The Glass Eye: NHL Playoff Preview, Round One

The greatest postseason in sports is upon us – the chase for Lord Stanley’s Cup. I want to preview all eight series, but I don’t have time to give them all the full treatment – so I’ll give the West a quick look, I’ll look at the other Eastern matchups in more detail, and save the deepest analysis for the Pens-Rangers series. Off we go!

WESTERN CONFERENCE:

Dallas (50-23-9, 109 pts) vs. Minnesota (38-33-11, 87 pts): This is the biggest mismatch of the first round, both on record and on talent/trends/etc. Minnesota enters on a 5-game losing streak, and the only reason they made it in is because Colorado ended the season on a SIX game losing streak. They also went 1-4 against division rival Dallas during the year. Minnesota’s 87 points are the fewest to make the playoffs since the 2004 strike.

However…the  second lowest point total was in 2010, the Montreal Canadiens, with 88 points. That team faced the powerful Capitals (121 points), everyone was predicting a sweep – but the Canadiens upset them, and then upset defending champ Pittsburgh in the next round. The lesson? ANYTHING is possible in a short series.

Having said that – I don’t see the upset here. STARS IN FIVE.

Anaheim (46-25-11, 103 pts) vs. Nashville (41-27-14, 96 pts): Anaheim played hard to the end to eke out the division – their reward for avoiding San Jose is another dangerous team in Nashville. The Predators aren’t as good as their peak squads of a couple of years ago, but they have the goalie (Rinne) and the firepower to make this very interesting. Anaheim has turned it around much like Pittsburgh this season, rising from the ashes of a horrid start, and they are definitely the better team. This one feels close to me, though: DUCKS IN SEVEN.

St. Louis (49-24-9, 107 pts) vs. Chicago (47-26-9, 103 pts): Probably the marquee matchup of the first round, as the Blues once again try to vanquish their closest rival. Chicago sputtered at times this year but they remain quite formidable – while the Blues’ big offseason trade with Washington seems to have helped both teams. Most of the advanced stats still favor Chicago, but I’m thinking this is the year the ‘Hawks go down early. Chicago has played 65 playoff games the past three seasons – over three-fourths of a season’s worth of extra games – and that definitely takes a toll. Their window isn’t closed yet, but I don’t see a repeat champion here – BLUES IN SIX.

Los Angeles (48-28-6, 102 pts) vs. San Jose (46-30-6, 98 pts): Sneaky-tough matchup for LA. The Sharks have quietly rebuilt much of their roster and are younger, faster, and more potent offensively than they’ve been in years. Nobody’s talking about him, but defenseman Brent Burns scored 27 goals – an incredible figure for a blueliner! This team can fill the net, but can they play enough defense against the rugged Kings? I say yes – in my ‘upset special’ for the West, I say the Sharks exorcise a few playoff demons here. SHARKS IN SIX. 

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Florida (47-26-9, 103 pts) vs. NY Islanders (45-27-10, 100 pts): Before the analysis, let’s take a moment to appreciate the amazing Jaromir Jagr. At 43, he led his team in scoring – and it’s not like he led a rag-tag bunch of nobodies on a lottery team, he led the division winning Panthers, the   fourth highest scoring team in the conference! Also, he didn’t rely on the power play – he scored only five power play goals all year. Just incredible what he’s been able to do.

Jagr’s presence – and the goaltending from 36-year-old Roberto Luongo – masks the fact that this is a VERY young team overall. Six of their top eight scorers are under 25, and every one of those guys had 15-25 goals. They have rebuilt the right way, and look to be a factor in the division for some time to come. Their strength is 5-on-5; they were outscored badly in special teams but dominated at even-strength.

The Islanders, on the other hand, were only ‘ok’ at even strength but performed well with the man advantage. While they had 50 less PP chances than Florida, they scored almost as many PP goals (43 to 47). They also allowed 34 less PP chances to opponents, and 19 less goals. The Isles are a one-line team in many ways, especially with Anders Lee lost to injury – stop Tavares, Okposo, and Nelson (81 combined goals) and you have a great chance to beat NY. The loss of top defenseman Travis Hamonic to injury hurts them as well, and their goalie situation is murky at best.

Add all that together, plus the likelihood that penalties will be scarce in the postseason, and I think things look good for Florida. PANTHERS IN SIX.

Tampa Bay (46-31-5, 97 pts) vs. Detroit (41-30-11, 93 pts): Here’s the stat you need to know: Henrik Zetterberg led the Wings in points – with only 50. He was also a -15! Datsyuk added 49 points, but a.) he’s 37 and b.) reports indicate he’s leaving the NHL after this spring. The young wave of talent that was supposed to supplant those two this season suffered some real growing pains – Dylan Larkin was fantastic at age 19, but Tatar and Nyquist were far too inconsistent – and there was no depth scoring at all. The Wings ended up 23rd in goals scored, and they were outscored by 13 goals – both worst among all playoff teams.

Tampa remains dangerous, but the loss of captain Steven Stamkos (blood clot; out 1-2 months) severely weakens their offense. Like Detroit, the depth scoring wasn’t great this year – only Stamkos and Kucherov scored 20+ for the Lightning, and Andrej Palat was the only other Tampa player to score even 15 goals. The difference for Tampa is on the blueline and in goal – Tampa’s top-4 defensemen are much better than Detroit’s, and goalie Ben Bishop (2.06 goals-against, .926 sv%) is one of the best in the business. Both teams should struggle to score, but I like Tampa’s defense to win out in a rugged series. LIGHNING IN FIVE.

Washington (56-18-8, 120 pts) vs. Philadephia (41-27-14, 96 pts): There have been the obvious comparisons between this Caps team and the 2010 I mentioned above, but they are invalid for a number of reasons. The biggest? This Caps team isn’t nearly as good offensively. The 2010 squad scored 318 goals – nearly four per game! – and outscored opponents by 85 goals, or over a goal per game. That’s domination at a scale unheard of in today’s game, and the ’16 Caps simply do not measure up. These Caps didn’t even lead the league in goals, although they came close (second to Dallas), and only Alex Ovechkin scored over 30 goals (to be fair, he had a MONSTER season again with 50).

The Caps are better defensively, especially in goal. Braden Holtby tied the record for most wins, and his other numbers were all excellent as well (2.20 goals against, .922 save%). He’s the leading candidate for the Vezina trophy; my only concern is how hard he was pushed, with 66 starts. They have a deep, balanced defense corps and their depth forwards play well in their own end.

Philly is playing with house money here – they are a year ahead of schedule, no one gives them a prayer against the mighty Caps, and so they can play fast and loose. They also have a ‘puncher’s chance’ – despite being relatively low scoring (22nd in the league, only the Wings were worse among playoff teams), the Flyers came on strong late in the year and were vastly out-playing their season numbers since the beginning of March. Can that continue?

I’m not sure, but there’s no question that since March 1 the Flyers have outplayed the Caps. Yes, the Caps were in ‘cruise mode’, but can they regain the urgency? That’s always the question, and there’s no question that Washington has a TON of playoff scar tissue to overcome. When their slogan after a 120-point season is ‘entitled to nothing’, it’s pretty clear that past playoff failures are still on everyone’s mind.

Philly’s top-10 skaters can hang with Washington, the problem is the depth. Philly’s bottom-pair defense and bottom-6 forwards are a very real liability against the deep Caps, so look for Philly to expand minutes whenever possible for Giroux, Simmonds, et al. Overtime games will be all kinds of trouble for Philly, and the deeper this series goes the more I expect the Caps’ superior depth to shine.

It won’t be easy – it never is for Washington, right? – but I think they eventually grind out a series win over Philly. CAPS IN SEVEN.

Pittsburgh (48-26-8, 104 pts) vs. NY Rangers (46-27-9, 101 pts): Home ice for Pittsburgh. If you’d have asked me – heck, asked ANY Pens fan in January if that was possible, we’d have all laughed. At that point, just finding a way into the postseason seemed a long shot; On January 1 the Pens were 18-15-4, had been outscored by five goals, and were 28th out of 30 in goals (Anaheim and Philly were worse – interesting that all three made the playoffs!!). The Rangers, meanwhile, were cruising at 21-13-4, and were #3 in the division. Truthfully, New York was consistent all year – they went 25-14-5 after that, essentially the same pace, although they only were +7 in goals over that span.

During the same span, Pittsburgh went 30-11-4 and outscored their opponents by 46 goals.

Since March 1, the Pens have gone 16-5-0. The losses were: 3-2 to Washington on 3/1; shutout losses to Calgary and the Devils; a 2-1 loss to the Isles; and the last game of the year in a game the Pens really didn’t try to win. That streak includes 11 wins over playoff teams (two each vs. the Rangers and Caps). Over that span, the team scored 4+ goals 13 times, 5+ goals eight times, 6+ goals four times, and seven goals once. They outscored opponents 80-46. That’s as dominant a stretch as you can have, folks.

What changed? Well, a few things – obviously the coach, and let me just say that it’s clear that Mike Johnston was not a good fit for this team. By all accounts a good guy, by all accounts a great hockey mind – but it didn’t work. Mike Sullivan brought everything this team needed, but above all he forced them to find an identity. For years a team long on talent and short on discipline, this squad emulates the old Red Wings – they turn the other cheek, they don’t get into the rough stuff, they cannot be intimidated, they just go play their game.

The other major change was in personnel, and for all his mistakes we have to give HUGE props to GM Jim Rutherford. He made some major personnel mistakes – trading for David Perron, not buying out Rob Scuderi, etc…but he did admit (and fix) those mistakes quickly. Trading Perron for Hagelin was a good deal for both teams – but trading Scuderi for Trevor Daley was absolute THIEVERY. Scuderi is done, while Daley has been a huge asset.

In addition, the rookie call-ups have added tons of speed and energy, making this group the fastest Pens team I can recall. Every line plays fast, and all six defensemen are mobile and excellent puck movers. I’m not going to bore you with advanced stats – but suffice it to say, most of the leading stats such as Corsi indicate this Pens team has been every bit as dominant as they’ve seemed over the past three-plus months…in other words, this isn’t a fluke.

The Rangers are getting a bit overlooked here, they have a deep team in their own right – they had five 20-goal scorers, another five with 10+, and while their defense was average you can never count out a team with Henrik Lundqvist in goal. ‘King Henrik’ is one of the few goalies capable of stealing a series by himself. Overall, the Rangers are one of the few teams fast enough to match Pittsburgh’s pace.

On the other hand, the advanced stats show the Rangers to be an average team at best in many areas. One key stat: Pittsburgh badly outshot opponents for the year, while the Rangers were outshot as a team. With their top defenseman (Ryan McDonagh) likely out for the series, the Rangers’ blueline will be severely tested.

All this adds up to a big advantage for Pittsburgh – except for the goalie situation. With phenom Matt Murray sidelined, likely due to a concussion – and Marc-Andre Fleury just back to practice from his own concussion issues – there is no clarity at all in net for the Pens. Fleury has worked two full practices, but accounts vary on how ready he really is. I maintain he will play Game 1, but if he doesn’t then the Pens are at a severe disadvantage – Jeff Zatkoff is mediocre at best.

The schedule favors Pittsburgh – with two off days between games 1 and 2, and two more between games 2 and 3, the Pens have a chance to really get healthy by Game 3. Malkin, Rust, Fleury, Maatta, and Murray all could be back by then – and I’d bet good money on Rust, Maatta, and Fleury playing next week (if not tonight). Had the Islanders overtaken the Rangers, the schedule would have been far worse thanks to concert conflicts at the Isles’ arena – so we have many reasons to be thankful that the Rangers are the opponent.

In the end I think Pittsburgh has too much…too much speed, too much skill, too much confidence. Yes, Lundqvist will probably steal a game, and if I’m wrong about Fleury that changes everything – but if the banged-up Pens can get to game 3 with a 1-1 split, New York will be in some trouble. I say PENS IN SIX.

Let’s Go Pens!

Dave Glass can be reached at dsglass74@gmail.com.

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