The Glass Eye: NHL Playoff Preview, Round Two

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Yesterday, we previewed the Boston-Montreal series.  Today we’ll look at the two Western conference battles; then finish up with the Pens-Rangers tilt.

There’s a theme among all six of these teams: resilience.

Anaheim vs. Los Angeles

Background:

If you follow hockey at all, you know the Kings just did the near-impossible, coming back from a 3-0 series deficit to shock the San Jose Sharks. In a group of resilient teams, none have shown more guts and tenacity than LA – and with their goalie and tenacious defense, they are definitely built with the playoffs in mind.

Anaheim won in six games against Dallas, but they should have had to sweat out a Game 7 as well – they were down 4-2 in Game 6 with under two minutes to go, and had been thoroughly outplayed. They then scored TWICE with the goalie pulled, and went on to win in OT.

I was surprised to learn that this will be the first playoff meeting between these two clubs. Given that they have been divisional rivals since the Ducks were founded, I expect it won’t take long for the nastiness to bubble over in this series.

Matchup:

There are a few similarities between these teams, but more differences. Both rely heavily on their top lines for scoring, and both have star forwards – Getzlaf and Perry for the Ducks, Kopitar and Doughty for the Kings. However, LA prefers a defense-first, grinding style of game, and they do not typically score a lot of goals; the Ducks prefer to run and gun and open the game up quite a bit more.

The Kings also have one of the best goalies in the game in Jonathan Quick, and barring injury he figures to be the only goalie for LA. The Ducks have switched goalies already, and their third goalie – Pittsburgh native John Gibson – may be the best of the group. Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau won’t hesitate to change netminders in this series.

Both of these teams were poor on the powerplay but excellent at even-strength during the regular season – but both teams reversed those trends in the first round. LA was only average at even-strength, but converted at a 25% clip on the power play. Anaheim was even better with the extra man, converting 27% of the time, but they were outplayed by Dallas at even-strength.

How Anaheim can win:

#1. Make Quick’s life miserable. If Quick can see the puck, he will stop the puck. Anaheim has the big bodies to make all sorts of traffic issues in front of Quick, and their ability to clog up the front of the net will be crucial in this series.

#2.  Set the pace. LA wants to play a slower, grinding game – if Anaheim can somehow goad the Kings into an up-tempo, run-and-gun style, it works to their advantage.

#3.  Special teams. I think LA is better positioned to win at even-strength, they are a little deeper than the Ducks…but Anaheim has the top-line talent to make teams pay when shorthanded. If this becomes a series dominated by special teams; that should favor Anaheim.

How LA can win:

#1. Contain Getzlaf and Perry. Easier said than done, but Anaheim relies on their top line for much of their scoring – if they are contained, LA has an excellent chance to advance. Look for defenseman Drew Doughty to shadow Getzlaf whenever possible.

#2. Stay out of the box. LA loves to roll all four lines and slowly wear down opponents. Power plays mess up that rhythm, and allow Anaheim’s top players more of a chance to dictate the series.

#3. Win early. LA tempted fate coming back from that 3-0 hole, and if they get in a 2-0 hole on the road again I doubt they will overcome it. LA will be somewhat tired, but I think that’s overblown in today’s NHL – these guys are all in world-class shape, and this series doesn’t get started until Saturday night. LA needs to split in Anaheim.

Prediction:

Everyone is going to be all over the Kings as some kind of ‘team of destiny’…I don’t buy into that stuff. What happened in the last round has little bearing on this round, especially for a battle tested, Cup-winning team like the Kings…they already believed in themselves. If there’s any advantage here, it belongs to the Ducks because of the extra rest. Like most of LA’s playoff series, these should close, hard-fought games and I certainly expect a long series here. My heart says Anaheim, but my head says LA is better-suited for this kind of series. It’s VERY close, but I’m picking LA IN SIX.

Chicago vs. Minnesota

Background: The only true underdog story left in the playoffs, the Minnesota Wild are here because they overcame 2-0 and 3-2 series deficits, and tied Game 7 FOUR different times, including twice in the third period, before winning in OT. Their reward for knocking off the division champs is…the defending Cup champs, the big bad Blackhawks, who blasted these same Wild out of the playoffs last season in five games.

Chicago got here by overcoming their own 2-0 series hole, which they dug in excruciating fashion…they allowed a tying goal in the last two minutes of both games, then lost each in OT. Somehow, they persevered and won the next four games, closing out the Blues with an extremely strong Game 6 performance. Chicago’s regular season was a bit up-and-down, but they appear to be healthy and peaking at exactly the right time.

Matchup:

Chicago is one of the highest-scoring teams in the NHL, and they dominated the defense-first Blues at even strength during the last series. This was an extension of their regular season work 5-on-5, as the Hawks were among the league’s best in that situation. Minnesota was also excellent at even strength in the first round, and they were above-average (but not great) 5-on-5 during the regular season.

Special teams is also a case of ‘anything you can do, I can do better’: Chicago and Minnesota both struggled to kill penalties during the season, but Minnesota ranked lower. Both were about average on the power play, but again Chicago was just a bit better.

In fact, I really cannot find one aspect of the game that Minnesota holds an advantage going into this series. They have Zach Pariese – Chicago counters with Toews and Kane. The Wild boast top defenseman Ryan Suter – the Hawks counter with Keith and Seabrook. Chicago also has an experienced, unflappable coach in Joel Quenneville…and while I like Minnesota coach Mike Yeo, he’s not in Quenneville’s class.

How Minnesota can win:

#1. Element of surprise. EVERYONE will be picking Chicago, which may present an opportunity for the Wild to steal a game early. Minnesota’s home atmosphere is electric, and they can be expected to win at least one home game in this series…if they come home with a 1-1 split, this should go at least six games.

#2. Special Teams. Chicago killed 93% of St. Louis’ power plays, but they were around 80% during the season…so expect that number to drop this series. If Minnesota can get Chicago’s players in the box, they have a chance to dictate the flow via special teams.

#3. Luck. Strange things can and do happen in short series, and the stark truth is, the Wild will need to get more than their share of breaks to pull this off.

How Chicago can win:

#1. Experience. Even if they lose the first game, Chicago is unlikey to get rattled…they’ve been there and done that, and a little adversity will not shake this team.

#2. Respect. The biggest threat to the Blackhawks here is their own attitude – if they think Minnesota is just going to roll over, and that this will be an easy series, they set themselves up for an upset.

#3. Depth. Minnesota has TWO players with 20+ goals this season…Chicago boasts five. Chicago also has a much deeper defense corps. If the Hawks play their game, and don’t get caught up in emotion/taking penalties, they are overwhelming favorites.

Prediction:

Hey, I’d LOVE to see the Wild win…they were so exciting to watch in the last round, everyone loves a good underdog story, and Chicago’s already won two Cups…but from where I sit, this is the most lopsided series of the second round. Chicago is the better team, and by and large in today’s NHL, the cream rises to the top by the Conference finals. I expect to see the Blackhawks there…CHICAGO IN FIVE.

Pittsburgh vs. NY Rangers

Background:

If you’re reading this, odds are you know all about how both teams got here. Pittsburgh survived a wild, strange series by turning on the jets in games 5 and 6 against a gritty Columbus squad…despite getting NO goals from Sidney Crosby. The Rangers looked wildly inconsistent as well, but finally played a solid defensive game to put away the Flyers 2-1 in Game 7.

The fact that this is their first postseason meeting since 2008 – and only the second since 1994 – is VERY surprising – especially considering that they are division rivals and perennial playoff teams. The new divisional playoff format likely will make Pens-Rangers playoff series a lot more common over the next several seasons.

Matchup:

The first contrast is the Pens’ relatively wide open, ‘north-south’ style vs. the Rangers’ defensive approach, and there’s truth in that…the Rangers allowed 14 fewer goals than the Pens, and had a better penalty kill, while the Pens scored 31 more goals and were #1 in the NHL on the power play.

The second contrast, and one that holds less merit, is in goal – Henrik Lundqvist is widely accepted as one of the top-5 goalies in the league, while Marc-Andre Fleury is seen as an accessory to the Pens’ success rather than a cause of it – he rarely is credited for their wins, and is often blamed for their failures. In 2012 and 2013, those playoff criticisms were valid. In 2014, they are off-base. Fleury was the Pens’ most consistent player in the first round, and were it not for two fluky plays late in game4, the series would probably have been over in five games thanks to his work early in the series. Lundqvist, meanwhile, has benefitted from a better defensive system his entire career but has never even made the Cup finals – and his first-round against the Flyers was inconsistent at best. He was dominant at times, but his poor performance in Game 6 put NY on the brink of elimination. The Pens are even more daunting than the Flyers, and Lundqvist will have to be at his absolute best.

Here are two other factors to consider – the schedule, and faceoffs. Much has been made of the crazy schedule the NHL has laid out for this series…playing games 2 and 3 back-to-back, no more than one day off between each game, a series that has a potential Game 7 scheduled THREE DAYS before the western squads…it’s crazy, and for the Rangers it means by next Wendesday, they will have played five games in seven days. I wrote earlier that NHL players are in world-class shape, but that’s a BRUTAL week for the Rangers and it could well be a factor once the adrenaline wears off.

Faceoffs are always important, but to a puck-possession team like the Penguins they are crucial. Pittsburgh wants to dominate possession in the offensive zone, and they are well-positioned to win draws against the Rangers – NY had one of the worst faceoff percentages during the season.

How the Rangers can win:

#1. Lundqvist. King Henrik’s career is past its midpoint already, and sooner or later he needs a signature series if he wants to remain elite. For the Rangers to win, Lundqvist will need to steal at least one game outright, and probably two.

#2. Nash. The Pouliot-Zuccarello-Brassard line may have been the Rangers’ best against the Flyers, but they are not an elite scoring unit over the long haul. To beat Pittsburgh, Rick Nash has to break out.

#3. Patience. New York is at its best when they are playing a systematic, defense-first game. Pittsburgh’s willingness to get into shootouts can seem tempting, especially to a team with speed like the Rangers, but New York MUST avoid that trap. They can play with the Penguins if they stick to their game plan.

How Pittsburgh can win:

#1. Crosby/Malkin. Yes, Malkin finally broke through in Game 6, and yes Crosby still had six assists and did some other things…but to win this series, the best players have to play the best. Depth scoring is great, and important, but in the end 87 and 71have to take over a game or two in this series.

#2. Fleury. He took some of the heat off himself by standing tall in round 1, but a meltdown here would bring all the heat back on. He doesn’t have to outplay Lundqvist, but he does have to avoid the ‘soft’ goals he was prone to in past playoffs.

#3. Discipline. The Pens did a REMARKABLE job keeping their cool last round, especially in the last two games. The Pens tend to get in trouble when they pretend to be a bruising, pounding team…instead of intimidating opponents, they end up shorthanded and behind. New York will try to goad Letang, Crosby, Malkin, and Neal into silly penalties – if they fail, Pittsburgh is in great position to advance.

Prediction:

I still believe that the Penguins have another level – they’ve shown surges of dominance, followed by 5-10 minute periods of stupid play. That won’t work against the Rangers, consistency is the key. I think they found more consistency as the first round progressed, and I expect more of the same in round two.

As I said last week, I don’t like the Rangers’ forward group…I think it’s a bad mix, and I think the Rangers are a good matchup for the Pens. I expect a tough series, but in the end I think Pittsburgh will get their rematch with the Bruins. PENS IN SIX.

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

 

 

 

 

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