By Matt Loughlin
One round down, three to go before the NHL crowns its next Stanley Cup champion. And what a first round it was with 18 games decided in overtime and one HUGE upset (Nashville sweeping Chicago, the first-ever sweep of a first-seed by an eighth-seed).
With the preliminary round out of the way, let’s take a look what lies ahead in the conference semis.
Rangers vs. Ottawa
The Rangers speed and depth will be challenged by the Senators reliance on the trap. Yes, the trap is back in vogue (at least in Ottawa) and head coach Guy Boucher’s team implements it to near perfection. It will require the Rangers forwards to dump the puck into the Ottawa zone and go get it. It can be an incredibly frustrating system to play against as it forces forwards to give up the puck rather than dance and dart their way through the neutral zone.
New York doesn’t have one superstar line. Rather, head coach Alain Vigneault relies on four above average lines, with four 20-goal scorers sprinkled among them depending on whom Vigneault uses where. However two of them, Chris Krieder and JT Miller, did not score in the first round and they must be better against Ottawa.
The Rangers’ biggest advantage is in goal where Henrik Lundqvist takes the nod over Craig Anderson. Lundqvist was superb in the opening round win over Montreal, with a .947 save percentage and timely late saves in the series deciding Game 6. If the King is at the top of his game, the Senators could be in for a short ride.
The “X” factor for Ottawa is defenseman Erik Karlsson. He leads all playoff skaters by playing an average of 30:23 per game (aided by the fact that the Senators played four overtime games in their first round win over Boston) and keys the Ottawa 5v5 attack and its power play. He is a sublime talent who is not afraid to take a risk. However he has admitted that he is playing with two hairline fractures in his left heel and that may be a factor before long. The Senators “D” is not particularly deep and Ottawa could be in big trouble if Karlsson is limited in any way.
I thought the Rangers would be ousted in six games against Montreal. I’m switching gears here. Rangers in six.
Pittsburgh vs. Washington
History is working against Washington. Let me count the ways.
The Caps have not advanced past the second round of the playoffs since 1998.
The Caps won the Presidents Trophy this year for having the best record in the NHL. The trophy has been awarded since 1986. Only 27% of the teams who have won the trophy have won the SC.
The Caps have previously played the Penguins nine times in the playoffs. The Penguins have won eight times including in the second round last year.
But eventually the worm turns, right?
The Penguins have two key injuries. Defenseman Kris Letang is out for the remainder of the playoffs following neck surgery while goalie Matt Murray remains sidelined with a lower-body injury. Letang’s absence is big, big, big. He plays major minutes and in all circumstances. The Pens were able to get by without him against Columbus but it won’t be so easy against Washington. The Murray injury is less of a concern since his backup is Marc-Andre Fleury, a two-time Stanley Cup winner. But Murray is the number one goalie and, while Fleury is an excellent second option, the Penguins will be better served with Murray in net.
Despite the medical woes, the Penguins are still a handful for any team.
Sidney Crosby remains the best player in the game. He led the league in scoring and finished second in points. Crosby is at his best when the heat is on. Evgeni Malkin had 11 points against Columbus, Phil Kessel had 8 points and rookie Jake Guentzel scored 5 goals. This team is deep and fast.
Washington superstar Alex Ovechkin is the man under the microscope. For all his Hall of Fame talent, he’s never been able to lead the Caps very deep in the playoffs. He’s still the man but he’s not a one-man show.
After losing to Pittsburgh in the playoffs last year, Washington knew they had to improve. And they did. Signing Lars Eller last summer aided their depth down the middle while trading for defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk in February bolstered the blue line. Returning stalwarts Nicklas Backstrom and Justin Williams up front and defenseman John Carlson and goalie Braden Holtby make Washington a formidable opponent.
But speed kills and the Penguins have it in abundance. Washington struggled at times in the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fleet young talent and it will be their Achilles heel here.
History repeats itself. Penguins in six.
Nashville vs. St. Louis
Both teams leaned on their goalies in their first round wins. Pekka Rinne shut out Chicago in the first two games and set the tone for the Predators sweep while Jake Allen, blossoming under the tutelage of Martin Brodeur, was brilliant against Minnesota, who might have been the better team but were stymied time and time again by Allen.
The difference in this series will come down to the blue line. The Blues defense is fine but the Predators have the best defense corps that you’ve never heard of.
Roman Josi, PK Subban, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, Yannick Weber and Matt Irwin are mobile, push the pace and will make Rinne’s job that much easier since St. Louis won’t be able to score if they don’t have the puck.
Throw in the coming out party for forwards Filip Forsberg and Victor Ardvidsson and it’s Nashville in five.
Edmonton vs. Anaheim
The Anaheim Ducks, much like Washington although with the 2008 Stanley Cup championship on their resume, have been perennially among the league’s best teams. Most seasons have ended in heartbreak but it might be different this year.
The forward group is very good. Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler bring the experience and snarl to the Ducks with Rickard Rakell and Jakob Silfverberg bringing youth and speed. The defense is young, mobile and gifted. John Gibson is one of the best young goalies in the game.
Edmonton has a great combination of size and speed and youth and experience and it carried them to their first playoff appearance in 12 years and a win over last year’s Stanley Cup runner up, the San Jose Sharks.
Connor McDavid will someday supplant Crosby as the best player in the league and the remaining cast of characters in Alberta have been a delight to watch.
But the fun ends here. Anaheim in six.