Who’s advancing to the second round?
The NHL playoffs are upon us. It came down to Saturday, but with Toronto’s 5-3 victory over Pittsburgh, the Leafs clinched a spot, eliminating both the Lightning and Islanders in the process. Let’s take a look at the upcoming matchups and remember that it’s the NHL’s turn to blow a 3-1 lead.
Montreal vs. New York (regular season series: 3-0 Montreal)
When the Canadiens and Rangers get together, you know you’re in for some good hockey; it’s always fun when Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist get to share the ice. The good news for Montreal is Lundqvist is coming off one his worst seasons. Lundqvist has been one of the league’s best goalies for years, but at 35, he is in decline and his window for a Stanley Cup as the lead goalie is closing fast.
For the Rangers, they need someone to step up and take control on offense. They must build momentum right out of the gate. The Rangers boast one of the best offenses in the game and finished the regular season fourth in goals for. While some teams have a Sidney Crosby or Nikita Kucherov, the Rangers offense lacks a superstar and instead runs through a diverse rotation of lines. They’ll have their hands full with Montreal’s stout defense, but if the Rangers can get hot, a middle-of-the-pack Habs offense can’t be relied upon to post consistent comebacks.
But what Montreal lacks in offense, they make up for with a stout defense anchored by an elite goalie. Price had a revolutionary season two years ago and has bounced back from injury brilliantly. An important detail to remember is that Montreal swept the Rangers during the regular season. The Canadien defense is no joke and is every bit as good as the Rangers offense is.
The Rangers offense will keep them in every game and extend the series, but ultimately this comes down to goaltending and Lundqvist falls short of Price.
Ianic’s Pick: Montreal in 6
Matt’s Pick: Montreal in 6
Ottawa vs. Boston (regular season series: 4-0 Ottawa)
This is surely one of the more interesting matchups of the first round. It’s been a season to remember for the Senators, though it’s been business as usual in Boston. Ottawa is still in the process of finding themselves under their new coach while Boston’s regime change has brought new life to the team. This is a fairly evenly matched duel that will likely come down to who can control the momentum swings.
The key for Ottawa is staying true to their disciplined, conservative style of hockey. Under first-year coach Guy Boucher, the Senators have sprung back to life. Boucher’s system is perfect for the personnel in Ottawa. The brunt of the pressure falls on goalie Craig Anderson and Erik Karlsson, the latter of whom should be in contention for the Norris Trophy. They struggled in the regular season with penalty kills and power plays though, finishing in the bottom third in each category. It may very well come down to the power play, in which Ottawa’s 17 percent is not going to cut it.
On the flip side, Boston has the best penalty kill unit in the NHL with a dominant 85.7 percent. Their power play of 21.7 percent isn’t anything to mess around with either. The absence of Torey Krug will hurt them, but getting Brad Marchand back is huge for them. The Bruins are one of the best teams in the NHL at controlling the flow of play and it’s possible Ottawa plays Game 1 without the disruptive line of Karlsson and Marc Methot. For Boston, this comes down to how their depth performs.
In the end, I expect Boston’s special teams to be the turning point for the series. Ottawa is a very good team when they are in control but Boston is much better at taking control. Look for Boston’s penalty kill to be a defining factor in this series and expect big things from Marchand and Patrice Bergeron.
Ianic’s Pick: Ottawa in 5
Matt’s Pick: Boston in 6
Washington vs. Toronto (regular season series: 2-1 Washington)
What a lucky draw for Washington. The Caps found the one team known for choking more than they do. It’s like going to the NFL Playoffs, unsure of your future, to find out you get to play Marvin Lewis. Plus, it’s fitting that Auston Matthews makes his playoff debut against Alex Ovechkin.
At this point, the only knock against Washington is mental. Their offense, led by Alex Ovechkin and TJ Oshie, is one of the best in the league. Their defense, anchored by goaltender Braden Holtby, is also one of the best in the league. For the second year running, the Caps won the Presidents’ Trophy. Careless mistakes and a loss of momentum led the Caps to ruin last season as Ovechkin is still left wondering what this “Conference Finals” thing is people keep talking about. That’s the one blemish on Ovechkin’s incredible career and each year he goes without it gets bigger and bigger.
The Leafs scraped by on the edge of their seat largely due to the historic rookie season of Auston Matthews. The rookie started his career with a four goal performance, the only player with that distinction. Matthews went on to score 40 goals, finishing second in the league in goals scored. Toronto’s strength is in their youth and ferocity, but their downfall is their inexperience. The number of players on Toronto’s roster with actual playoff experience is pitiful. Frederik Andersen’s goaltending has been inconsistent this season and he’ll have his hands full against the Washington attack.
Auston Matthews has been a revelation for Toronto this season. But his rookie season is going to end in a playoff loss. Top to bottom, Washington is a far better team than Toronto. The Leafs are not accustomed to the playoffs and the leadership of Matthews will not be enough to compete with the Caps on hockey’s biggest stage.
Ianic’s Pick: Washington in 4
Matt’s Pick: Washington in 5
Pittsburgh vs. Columbus (regular season series: 2-1-1 tie)
A Cinderella story of sorts, the Blue Jackets have had an incredible season. Unfortunately for them, so have the defending champions. Sidney Crosby continues to prove why he is the best forward in hockey, leading the league with 44 goals. The Blue Jackets made a name for themselves early on with their high scoring offense and immovable defense and hope to keep the good times rolling against a banged up Penguins team.
Kris Letang is out, Chris Kunitz isn’t expected back this series, and Evgeni Malkin is returning from injury. Pittsburgh could be going the way of the Lightning; injures prove to be too much for them to play at a consistent level. At the end of the day though, you’ve got Crosby and Kessler, so you still have a chance. A healthy Pittsburgh team wins this series in four or five. The Penguins offense is devastating partly due to being one of the fastest, most athletic squads in the NHL.
Those still not familiar with Sergei Bobrovsky will learn very soon. Bobrovsky led the NHL in goals against average (2.06) and save percentage (.931) and was a major factor behind the Blue Jackets rise this season. Everything seemed to click for this Columbus team this year. Cam Atkinson finally proved himself to be the leader he showed flashes of in the past. Then there is Seth Jones, who has been a lights out defender all season. Their biggest issue is a lack of playoff experience. But don’t compare them to last year’s Florida Panthers. This Columbus team is capable of doing what it takes to win in the postseason; they’re built for it.
Columbus is built for competing but Sidney Crosby is built for winning. In the last ten seasons, the Penguins have as many Stanley Cup appearances as they do first round losses. This isn’t something that happens often. Pittsburgh is banged up right now but they’re improving every day. The return of Malkin could be the tipping point for the defending champs.
Ianic’s Pick: Columbus in 7
Matt’s Pick: Pittsburgh in 7
Chicago vs. Nashville (regular season series: 4-1 Chicago)
This is a matchup of “same old, same old” versus the exciting new guy in town. The Blackhawks are back where they’ve been all decade long as a serious contender to win Lord Stanley’s cup. As for the Predators, they look refreshed in the first year of the PK Subban era, and look to make themselves a tough out in what should be a great first round of hockey for both teams.
Across the entire NHL, the Blackhawks could easily have the most complete roster. It all starts with the Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin combination that has been so deadly for Chicago the last two seasons. After a slow start by his own standards, Kane tore up the league in the second half and made a valiant push for back to back Art Ross trophies. While he was unable to close the gap for 1st place, his 34 goals and 89 points are nothing to sneeze at. The Blackhawks are also blessed with some of the best secondary scoring in the NHL. Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Richard Panik and Ryan Hartman are all players many teams would trot out as their best scorers. Toews and Hossa also double as two of the most defensively responsible skaters in the playoffs.
Defensively, the Blackhawks have some absolute studs that can contribute at both ends of the ice. Duncan Keith is an elite defenseman and Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brian Campbell are all stellar players. Should teams manage to squeeze by those guys, Chicago also sports a very consistent starting goaltender in Corey Crawford. For years, Crawford has silently allowed the Blackhawks to play freely, with the knowledge that their goalie has their back in case they falter. It will be more of the same this postseason. It should also be noted that Scott Darling is a more-than-competent backup should Crawford struggle or incur an injury during Chicago’s postseason.
After a rough patch that included Subban missing games with an injury, the Predators also closed out their season strong. While they may not have the firepower that the Blackhawks possess, Nashville has weapons of their own. After a decent rookie campaign, Viktor Arvidsson really came into his own in 2016-17. He forms, along with Filip Forsberg, one of the most potent one-two punches of left wingers in the NHL. Ryan Johansen can center either of them and act as their primary playmaker to really give Nashville’s best scorers a chance to work their magic. Once one of Sidney Crosby’s best sidekicks, James Neal continues to find the back of the net as a Predator, acting as the team’s most consistent secondary option. Nashville’s offensive units definitely enjoy grinding out games and no one represents that better than their captain, Mike Fisher of Carrie Underwood fame. His workman like mentality is one that takes over the entire locker room and pushes the team to overachieve.
Defensively, the Predators are one of the few teams that can match Chicago talent for talent. There is the aforementioned Subban, who is an elite defenseman, especially on the power play and in breaking out of his own zone. A player likely even better than Subban is Roman Josi, who spends time behind the shadows of bigger names, but tends to outplay all of them. Josi can do everything an elite defenseman is asked to do and has no back breaking flaws. He is a top 10 defenseman in the NHL and will be a major factor if Nashville can pull out this series. Contributions should be expected from guys like Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and Yannick Weber. In nets, Pekka Rinne is not the Vezina contender he once was but has had a bounce back year after a horrid 2015-16. He is not the worse guy one could pin its hopes on in the playoffs.
On the surface, this is the best team in the west against the last team to qualify for the playoffs but there’s much more to it than that. Chicago is a very skilled team and Nashville is going to want to muck it up as much as possible. They have the best defensemen to throw at the Blackhawks’ cavalcade of offensive stars. The Blackhawks should ultimately pull out a win in this series but don’t expect it to be pretty.
Ianic’s Pick: Chicago in 6
Matt’s Pick: Chicago in 7
Minnesota vs. St. Louis (regular season series: 3-2 St. Louis)
The Wild stumbled into the playoffs looking nothing like the world beaters they were in the first half of the season. The Blues fired their coach, Ken Hitchcock, and went on an absolute tear to secure their spot in the postseason. Everything is now a blank slate but momentum will be on a lot of people’s minds as two teams playing very different hockey set their sights on the same goal: advancing to the next round.
Very simply, Minnesota is going to require Devan Dubnyk’s best efforts in nets to win this series. Despite finishing the season in a brutal drought, Dubnyk was masterful for much of the 2016-17 and figures to be a Vezina contender. On the other side of the coin, his backup, Darcy Kuemper, may be one of the league’s worst goaltenders and absolutely will not be able to fill in if Dubnyk struggles. It’s a lot of pressure to put on a single player but Dubnyk is aware of the situation. If he thrives, the Wild have a great chance at advancing but if he plays below his capabilities… forget about it.
Otherwise, the Wild are a very balanced team through and through. They had nine players reach 40 points during the regular season and Jared Spurgeon just missed the mark finishing with 38 points. Mikael Granlund enjoyed a breakout season that saw him become the face of the Wild’s scoring punch. Eric Staal announced to the hockey world that he wasn’t nearly as done as we had all pronounced him to be in a comeback season and Mikko Koivu continued to be an excellent two way player that gets absolutely no press. The Wild’s defense is a no-nonsense group perfectly capable of handling playoff hockey headlined by Spurgeon, Ryan Suter and Matthew Dumba.
In Vladimir Tarasenko, the Blues own one of the deadliest snipers in the NHL. He just missed reaching the 40-goal plateau and looked extremely dangerous once he was freed from the shackles that had become Hitchcock’s system. If Minnesota needs Dubnyk at his finest to advance, the same can be said of Tarasenko for the Blues. He can’t be a no show if this team wants to advance to the second round of the playoffs and he knows it. The Blues have some nice offensive talent to pair with Tarasenko be it Jaden Schwartz, Paul Stastny, Alex Steen, David Perron or Robby Fabbri. They will be one of the most entertaining teams to watch in this year’s postseason.
On the defensive end, the Blues are generally stellar. Alex Pietrangelo is the headliner and Jay Bouwmeester is the quiet veteran that gets the job done in his end. Guys like Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson, promising young defenders fill in when needed without taking too much off the table.
If Dubnyk had a rough end to the year, Jake Allen can sympathize because until Ken Hitchcock was dismissed, it had been a nightmare season for the goaltender. Since then, he has turned it around in a major way and appears to have regaineda lot of the confidence he had lost early on in the season. Allen’s play is important for the Blues but not the extent that it might be for Minnesota because Carter Hutton has had a great campaign backing him up.
This is as tough a series to predict in the first round. The Wild truly looked terrible coming down the stretch and the Blues really looked to have turned the corner under a new coach. Then again, what if Allen struggles and Minnesota is able to hit that early season form? Playoff hockey is nothing like the regular season and the Wild have a team built for a good run. This is a complete gut check on my end and I may end up regretting this decision.
Ianic’s Pick: St. Louis in 7
Matt’s Pick: Minnesota in 6
Anaheim vs. Calgary (regular season series: 4-1 Anaheim)
If you’re looking for a series that has the potential to become a bloodbath, look no further. These two teams do not like each other, as displayed by their most recent regular season matchup and both sides carry some of the most notorious pests in the league. If gritty playoff hockey is what you seek, Anaheim and Calgary is who you want to watch.
For the better part of the 2000s, the Ducks have absolutely owned the Flames. Calgary has not won a regular season game in Anaheim since 2004, a stretch of 26 games. The Ducks have also eliminated the Flames twice in its franchise history, never losing a series against them. While some of that should have no bearing on the present, much of the pressure to perform will be on the young Flames who look to alter the course of time.
As for the Ducks, they are battle tested and hungry. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry headline a team that has gone deep in the postseason before and both of those men have Stanley Cup rings to show for it. Getzlaf in particular has truly been spectacular during the 2016-17 season, looking once again like one of the league’s best set-up men. Their backup isn’t too shabby either with veterans like Andrew Cogliano, Ryan Kesler and Anotine Vermette mixing in with the younger prospects like Rickard Rakell and Jakob Silfverberg.
Where the Ducks could be hurting a little bit is on the defensive end. Cam Fowler is far and away the team’s best defenseman and he was injured in that last regular season matchup with the Flames. Without Fowler, the Ducks are much thinner than they would like to be at the back end which puts extra pressure on the goaltending. Thankfully for the Ducks, John Gibson has been one of the steadiest starting goalies in the league and looks poised to spearhead a spirited postseason run.
Despite being a young team, the Flames put together one of the better second half runs in the NHL. They worked themselves into a comfortable playoff spot after looking like a bottom feeder early on in the year and that speaks to a certain level of clutch play of steely nerves. This is a team that thrives off of energy and speed because their best players are both young and fast. No one better represents that then Johnny Gaudreau, the tiny little speed demon that has some of the most dazzling set of hands in the league. Let’s not mistake the team’s skill for lack of grit though. A team managed by Brian Burke would never lack truculence and in Matthew Tkachuk, they have tons of it. The young man who idolized Corey Perry growing up has become the most irritating and ethically questionable players in the league. In the playoffs, expect him to be no different.
Behind Gaudreau is cast of skaters that are all up to the task of supporting him. Be it Sean Monahan and Mikael Backlund, who like his brother had a breakout campaign, or Dougie Hamilton and Mark Giordano, the Flames run deep. They have three lines capable of putting up points and a defensive top six that has no real weakness.
The one question will be in the crease. Brian Elliott has worked his way back from an absolutely brutal first half of the season and ended the season strong. He was signed over the summer with the expectations of being the number one. That said, during Elliott’s struggles, Chad Johnson really stepped up and carried the Flames back to the brink of the playoffs. Elliott may get the initial start but don’t be surprised if he is given a short leash.
The Flames are exciting and young, but they aren’t ready yet. The Ducks are built for the playoffs and have so much experience that it will be too difficult for Calgary to overcome it. I don’t expect this series to be overly competitive.
Ianic’s Pick: Anaheim in 4
Matt’s Pick: Anaheim in 6
Edmonton vs. San Jose (regular season series: 3-2 Edmonton)
For Oilers fans, the moment the puck drops in Edmonton for game one of this series will have been long awaited. After falling just short of a cup in 2006, the Oilers will make their playoff return against the team that fell just short of a cup in 2016, San Jose. Both teams feature extremely talented players with the only difference being in their respective ages.
Only one player broke 100 points this season and his name is Connor McDavid. He proved this year that he could very well already be the league’s best player. While that may be a topic of debate, no one will argue that he is also the NHL’s most electrifying skater. A veritable force of nature who makes everyone around him better, McDavid has almost assuredly won himself his first Hart trophy and now will look to continue that success in the playoffs. Late in the year, coach Todd McLellan, San Jose’s old bench boss, paired McDavid and his usual linemate Patrick Maroon with fellow center Leon Draisaitl. The result was absolute magic that helped both players finish the season on amazing stretches. That line will likely stay together and has proven to be nigh impossible to stop despite catching all of the attention from the opposition.
Thanks to years of horrible hockey, the Oilers have also built up a nice collection of useful parts. Milan Lucic, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins form a deadly two way second line. Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Andrej Sekera, Kris Russell and Darnell Nurse shore up the defense better than any Oilers unit this decade. In nets, Cam Talbot emerged out of Henrik Lundqvist’s shadow in New York to become a Vezina contender in his own right. Despite McJesus’ magic, there is no playoff hockey in Edmonton this year without Talbot stepping up to the plate.
With age comes wisdom and the Sharks in many ways look like the Oilers of the future. Joe Thornton is just as much the playmaker McDavid is and Patrick Marleau can fill up the nets on pace with Maroon and Draisaitl. Guys like Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski also give Edmonton a run for its money in terms of offense from their frontline.
Defensively, the Sharks have one of the best offensive defenseman in the playoffs: Brent Burns. Often cited as a fourth forward on the ice, Burns has a knack for scoring timely goals, delivering momentum shifting hits and generally producing winning hockey on the ice. Combined with Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s more traditional and safe brand of defensive hockey, they form the best pair in the NHL. Martin Jones may not be the level of goaltender that Cam Talbot has shown to be but he is more than capable of winning games by himself which is all you ask for from your goaltender in the postseason.
This Oilers team is too dynamic and too fun to root against. McDavid will be under more scrutiny in the playoffs but that doesn’t mean he can be stopped. San Jose had their chance last season and slightly missed the boat, but this feels like Edmonton’s time now.
Ianic’s Pick: Oilers in 5
Matt’s Pick: Oilers in 5
Bonus Avocado Pick: San Jose in 4
Toronto Maple Leafs