NHL Round 2 Preview

Posted: 04/27/2017 by levcohen in Hockey

The first round of the NHL playoffs was.. bizarre. On the one hand, it was the closest first round in NHL history. A record-setting 18 games went into overtime, meaning that an incredible 43% of first round games went to at least one overtime (another record). And yet… not a single series went the distance, and only four of the eight first round matchups went to six games. That means that four first round matchups were over in a blink, including the two I thought may be the best first round series’ (Blackhawks-Predators and Blues-Wild). I’m hoping we get a Game Seven or two in Round Two. It feels like all four matchups are near-coin flips, and that’s not just because there’s a lot of parity in the NHL. In the Western Conference, we get perhaps the two most impressive first round teams (Nashville and St. Louis) against each other and Anaheim and Edmonton, who finished just two points apart in the Pacific Conference, on the other side of the bracket. In the Eastern Conference, the two best teams in the NHL are pitted against each other for the second consecutive year, meaning that neither the Capitals nor the Penguins will be large second round matchups and that both Ottawa and the Rangers have a legitimate shot at making the Eastern Conference Finals. Last year, the Penguins beat the Capitals in six tough games and went on to win the Stanley Cup. Anything can happen in the latter rounds of the NHL playoffs, so I won’t guarantee that the winner of this series wins it all again this year, but I will say that the odds of that happening are pretty darn good. The Penguins were electric in the first round, while the Capitals have been the deepest, most talented team in hockey all season. Regardless of what happens, I can assure you that it’ll be entertaining. The NHL playoffs always are.

I know I’m posting this a day late (as far as the Western Conference in concerned), but I don’t think home ice advantage means much in hockey (both road teams won last night, for example) and a lot can change quickly in a best of seven series. Anyway, both losers arguably outplayed their opponents last night, so I think it’s fair to continue to call both matchups near tossups. Let’s start in middle America with Music City vs. the Gateway City.

Predators over Blues in six:

The Nashville Predators are coming off a dominant sweep of the Blackhawks (composite score: 13-3), and it’s safe to say that they’re the hottest team in hockey. If you haven’t watched the Predators yet this year, you may be surprised to find out that this isn’t the Nashville of old, the team that relied on Pekka Rinne to pull wins out of thin air. Actually, while you wouldn’t have guessed it from the first round (Rinne saved 123 of the 126 shots that came his way), the goaltender position is arguably one of the Predators’ few weak spots. Rinne had a .918 save percentage this year, still solid but middle-of-the-pack-solid and certainly not the world beater type numbers Rinne used to regularly post. The Predators have transitioned away from their reliance on Rinne and are now a much younger and more balanced team. Before last season, the Predators hadn’t had a 30-goal scorer since 2009-2010, despite generally having good-to-great teams in that span. Now, they’ve had two 30-goal scorers in two straight seasons. This year, those two were 22-year-old sniper Filip Forsberg and 24-year-old Viktor Arvidsson, who had a breakout season alongside Forsberg and 24-year-old Ryan Johansen on Nashville’s excellent top line. The top line accounts for a lot of the scoring, and it’s also a tremendous puck-possessing unit. Nashville’s philosophy is clear: play fast, move the puck, and make controlled entries into the offensive zone. That’s why trading Shea Weber for P.K. Subban last offseason was such a good move for the Predators to make. Weber’s a great player, but Subban has made a clear difference for the Predators in 5-on-5 situations (whereas Weber is a superior power play point man). Among the 197 defenseman who played at least 500 minutes this season, Subban ranked eighth in Corsi For % (that’s total shots for over total shots for and against, not just shots on goal) at 55.02%. CF% is generally regarded as the best way of measuring puck possession, so it’s telling that Subban ranked eighth (ninth if we’re talking about Corsi relative to team) while Weber ranked 55th (142nd relative to his team). The Predators have a big four of defensemen between 26 and 28 years old in whom they have supreme confidence. This may prove to be an issue come expansion draft time, when the Preds may be forced to deal one or leave one unprotected, but right now it’s a huge luxury to feel totally comfortable about giving four defensemen 24 minutes+ per game. Subban is Subban, Roman Josi has been really good for awhile, Ryan Ellis led the team in plus-minus, and Mattias Ekholm is developing into a shutdown defenseman. As I said, that’s a pretty good foursome to be relying on. Outside of the first line, the Predators have a proven goal scorer in James Neal and a bunch of other solid pieces (although the loss of Kevin Fiala, who broke his leg in the Game One win over the Blues, is big. Fiala had the best CF% outside of the first line). This is a good team, one whose title hopes hinge on Pekka Rinne. If Rinne is who he was in Round One, the Predators have a good shot to win it all. If he’s not, the Blues are more than capable of disposing of them, Game One loss aside.

The Blues were also very impressive in the first round, as they quickly beat a Minnesota Wild team that I actually really liked and thought had a chance to win it all. In fairness, the Wild dominated the series from a pace and shooting standpoint, but the Blues got outstanding performance after outstanding performance from young goalie Jake Allen. Unfortunately, Allen probably isn’t going to keep winning games by himself, so the rest of the Blues are going to have to improve a lot for St. Louis to have a chance against a rolling Nashville team. This is a familiar St. Louis team, with defensive stalwarts Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, and Colton Parayko putting up huge minutes (the one difference: Kevin Shattenkirk is gone) and a huge portion of the scoring punch coming from the dynamic Vladimir Tarasenko (116 goals in the last three seasons). I’m not going to spend much time writing about the Blues, because this feels very familiar: it’s a solid team that always posts good-but-not-great puck possession numbers and, for one reason or another, can’t get over the hump in the postseason. They came close last year, when they pushed the Sharks to six games in the Western Conference Finals. I don’t think they’ll get as close this year because, Tarasenko aside, they’re not nearly as talented as Nashville is.


Oilers over Ducks in seven:

Everyone who isn’t a Ducks fan should want the Oilers to win. They’re young and exciting. They have the best young player in the world in Connor McDavid. I can’t tell you just how good McDavid already is. He scored 100 points this year, and he hasn’t even scratched the surface. He turned 20 a few months ago. Also, the Ducks are kind of brutish and nasty. They ranked second in the league in hits, and they commit a lot of penalties (but are rarely punished for them because they have a great penalty kill). Corey Perry is the jerkiest good player in the NHL. But the biggest thing is that the Ducks have won their division for five straight seasons and aren’t going away. Yeah, I dislike the Ducks because they’re good. Sue me.

Anaheim finished with 105 points this year despite finishing 19th in Corsi For% (49.68%, a spot behind Edmonton). Something’s got to give, right? Well, against Calgary (10th in Corsi) in the first round, the Corsi gave and the Ducks romped to a sweep even though talented goalie John Gibson was inconsistent. Ryan Getzlaf is hitting on all cylinders (11 goals and 30 assists in his last 30 games), Corey Perry is annoyingly good, and Patrick Eaves, who scored 11 goals in 20 games after being acquired from Dallas, continued to play super well on the first line. But I wonder how this aging forward group would do in a longer, more competitive series. Getzlaf is 32, Eaves is 33, Kesler is 32, and Perry is 31. But Anaheim’s forward group makes up for what they may lack for in youthfulness and stamina with tremendous smarts and confidence. If I were an Anaheim fan, I’d be more worried about my goalie than Perry, Getzlaf, or Kesler, who’ve all been producing for the Ducks for so long.

You know a really good way to measure someone’s impact? Look at how much better the veterans around him are than they were before. The veteran on Connor McDavid’s line is Patrick Maroon, who’s in his sixth season and who never had more than 12 goals in a season before this year. Guess how many goals he scored this season? 27. That’s the Connor effect. The problem with the Oilers is that they only go two lines deep offensively. Nobody outside of the top six scored more than 35 points this season or provided much in the way of puck-possession help. But guess what? That’s also Anaheim’s problem! This is why I don’t think either of these teams is actually very good! This is why I think the winner of this series will be underdogs next round! Anyway, I digress.

It’s not quite as simple as experience vs. youth, because Anaheim’s defense is young and good. But in a fairly even series between two teams heading in different directions (I hope. It’s time, Anaheim), give me Connor McDavid.


Capitals over Penguins in six:

I’m pretty sure that the Capitals are better than the Penguins. But can they finally vanquish their playoff bugaboos? Nobody has a deeper group of 12 forwards and six defensemen. Nobody has a better goalie than Braden Holtby (and especially the playoff version of Braden Holtby). 13 guys put up 25+ points. The team had easily the best goal differential in hockey. This is the best team in the NHL, and there isn’t much else to say… except that they’ve never made the third round with Alex Ovechkin, who’s been on the Capitals since 2005-06. That’s pretty incredible, and if the streak is ever going to end, it’ll end this year. But Washington’s opponents are pretty good, too…

The Columbus Blue Jackets are a good hockey team. They were one of the best teams in the NHL this year, and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is the odds-on favorite to win the Vezina Trophy. It just didn’t seem like it in the first round, when the Penguins scored 21 goals in five games against the Jackets. They just have so much offensive firepower. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both had great seasons, Phil Kessel scored 70 points and has continued to provide elite playoff production, and five others added 15+ goal seasons. The Penguins easily led the NHL in goals this season and are a tough matchup for any defense.

The Penguins will be able to score, but can they stop the Capitals? Matt Murray is injured, which didn’t matter much against Columbus but could against the Capitals. Marc-Andre Fleury is obviously a great backup to have, but the Penguins would obviously much rather have Murray and Fleury at their disposal than just Fleury. They also don’t have top defenseman Kris Letang. Again, they were able to survive their flaws against Columbus, but I don’t think they’ll be able to survive against the Capitals. Washington is so much deeper, and their defense is so much better. This is the year.


Rangers over Senators in seven:

Neither of these teams is very good. The winner will probably get blasted by the Capitals or Penguins. I’m not going to waste a lot of words on this series. It’s obviously a cop out to say it’ll come down to the goaltending, but both the Senators and the Rangers rely heavily upon their goalies. We all know what King Henrik can do, but Craig Anderson might be even better at this point. He had the second best save percentage in the NHL this season (behind only Bobrovsky), and he’ll be heavily leaned on again this round. The Senators have the least firepower of any remaining team, and it isn’t particularly close. They scored just 212 goals this year, 22nd in the NHL. Their best offensive threat is Erik Karlsson, who is awesome and all but just so happens to be a defenseman. I just finished talking about Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel, and names like Bobby Ryan and Kyle Turris just don’t quite match those names. Of course, neither do names like Mats Zuccarello, J.T. Miller, and Derek Stepan. Can the Senators slow the speedy Rangers down? Can they make the series as physical as they made their series with Boston? Can Karlsson pull them to the Eastern Conference Finals? It’s entirely possible, but that’s probably more because the Rangers aren’t very good than because the Senators deserve to be one of the final four teams standing. I’ll take the Rangers, because they’re better at scoring the puck.

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