Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings and Ryan Suter of the Nashville Predators will do battle in Round 1. (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)
No playoff series is ever won based solely on the battle between two opponents, but many of those battles go a long way in deciding the fate of their teams. Here are the top 10 one-on-one (or, in one case, two-on-two) first-round playoff battles worth watching:
More than a few people believe the outcome of the Hawks/Coyotes series will depend largely on the health of Chicago captain Jonathan Toews. And while there’s no doubt the star center is one of the few players with the capacity to alter a game or series on his own, these two European right wingers also will have a large say. Vrbata was far and away Phoenix’s top goal-scoring weapon, leading the team with 35 and netting more than double the amount of game-winners (12) than the next-best Yote (Shane Doan, with five). Hossa, meanwhile, led the Blackhawks in points and power play goals. Whoever winds up with the better scoreboard showing likely will be on the team that advances.
They were teammates in Boston for four seasons, but when the Bruins take on the Capitals they’ll be front and center more often than anyone other than the goaltenders. Both Wideman (23:54) and Chara (25:00) averaged more minutes than any player on their teams and both can affect the outcome of a game at both ends of the ice.
Both players will be getting their first taste of NHL post-season action, though from vastly different perspectives. The 29-year-old Weiss, who averaged the most time on ice of any Florida forward, has spent nine years in the league without his Panthers qualifying, while the 19-year-old Larsson gets to compete for the Stanley Cup in his rookie campaign. Both are crucial components of their franchises, meaning their adjustment abilities will be key to their team moving on to the second round.
The two defensemen couldn’t be any different with their style on the ice, but both symbolize the success their teams have had: Girardi’s rugged physical approach and shot-blocking is mirrored by his Rangers teammates and Karlsson’s slick point-producing skills are representative of the offense-first approach favored by the Sens. Both will need a lot of assistance from their forwards and goalies, but the ability of one to excel more than the other will say much about which franchise is victorious.
The Penguins/Flyers series promises to be one of the more emotional of the first round and you have to figure special teams will play a major role. And if that’s the case two former Pens teammates and good friends will be seeing a lot of one another. Talbot averages the most shorthanded time (3:29 a game) of any Flyer playing in the post-season and we all know where Crosby will be when Pittsburgh has the man advantage.
The two big centermen with solid two-way games will test their mettle against each other regularly when San Jose takes on St. Louis. Thornton holds a much bigger advantage in the faceoff circle (winning 56.1 percent to Backes’ 48.6 percent), but Backes plays a much more robust physical game (226 hits) than Thornton (42 hits). In any case, both players will be tasked with shutting down the other.
Both starting goalies in the Canucks/Kings series face an enormous amount of pressure: Luongo will get it because, despite an Olympic goal medal and finishing one win short of a championship last season, he’s still perceived as someone who doesn’t handle himself well at the most important moments; and Quick will feel the heat because his outstanding play has been the main reason the offense-challenged Kings qualified for the playoffs in the first place. The skaters in front of them will have to play well, but a soft goal or two from either guy could be the difference between the second round and crushing disappointment.
In many regards, the showdown between the Pens and Flyers will be a passing of the torch for European hockey superstars. Jagr, now 40, used to be the fearsome menace Malkin now clearly is. That said, Jagr has far more post-season experience and is more difficult to throw off his game than the fiery Malkin. Both stars are nearly impossible to knock off the puck, meaning the war of wills could be the deciding factor between them.
It hasn’t exactly been the ideal year for either the Bruins goalie or Capitals superstar, but the playoffs represent a major opportunity to polish their character. Both Ovechkin and Thomas got better late, but an early exit by their team will result in serious questions about the core of the franchise. Few NHLers have higher first-round stakes than these two.
The Predators/Red Wings series will turn on the showdown between two of the league’s most dynamic duos: the crafty, experienced, finesse-dependent, Cup-ring-bearing Detroit forwards against the young, rugged Preds blueliners with something to prove. Suter and Weber will be on the ice just about every time Zetterberg and Datsyuk leap over the boards. And the victors of those matchups will almost assuredly be moving on to the second round.
The THN.com Top 10 appears Wednesdays only on TheHockeyNews.com.