It was only a few days ago that the Anaheim Ducks seemed well in control of a bright playoff future. Coach Bruce Boudreau's decision to start a rookie goaltender, Frederik Andersen, ahead of the soon-to-be-leaving free agent Jonas Hiller, was working out okay. Stéphane Robidas, the defenceman they'd brought in from the Dallas Stars at the deadline, was eating up the quiet solid minutes they needed from him. Ryan Getzlaf was leading and motivating and scoring, even after his face was mashed by a puck, his chin dotted with stitches, his eye practically swollen shut.
They were up 2-0 in their series with the just-happy-to-be here Stars, a team that barely scraped into the playoffs and was supposed to go away, quietly into the night.
And then, just like that, it all goes off the rails. Dallas won a game and did so by trying to physically intimidate the Ducks. Boudreau's response was to sit out the popular future Hall Of Famer Teemu Selanne in place of Emerson Etem, a bulky, hulking winger that plays a physical game and will eventually be a regular in their lineup. Then Robidas broke his leg. Then Getzlaf had to be scratched because of an undisclosed upper body injury. Then Andersen faltered after Anaheim had opened up a 2-0 lead and after giving up four consecutive goals, and in came Hiller to mop up. The Stars held on to win, the series is now squared at 2-2 and there are some fires the Ducks will need to put out in order to swing the momentum back in their favour now that they're back home.
How could it go wrong so fast, after everything was falling so nicely into place?
Well, that's the across-the-board lesson from the first week of the 2014 playoffs. Not every lead is safe anymore. There are comebacks galore, a pleasing development for the NHL in the first full season after what could have been a damaging lockout. Where once a team that went ahead stayed ahead, now people are talking about what the most dangerous lead in hockey might be? One goal? Two? Five? Over in the Columbus-Pittsburgh series, the team that led 3-1 in each game lost. In fact, the Blue Jackets' comeback on Wednesday night was from a 3-0 deficit. How about St. Louis-Chicago?
If there was a single series where the old lockdown ways might have prevailed, this would have been it. The Blues are collectively schooled on the defensive side of the game. The Blackhawks, meanwhile, won two of the last four Stanley Cups, with the same essential core group. If anybody knows a thing or two about winning when it matters, the Blackhawks do. And yet, in the first two games, Chicago coughed up leads late, St. Louis tied the games and went to overtime. On Wednesday night, the Blackhawks lost a 2-0 lead, fell behind 3-2, and then the Blues gave up the late tying goal and the winner in overtime. It see-saws back and forth and just when you think it's over, it isn't.
In all, 22 of the first 28 games played in these playoffs have featured a comeback of at least one goal. There have been seven comebacks from a two-goal deficit and one from three goals down. The eight times in which the winning team overcame a deficit of two or more goals matches the entire total of two-goal comebacks from all of last year's playoffs, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
Part of the charm has been goaltending which, in these playoffs, has not been nearly as efficient as it usually is. Suddenly many of the goalies that never give up a weak goal are off their games. Jonathan Quick has struggled in L.A., Ryan Miller has been up-and-down in St. Louis and Marc-André Fleury, for the third consecutive playoffs, has had moments of brilliance and moments where he fanned at long overtime shots off the stick of Nick Foligno.
All in all, it has created one strange, interesting brew, where at least two of the No. 1 seeds, Pittsburgh and Anaheim, are going to be stretched to six games by teams that missed the playoffs a year ago. If you're Anaheim, probably what scares you most is that Dallas's top scorer, Tyler Seguin, hasn't really been heard from in the series, with just two points.
They're getting scoring from Jamie Benn and secondary sources. Anaheim is good at home and has a chance to regroup, but the memory of last year's first-round upset loss to the Detroit Red Wings is fresh in everybody's mind. They need Getzlaf back to steady the ship; Selanne back to get the karma right in the dressing room again; and then a collective push back against a Dallas team that understands it is playing with house money. The Ducks do still have home-ice advantage. In their series, at this time, it is about the only conventional handicapping tool that has an impact on the outcome.
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