Sam Donnellon: In Stanley Cup playoffs, upsets are the norm

042910-400-donn
Jaroslav Halak made 41 saves in the Canadiens' Game 7 win over the Capitals. (Nick Wass/AP)

FOR THE second year in a row, an eighth-seeded team toppled a first-seeded team in the NHL playoffs. The seventh-seeded Flyers upset the second-seeded Devils, and the sixth-seeded Bruins stunned the third-seeded Sabres.

So, you ask, why do these big upsets seem to happen in hockey more than any other professional sport?

Only the NCAA Tournament has less predictability than your typical NHL postseason, which is a big part of its remaining relevance to American sports fans. You don't have to understand a neutral-zone trap or the nuances of Peter Laviolette's forecheck to understand how stunning Washington's early exit was. Conversely, understanding that trap or forecheck, or any other hockey nuance, doesn't always offer any more insight into how and why these things happen.

But these upsets are not just a matter of bounces and hitting posts. They reflect hockey's schizophrenic essence. No one, not even North Jersey folks, were enamored by the Devils' style of play when they won their three Cups. But it was a style built for this time of year, as upstarts prove time and time again.

And as the Devils proved in their early exit this year.

The Flyers did all the little things to the Devils that the Canadiens did to the Caps. Maybe even better. The Habs could not bottle up Washington's breakout as effectively as Philadelphia did to Jersey, as the Caps' obscene amount of shots on Jaroslav Halak indicated.

The Slovacuum - and yes, I just coined that - stopped 131 of the final 134 shots he faced as Montreal rallied from a 3-1 hole in games against a team that accumulated 33 more points in the regular season.

"You have to admire the effort," former Flyer Mike Knuble was saying the other night after Halak stopped 41 shots in Montreal's 2-1, seventh-game clincher over his Caps. "His save percentage is astronomical right now. High 90s, and that's just unheard of. You figure over the course of a seven-game schedule, law of averages take over and it would come down to 90, 91 if he's playing well. But this . . . ''

This, Knuble went on to say, was too gaudy to believe it was the result of a single man's captured karma. And one look at another total told you it wasn't. The Canadien players blocked just as many shots during the game - 41 - as their goalie.

"Which," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said, "I've never seen."

Boudreau's team was partially culpable, often settling for wide shots as Montreal formed a barrier around its net.

Shorthanded, the Canadiens left a chunk of the slot wide open in order to face-guard Ovechkin and deny him the puck. Even strength, two men tracked him, even if it meant leaving any other Capital open. Alexander Semin, for example, took 40 shots during the series.

A 40-goal scorer during the regular season, he failed to score a goal in the seven-game series.

After scoring the game's first goal in the last minute of the first period Wednesday, Montreal mustered just eight more shots over the next two periods. Philosophically, it mirrored the Flyers' defense-first approach in the playoffs. Philosophically, it was an about-face for both from their in-season personality. The Canadiens allowed 223 goals this season, six more than they scored. The Flyers allowed 225, 11 less than they scored.

Thus the reason they ended up as seventh and eighth seeds in this derby, despite significant success against their first-round opponents in head-to-head play.

"We're not proud of what happened," Knuble said. "The naysayers will be out. And everyone will have their two bits about why we didn't score goals."

Here's mine: Washington scored 318 goals in the regular season. Vancouver was next, with 272 goals. But as upstart teams prove time and again this time of the year, keeping the puck from finding a hole through bodies and sticks is easier than lacing it through there, especially if your goalie has his groove on.

"You get a little more antsy," said Boudreau, "a little more unnerved because you are not used to that adversity of not being able to score."

Scorers press. Shot-blockers and third-line players gain confidence, do things they wouldn't try in a mid-January affair, especially if their goalie's got their back. Ian Laperriere is out indefinitely after he blocked a puck with his eye. Capitals defenseman Tom Poti suffered a similar fate in his series.

The difference is that Laperriere's Game 5 heroism was followed immediately by Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen getting in the way of shots. In a 3-0 game. By himself, Montreal's Hal Gill blocked 31 shots - almost twice as much as Mike Green, the highest-totaled Capital.

By the end, the Capitals had taken 98 more shots in the series, one reason for the discrepancy in blocks. In the end, it was less about what they didn't do right as it was about an unconscious goalie and a conscientious defensive effort. You want to know why hockey breeds upsets like no other pro sport? Start with those two things. The Capitals saw no reason to change from how they played this season.

The Canadiens, like the Flyers, knew they had to.

Send e-mail to donnels@phillynews.com.