The Glass Eye: NHL Playoff Preview, Round One

The best playoffs in major sports – the Stanley Cup playoffs – kick off Wednesday, and there are compelling matchups all over the board. Here’s my analysis and predictions for each series, starting out west:

WESTERN CONFERENCE 

 Anaheim Ducks vs. Dallas Stars

Key Stats: Anaheim finished as the #1 team in the west with 116 points. The teams are virtually even on special teams, ranking 22nd and 23rd on the power play, and 14th and 21st on the penalty kill; Anaheim finished #1 in the league in scoring with 3.21 goals per game, while Dallas ranked 10th at 2.82 goals per game.

Anaheim was by far the best in the game at coming back to win; as they won 57% of the time after allowing the first goal (league average is about 30%, which is Dallas’ percentage). While both teams were mediocre on the power play, Anaheim excelled at even-strength. Only the Bruins dominated their opponent more 5-on-5 than the Ducks. Again, Dallas was around the league average in this category.

Key Players: For Anaheim, there are several possibilities but I’m sticking with their best player, Ryan Getzlaf. Only Sidney Crosby scored more points this season, and the duo of Getzlaf and Corey Perry is almost impossible to stop. Anaheim has depth at forward, and that’s important, but I’m a believer that in the postseason, your best players have to BE your best players in order to win. Getzlaf (and Perry) need to set the tone in this series for the Ducks.

For Dallas, I’m going with goalie Kari Lehtonen. The Ducks have three viable goalie options; for the Stars, it’s Lehtonen or bust. To pull off an upset like this, your goalie has to play ‘over his head’ and steal a game or two – and Lehtonen is certainly capable of that. Tylet Seguin is a close second; he won a Cup with the Bruins, but seemed to really break out this season after being traded to the Stars – he is Dallas’ best player, and this is his chance to show his stuff on a bigger stage.

Prediction: For a few weeks I thought Anaheim was vulnerable – they were mediocre much of March – but they appear to have hit their stride again at just the right time, and while Dallas is a rising team I don’t think they have the horses to pull this off. I look for this to be a closer series than some expect, but eventually ANAHEIM prevails in SIX.

Colorado Avalanche vs. Minnesota Wild

Key Stats: Colorado ended up winning the Central Division thanks to a hot finish – they went 7-1-2 down the stretch while the Blues lost six in a row. I thought of Colorado as a ‘defense first’ team, but they actually finished fourth in the league with 2.99 goals per game, while the Wild were 24th (and next to last among playoff teams) with 2.43 goals per game. The Avs had five 20 goals scorers, while the Wild had only two.

Defensively, the Wild ranked seventh,  allowing 2.42 goals per game, while the Avs ranked 15th, allowing 2.63. Both teams were poor on the penalty kill – Colorado ranked 24th, Minnesota 27th (these were the worst two PK units to make the playoffs) – but the Avs had the #5 power play while the Wild ranked 16th. Both teams had similar home records, but Colorado had the best road record in the NHL (they actually had identical 26-11-4 records home and away) while the Wild was a .500 road team.

Key Players: For Colorado, defenseman Erik Johnson led the team in minutes per game (23:00) and defense scoring (nine goals, 39 points). He will likely be tasked with shutting down Zach Parise and the top Minnesota scoring line. With leading scorer Matt Duchesne out for the Avs, stopping Minnesota’s lone scoring line is a major key for Colorado’s chances to move on.

For the Wild, there are a few possible choices – Parise, defenseman Ryan Suter (who averages almost 30 minutes per game!!!), but I’m going with Ilya Bryzgalov. The exiled Flyer was plodding through a mediocre season with Edmonton, but his trade to Minnesota has stabilized a VERY shaky goaltending corps for the Wild – down the stretch, ‘Bryz’ was excellent and was a major reason the Wild made the playoffs. The catch, of course, is Bryzgalov’s poor playoff history – this is his chance to erase those demons and show the Philly failures were a team effort. With the airtight Minnesota defense in front of him, a blow-up in this series will be on him and him alone.

Prediction: Colorado is the story of the year in the NHL, and rookie coach Patrick Roy has certainly won the Coach of the Year award. He also is a ‘proven winner’ in the postseason, which may be more important than usual for this young Colorado squad. The injury to Duchesne makes this a much more even contest; however…Colorado has depth, but not so much that they can easily overcome the loss of a point-per-game scorer. However, this is almost the perfect first-round opponent for the Avs – Minnesota has HUGE issues scoring goals, and an uncertain goalie situation. If they can get out to a 2-0 series lead, this could easily be a sweep. Minnesota keeps improving step by step, but with only one viable scoring line I don’t think they have enough to hang with the Avs. COLORADO IN FIVE.

San Jose Sharks vs. LA Kings

Key Stats: This series is a tale of extremes. The Sharks finished sixth in scoring at 2.92 goals per game, while the Kings finished 27th (and last among playoff teams) at 2.40 goals per game. Defensively, however, LA finished #1 in the league, averaging 2.05 goals per game, while the Sharks finished a very respectable fifth (2.35 allowed per game). Both teams are poor on the power play (the Sharks ranked 20th, while the Kings ranked 27th and last among playoff teams), but both are above-average on the penalty kill (Sharks 6th, Kings 11th).

Both teams were excellent at even strength, with LA ranking third and the Sharks ranking sixth. Both teams had good road records, but San Jose was significantly better at home (29-7-5 vs. 23-14-4 for the Kings).

Key Players: For San Jose, I’m picking defenseman Marc-Eduard Vlasic. He’s not flashy, but he’s a very effective shut-down defenseman who was a key part of Canada’s Olympic gold medal run in February, and I expect he will be asked to defend LA’s top line of Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik, and Justin Williams (I expect Jeff Carter on that line occasionally too).

For LA, I’m picking Gaborik. The Kings have had scoring issues for several years, and it’s been too easy to defend them when only one line was dangerous. If Gaborik is effective and scores, suddenly the Kings have TWO effective units (Richards-Carter-King are #2) and that makes matching up that much harder.

Prediction: This could be the best series of the first round – these division rivals know each other inside and out, they played a grueling 7-game series a year ago, and the season series was 3-2 in favor of LA, with four games decided by one goal. The addition of Gaborik tipped the scales toward the Kings, but the return of rookie sensation Tomas Hertl from injury (15 goals, 25 points in 37 games) is a HUGE boost for the Sharks. Only a sweep would surprise me, but the Sharks seem due for a deep playoff run and I think this is the year they make a statement. SAN JOSE IN SIX.

St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks

Key Stats: The Blues appeared to have the division sewn up – and were fighting for the President’s Trophy as the best regular-season team – until they lost their last six games, allowing the Avalanche to pass them and setting up a MUCH tougher matchup with the defending champs. St Louis finished the season tied with San Jose at #6 overall with 2.92 goals scored per game, while the Blackhawks ranked 32 with 3.18 goals per game. Both teams had top-10 power plays, with just over 19% conversion rate on the PP. St Louis was dominant on the penalty kill, ranking #2 overall while Chicago ranked 19th. Both teams were strong 5-on-5, ranking fourth and fifth in the league in that category.

Perhaps more important than any other stat is the injury factor – the ‘Hawks are getting healthy, with both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane ready for action, while the Blues are potentially without their #2 scorer TJ Oshie after a crunching hit last week. David Backes, perhaps the best defensive center in the league, is nursing a foot injury and his status is also unknown.

Key Players: For Chicago I’m going with Marian Hossa. ‘Hoss’ scored 30 goals for the first time since 2009, and in only 72 games – it may take Kane and Toews a few games to get back in sync, and Hossa’s veteran experience could be the difference in a tough series.

For St. Louis the obvious pick is goalie Ryan Miller. He was the ‘all-in’ move at the trade deadline this year, but his stats since the trade have been average at best – and this is his first time competing on a team capable of winning the Cup. He gets a VERY stern test right off the bat, and it will be interesting to see how he reacts.

Prediction: Frankly, it’s a shame to see this matchup in the first round – I tend to believe these are the best two teams in the conference when healthy, and to see one of them out after two weeks is tough…but St. Louis earned this by picking the worst possible time to hit a rut. Sometimes playoff success is about timing and luck – the Blues were dominant for so long, but they have the look of a team that peaked too early (think Pittsburgh 2011-13), while Chicago is putting it all together at just the right time. This should be a very entertaining battle, but in the end I think the champs live to fight another day…CHICAGO IN SIX.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Montreal Canadiens vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

Key stats: Tampa Bay was a very good offensive club, they ranked ninth with 2.83 goals per game, while Montreal struggled offensively, ranking 21st with 2.55 goals per game. Both teams are mediocre on the power play – Tampa ranked 13th (albeit with Stamkos out for much of the season), while Montreal ranked 19th.

Defensively the Canadiens ranked eighth, allowing 2.45 goals per game, while the Lightning ranked 11th at 2.55 goals per game. The one advantage Montreal has is on the penalty kill – they ranked fourth at just over 85%, while the Lightning ranked 23rd at 80.7%. Tampa was also significantly better at even strength, ranking seventh to Montreal’s 16th. The first goal is so crucial for Montreal, they win 82% of the time when they score first, and 92% when they lead after two periods…but they only win 24% of the games in which the opponent scores first, worst among playoff teams. Tampa doesn’t hold leads quite as well, but they won 37.5% of the time when allowing the first goal, which ranked fifth in the league.

Here’s the real equalizer: Tampa’s top goalie, Ben Bishop, is out with an elbow injury and it’s very unclear when, or if, he will return. He was flat-out great this season (2.23 Goals-against, .924 save%), but his backup, Anders Lindback, was below average to bad (2.90 goals against, .891 save%). If Bishop is gone for this series, it changes the entire situation.

Key Players:  I’m picking both goalies. For Tampa, Lindback has to shake off a poor season and give the Lightning at least average goaltending – if he does that, their superior skill should carry the day. If he’s shaky, they will almost certainly lose. For Montreal, it’s a given that Carey Price will face a lot of high-quality shots from Stamkos & Co., but can his excellent gold-medal performance in Sochi propel him (finally) to playoff dominance? He will have to be Montreal’s best player for the ‘Habs’ to advance.

Prediction: With Bishop healthy, there was no way I was going against the Lightning…but suddenly, they seem very vulnerable. I’m not a fan of Montreal, or their system, or their personnel, but they caught a MAJOR break and I expect Price to hold up his end of the deal here. I expect Montreal to split in Tampa, take control at home and wrap it up at home…CANADIENS IN SIX.

NY Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers

Key Stats:  The Flyers ranked eighth, scoring 2.84 goals per game, while the Rangers ranked 18th with 2.61 goals per game. The power play story was about the same – Philly ranked eighth, while NY ranked 15th. Defensively, the Rangers ranked fourth with 2.32 goals against per game, while the Flyers ranked 20th (worst among all playoff teams), allowing 2.77 goals per game. Both teams were good on the penalty kill (Rangers third, Flyers seventh) but New York was SIGNIFIICANTLY better at even strength – they ranked 10th, while the Flyers ranked 17th and last among all playoff teams.

Philly had a typical home/road split – they were good at home, just over .500 on the road…but the Rangers had a VERY odd record, just over .500 at home but second-best road record in the league.

Another key injury in this series: Flyers’ goalie Steve Mason was injured over the weekend and his status for the opening game is questionable.

Key Players: For the Rangers, I’m going with Rick Nash. The New York forwards are a collection of grinders and past-their-prime veterans, with the notable exception of Nash – he’s supposed to be one of the best power forwards in the game, he needs to step forward and prove it. He’s also big and strong enough to handle the Broad Street Bully tactics he’s likely to see in this series.

For Philly, it’s always about the goaltending, but I’m going to spotlight Kimmo Timonen. The aging Finn is their best two-way defenseman, but he’s had a long season when you throw in the Olympics, and he’s going to be counted on to play 20-25 minutes against the opponents’ top lines. Can he handle the workload?

Prediction: My readers know I have no love for either team, especially the Flyers, but at least I can see what they are trying to do with their roster – they are loaded with big, tough, skilled forwards and they want to outhit and outscore the opposition, trading punches and scoring chances alike. Their style fits their personnel and their city. I have NO IDEA what the Rangers are doing – their forward cast is a motley crew, they don’t really have a shutdown defenseman, and while Henrik Lundqvist is great, he’s nearing the end of his prime.

This is another great divisional rivalry, and Lundqvist will steal at least one or two games in this series, but who is going to stand up for the Rangers and counter the offensive onslaught? Richards? Zuccarello? Nash CAN do it, but he will need help and I don’t think they have enough. These are both very flawed teams to be honest, and if Mason is out for the series that REALLY hurts the Flyers’ chances…but I think he comes back by Game 3, and I like PHILLY IN SEVEN to move on. 

Boston Bruins vs. Detroit Red Wings

Key Stats: Boston had the best record in the league, and it was no fluke – they had the best goal differential, they ranked #3 in goals scored and #2 in goals allowed, they were BY FAR the best team in the league at even strength, and their power play ranked third. The only ‘weakness’, if you can call it that, was an eighth-place ranking on the penalty kill. This is a deep, skilled, tough team.

Detroit is but a shadow of their former Cup-winning selves – but they do have young talent beginning to emerge. They ranked 16th in goals scored AND goals allowed, 14th at even strength, 18th on the power play, 12th on the penalty kill – basically, the very definition of an average NHL team. Another bad omen for Detroit – they were among the league’s worst at holding leads, they won only 59% of the time when scoring first (Boston was at 84%) and only won 71% of the games they led after two periods (Boston won 91%).  The Red Wings had only ONE player score 20 goals! (Boston had five)

To top it all off, Henrik Zetterberg is out with a back injury and while he originally planned to be ready for the playoffs, he will miss at least the first two games…and I do not believe he will be a factor even if he returns later in the series.

Key Players: Detroit needs Pavel Datsyuk to play like it’s 2008 again, when he was the best 2-way player in the game. At age 35, he’s definitely on the down slope of his career, but he can show the old dominance in spurts – to have any hope at all, the Wings need one of those spurts to come these next two weeks.

For Boston, they need to stay healthy first and foremost, but I guess I’ll go with Patrice Bergeron. He will be tasked with stopping Datsyuk’s line I expect, and his excellent two-way skills will be tested. Really though, Boston is so deep that if they play anything remotely close to their established level, they don’t HAVE a key player – they just roll four lines at you all night and grind you down.

Prediction: This is the biggest mismatch of the first round. The Wings are in their version of rebuilding, and for that group just making the playoffs was pretty amazing…while the Bruins are established as a powerhouse, the clear favorite in the East and arguably the league. Anything is possible in a short series, but BOSTON IN FIVE is my pick. 

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

Key Stats: Pittsburgh finished fifth in scoring at 2.95 goals per game, and #1 on the power play. Columbus ranked 12th with 2.76 goals per game, and 11th on the power play.

Defensively, the Jackets allowed 2.61 goals per game to rank 13th, while Pittsburgh ranked 10th with 2.49 goals allowed per game. The Pens’ penalty kill ranked fifth, while Columbus ranked 14th. At even strength the teams were fairly similar, ranking 11th and 12th in the league. Pittsburgh also had the best record in the league when scoring first, while Columbus was below average in that regard.

For the first time all season, the injury news also favors Pittsburgh – they should have all key players ready for the opener except Marcel Goc, and he may be ready by next week. The Jackets are missing three key forwards – Nick Foligno, RJ Umberger, and Nathan Horton. None are expected to play this round, and that’s a HUGE loss for Columbus.

Key Players: For the Blue Jackets, Sergei Bobrovsky has to steal at LEAST two games in goal for the Jackets to make this a series. He won the Vezina in 2013 as the league’s best goalie. This is his chance to back that up with a postseason run – and also to erase the bad Philly playoff memories.

For the Pens, most would say Marc-Andre Fleury, but I think that comes in Round 2. For this round it’s Evgeni Malkin. When he’s on his game, he makes matchups all but impossible for opponents forced to choose between defending his line and Crosby’s line. He may be rusty at first due to the foot injury, but I expect him to be flying and productive by Game Two.

Prediction: There’s been a lot of unwarranted criticism of the Pens lately. This is a team that made the final four a season ago, that won a Cup five years ago and appeared in another final the year before that. They set a club record (and led the NHL) in man-games lost due to injury, yet they still ran away with their division title. Winning a Cup isn’t easy, winning two is REALLY hard – there are SO many good teams now, the parity is unbelievable. I think this is how the fans of the Atlanta Braves got by the late 90’s – winning became so expected that anything less than a World Series every year became a disappointment, and that’s not right. This is a team with some of the best players in the world – Crosby IS the best, Malkin isn’t far behind, and Letang is on the short list of best defensemen when 100%. Add in talents like Neal, Kunits, Martin, and even Fleury (the best in the game at the shootout), and this is a group that we will ALL miss when they are gone. Enjoy them while you can!

Having said that…if they blow this series, hard questions will (and should) be asked. This is about the best possible matchup for them, a team low on scoring depth, untested in a playoff environment, not overly skilled, and that plays a system almost identical to Pittsburgh’s. As a bonus, the away games will be almost like home games due to the proximity to western PA – there will be a TON of Pens fans in Columbus.

The Jackets went 0-5 against Pittsburgh and while some of that is bad luck, there’s a very real talent gap here. Pittsburgh can lose if they try to coast on talent, but I think their work rate will be plenty high. The Pens are getting healthy at the right time and if they can stay that way – and if Fleury can keep it mostly together – this series should go Pittsburgh’s way. PENS IN FIVE.

Enjoy the best playoffs in sports!!

Dave Glass can be reached at buggyracer@verizon.net.

 

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