It’s one of the most wonderful times of the year. The Masters has captivated us with all the beauty that is Augusta National. Baseball is back. Spring is in the air (though unfortunately so too is snow!). And of course, Round One of the Stanley Cup playoffs is here.
I wont try to argue that the NHL has some kind of monopoly on crazy results, or upsets, or even the drama that the playoffs evoke. It is a fools errand, you can never convince somebody your sport is better than theirs. What I would state is that no sport has the drama that round 1 of the NHL playoffs has repeatedly delivered. Seems to me, if an upset is going to occur, it is right here in the first round. And with the change in format, with divisional alignment plus 2 wildcards, I think it has kicked it up a notch. My format will be pretty simple; I will just tell you what my gut says, why, and what scares me in terms of getting it wrong.
OK, let’s do this:
#1 Washington Capitals vs #8 Philadelphia Flyers
You’ve all heard the old joke:
“Bartender get me an Ovechkin – you know, a white Russian with no Cup.”
Ya, Alex is tired of that one too. And this is his best shot at ending that joke.
I don’t foresee round 1 being a problem for the Caps. Truth is, they really have a pretty easy route to being the representatives for the East in a Stanley Cup final. They are the deepest team in the East, easily. They can score, they have good character guys who will do the little things right, they have good goaltending in Braden Holtby, fresh off tying the greatest goaltender to play the game, Martin Brodeur, for the single season win mark. They have playoff magician Justin Williams to turn to when the going gets tough.
To the Flyers credit, they have had a remarkable run of their own to make it into the playoffs after a slow start to the season. Claude Giroux is an all-world player, and Wayne Simmonds was born for playoff hockey. They have rode Steve Mason for 12 straight games to make the playoffs, so how much gas does he have left? He has not be relied upon this much since his Peach Kings days (OK, I guess he was the horse in his rookie campaign for the Blue Jackets too!). The Flyers have also played the Capitals tough this year, going 2-2. I think the Flyers can give the Caps a scare.
- For Washington, they combine the leagues 4th best PP (22.4%) with the 2nd best PP+PK (107.2%). Playoff hockey is often won on special teams, and Washington is the best in the East.
- For Philadelphia, their 17th best PP (18.3%) is a cause for concern, and their 19th rated PP+PK (98.5%) does not give indications of an upset in the making.
What could go wrong?
- The “On” switch is not always all that easy to flick back to the hot position come playoff time. The Caps have been resting on their laurels for at least the past month.
- Ghosts of failures past – both the core of this roster, and coach Barry Trotz, have some demons to conquer here.
- One of my prevailing theories of playoff success – can your goaltender steal you one game per series. Is Holtby capable – hell yes. But he too has only been good, not great, down the stretch. And he has not had a long playoff run yet.
- Could the Flyers physical game get the Capitals out of their comfort zone?
The Pick: Capitals in 6.
#2 Pittsburgh Penguins vs #3 New York Rangers
Homer alert! It has been the “March of the Penguins” this spring, as they have rode a red-hot March to the best record in the league since March 1, and have vaulted from tentative wildcard team to the squad nobody wants to face in round 1. I have heard plenty of commentary that the Rangers were backing out of the 3 hole to avoid the Pens. Not sure I buy that, but it would make a lot of sense. Currently on an 8 game winning streak, and
39-0 when they lead after 2, coach Mike Sullivan has these Penguins flying. Is this a “history repeats itself” squad from 2009, where a mid-season coaching change ends with a Stanley Cup parade? Why not? All of this has been done while missing Evengi “I am score” Malkin and #2 D-man Oli Maata. For the first time in nearly a decade, they are 4 lines deep, and Marc Andre Fluery is no longer a porcelain doll of mental stability. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger should be MAF’s theme song. Though with him it is likely Taylor Swift “Haters gonna hate” playing in his mind.
On the Rangers side, they are not exactly coming in at a blistering pace, but this is a veteran, playoff tested team. They are a great 5 on 5 team, and certainly match anyone’s playoff depth in the East. The concern here is the injury bug has bit this team hard. They have a great defense core, but if McDonagh and Girardi miss extensive time, that depth will be stressed. It puts a lot of pressure on Dan Boyle and Keith Yandle to play uncomfortable minutes. All that said, any team with Henrik Lundquist will have more than a punchers chance come playoff time.
- For Pittsburgh, their 16th best PP (18.5%) is a big concern, but how can it be this bad with all this scoring talent? But their combined 10th PP+PK (102.7%) rating is buoyed by a dangerous PK unit.
- The New York Rangers made a deep run in 2014 despite an awful powerplay, and they will try to do so again, with a 14th rated unit (18.75%). That is part of a PP+PK unit that rates 23rd in the NHL (97%)
What could go wrong?
- Did they get white-hot too early? Can they continue to be this dominant over a 2 month playoff run?
- Ghosts of failures past – the core here in Pittsburgh has had a rocky go since 2009. And don’t forget, in the Cup clinching game, Uncle Sid left in the 1st period. Max Talbot was the hero.
- Marc Andre Fluery – not because I think he will poop the bed again, that has been vanquished atleast 2 years ago. I am concerned about health at this point, as he is currently out with a 2nd concussion this year. Love me some Matt Murray, but he may be concussed too.
- The last time these teams met in the playoffs, the Penguins had them down 3-1, but couldn’t finish, as King Henrik stole the series back. He is more than capable of stealing this one.
The Pick: Penguins in 6
#1 Florida vs #7 New York Islanders
How do you not love the story that is building around the Florida Panthers. This is a young core that is growing before our eyes, and the old guy Jaromir Jagr appears to be drinking in their youthful energy. Dale Talon has methodically built a team that will compete for years to come, and is going to get better. Roberto Luongo appears to be getting the last laugh here, as Vancouver looks headed for a long rebuild, while “Lou” keeps chugging along.
The Islanders come in having seemingly backed into the playoffs, seemingly choosing to play the Panthers over the Penguins. This team was thought to be on the precipice of playoff success coming into the season. Yet right now, it just doesn’t feel like a team that is peaking in time for the playoffs. They do have a physical squad with speed, that could push the young Panthers more than they’d like to be. The hit squad of Martin, Clutterbuck and Cizikas will “let em know your there” for Reg Dunlop. And there is elite scoring here when you look at Tavares and Okposo. The defense is a young, emerging unit, led by Boychuk and and Leddy. The real concern continues to be goaltending here, as Jaroslav Halak has found IR once again, as has young backup JF Berube. This has left Thomas Griess to carry the load, with mixed results down the stretch.
- For Florida, the 23rd best PP (17.0%) trails only in state rival Tampa Bay as worst in the playoffs. That’s a concern. Their combined 25th PP+PK (96.7%) rating is also 2nd worst in the playoffs. That’s smells like an upset waiting to happen.
- The Islanders boast the 13th best powerplay, at 18.75%, which could be even better come playoff time with Boychuk blasting and Tavares dishing. Their PP+PK is even better, ranked 5th in the NHL at 104.2%. Again, in contrast to the Panthers, this sets up well for New York.
What could go wrong?
- Is it one year early to see a long run for the Florida Panthers? A lot of players on this team will see their first playoff action. It has been 20 years since they last won a playoff series. Prepare yourself for the Scott Mellanby/ John Vanbiesbrouk highlights.
- Will Florida hockey fans really bring back the rat toss?
- Special teams as noted above stink. That has traditionally killed you come playoff time.
- Florida does not tend to play well in the third period, and as games get tighter, more games will be won or lost in the third period.
The Pick: Panthers in 6
#2 Tampa Bay vs #3 Detroit
This is one of the match-ups that I find myself reaching for a coin on. There has not been much to choose between these teams over the season, splitting 2 games a piece in the regular season. Neither team is coming into the playoffs on a massive high, though lets pause for a tip of the cap to the Red Wings for 25 straight years in the playoffs. In this day in age, with a salary cap and all, it is a most impressive record.
But with all due respect to my many Red Wings friends (I see you there Tara Robertson, and Dru Burgess you just go back to watching that Bronco’s Super Bowl video) I see a short playoff run again this year. I just don’t see much magic (other than Datsyuk, who is among the three or 4 best players I have ever seen live) left in Detroit. Their D does not look worthy of a playoff run, with Kronwall playing on one leg, and not much else to talk about back there. Sensational rookie Dylan Larkin also appears to have worn down after 82 games. I don’t think enough can be said about the difference between a 40 game NCAA season and the 82 game grind that is the NHL. Zetterberg and this gang of Swedish men will need to really step up to have a chance.
But you Red Wings can cheer for all-time great Wing Stevie Y’s team. Yes, I know the injury bug has bit this team hard, and I am sure that they will miss both Stralman and Stamkos…but not until round 2. I just think Bishop is better than either keeper in Detroit, their defense is better even without Stralman, and the Lightning still boast a deep forward group. Poolies may be feeling jilted by Drouin’s regular season, but I would not sleep on this guy in playoff pools. I think the Triplets will be too much for the Red Wings to handle.
- For Tampa Bay, their 27th best PP (15.9%) is their Achilles heel (and those stats were mostly with Stamkos and Stralman) and is the worst unit among playoff teams. But their combined 16th PP+PK (100%) rating is buoyed by a good PK unit.
- For Detroit, 15th rated PP (18.7%) gives reason for hope, and you know they have the guns to get it done come playoff time. Their PP+PK unit is 15th (100.1%) so just slightly better than the Lightning.
What could go wrong?
- Is the injury bug hitting Tampa Bay at the wrong time? I would argue Stralman is a more important loss to this team than Stamkos. I know I will get vilified for that, but fact is the Lightning basically went to the Cup last year with Stamkos essentially a passenger, but they don’t have the depth to replace Stralman.
- That Lightning PP scares me – if you cant score in the playoffs, you are ripe for an upset.
- Does this aging core for the Red Wings (Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Kronwall) have one more run of glory left in them.
- Again, recent performance has been awful, but Peter Mrazek has always had that look to me (back to World Juniors) as a guy that can get hot and steal a game. He was in the Vezina talk up until mid February.
The Pick: Lightning in 7
Dallas #1 vs Minnesota #8
The Dallas Stars feel to me like the black sheep of the Western Conference elite. Perhaps it is fed in part by East coast bias, but Dallas doesn’t seem to have the “heavy” game of the Kings, Ducks or Blues, nor the winning pedigree of the Blackhawks. Feeling to me is that they are pure octane, lead by the dynamic duo of Tyler Sequin and Jamie Benn. Let me say this, however; Jamie Benn might be the prototype when it comes to “heavy” game players. He is big, skilled, and can bring out the nasty when need be. Despite the success the Stars have seen, I have a lot of questions come playoff time. First and foremost, how soon can Sequin get back, because he is critical to their success. (Ya, I see you Bruins fans over there in the corner pouting!) Next for me, is this a deep playoff run defence? Go ahead and color me doubtful. Third issue for me, I abide by the old saying “when you have two goalies, you have none”.
Seems to me the race for first in the West is as much a scramble to play the Minnesota Wild. As deep as the conference is, this is the only soft landing on this side of the bracket. One can argue that the Wild would be an upper seed in the East, but that really is irrelevant here. I just don’t feel that the Wild pose a huge threat to Dallas. Beyond Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, I just don’t feel a lot of buzz here.
On the special teams side, Dallas is very good as well, boasting the 5th best powerplay running at a 22.1% clip, and a PP+PK rating of 104.5%, which is 4th best in the league.
Special Teams support my blah feeling for the Wild. Yes, Minnesota boasts the 12th ranked powerplay (19.6%), but the PP+PK rating of 96.6% is last for playoff teams.
What could go wrong?
- Has to go to the top of the list, but if neither Niemi or Lehtonen steps up and seizes the reigns, Dallas will be in trouble.
- Can Minnesota call back Jacques Lemaire and lock down the ice, limiting the Stars run and gun offence?
- Zach Parise and/or Ryan Suter simply will their way past the Stars.
The Pick: Stars in 5
St. Louis Blues #2 vs Chicago Blackhawks #3
If you are Ken Hitchcock and the Blues, you have to be thinking “Our reward for a 107 point season is a 1st round date with the Blackhawks?” Is this the year they finally take down their nemesis in Chicago, or do they end the year asking for a move to the Eastern Conference? They seem built for playoff hockey, boasting stellar defense, deep scoring and solid goals against numbers. They are the 6th best team in terms of Corsi, so the advanced stats community says they are among the league elite as well. Ken Hitchcock has long been considered a great coach, and has been to the Cup Final, winning with Dallas. And yet, the song remains the same – do they have elite scoring to get the goal you need to win tight games, and will a goaltender grab the job and lead this team to a long run. Goaltending will remain the story until it’s not, but I think Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz give them the snipers they have been missing. Poolies dont sleep on Alex Steen, who has missed a bunch of time, but is the straw the stirs the drink for the Blues.
Ok, full disclosure. I was the guy last year who felt the Blackhawks would run out of gas. That didn’t turn out to be all that brilliant a prediction. A stuck clock is right twice a day, so I will stick with this assessment this year. The core of this team (Toews, Kane, Keith, Seabrook and Hossa) have played an incredible amount of hockey over the past 3 years. Yes, I know all these guys do is win Cups. Yes, they added a key piece in Andrew Ladd, who has raised the Cup in his last run in a Hawks uniform (which by the way is the best in the NHL). Doesn’t it feel though like things are conspiring against them. Keith gets to miss 1 game in the playoffs for his latest momentary lapse of reason. Corey Crawford has missed the last couple of weeks. Saad and Sharp, so important in the past couple Cup runs, are no longer here. After Keith and Seabrook, do you really trust that D core? Yes, I am setting myself up for a lot of abuse when I am wrong, but I just dont feel it here.
As one would expect, the Blues are well coached, and this is exhibited in their Special Teams. They have the 6th best powerplay (21.8%) and the 3rd ranked PP+PK (106.8%).
This is another area that should be shouting “downplay the Blackhawks at your own peril”. They have the 3rd ranked powerplay (22.7%) and 6th rated PP+PK (103.2%).
What could go wrong?
- The regular season record was extremely close, with 3 OT games and 1 goal against in favor of St. Louis. Do the Blues really believe they can beat Chicago in close games? They had them as close to on the ropes as anyone ever did last year, but couldn’t finish them.
- Who takes the reins in net here for the Blues? If Elliott or Allen falter early, all the old demons come back out.
- The Blues would be wise to play this one out 5 on 5, as Chicago’s power play is just a little better.
The Pick: Blues in 6
#1 Anaheim Ducks vs WC#1 Nashville Predators
It just feels to me that this Ducks team is now better built for a playoff run. We all know how good Getzlaf and Perry are. These guys have done it before, and their strengths are so well suited for playoff hockey. This defensive core is as deep as there is in the league, and Kevin Bieksa (Grimsby’s own!) gives them the bite they need come playoff time. Ryan Kesler takes on the difficult defensive assignments, and chips in on offense. Hard to believe this was a team that looked ready to blow it up in December. They are a favourite of the fancy stats crowd, having the 2nd best Score-Adjusted Corsi in the league.
The Predators are a hard team to get a read on, and I think part of that is that the identity of this team is changing. Pekka Rinne has not been the story this year. Frankly, I own him in a keeper fantasy pool, and he has been mediocre at best this year. All the sudden, this team can score in bunches though. They have always boasted a deep forward group, but they had to score by committee. Now, they have two truly dangerous scoring lines, with the growth of Fillip Forsberg (hey Caps, you want that Martin Erat trade back?) and the mid-season arrival of Ryan Johansen. They are supported by sniper “Real Deal” James Neal, Mike Riberio, Calle Jarnkrok, and Mr. Carrie Underwood, I mean Mike Fisher. Despite having to deal Seth Jones in the Johansen deal, they still boast a deep, talented defense. In name value, Shea Weber leads them, but partner Roman Josi’s emergence has really strengthened this team. Poolies Ryan Ellis provides a sleeper option if you have minimum defenseman rules.
Anaheim boasts the leagues best powerplay unit (nearly 23%) and combine the best PP+PK rating in the league at 110.1%. It’s not even that close folks, they are 5% better than the
# 2 Capitals in this area. This screams playoff success.
Special teams are a strength for the Predators as well. With a team that can have Shea Weber blasting away from the point, their 10th ranked powerplay (19.6%) is no surprise. They also boast the 13th best PP+PK rating (100.9%).
What could go wrong?
- Do the Ducks revert to the team of October/ November when the going gets tough, and the scoring deserts them? You know the Predators will be focused on limiting Perry and Getzlaf.
- Anaheim continues to play hot potatoe with their goaltending, and if Bruce Boudreau can’t ride one, does it become a problem again.
- Bruce Boudreau certainly has enough bad memories of past playoff failures.
- Pekka Rinne, despite his recent struggles, is MORE than capable of stealing a series.
The Pick: Ducks in 7
#2 LA Kings vs # 3 San Jose Sharks
Last year, the Kings seemed to think they could coast following their 2013-2014 Cup win, and expected to flick the switch in March and ride into the playoffs again. What they forgot is that other teams would need to co-operate with that plan, and the result was they were on the outside looking in come playoff time. I don’t see Darryl Sutter having spent a lot of time “enjoying” last years playoffs.
This team is battle hardened, and simply knows how to win playoff games. I cant imagine there would be anybody in the Western Conference that would want a playoff series against this team. Anze Kopitar is among the most under-appreciated players in the game, Drew Doughty is my Norris winner this year, and Jonathon Quick is one of the great playoff goaltenders of the current generation. Add in warriors like Lucic and a rejuvenated Vinny Lecavalier, and this team is scary. And the fancy stats folks agree, as the Kings boast the best Score-Adjusted Corsi in the NHL.
Is this finally the year, after so many years of disappointment, that the Sharks can get to the Stanley Cup final? Joe Thornton may be the guy named most often as a guy we’d like to see get a Cup. And he has been terrific again this year. The Sharks get scoring from 3 deep lines, and have a solid defensive core behind Brent “Chewbaca” Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. The secret weapon here for poolies is Joe Pavelski, who is also the trivia answer of “Who has the most goals the past 3 years after Alex Ovechkin”. That’s all great, but my concern with this team making a long run is goaltending. I like Martin Jones, but he has been less than stellar down the stretch, and doesn’t the addition of James “nice guy” Reimer speak to the confidence the Shark’s brass has?
No surprise, but the Kings are pretty good on special teams (like they needed more positives). Their powerplay is ranked 9th at 20%, and their PP+PK at 101.2%. The only surprise is that their PK is what hurts them in this ranking – maybe the one weak link is that they have not replaced Mike Richards and Jared Stoll’s contributions in this area.
The Sharks are once again under-rated. They boast the second best powerplay in the NHL (22.7%) and 9th best PP+PK rating (102.9%).
What could go wrong?
- The Kings collapse in Game 82 against the Jets puts them into a much tougher matchup versus the Sharks.
- The Kings, despite their superb possession stats, don’t always score in bunches.
- The Sharks won the season series 3-2, and Jonathan Quick didn’t beat the Sharks this season.
- In a long series, the Sharks have a deeper forward core than the Kings. If the Sharks shut down Carter and Kopitar, can the Kings score enough?
The Pick: Kings in 6
Having said all that, the first round is where the surprises happen. Enjoy the channel surfing folks, and I will check back in before the second round begins.
Win or lose, (yes Dru Burgess I will quote the full line!), hit the booze, and don’t laugh at your shoes!