NHL Second Round Preview

Posted: 05/01/2015 by levcohen in Hockey

It was touch-and-go for a while, but round one of the NHL playoffs pretty much went like people thought it would. There were two upsets, with the Wild defeating the Blues (called that one) and the Flames knocking off the Canucks (not that one), but of the legitimate title contenders, only St. Louis, which was bordering on non contention because of their poor goalkeeping anyway, was eliminated. It was a great first round, and I expect the next round to be just as tasty. The final eight teams are pretty much dead-even, with the Lightning, Blackhawks, and Capitals (after their game one win in New York) serving as slight favorites. Only the Calgary-Anaheim series looks lopsided, and with the Ducks generally playing in (and winning) close games, that series could have some close games, too, although game one wasn’t close (4-0 Ducks win). Who is going to advance to the third round?

Rangers over Captials in 6: The Rangers went down in back-breaking fashion in game one, as a Joel Ward goal won it with 1.3 seconds left after a questionable no-call on a hit from behind. Even worse, they lost home-ice advantage in game one. But I still have the Rangers winning the series. I’ll start with the fact that I have no doubt that New York can win two or even three games in Washington. The Rangers won the President’s Trophy and also led the league in road wins with 28, with only the Ducks within three road wins.

I like the Rangers because I think they can neutralize Washington’s deadly top line of Ward, Alex Ovechkin, and Nicklas Backstrom. The top defense pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi is fantastic and should be much harder to break down than the Islanders’, as they just shut down Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. And it’s not just the top two D-men who are effective for the Rangers; even without Kelvin Klein, who will return against the Capitals, NY shut down Pittsburgh thanks to solid play from Dan Boyle, Marc Staal, and midseason acquisition Keith Yandle. They probably have the best top-to-bottom defense core in hockey, which will come in handy against a deep Capitals team. The Rangers also happen to have Henrik Lundqvist, who has started 63 playoff games and posted a 93% save percentage over the last four seasons. So their defense is great, they have a fantastic goalie, and they also lead the league in five-on-five goals. Where’s the weakness? If anything, their weakness is elite talent at the forward position. Rick Nash scored 42 regular season goals but tailed off down the stretch and has always struggled in the playoffs, and nobody else scored more than 21. The depth is there (14 8+ goal scorers), but when the game tightens up they might not have an answer, and their power play is below average.

The game might be decided when the Capitals go on the man advantage. While the Rangers struggle on the power play, the Caps are dynamite when they go up a man. They connected on 25.3% of power play chances, easily the best in hockey. Luckily for the Rangers, New York is pretty good when shorthanded, as they finished sixth in hockey with a 84.3% success rate on the PK. Can the Capitals draw penalties? And if they do, can they break down New York’s stout defense? There’s also the matter of Braden Holtby, the goalie who exploded onto the scene and posted a 92.2% save percentage in the regular season. Holtby’s been even better in the playoffs (94.7%), but he’s nowhere near as experienced as Lundqvist. Holtby could also be getting tired, as he played in 73 regular season games, most among goalies and seven more than any other playoff goalie.

This is a matchup we’ve seen before, as the Rangers and Caps will face off for the fifth time in the playoffs since 2009. But I’d argue that both teams are better than any of the ones who played from 2009-2014, which adds a nice flair to the series. The Rangers finished with the best goal differential and the Capitals weren’t far behind (fifth), and both teams are deep and versatile. I think the games will be close, but Lundqvist’s experience and talent will see New York past the Capitals. The depth, PK success, and Lundqvist factor will just be too much.

Lightning over Canadiens in six: Well that was close. The Lightning were my pre-playoffs pick to win it all, and I picked them to romp over the Red Wings in four games. Instead, they fell down 3-2 before winning the final two games of the season. It could have been over in five had the Lightning not made a frantic comeback from down 2-0 in the third period. But inconsistency aside, I think the close series was more about Detroit being better than I thought than about Tampa playing poorly. A lot of it was bad luck. The Lightning averaged 29 shots per game in the series, while Detroit averaged just 24. But it was mainly a Steven Stamkos thing. The fact that the Lightning were able to win the series without a single Stamkos goal is a testament to the depth I talked about before round one. They were just two of 30 on the power play, but Tyler Johnson, first in the league in points per minute, scored six goals in the series, while Nikita Kutcherov, seventh in points per minute, added four assists. Stamkos looked tentative throughout the series, but he still got 22 shots off. The best scorer in hockey rarely goes four games without a goal, let alone seven. I expect him to pick it up this series, and the goals (and power play %) will go up.

Meanwhile, the Canadiens took care of the Senators in a pretty ho-hum series. Their hopes begin and end with Carey Price, the best goalie in hockey. Price stole game six for the Habs and did a pretty good job throughout the series, finishing with a 93.9% save percentage. He’s pretty good, but the problem is that the Lightning are pretty darn good against him. Overall, Price went 44-16-6 with a 93.3% save rate and 1.96 goals allowed per game. Against Tampa, he’s 0-4-1 while saving 90.6% of shots and allowing 3.47 goals per game. He’s allowed 16 goals against Tampa Bay, nearly double what any other team has done. Most of that has to do with the fact that Tampa’s forwards just thoroughly outclass Montreal’s defenders. I expect that to continue, and the Lightning to keep scoring on Price. I expect a Lightning blowout or two, and while Price should steal a couple of games, this series will never really be in doubt.

Ducks over Flames in five: I’m coming around to the idea that maybe the Ducks are better than I thought they were. Sure, their absurd record in one goal games (now 35-1-7) is lucky, but they are also 5-0 in the playoffs with a +13 goal differential and 31 more shots than their opponents. They crushed Winnipeg, the feel-good story, in the first round any way you look at it. Here are two key things they have that Calgary doesn’t have: first, depth. I’ve touched on Calgary’s shocking lack of depth, and Anaheim is really strong top to bottom. For now, the Ducks also have a steady goaltender, which Calgary, who will transition to starting Karri Ramo in game two, definitely do not. Frederik Anderson is pretty darn good at times, and this year’s playoffs have been one of those times. The Ducks also have a top line, which includes Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, that is every bit as good as Calgary’s talked-up top line. Perry has 11 points in five playoff games, and Getzlaf has added eight.

The Flames are a tough team to play against. They are physical, they are full of energy, and they have a really good top line. The Sean Monahan line not only scores but also controls the tempo of the game and the puck while they are on the ice. Unfortunately, that’s all they have on the Ducks, who are more experienced, more talented, and have a better goalie. Special teams should be about even (the Ducks are better on the PK, the Flames are better on the power play), which means the Ducks will win the series much like they won game one: comfortably.

Wild over Blackhawks in 6: The Wild and Lightning are my two favorite teams left, so why not pick them to meet in the Stanley Cup final? Minnesota disposed of St. Louis in round one, and that’s saying something, because the Blues have perhaps the best roster in the league top to bottom. The Wild have lost to the Blackhawks in the playoffs in consecutive years, but I think they’ll turn it around this season. The main reason is Sir Devan Dubnyk. The first three matchups between these two teams this season ended in 5-3, 4-2, and 4-1 victories for the Blackhawks. The final two, with Dubnyk in goal, they won 3-0 and 2-1. The Wild have a good all around team, with Zach Parise and Ryan Suter leading the way, but Dubnyk is clearly the engine. Minnesota wouldn’t even be in the playoffs without him, and now they are only slight underdogs against mighty Chicago, with Duncan Keith, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, and the rest.

Chicago is really good (see the names above), but I wasn’t that impressed by the way they played against the Shea Weber-less Nashville Predators. They got outscored 21-19 in the six game series and got outshot 232-208. The games were up-and-down, but the Predators were the better team, even though they were without their best player. Let’s not kid ourselves: the Blackhawks are a tremendous offensive team, they are the best puck-possessing team in hockey, and they are more experienced than anyone still alive. But goaltending has become a real problem for them. Corey Crawford started games one, two, and six but only finished one of those games. He’ll start the series between the pipes but will have a very short leash with Scott Darling waiting behind him. No matter who starts in goal, though, the Blackhawks will be at a disadvantage at the goalie position. Their forwards and defenseman are probably a bit better than Minnesota’s, but it’s not a big enough difference to make up for the Dubnyk factor. Let’s go Wild!

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