NHL Playoffs 2012: How Great Has Round 1 Been?

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 25: Joel Ward #42 of the Washington Capitals is congratulated after he scored the game winning goal against the Boston Bruins in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at TD Garden on April 25, 2012 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Washington Capitals defeated the Boston Bruins 2-1 in overtime. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The first round of the 2012 NHL playoffs has been incredible -- perhaps the best ever -- and there's still one more night to go.

I'll be the first to admit: I'm not breaking new ground here. It's probably something you already know, but it absolutely bears mentioning again.

Thursday night might bring to a close the best first round we have ever seen in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. If it's not the best ever, it's got to be close.

Before Ottawa has its last chance to finish off the New York Rangers, and New Jersey gets a crack at taking out Florida, there have already been two upsets. Wednesday night, the Washington Capitals guaranteed a new champion, as they beat Boston in overtime to claim Game 7.

Already, the West's top seed, Vancouver, got bounced convincingly by Los Angeles. An unlikely group of four -- the Kings, St. Louis, Phoenix, and Nashville -- will compete for a spot in the Stanley Cup Final out of the Western Conference.

Television ratings are up, overall interest appears to be up, the level of play probably couldn't be much better at this point. Not even a rash of terrible officiating can bring us down.

What a first round this has been!

We've seen a slew of one-goal games. We've seen extra attacker goals to force overtime. We've seen late power plays come up empty. Goalies have been great . Some of the game's top players have struggled to play consistently well. Role players are stepping up and making huge plays left and right, the latest being Joel Ward -- a healthy scratch late in the season, but scores the winning goal in a Game 7 on the road.

About the only thing missing so far is that all-night, four-overtime drama. Most of the overtimes have ended quickly, many in under five minutes. Of course, that's a pretty minor quibble with what's been a very special opening round for this tournament.

Even though Boston lost, it was pretty cool watching Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg play the way they did against the Capitals. Chara was a beast, a presence every time he was on the ice. Seidenberg wasn't just the random guy who gets to play with Chara. He was great, blocking shots and saving goals like he did on Alex Ovechkin late in regulation on Wednesday.

Washington, a team many pegged as a contender in previous seasons and pretty much wrote off after a poor start this year, might have the ingredients for a long run. Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Nicklas Backstrom seem to have bought into what Dale Hunter is teaching them. The team is committed defensively, and youngster Braden Holtby was pretty good in goal against Boston, even in the games where he permitted four goals.

One day away from the start of the Conference Semifinals, we still don't know who will play who in the East. There are a lot of different scenarios that could play out, depending on what happens in Thursday's games. Philadelphia and Washington are in, and the only certainty is that the Capitals can't have home-ice advantage in the second round. Philly can, but the Flyers might also be on the road for a Game 1 if both the Rangers and Florida win. The Panthers know they will have home ice in the second round if they win over New Jersey. Obviously, the Senators -- seeded eighth -- can't have home ice in any round.

If New Jersey and Ottawa win, the Devils will have home ice for a second round series against Washington.

Normally, you'd probably bet on home teams in these Game 7s. But road teams have had a ton of success in these playoffs so far. Phoenix and Los Angeles both went 3-0 on the road. Washington was 3-1. Ottawa is 2-1 heading into Game 7 at New York. Philadelphia was 2-1. St. Louis went 2-0, as did Nashville.

Perhaps the safest bet heading into a winner-takes-all doubleheader Thursday night is overtime. With the number of extra sessions we've had so far, you have to figure we'll see another one.

No matter the results, it figures to be a pretty special night to conclude what's been a historic opening round in the playoffs. We can only hope to be so fortunate as to have the next three rounds be half as good.

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