**Note – this was written and submitted before Game 1 of the Islanders/Lightning series…and also before Game 7 of the Ducks/Predators series. As such, there is no preview for the other Western Conference series as the teams aren’t yet set.
Wow, what an interesting first round of playoffs – and it isn’t even over yet, as Anaheim and Nashville play Game Seven tonight! We’ve seen several teams exorcise past playoff demons (San Jose, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, even Washington to some extent); we’ve seen highly favored teams struggle (I’m looking at you, Dallas); we’ve seen teams advance on HORRIBLE officiating (Islanders – I’m looking at you after this missed call). Meanwhile, there is one titanic series in the second round (Caps-Pens), one that features two traditionally underachieving teams (Stars-Blues), and one that almost no one is talking about (Isles-Lightning). Thus far, I am 6-1 on my first-round previews, with one still pending:
You might notice there’s no fourth series to preview – in the NHL’s infinite wisdom, they have started Round 2 before finishing Round 1. Only the NHL could manage to screw this up; according to Dave Molinari, the last time the NHL was playing Rd 2 games before Rd 1 was complete was back in 1974. It’s silly, and it puts San Jose in a weird spot – they’ve had tons of rest (too much, perhaps) but they won’t even know whether they host Game 1 or travel until the wee hours of Thursday morning. Ah, the NHL…best sport, worst league. They need a new commish in the worst way. OK, enough of that, on to the previews:
Dallas vs. St. Louis:
Going into the postseason, I felt Dallas was likely the team to beat in the West. Chicago looked tired, LA didn’t have enough (side note: if you’re giving Rob Scuderi and Vinny Lecavalier major minutes in 2016, you aren’t really a contender), and Anaheim just doesn’t seem deep enough. Dallas led the league in scoring, and seemed to have the goalie depth they’ve lacked in past years. They also drew, in my opinion, the best opening-round opponent in the Wild – a team that backed into the postseason, missing two of their leading scorers. Through two games, it looked like the four or five-game breeze I expected…then suddenly, Dallas blew a 2-0 lead in game 3, blew a third-period lead in Game 5, and ALMOST blew a 4-0 third-period lead in Game 6. Suddenly, their defense looks suspect and their goalies skittish. They allowed 16 goals in the last four games to an offensively-challenged Wild team; now we’re supposed to believe they can handle the deep, talented Blues?
On the other hand, St. Louis sure tried hard to blow their series as well. They got out to a 3-1 series lead, blew that, then got out to a 2-0 lead in Game 7 which also was immediately blown. To their credit, however, they always fought back. They were down 3-1 in Game 5, but scored twice in the third before losing in double OT. They looked shaky at times in Game 7, but strong in the third when they finally but the Hawks away. It’s hard to knock out the champs, so the Blues deserve a lot of credit for that no matter how it happened.
There will be goals scored in this series – both teams have plenty of star power up front, and both teams lack all-star goalies. Dallas usually has the edge up front – but with Tyler Seguin likely to miss more time with an Achilles injury, these teams are pretty even at forward now. The Blues have a decided edge on the blue line – Shattenkirk, Bouwmeester, Pietrangelo, and young phenom Colton Parayko form a very solid ‘top 4’. One thing that concerns me with the Blues, however, is the reduced ice time for top scorer Vlad Tarasenko. He averaged over 18 minutes per game during the season; he received just over 14 minutes in Game 7, and just over 15 minutes in game 4. He was also seen arguing with his head coach on the bench. Now, I understand such arguments happen, but one has to wonder why their superstar only is getting 14-15 minutes in a Game 7, especially one which was tied most of the game. If he’s banged up, the Blues’ chances take a major hit – he’s the only player on the roster with more than 21 goals this season.
This series is going to come down to goaltending…whichever team gets the timely saves is likely to win. After what I saw last week, I just cannot trust Dallas in close games until they prove otherwise, especially with Seguin out. ST LOUIS IN SIX.
NY Islanders vs. Tampa Bay:
Talk about an ‘under the radar’ series – with everyone focused on Crosby vs. Ovechkin or the upsets out West, these two teams quietly took care of business.
Tampa was especially efficient – they played a weak Detroit team and they took advantage of that, eliminating them in five games. They allowed only eight goals, never more than two in a game – defensively, they were somewhere between very good and brilliant every game. G Ben Bishop was a big part of that, stopping 95% of the shots he faced. After last year’s run and now this series, it’s fair to call Bishop an elite goalie.
The Lightning will need to be that stout – because with Stamkos still out, they just don’t have much scoring depth. Only one other player (Nikita Kucherov) scored even 20 goals this season, and Kucherov (five), Killorn (three) and Johnson (two) scored 10 of the Bolts’ 12 goals last round. Going forward, they need more contributions from depth players to advance.
As for the Isles…I don’t want to take away from their performance; they played hard, they played smart, and they probably deserved to win the series. However, if you clicked on the link above (here it is again if you didn’t) you’ll see that they should have been forced to a Game 7. Trochek had the puck, with an empty net, ready to salt the game away…then he was blatantly tripped, no call, and the Isles scored at the other end a few seconds later. It was an awful way to end a good series, and the refs who worked that game should be ashamed of themselves. Longtime readers know that I typically defend the zebras, but I cannot STAND the ‘let them play’ mentality that clearly was the focus in that situation. As you can see, by NOT enforcing the rules, the refs had much more of an influence on the game than if they’d made the correct – and simple – call. Not one person on the Isles’ bench would have complained, it was that obvious.
That aside, the Isles played a great team game. Their power play was potent, they got great goaltending from Thomas Greiss, and they got depth scoring – something I was concerned about heading into the series. More than anything, though, their captain stepped up. John Tavares finished with five goals, four assists, a +2 rating, and 30 shots – excellent work over six games. He’s the best player on either team in this series, and he’ll need to continue to produce if the Isles are to pull this off.
I think the key to this series is Greiss. His team is probably better offensively right now, but Bishop is very, very tough and will keep the Isles from racking up a lot of goals. Greiss has to continue to excel, and thus far he’s given no reason to expect him to crack.
This is the hardest series for me to figure out, because I just don’t know what the bottom three lines are going to do for Tampa. My head tells me that the Lightning have the goalie, the experience, and the defense to win this…my heart tells me that this is Tavares’ moment, and he’s going to carry this team to the Conference Final by himself if he has to. I’m going with instinct this time – ISLANDERS IN SEVEN.
Washington vs. Pittsburgh:
The rematch we’ve all been waiting for since 2009 – the only time these teams have met in the playoffs since Ovi and Sid joined the league. Back then, it seemed likely that both teams would face off every other year or so – but both squads have underachieved since then, for various reasons. Now, these two look like the class of the league – this series has a ‘finals’ feel even though it’s a quarterfinal series.
Washington had their way early with the Flyers, opening up an easy 3-0 series lead…but their struggles to score at all in Games 5 and 6 were a real shock. Philly’s backup goalie, Michael Neuvirth, stopped an incredible 103 out of 105 shots in the last three games and made the series interesting basically by himself.
The good news for Washington? They gave up almost no even-strength chances the last three games…in Game 5, they put on as dominating a defensive clinic as I can ever remember, outshooting the Flyers 44-11. Their power play was also red-hot, scoring eight times in 23 chances. Finally, their MVP goalie, Braden Holtby, was good as usual. Any time you allow six goals in six games, you’ve had a good series.
The bad news for Washington? They did almost nothing themselves at even-strength…if you take out Game 3, when they scored a ridiculous five PP goals, the Caps only outscored the Flyers 8-5 the rest of the series. Even strength goals were only 6-5 in favor of the Caps. Washington is going to see a TON of even-strength pressure and speed from Pittsburgh, and it’s unlikely that they will have a 30% power play again this series – to win, they need to control the even-strength scoring.
Pittsburgh put on a clinic – Game 1 was sluggish, and they had about a 15-minute letdown that cost them Game 2 – but after that, it was pretty much all Pens, all the time. The Rangers are a good team and Lundqvist is a very good goalie – but the Pens torched him for 15 goals in five games – and remember, he missed two periods with injury and two more after being benched. That’s essentially 15 goals in four games’ worth of action.
Pittsburgh dominated special teams, with eight goals in 21 power plays along with a shorthanded goal (Rangers had one PP goal and no shorties)– but they were almost as good at even strength, with 12 goals to New York’s seven. Pittsburgh got goals from 11 different players, and seven of those players recorded two or more goals. Pittsburgh was just too fast for the Ranger defense to handle.
The good news for Pittsburgh? Washington’s defense isn’t much better. Oh, John Carlson is excellent – he’s probably a top-10 D in this league – but after that, Washington’s blue line can be had. More of the same speed and pressure is the ticket to beating the Caps – both with even strength goals, and by using that speed/pressure to draw penalties.
The bad news for the Pens? Washington is MUCH bigger and stronger than the Rangers. New York tried to hit Pittsburgh early and often to get them off their game – expect a lot more of the same from Washington. There’s no way Pittsburgh is going to average four goals per game on the Caps, so they will have to be stout defensively and not get into too much of a ‘track meet’ with the Caps.
Each team has what I’d call an ‘obvious key’ and a ‘hidden key’ to win. For the Caps, the obvious key is their power play. It’s deadly, and if they get four chances per game they will usually cash at least one in. They need to force penalties and turn this into a special teams series –despite what happened last round, Washington has a decided advantage on the PP. Their hidden key is Evgeni Kuznetsov – he has been in a major slump, and only recorded one point vs. the Flyers. Kuznetsov led the team in scoring during the season – and as I expect the Pens to focus on limiting Ovechkin, Kuznetsov simply must pick up the slack if Washington will move on.
For the Pens, Matt Murray is the ‘obvious’ key. He’s been rock-solid every time he’s been called upon, but this will be his greatest test to date – and with Marc-Andre Fleury still fighting concussion symptoms, this series pretty much is ‘Murray or bust’ for Pittsburgh. He will allow some goals and lose some games in this series, but if he continues to show that amazing maturity and resolve, Pittsburgh should be fine.
The ‘hidden’ key is Malkin at even strength. Yes, he makes the PP strong, that’s no secret – but if he can be a force at even strength, suddenly the Pens are an absolute NIGHTMARE to matchup against defensively. Who do you commit your top defensemen to stop? The Crosby unit? The Kessel/Hagelin/Bonino unit? If so, you’re leaving a second or third defense pair to deal with 71, and that’s not likely to end well. Throw in the ultra-productive fourth line of Cullen, Kuhnackl and Rust, and you have the deepest forward group in the league.
Finally, injuries will decide this series. The Pens are already down their top goalie and the Caps are down Brooks Orpik – but both teams escaped the first round without any more major injuries. It’s hard to believe both teams will be that fortunate this series, with the hitting and intensity I’m expecting. Whichever team avoids the ‘big injury’ should advance.
A lot of people are overlooking the Caps, despite their 120 point season – I’m not one of them. I also don’t care about prior Caps’ playoff failures – that stuff was ages ago, different players, different coaches. This squad is tough, resilient, and very solid defensively…and it will take the Pens’ best effort to beat them.
Having said that – I still think the Pens will prevail. They’ve found an amazing identity, the whole team has bought in, and when they are playing with speed no one yet has been able to contain them. Nothing would shock me except a short series – these teams are too good for either to go away quietly – but in the end, I think Pittsburgh’s 5-on-5 speed wins the series. PENGUINS IN SIX.
Dave Glass can be reached at email@example.com.