Welcome to the second round of the NHL playoffs!
It was a brilliant first round, and I surprised myself by getting seven out of eight series correct. Naturally, the only series I whiffed on involved the Flames, because of reasons not fully understood but easily summed up with this GIF:
Anyway, time to prognosticate round two of the playoffs:
Chicago Blackhawks | 0 – 0 | Minnesota Wild
How the ‘Hawks Got Here: By playing (and winning) a lot of overtime hockey.
A better description might be that the Blackhawks overcame the Predator by remembering that they’re the gods-damned Blackhawks. During the regular season, Chicago’s offense suffered some awful luck. They forgot that they won by out-possessing (and out-shooting) their opponents. They forgot how to play solid and consistent defense. They forgot that they shouldn’t need their goalies to carry them.
It took almost all series (and the absence of Shea Weber) to happen, but eventually the ‘Hawks started to look like a true Stanley Cup contender. Jonathan Toews leads the playoffs in scoring, and Patrick Kane looks a lot less rusty. When the goaltenders faltered, the blue line finally stepped up, limiting Nashville to only 13 shots on goal over the last 48 minutes of the series.
How the Wild Got Here: By limiting the damage Vladimir Tarasenko could do.
Without a doubt, special teams helped: converting 33% of your power plays is always going to help, especially if penalty kill is above 80%. But Minnesota beat the Blues by containing the dangerous Tarasenko for much of the series. The knock against St. Louis in previous playoffs was that they were iffy in goal and had no offense. Once you get past Tarasenko and Kevin Shattenkirk, St. Louis had no offense, no secondary scoring.
What’s remarkable is that Minnesota did this while conceding possession to the Blues. They were also out-shot by St. Louis in the series, but here’s the rub: Minnesota had the fewest even-strength shots on goal per game outside of Detroit… but the Blues had the second-fewest. This works when you’ve got a Vezina-level goalie against a traditionally low-scoring team with a rookie goalie.
Where We Go From Here: That really depends on how these teams adjust to each other for the second round. Minnesota can’t rely on converting 1/3 of their power plays, but Chicago can’t take as many penalties as they did against Nashville. Chicago needs to continue winning the possession battle, while Minnesota needs to prevent that. The ‘Hawks have a lot of offensive threats and a skilled fourth line — letting them outshoot you isn’t a reliable plan.
If Chicago has truly rediscovered its form, there’s no reason the Wild should beat them. But if they fall off even slightly, Minnesota will seize that opportunity. The ‘Hawks have to limit the penalties and hope that Rozsival being Rozsival happens rarely. The Wild have to limit Chicago’s scoring chances and hope that Chicago’s blue line leaves its goalies exposed.
Prediction: Blackhawks in 6. [Insert editor’s disagreement here, because he’s WILD for the Wild.] (Editor’s Note: WILD IN THREE BECAUSE PHYSICS – Travis)
Anaheim Ducks | 0 – 0 | Calgary Flames
How the Ducks Got Here: By putting a lot of pucks on net, and letting Ondrej Pavelec do the rest.
I hate to harp on the “Pavelec is not a good goalie” narrative, but it’s no coincidence that the Winnipeg Jets had the worst even-strength save percentage in the first round. And the Ducks had the second-most shots on goal per game at even strength. If that save percentage jumped to even just second-worst, the Jets win a game.
Meanwhile, the Ducks spent most of the series losing, only to find a way past the playoffs’ worst goalie in the third period for the tie/win. This isn’t exactly the dominant play that you would think would befit a team that swept its opponent.
How the Flames Got Here: By living the credo of Battling Jack Murdock.
The Calgary Flames are the team that is constantly beat up, but always gets back up. You can out-possess them, out-play them, and out-shoot them, but if you don’t put them away before the third period, they will beat you.
That’s really all that can be said about the Flames. They have a sky-high luck quotient (PDO), and they have one of the best top lines in all the NHL (Monahan / Hudler / Gaudreau). But once you get deeper into their forward corps, you start scratching your head, which becomes itchier after you look at their abysmal possession numbers. Their opponents were an old and creaky Vancouver Canucks, whose skill with the puck could not overcome the momentum of the kids from Calgary.
Where We Go From Here: Who will win the right to lose to the Blackhawks or Wild? Will it be the Anaheim Ducks, who were barely good enough to sweep the lowest seed in the Western conference? Or will it be the comeback kids from Calgary who spend most of the game flat on their back before pulling out the win?
We know the hockey gods are cruel (just look at that empty net goal in game 7 of the Lightning / Red Wings series). Cruelty is giving the Flames hope. Cruelty would be allowing Anaheim to think that they finally went “deep” into the playoffs by traipsing through the easiest bracket.
Prediction: Ducks in 7. Let’s not yank out the rug from under them until the Conference Finals.
Montreal Canadiens | 0 – 0 | Tampa Bay Lightning
How the Canadiens Got Here: On the back of Carey Price, as expected.
It initially looked like Montreal was going to sweep the Senators. Andrew Hammond had become mortal, and Ottawa had serious problems scoring against Price during 5-on-5 hockey. It was so bad, a Canadien defender gifted Ottawa with an own-goal to help the Senators out. Montreal still won that game.
But Craig Anderson, looking to regain a little of the mojo he lost while sitting on the Senators’ bench, helped Ottawa fight back. First the netminder shut out the Canadiens, and then he made 45 saves to give Ottawa their second win. Anderson gave the Senators a chance in game 6, stopping 19 of 20 shots, but Price once again carried the Canadiens, shutting out Ottawa for the series win.
How the Lightning Got Here: By surviving the gladiatorial trial that Detroit put up against them.
The Red Wings have become a right of passage for Stanley Cup contenders. Detroit no longer has what it takes to make the Cup finals, but they will put the fear of Joe Louis into seemingly better teams. Tampa Bay found this out by getting to the brink of elimination after game 5. This is despite that fact that the Lightning often looked like the better team, but could not solve Petr Mrazek for most of the series.
What’s amazing is that Tampa Bay clawed out a victory without goals from Steven Stamkos, the NHL’s #2 scorer during the regular season. It’s not surprising, but is amazing. This is what Detroit does to playoff opponents. They neutralize an opponent’s top threat, and force you to beat them with secondary scoring. That’s just what happened, as Tyler Johnson grabbed the reigns and went goal-happy. His six goals lead playoff skaters, and his team dominated even-strength play — shooting and save percentages were both among the highest in the first round.
Where We Go From Here: The offensive firepower of Tampa Bay versus the impossible goaltending of Carey Price. Irresistible force meets immovable object. Stamkos isn’t going to stay quiet, but the Lightning’s percentages aren’t sustainable. On the other hand, Montreal had trouble putting the puck past Craig Anderson, and Ben Bishop isn’t an easier target. Since this is the year of the goalie, the advantage would seem to be Carey Price and the Canadiens. But if Montreal can’t stifle the Lightning’s attack, Price’s save percentage won’t save them.
Prediction: Lightning in 7. Tampa Bay versus the Rangers makes a compelling Eastern Final, methinks.
New York Rangers | 0 -0 | Washington Capitals
How the Rangers Got Here: By playing solid, disciplined, defensively-impressive hockey.
New York’s blue line is unfairly deep, and it has a rested Henrik Lundqvist in goal. The Rangers matched Pittsburgh in possession, matched them in even-strength shots on goal, and took significantly fewer penalties. New York allowed the fewest goals per game, and complemented that with reliable special teams play.
Beyond statistics, the Rangers just looked like they were a team in control. Even though the Penguins played nearly as well in most aspects of the game, they never looked like they were giving the Rangers anything to worry about. Even when the Penguins looked dangerous in game 4, New York calmly won the game in OT and took all the wind out of Pittsburgh’s sails.
How the Capitals Got Here: Because Nicklas Backstrom is a maestro with the puck. Have you seen those GEICO commercials?
The main storyline going into the Capitals / Islanders series was Ovechkin vs. Tavares. How would the depleted Islanders defensemen handle Ovie? Could Tavares and Okposo work their magic against Barry Trotz and Braden Holtby? How many games would it take for a winner to emerge?
It took all seven games, and it came down to Backstrom and Washington’s penalty kill. New York completely stifled Ovechkin, but Backstrom seized the opportunity to put up 3 goals and 3 assists. And when Washington went down a skater, its special teams killed EVERY penalty. The Capitals spent 26+ minutes shorthanded, and did not give up a single goal. That’ll certainly help you move onto the next round
Where We Go From Here: Both teams are well-coached, have depth in all facets of their game, and are strong down the center and in goal. If both teams can build on what they achieved in the first round, this will be a classic series decided by razor-thin margins and opportunistic goals.
Prediction: Rangers in 6. New York is on too much of a roll to slow down now.
I was 7/8 on predictions last round, so let’s see if I can manage 3/4 this time (I assume someone in the West will prove me wrong again). Rangers-Capitals kicks off the second round tonight, followed by the start of absurd series between the Ducks and Flames.