NHL First Round Preview

Posted: 04/15/2015 by levcohen in Hockey

It’s time. The NHL playoffs is always one of the best events of the year, because there are so many tense moments and upsets over the course of the postseason. There aren’t as many true mismatches as in basketball, but it’s still a best-of-seven series, so we’re more likely to see the best team win it all. It’s a great mixture of excitement and fairness. In the first round, there are only two teams, Tampa Bay and the Rangers, who are more than -150 favorites, which would means you would have to bet $150 to win another $100. The other six series’ are pretty much coin-flips; sure, one team might have played better than the other throughout the season, but there are arguments to be made both ways. Let’s start with the Eastern Conference.

Rangers over Penguins in 5: The Penguins simply ran out of gas at the end of the season. They backed into the playoffs, going just 4-9-2 in their final 15 games. It’s the same old story for Pittsburgh. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are great, although they both had slightly down seasons this year. So is Kris Letang, who was in the running for the Norris trophy before suffering a concussion a couple of weeks ago. Letang won’t be available in the playoffs, which is bad news for a team that really struggled without their best defender. It’s a shame that Letang got injured, because the Penguins were showing signs of being a better team this season than the one they have been the past few years. They were possessing the puck more, killing more penalties (they killed 84.8% of penalties, third best in hockey), and they had the fifth best Corsi (% of total shots taken) in hockey at 52.8%. Meanwhile, the Rangers won the Presidents trophy and are flying heading into the playoffs. They have issues that I’ll get to next round, but they have the depth advantage, the goaltending advantage, and, with Letang out, they have the defensive advantage, too. Crosby and/or Malkin will steal a game, but I don’t think this series will ever be in doubt.

Canadiens over Senators in 7: Most postseason games come down to goaltending. This series almost certainly will. I don’t think there will be many goals scored in this series, which means it’s going to come down to who can make the fewest mistakes. Who would you rather have right now, Carey Price or Andrew Hammond? It says a lot about the Hamburglar’s amazing stretch that the question isn’t quite rhetorical. Let’s start with Hammond, the biggest surprise of the regular season. Hammond is a 27 year-old goalie who had played in one career NHL game before February 16th. He went 30-68-13 as a college goalie. And now, he’s 20-1-2 with a 1.79 goals against average and a 94.1 save percentage, as he’s led the Senators from a record-high 14 points out of a playoff spot to sneak in as the #7 seed. If he can keep it up, the Senators will win, because they are the better all-around team. The Canadiens might have the worst overall forward group in the playoffs, as they score just 2.21 goals per game, worse than any playoff team other than Detroit. They consistently get outshot (48.5% Corsi, while Ottawa is at 50.2%) but still win because of their almost-superhuman goalie. Price, the presumptive Vezina trophy winner, leads qualified goalies (Hammond is not one because he hasn’t played enough games) with 44 wins, a .933 save percentage, and a 1.96 goals against average. He’s been as good as Hammond, except he’s done it for the whole year (and the past few years). This game also features a head-to-head matchup of the two best offensive defenseman in hockey in Erik Karlsson (66 points) of Ottawa and P.K. Subban (60) of Montreal. Outside of the goalies, Karlsson and Subban are the engines. I think Karlsson is the better offensive player, but Subban has more playoff experience and is the more polished all-around player. Since Karlsson and Subban are two of the top eight defensemen in minutes per game, it might be a question of which player wears down first. Anyway, I expect Ottawa to hold a consistent shots advantage but Montreal to advance thanks to a bunch of 1-0 and 2-1 wins.

Lightning over Red Wings in 4: This is narrative-central. Old vs. young, Steve Yzerman (Tampa’s GM) against his old team, offense (Tampa led the league in goals per 60 minutes at 2.75) vs. defense (Detroit gives up just 1.98 goals per 60, seventh best in hockey). But enticing narratives aside, I just think Tampa Bay is better in pretty much all facets of the game. There’s the stud center in Steven Stamkos (43 goals). There’s the three-headed monster of Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, and Ondrej Palat, who rank second, third, and fourth in the league in +/-. There’s former Ranger Ryan Callahan (54 points) and former Red Wing Valtteri Filppula (48, not bad for a third line center). And in the two-headed monster of goalies in Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy, the Lightning have the advantage there, too. I think Tampa is going to win it all, so this is a no-brainer for me. When Johnson, Palat, and Kucherov, guys who are first, second, and seventh in the league in points per 60 minutes (3, 2.91, 2.61) are auxiliary pieces, you know you have a good thing going.

Capitals over Islanders in 7: The Islanders are a feel-good story because they have finally made it back to the playoffs in the last year of the Nassau Coliseum, and they have a very good chance of winning this series, but I think they are going to come just short. Why? It might come down to special teams, where the Capitals are way better both on the power play (25.3%, best in the league, to 18.7%) and the penalty kill (81.2% to 78%). There’s a reason that Washington’s goal differential, a +39, was 17 goals better than New York’s. The Islanders won a lot of close games, and I’m not sure they can keep that up in the playoffs. The matchup between Alex Ovechkin and John Tavares, two of the most skilled offensive players in hockey, is fascinating, and Tavares will need to win it if the Islanders want to move on in the playoffs. Under new head coach Barry Trotz, the Capitals are better-suited to move on in the playoffs than they have been in recent times. They control the puck, execute on the PP and the PK, and also have one of the best and most underrated goalies in hockey in Braden Holtby. That, I think, will be the difference, along with the fact that the Capitals will be home in game seven.

Now onto the West…

Jets over Ducks in 6: How the heck are the Ducks the #1 seed when they are just +10, ninth in the Western Conference? Well, how about this: the team is 33-1-7 in one goal games. How is that even possible??? If you think that’s something that will carry over into the playoffs, you should pick the Ducks. But I don’t, and I think the Jets are the better overall team. Put aside for a second that Winnipeg will have perhaps the biggest home-ice advantage in the playoffs given their insane fans. This team is just good. They are eighth in Corsi at 52.5%. They were +20, which indicates that they were actually better than Anaheim this season. The goalie situation is a mystery, with Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson splitting time (Pavelec is the starter but will have a very short leash), but it is in Anaheim too. The Jets don’t have the 1-2 combination of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, but they do have an incredibly balanced team that won again and again when they were close to missing the playoffs. They closed the season on a 10-3-1 run, with 2.9 goals per game and just 1.8 goals allowed. They’re hot, and they are going to take advantage of an Anaheim team whose luck is going to run out.

Wild over Blues in 7: Another upset! I wanted to pick the Blues here because I believe they are the better team, but I have to return to my playoff rule: when in doubt, pick the team with the better goalie. And without a doubt, the best goalie in this series is Devan Dubnyk. He might not be the Hamburglar, but Dubnyk went 27-9-2 with a .936 Sv% and a 1.78 GAA since being acquired from Arizona. This is actually his sixth year in the league, but since he’s spent most of his career as a part-time starter in Edmonton and Arizona, it’s his first year in the spotlight. He’s responded pretty well, wouldn’t you say? Meanwhile, St. Louis has to pick between Brian Elliot, who played 46 games this season, and Jake Allen, who played 37. Allen closed the season well while Elliot struggled, and the younger goalie will start game one. It makes sense; Allen has a much higher ceiling than Elliot, and a team starting an average goalie isn’t likely to make it far in the playoffs. The Blues need Allen to get hot and stay hot. St. Louis is a very solid all-around team. Vladimir Tarasenko, Alexander Steen, David Backes, Jaden Schwartz, and T.J. Oshie would all be viable first line players, which shows how much depth they have at the forward position. Meanwhile, I’m having a hard time thinking of many top-line defense pairings better than the combination of Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk. Shattenkirk will be out game one, but Jay Bouwmeester is a good replacement for him. On the other side, Minnesota is still led by the two players they got in that historic free agent spending free a few seasons ago: Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Parise posted 62 points and a +21, while Suter played an insane 29:04 minutes per game. But here’s where I think people are missing the boat on Minnesota: the Wild aren’t a three man (Suter, Parise, Dubnyk) team. Jason Zucker scored 21 goals in 51 games and Nino Niederreiter and Thomas Vanek each scored more than 20. At every position, the Wild go two or three deep with players you would be comfortable playing in a 1-1 game with a minute to play. The Blues have more depth, but the difference isn’t as big as the goalie difference, so give me Minny in seven.

Blackhawks over Predators in 6: It was nice while it lasted, Nashville, but I’m only giving you two wins because there’s no way Pekka Rinne isn’t stealing a game or two. With the news that Patrick Kane will surprisingly be back for game one of this series, the Blackhawks are a dramatically better team despite the fact that they are playing against the team with the best goalie, Rinne, in the series. Nashville is a very good 5 on 5 team, with the best goal % in 5 on 5 in all of hockey (56.9%) and the #7 Corsi (52.7%), but the Blackhawks (53.6%) is even better, especially with Kane in the lineup. If I gave you a choice between leading scorer Filip Forsberg, possible Norris winner Shea Weber, Mike Ribeiro and Pekka Rinne against Jonathan Toews, Kane, Duncan Keith, and Corey Crawford, who are you picking? I’m taking the Blackhawks, and they also have a lot more depth beyond their top four than Nashville has after theirs. Oh, they’re also better on the power play and the penalty kill and have oodles of playoff experience. They have the best Corsi in all situations (54.2%) in the NHL. Sorry Nashville, maybe next year.

Canucks over Flames in 6: I think these two teams are the two worst in the playoffs so it’s a shame that one of them will make the second round at the expense of a better team like Minnesota or St. Louis. It’s a matchup between two below-average Corsi and possession teams. With that being said, I’m not going to write much about this series. Calgary’s huge problem, more than their lack of experience, is that they are a one line team. Jiri Hudler, Johnny Gaudreau, and Sean Monahan have combined for 202 points, and the rest of their forwards have 267. In fact, the next three top scorers after the three I mentioned above are defensemen. On the other side, the Canucks have the Sedin twins and Radim Vrbata but also have a lot of depth behind those three. With the goaltending a wash and the Canucks holding home ice advantage, I like Vancouver in this series.

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