Stanley Cup Playoffs – Round Two
After a great first round of games (which saw six of the eight series go at least six games), there are high expectations for the second round in the NHL playoffs. I am going to give matchup-by-matchup previews, and then give my predictions for each series. I got six out of my eight first round picks right, so feel free to take three-fourths of what you read below to Vegas.
Let’s begin with the Eastern Conference, where all of the top seeds advanced.
Montreal Canadiens vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
Matchup: Each team enters this series having played much better than the scorelines from round one indicate. Unfortunately for the Canadiens and the Lightning, they ran into very hot goaltending. Chris Anderson, of the Ottawa Senators, had a 0.972 save percentage and a 0.970 goals against average (GAA) against the Canadiens, making games 4 through 6 very difficult after they had taken a 3-0 series lead. Tampa Bay, on the other hand, ran into Petr Mrazek of the Detroit Red Wings, who made his playoffs debut with a league-leading two shutouts. Unfortunately for the offense of each team, Ben Bishop of the Lightning and Carey Price of the Canadiens are playing equally well, with a 1.87 and 1.94 GAA respectively. This should set up a defensive battle between the teams, where the first one to three goals may be the winner of each game. For the Lightning, they will need bigger contributions from Steven Stamkos, Ryan Callahan, and Valtteri Filppula, who have just one goal and eight points between them. They cannot rely on Tyler Johnson, who has a league leading six playoff goals, to carry them against a better opponent. The Canadiens, on the other hand, need to figure out how to put the puck in the net. They scored just 12 goals on 224 shots through 6 games. While some of that can be attributed to the solid play of Anderson, the Canadiens’ goal scorers still need to find a way to beat Bishop. A lot of their offense will depend on Max Pacioretty, who is still trying to regain his 30+ goal form since after his injury.
Prediction: The Lightning will be the team to find the back of the net more often than the Canadiens in this low-scoring, hard-fought series. Tampa Bay will head to the Eastern Conference Finals after six games with the Canadiens.
New York Rangers vs. Washington Capitals (Capitals are up 1-0)
Matchup: There is a lot of history in this playoff matchup. Since 2009, these teams have met in the playoffs four times, with each team winning twice. The Capitals took the series in 2009 and 2011, but the Rangers have been victorious of late, winning in 2012 and 2013. Each team enters the series with hot goaltending. Braden Holtby of the Capitals and Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers each rank in the top four in both save percentage and GAA. And for Washington, their offense is also firing on all cylinders. They have five players who have scored at least twice in the playoffs, and Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov have scored three times. The Capitals will need Alex Ovechkin to improve on his performance, however, if they are going to win the series. He has scored just twice on 28 shots. For the Rangers, they need their big offensive players to start putting the puck in the back of the net. Only seven of their players have scored in the playoffs, and Derick Brassard leads the team with three goals. Star forward Rick Nash has 3 assists but has scored just once on 18 attempts. But, the biggest advantage for the Rangers lies in their defense. The team has been a force blocking shots, which is a major reason that Lundqvist has seen just 132 shots this postseason. Dan Girardi leads the team with 23 shot blocks in just 5 games.
Prediction: Three of the last four series that these teams have played have gone seven games, and this one will be no different. But, unlike 2012 and 2013, the Capitals will win this series with a game 7 victory in Madison Square Garden.
In the Western Conference, only one of the top seeds advanced, which should set up an exciting second round of playoffs matchups between the underdogs.
Minnesota Wild vs. Chicago Blackhawks
Matchup: This matchup does not bode well for the Wild. They have been paired up against the Blackhawks in the playoffs each of the last two seasons, and they lost both of those series. Furthermore, the Wild were 0-6 on the road in those series and just 3-8 overall. This team certainly has their work cut out for them. The Wild rely almost solely on offense as goaltender Devan Dubnyk has been less than impressive so far in the playoffs. Zach Parise leads the team with seven points and has three goals, which is tied for the team lead with Nino Niederreiter. The Wild have had 11 different players score a goal in the playoffs, but they will need Thomas Vanek (who has 0 goals in 10 attempts) to contribute more offensively to help them get over the hump and beat the Blackhawks. They will also need their defense, which has been neither physical nor blocked shots, to improve on their game to slow down the Blackhawks’ fast paced offense. Chicago, as seems to always happen in the playoffs, has picked up its game to a level that is higher than they were playing in the regular season. Patrick Kane and an injured Jonathan Toews have combined for 5 goals and 15 points through their first 6 games in the playoffs. Marian Hossa, Brad Richards, and Patrick Sharp have chipped in with a combined 13 points, and defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have had a combined 11 points for this team that scored 19 goals in the first round. So far, the weakness for the Blackhawks has been their goaltending. Scott Darling and Corey Crawford have a 2.21 and an alarming 4.19 GAA, respectively. While Darling’s GAA is better, he was pulled in favor of Crawford in their last game, and Crawford will be getting the start in game one for the Blackhawks. Whoever ends up in net throughout the series will have to play much better to help Chicago advance to the next round.
Prediction: Chicago simply has a better team than Minnesota and will win the series in six games.
Anaheim Ducks vs. Calgary Flames (Ducks are up 1-0)
Matchup: The Ducks are, arguably, the best team in the playoffs. They made quick work of the Winnipeg Jets in the first round, while scoring 16 goals in their four game sweep. Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler led the way with 3 goals each, and Jakob Silfverberg and Ryan Getzlaf added a combined 10 points. Defensively they were also very strong, and goalie Frederik Andersen 2.20 GAA with a 0.924 save percentage. The Flames, on the other hand, come in at a bit of a disadvantage offensively, having scored just 18 in their 6 game series (including 7 in the final game). Johnny Gaudreau and Jiri Hudler were the standout performers on the offense, but the Flames need players like Matt Stajan and Michael Ferland to step up their games as well. The biggest strength for Calgary was their defense. Deryk Engelland and Kris Russell were 1 and 2 in the league with 29 and 28 blocked shots, respectively. In addition, Dennis Wideman was tied for tenth in the league with 17 blocked shots. So, the Ducks will need to find a way to get shots in on goalie Jonas Hiller, who has been less than impressive with a 2.20 GAA and was pulled twice in the last series, including just 7:32 into the final game of their first round series. For the Flames, they will also need Engelland to find a way to stay out of the penalty box. He is arguably their best defender, but he spent 44 minutes serving penalties in the first round.
Prediction: Much like the Blackhawks, the Ducks are simply the better team in this series. They will win in five games.