jets — will once again be dashed.
As grim as things are for the Bruins and Coyotes, it's downright scary for the Blackhawks, who are now on the verge of being swept out of the first round by the Vancouver Canucks.
The Blackhawks were responsible for eliminating the Canucks early from the past two postseasons, but this year the Canucks have a much deeper team and the Blackhawks struggled after having gutted nearly half their roster last summer in cost-cutting moves.
As a result, the Canucks find themselves on the verge of eliminating the 'Hawks. Led by the Sedin twins and Ryan Kesler, Vancouver's top players have for the most part been at their best. The same cannot be said of such Chicago stars as Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp.
It's possible the Blackhawks could rally back from this 3-0 deficit to win the series, as the Philadelphia Flyers showed everyone last spring it was possible, but considering they were only the third team in NHL history to do it, the odds aren't in the Blackhawks' favor, especially against a much better and more determined Canucks team.