NHL Round Two Preview — Eastern Conference

Posted: 04/28/2016 by levcohen in Hockey

Why do they have to be so annoying? By they, I mean the NHL. Last night, the first round of the playoffs concluded in Anaheim, as the Nashville Predators held on against the host Ducks in a physical game seven which saw the hosts get the better of the chances but get denied time after time by Pekka Rinne. Also last night, though, the second round began. It was unceremonious, because most people were still focusing on the first round, but the New York Islanders took a 1-0 series lead in Tampa Bay, chasing goalie Ben Bishop with their fourth goal despite being outshot 36-22 in the game (third period shots were 17-5). As a result, my preview of the next round has to come after the round has started. Of course, the same thing will happen in the NBA, and it makes sense, as some series end earlier than others and you wouldn’t want teams to have to wait for upwards of a week to start the next round. But it makes things harder for me, which means that is annoying. Anyway, the first round was a good one, with many a close game and a few deep series’ between teams who weren’t too fond of each other. Round two promises to be even better, with a matchup between Ovechkin and Crosby and some teams who we aren’t used to seeing at this stage of the playoffs. I personally am relieved and happy that none of the Original Six teams (Chicago, Montreal, Boston, New York, Detroit, Toronto), many of whom often make it this far (besides the Maple Leafs, of course), are still alive. I’m also happy that the San Jose Sharks finally exorcised their demon (the Kings) and that traditional playoff strugglers like the Islanders, Blues, and Capitals are in contention. I would have loved to see an all-California series between Anaheim and San Jose or a Lightning-Panthers matchup, but I’m pretty happy with the ones we have. I also watched a lot of the first round, and I’m going to rely more upon the eye test than I will on the advanced stats. Without further ado…

Lightning over Islanders in seven: If the most under-the-radar first round series was Florida-New York, this one is an early favorite to be the most neglected second round matchup. It must be something about the Islanders, a team that slumped at the end of the regular season and was arguably outplayed by the Panthers but a team that manages to find a way when they need to, as evidenced by their three overtime wins in the first round. Everyone expects the winner of the Caps-Penguins series to advance past the winner of this matchup, and I’d agree with that. But let’s recognize that both of these teams are pretty darn good. The Lightning had no trouble dispatching the Red Wings, even without superstar Steven Stamkos. They won in five games, allowing just eight goals thanks to the strength of Bishop and their defense. Now, this might not sound good now that the Bolts gave up five goals in game one (including an empty-netter), but I expect the defense and the goalie to show up in this series, much like they did last year en route to a Stanley Cup Final appearance. Victor Hedman is a big, commanding presence on the blue line, and I think he’s one of the best defensemen in the league. Not only does he serve as an intimidating d-man and expert shot-blocker, but he also keys the offense with his long two-line passes and shots from the point. Without Stamkos, that’s vital, because outside of the “triplets” line of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov (who combined for seven of Tampa’s 12 first round goals and two of three last night), the team is very shallow offensively. They’re going to need to win two or three 2-1 or 1-0 games if they expect to win this series as I predict they will.

On the other side, Thomas Greiss has somehow given the Islanders world-class goaltending in the absence of starter Jaroslav Halak. Halak is nearing full health, but it might not matter, because Greiss has been superb. Of course, he’s only had to be superb because the Islanders have given up a plethora of shots. In the series against Florida, it seemed as if the Panthers were getting shot after shot after shot on goal, and it’s a miracle that Greiss only gave up one goal in each of the final two games, both of which were decided in double-overtime. One might argue that Tampa’s Stamkos-less offense would be the perfect remedy for the overmatched defense, but I’d still give the Lightning the edge over a defense that was dominated by the Panthers. Offensively, the Islanders are of course powered by John Taveras, who powered shot after shot at Roberto Luongo in the first round and ended up with nine points in six games before adding two more last night. With Stamkos out, Taveras is certainly the most skilled player in the series, and he should be able to make a huge impact on the ice, especially when the Islanders are home and have last change and can therefore get their star on the ice with favorable matchups. Of course, the Islanders will need more offense than Taveras, which was a problem they often had in the regular season. They were able to score plenty in game one, but if Bishop can get on his game and Hedman can stifle Taveras, it might be more of a slog offensively going forward.

There’s no question in my mind that the Lightning were the more impressive team in the first round. They didn’t blow the Red Wings out of the water, but I never once thought they would come anywhere close to losing the series. They have a strong defense and (generally) stellar goalie, which along with their one great line should at a bare minimum keep them in the series. They need some more scoring from someone who is not on the top line or named Alex Killorn, and they’ll get a chance against a defense I consider to be lackluster. They’ve put themselves in a 1-0 hole, but this team has the fortitude, experience, and talent to climb out of the hole and win the series in seven games.

Capitals over Penguins in seven: Please, God, let this series go seven games. It’s Ovi and it’s Sid, and in my mind it’s also the two best teams in the business. The Penguins destroyed the Rangers, continuing their trend of terrific play after a sluggish start to the season. This is the definition of a high-octane offense, and you know your team’s rolling when there’s a real debate over to plug Evgeni Malkin back into the lineup. They scored 21 goals in the five games against the Rangers, with Malkin putting up seven points, Crosby adding eight, and 11 players scoring at least once. This team is full of talent, and it’s 18-3 in its last 21 games. Against the Rangers, the fact that goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was out with a concussion didn’t much matter. Jeff Zatkoff went 1-1 in the first two games despite hemorrhaging six goals, and then Matt Murray came in and stopped 85 of the 89 shots that were sent his way in the last three games of the series. Murray, of course, is one of the keys to the series. The 21-year-old is considered one of the best young goalies in the NHL, but he’s also unproven and will have to start again with Fleury still a ways off from a return. Is he mature enough to stave off a challenge from the tough Capitals?

The Rangers tried to bully the quick, skilled Penguins from the get-go, to the tune of 50 and 57 hits in the first two games. The problem was that the Rangers were neither big enough nor skilled enough to slow Pitt’s roll. You know who is big enough and skilled enough? The Washington Capitals, who just got through a very physical series against the Flyers. Tough first round series’ generally aren’t particularly beneficial for the eventual victor, but this might be an exception. The Caps need to hit the Penguins like the Flyers hit them. They won the series in six comfortable games, but it could easily have been a sweep, as the Capitals outshot their opponent 32-25 and 44-11 in their two losses. They also have the skill to match the Penguins. Pittsburgh might have Crosby, but Washington has Ovechkin. The Penguins have Malkin, but the Capitals have Backstrom. I can go on and on, but you get the point. Both of these teams also have very good power plays and penalty kills, with a combined 16 PP goals in round one and just three allowed. The real difference between these teams, as I see it, is Braden Holtby, the presumptive Vezina trophy winner and a goalie who often looked unbeatable this season and against the Flyers. Murray has his spurts of dominance, but Holtby has proven and re-proven himself all season. That difference, along with Washington’s home ice advantage, gives them a pretty clear edge in this series…

… And yet, I have it going seven games. Why? Well, because the Penguins are coming into this series as the hotter and more explosive team, and because I’m still not convinced that the Capitals are totally mentally over their previous postseason struggles. I’d be shocked if this were a short series or one without scary moments for Capitals fans, simply because it’s never that easy, not even in the first round when they went up 3-0 before losing two straight. This is the series with the most on-paper talent, and I can only imagine how incredible a game seven in Washington would be. I’ll take the Caps to advance to the Conference Finals in seven, as their physicality and Holtby will be too much to overcome for the speedy, talented Penguins.

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