The Stanley Cup playoffs brought the first round to an historic end on April 30. Hockey fans had the rare treat of seeing three Game 7's in one night, raising the bar for the rounds that will decide the Stanley Cup. The playoff field is now down to just eight teams, as the New York Rangers, Minnesota Wild and Los Angeles Kings joined the Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins, Anaheim Ducks and Montreal Canadiens on the next level..
The Kings made the biggest headlines by being the fourth team in Stanley Cup playoff history to cap a 3-0 series comeback, due to a 5-1 triumph over the San Jose Sharks. But on paper, the bigger upset was the Wild beating the Central Division champion Colorado Avalanche on a 5-4 overtime win. Only the Rangers held serve at home with a 2-1 nail biter over the Philadelphia Flyers.
Instead of the Sharks, the Kings will move on to play the Ducks, due to scoring four goals in the last 20+ minutes to cap their comeback. Meanwhile, the Wild will be the surprise opponent for the Blackhawks, as they erased four one-goal deficits and overcame an injury to goaltender Darcy Kuemper. The oft-maligned Ilya Bryzgalov finished in net for Minnesota as Jared Spurgeon tied Game 7 late in regulation, before Nino Niederreiter won it in overtime.
The Rangers advanced on the strength of two second-period goals, although Steve Mason kept the Flyers in range virtually by himself. Yet after Philadelphia cut the lead to 2-1, it was Henrik Lundqvist's turn to withstand barrages. Because he did, the Rangers will get a shot at the Penguins in the second round.
The only set second round series in the Stanley Cup playoffs before April 30 starts the round on May 1. The Bruins and Canadiens will begin the next stage of the postseason at 7:30 p.m. est in Boston. Afterwards, the Rangers-Penguins and Wild-Blackhawks series begin on May 2, with the Ducks and Kings starting the next day.
It has already been a grueling postseason for many of these clubs, but it all begins anew now. Only an elite eight have survived to get here, with a final four about to get halfway to the Cup in two weeks.
The accompanying list ranks the best teams left in the Stanley Cup playoffs, although it is quite subject to change.
No. 1: Boston Bruins
Milan Lucic and the Bruins stumbled out of the opening gate of the Stanley Cup playoffs -- but better to stumble at the beginning than at the end. This served the Bruins well against the Detroit Red Wings, and now they look to teach the Canadiens the same lesson.
No. 2: Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks stumbled even worse than the Bruins did at first, yet they could have swept the St. Louis Blues if not for late mistakes in regulation of Games 1 and 2. Nevertheless, the defending champions carry a four-game winning streak and home ice into the next round.
No. 3: Los Angeles Kings
The 2012 Stanley Cup champions and 2013 Western runners-up added an even more historic chapter to their budding playoff legacy. With their historic 3-0 comeback over the Sharks and their past postseason success, it is hard to count out or bet against the Kings now.
No. 4: Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks were the best in the West in the regular season, defending their position in the first round with a hiccup or two. But the likes of the Kings and Blackhawks may be harder for the Ducks to overcome hiccups against.
No. 5: Pittsburgh Penguins
For the second straight year, the Penguins stumbled against a heavy underdog in the first round and then got through in six tough games. By that pattern, the Penguins should have it easier against the New York Rangers in round two -- although the pattern also has them getting blown out by the Bruins in round three.
No. 6: Montreal Canadiens
The Canadiens have had the longest rest of any team left in the Stanley Cup playoffs, which is the price for being the only team yet to lose thus far. But facing the Bruins hardly seems like a good reward.
No. 7: New York Rangers
Daniel Carcillo and the Rangers were once again good enough to win a round in the playoffs, despite taking seven games to do it. Being good enough to win more than a round or two is still another matter.
No. 8: Minnesota Wild
Nino Niederreiter and the Wild are the closest thing left to a Cinderella in this postseason, especially since they face the Blackhawks next. Minnesota was the first team Chicago beat en route to the Stanley Cup last year, but are the Wild older and wiser this time around?