The Chase for Lord Stanley – Round 2

Well, I am all messed up.  I want to write up my round 2 predictions, as Tampa Bay and the Islanders are kicking us off tonight.  However, in Mr. Bettman’s infinite wisdom (or more likely that of some executive at NBC Sports) we have a game 1 being played on the same night as a game 7.  This has not happened since the 80’s…and for good reason.  It is purely idiotic.  But I don’t want to get too far into a rant here.  But I do smell a top ten dumb Bettman moves list…but I will need a long time to whittle a list down to 10.

Anyway, despite this nonsense, lets get to 3 of my 4 Round 2 previews, and I will add the fourth once the Ducks and Predators figure out who knows the way to San Jose.

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Eastern Conference:

Washington Capitals vs Pittsburgh Penguins

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OK, maybe I am a Penguins homer, but I am pumped for this series.  So many story lines, as there are old Pens playing key roles with the Caps (Niskanen and Oprik if he can get back healthy) and then there is old Cap Eric Fehr on the Pens roster.  There is of course the the Ovechkin – Crosby matchup.  The best of this matchup might be that these are two teams playing at a very high level – the Capitals obviously were the best team over the entire season, and the Penguins were the best team from March onward. It really sets up to be great hockey.

The Penguins took the season series 3-2, but I am not sure the regular season bears a lot of resemblance to the playoffs all that often.  What we can see are trends.  Good news for the Penguins is that they won 2 of the 3 late season games, but 3 of the 5 games were one goal games.

To me this series comes down to three keys:

  • Can the Penguins D handle the physical toll that Ovi and the Caps forwards will look to place on the smallish Pens.
  • Can the Capitals D handle the speed and depth of the Penguins attack.
  • Can the Pens goaltending committee outplay Braden Holtby.

I think this is going to be a great series.  So much elite talent and skill.  Both teams are deep and balanced.  It is a crutch too often used, but this one likely comes down to goaltending and penalty killing.

Special Teams:

  • Washington finished the regular season with the 4th best PP (22.4%) with the 2nd best PP+PK (107.2%).  They followed that up in round 1 with the 2nd best PP in round 1 (29.6%) and 2nd best PP+PK (125.4%).  All was good here.
  • Except Pittsburgh was the best on both counts.  The Pens entered the playoffs concerned with their 16th best PP (18.5%) , but comfortable with their combined 10th PP+PK (102.7%) rating.  In round 1, their special teams exploded, with a 28.1% PP, and an 89% PK for a playoff best 127.6 PP+PK.
  • Both teams penalty killers will be under enormous stress to win this matchup.

What Could Go Wrong:

  • Too many variables here to list, as this is going to be a doozy of a series.  Yes, I am going to take my Pens, but not with booming confidence.  I think this one could be as tight and back and forth as the Blues – Blackhawks series.
  • Big wildcard here is Holtby as I mentioned earlier.  This is a series that could really cement him as a bigtime elite goalie (for those who have not paid attention to the past two years)!  If he can steal a game or two, and provide the Caps with solid goaltending all series, the Caps are going to be tough to beat.
  • Another factor I alluded to is the ability of the Penguins D to weather another long physical storm. The Rangers hit the Pens D a LOT in the last series, and Washington’s physical forwards will be looking to be even more physical.  This is not a big sturdy core in Pittsburgh, and their most important guys (Letang, Daley and Maata) have had their share of injury concerns.
  • Don’t go to a game 7, as Justin Williams doesn’t lose those.

The Pick: Penguins in 7

Tampa Bay Lightning vs New York Islanders:

Again, this series has already started.  The Islanders rode their momentum to a game 1 win.

I am trying not to read too much into this one game.  I think the schedule played a big part in game 1.  The Islanders are still riding the wave of their victory over the Panthers, while the Lightning had the better part of a week to have a mini holiday.  I think the rest is great, but it does take a little time to get back into the mental frame that playoff hockey demands.

That said, this is a dangerous Islanders squad.  They have the feel of those “pesky Senators” from three years ago.  John Tavares looks to me like a guy who knows his time is now.  He veritably willed his way to game 1 and 6 victories in the series.  And he has plenty of help.  The Islanders roll four lines, and their fourth line may be the best in hockey.  It is a “next generation” old school grind line.  They hit everything that moves, and they can play the puck and defend as well.  It seems to me that Greiss should not be able to take a series from the Lightning…but I bet against him once already, and he out-dueled Bobby Lou. I find myself humming some Who “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.

But then, this Lightning team showed me something in round 1.  Yes, they dispatched the Red Wings in a tidy 5 games, but it was not an easy 5 games.  That may have been the chippiest series of the first round.  It was also a very competitive series, with tight games, but the Lightning found a way to win games.

Kucherov stepped up and really showed his sublime skill in the first round, and his triplet pal Tyler Johnson finally looks healthy again.  Yes, they are still missing the “human lottery ticket” Stamkos, but they had no issue winning games so far.  Ben Bishop is a very good goaltender, and he can only build on last years long run.

Special Teams

  • The Lightning entered the playoffs with the 27th best PP (15.9%)looking like an  Achilles heel, worst among playoff teams, with a combined 16th PP+PK (100%) rating is buoyed by a good PK unit.  In round 1, their stellar PK unit operated at 96%, but their PP was third worst among surviving teams.  Improving, but still worrisome.
  • The Islanders brought the 13th best powerplay, at 18.75%, an even better PP+PK  (5th) at 104.2% to the playoff dance.  Round 1 saw their PP operate at 23.8%, but their PP+PK rating (110.5%) trailed the Lightning.

What Could Go Wrong:

  • The clock strikes 12 on the Thomas Greiss pumpkin.  Halak does not appear to be ready and waiting, and Greiss needs to steal a game here for the Islanders to have a chance.  If the Lightning open the flood gates, I don’t think the Islanders can win 6 five games.
  • The physical Islanders get a little loose on their discipline, and allow the Lightning to make this a special teams series.  Me thinks the Islanders want this to be a 5 on 5, roll four lines contest.
  • Stamkos magically comes back and lights it up, providing the Lightning with a very dangerous second line and powerplay.

The Pick:  Islanders in 6

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Dallas Stars vs St. Louis Blues:

I am sorry Dan Balac.  I really am.  I like the Dallas Stars.  I do.  Jamie Benn is among my five favorite players in the game.  The Stars are trying to win a Cup the way the 91 Penguins did (against your Stars)…by simply outscoring you.  I applaud that!  I have Lehtonen on one of my keeper fantasy teams.  Lindy Ruff to me is one of those coaches who just doesn’t get enough respect.

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But I simply don’t like the way this series feels for your boys.  I think the Blues had an exorcism Monday night. A lot of demons were vanquished, and a lot of baggage was removed from a lot of shoulders.  Ken Hitchcock may yet keep his job.  And I fear a looser, invigorated Blues team may just be too much to handle.

This has long been a pair of teams with questions in goal.  For one team, that may be over.  Brian Elliott was a difference maker, not a place holder, in their first round series.  He looked almost unbeatable in getting them to a 3-1 lead, and then held the fort in a very nerve wracking game 7.

The Stars on the other hand, can’t break old habits.  Lehtonen also looked stellar in games 1 and 2, but then he lost game 3…and found the bench for 2 games, before getting the net back and just barely keeping his toe in the crease (pun intended) with a game 6 victory.

The Blues are simply deeper at forward. And much deeper on defense.  And that d-core, with Pieterangelo and Bouwmeester and young stud Parayko, are mobile enough and big enough to handle the elite Dallas lines.

Special Teams:

  • Dallas was the regular season’s 5th best powerplay running at a 22.1% clip, and a PP+PK rating of 104.5%, which is 4th best in the league.  Their power play ran an surprisingly consistent 21.1% PP in round 1, but their PK was obliterated by the Wild, only killing 75% of their short handed situations.  PP+PK is second worst among advancing teams at 90%.
  • The Blues are a well balanced team, sporting the 6th best powerplay (21.8%) and the 3rd ranked PP+PK (106.8%) in the regular season.  The PP was even better in their victory over Chicago (27.7%) but struggled to handle the ‘Hawks PP, only killing 78.6% of their chances, for a 6th ranked PP+PK (106.4%).

What Could Go Wrong:

  • Does one series really erase a decade of playoff futility?  More importantly, are the Blues satisfied having slain the beast?  And can they recover the immense amount of energy they had to use to beat the Hawks.
  • Goaltending will be a question for both teams until one of these guys actually runs the table.  Both Lehtonen and Niemi are capable of stealing a game.  More critically, can the avoid giving one back.
  • Dallas should get Sequin back early in this series, and with Tyler going at 100%, I think the Stars top 6 forwards are more dynamic than the Blues.
  • The Blues continue to struggle shorthanded, and they may take a few more penalties against this Stars track team.
  • Was the Tarasenko – Hitchcock spat more than a heat of the moment thing?  Vlad may be the most important skater in the series.

The Pick: Blues in 7

 

Not to downplay my picks, but these 3 series are all much more difficult picks, and the San Jose vs whoever will be a tough call as well.  I will update with that series tomorrow night once I know he they will play.

Enjoy the second round folks, and hit me with your thoughts.  I missed out on 2 in the first round, and both of those were picks I felt good enough in (Kings and Panthers) that I had significant investments in those teams in the playoff pool.  We can only hope we get more games like that Blues – Hawks game 7, which may be tough to beat for best game of the playoffs.

San Jose Sharks vs Nashville Predators:

OK, so this is the “Sweeney Got It Wrong” bowl, as neither of these teams were in my bracket for the second round.  Both teams get full credits for impressive victories, and I don’t think either team’s series upset was a fluke.

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On the Sharks side, man did they look good.  This was the sort of performance we have been waiting for over the better part of a decade.  Few would argue that the Kings are no joke, and the Sharks beat them in a number of close games, but my overwhelming reaction was that the Sharks looked faster and more dangerous than the Kings.  Brent Burns lead the way for the Sharks in round 1 scoring, when I would have expected (and drafted accordingly) Drew “Give Me My Damn Norris” Doughty to have been a scoring leader.  Shameless plug here – Burns needs to find himself on Canada’s roster for this years World Cup.  Too good not to be included.  Joe Pavelski had 5 goals in the series, and simply adds to his claim as one of the NHL’s under-rated stars.  The deep Sharks scoring continues from there, as the Thornton, Marleau and Couture are all contributing to erase memories of playoff failures past.

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For the Preds, I really think people overlook this team, especially this year.  Pekka Rinne was long lauded as the “reason for relevance” for the Predators, but he was mediocre this year in the regular season.  He was brilliant in the upset over the Ducks, and in my mind stole game 7.  However, this Predators team is not just a bunch of muckers and a hot goalie.  They may boast the best top 4 defense in the league, and while they don’t have an elite line, they do run 4 good forward lines that chip in at key moments.  Case in point, yes the top of the Nashville scoring list contains familiar names of Weber, Neal, Josi and Forsberg.  The top of the list has Colin “where were you all year” Wilson and prize mid-season addition Ryan Johansen is right near the top as well.  I think Johansen is the start of a change here in Nashville, where they are starting to assemble some upper end offensive talent to go with their defense and goaltending.  To top it off, Paul Gaustad, he of the fourth line, was a monster in game 6 in terms of face-offs and game control, and then chips in the game winner in game 7.

Special Teams:

The Sharks boasted the second best powerplay in the NHL (22.7%) and 9th best PP+PK rating (102.9%) for the season (one of the things I sited for a potential upset of the Kings).  In round 1, the PP was an effective 23.8%, but their PK struggled at 78.6% rate.  The Preds may be just what the doctor ordered.

The Predators special teams were a strength for the Predators in the regular season, with a 10th ranked powerplay (19.6%) combining with the 13th best PP+PK rating (100.9%).  These units, as alluded to above, struggled badly in the Ducks series.  Their PP ran just a 3.8% in the 7 game Duck series, and that will have to come around to have a chance to swim with the Sharks. Their PK was respectable at 84%, but their combined PP+PK of 87.8% is easily the worst among remaining teams.

What Could Go Wrong:

  • Martin Jones was called upon to win the goaltending battle in round 1 versus the more established Jonathon Quick.  It would seem a relatively easier assignment to outplay Pekka Rinne, but if he doesn’t, the Predators may keep the good times rolling.
  • The Predators d-core, as indicated above, is very good, and did a great job of keeping a deep and nasty Ducks forward group in check.  They have size and speed, and could really stymie the Sharks forwards.
  • Is there some regression in order here on the Predators side, at least in terms of the powerplay?  I would expect me and 4 friends to be better than 5% on the powerplay.  A unit boasting Shea Weber’s out of this world bombs, snipers Neal and Forsberg, and passers Riberio and Johansen, should not be this ineffective.
  • Aren’t we due for another magical ride by a Peter Laviolette coached team?  Carolina in 2006, Philadelphia in 2010 (albeit in a losing bid).

The Pick: Sharks in 6

 

 

 

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