Round 1 of the 2017 NHL playoffs provided thrilling overtime games, unprecedented upsets and remarkable goaltender performances. The chances are good that we will see more of the same in Rd. 2.
If you read my Rd. 1 playoffs preview and are keeping track, you know my predictions weren’t exactly on the mark. On the whole, I predicted the winners correctly in four of the eight series, with only two of those series predicted correctly in games played. However, teams are so tightly contested, it’s difficult to pinpoint precisely how a series will go.
Many fans’ brackets were busted with the Chicago Blackhawks’ four-game dismissal by the Nashville Predators, as well as the New York Rangers’ six-game victory over the Montreal Canadiens (one of the two series I predicted correctly).
Without further ado, here is the xHockeyProducts 2017 NHL playoffs second round preview.
(2) Ottawa Senators vs. (WC1) New York Rangers
Season Series: Ottawa – 2-1-0
Senators 4-2 (Bruins)
Rangers 4-2 (Canadiens)
How the Senators Win It
It’s no surprise that after one series, Ottawa captain Erik Karlsson leads all defensemen in scoring (six points). However, the surprise comes in the form of how he’s doing it.
After the Senators defeated the Boston Bruins, Karlsson admitted that he has been playing with two hairline fractures in his foot and has been receiving injections to play through the pain. He knows that Ottawa’s offense starts with him, and taking himself out of the lineup is simply not an option while the team is still going. He will again be relied upon to lead his team in both ends of the rink, and his ability to play through pain will be vital if the Senators are to return to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time in 10 years.
Karlsson’s defensive mates, though, will also be key in this series. The Rangers possess one of the quickest offenses in the NHL, and the pairings of Karlsson-Marc Methot and Dion Phaneuf–Cody Ceci will be playing big minutes to keep New York off the board. With an exasperating four-line rotation from Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault, the Senators’ defense will have to play the same style that kept Boston to just 2.17 goals per game (12th among playoff teams).
How the Rangers Win It
Sometimes, storylines just write themselves. The Rangers’ highest-scoring player in their six-game victory over the Montreal Canadiens was Mika Zibanejad (3 assists, 4 points), an acquisition from the Senators during the offseason in exchange for Derick Brassard, who is tied for second in the postseason with eight points. In his only game against his former team (April 8), Zibanejad scored the only goal for the Rangers in a 3-1 loss. After playing the first five seasons of his career in Canada’s capital, the Swede hopes to continue to put up points against his former teammates.
As it was in the Eastern quarterfinals, it will be imperative for goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to steal the show for his team. After a dismal 1-5 record to close out the 2016-17 season, Lundqvist was lights out against Montreal, posting the league’s third best goals-against average (1.70) and save percentage (.947). His ridiculous numbers were only overshadowed by Pekka Rinne (Nashville) and Jake Allen (St. Louis), who boasted almost unheard of statistics through one round of action.
Prediction: Rangers in five games. Although the Senators seemed to find another gear against the Bruins, especially Bobby Ryan with four goals and seven points, the Rangers’ offense and goaltending could prove to be too much for the Senators to handle in this series. The aforementioned four-line attack from New York saw balanced scoring throughout the lineup against the Canadiens (the only forward to not record a point was Pavel Buchnevich, who appeared in just three games), and it gives them the edge in this series.
(1) Washington Capitals vs. (2) Pittsburgh Penguins
Season Series: Washington – 2-0-2
Capitals 4-2 (Maple Leafs)
Penguins 4-1 (Blue Jackets)
How the Capitals Win It
Unfortunately for the Capitals, each year has become a broken record. They have not been to an Eastern Conference Final since 1997-98 and are becoming a stepping stone for the Penguins when they win the Stanley Cup. It first happened in 2009 and again last season, when the Penguins won their second round meet-up in six games en route to the franchise’s fourth championship. Twice now, the Capitals’ leadership group of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have had to watch Sidney Crosby & Co. lift the Cup. It has to be a thorn in their sides as they are destined to meet the Penguins nearly every season thanks to the NHL’s divisional playoff format.
For the Capitals to get over the hump, they have to stick to an explosive offensive game plan that forces the Penguins back on their heels. The Capitals will see a hot Penguins team again, as they are fresh off a near-first round sweep against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Offense will likely be the name of the game again, much like the two teams’ last battle, which saw 15 goals scored in Pittsburgh’s 8-7 barnstorming win on Jan. 16.
However, Braden Holtby will have to get back into form, as his 2.36 GAA and .925 save percentage against the Maple Leafs were good enough to win, but he may have to steal a game or two for the Capitals to defeat their nemeses.
How the Penguins Win It
The Penguins will be without defenseman Kris Letang for the remainder of the postseason, but it didn’t seem to faze them against Columbus. Head coach Mike Sullivan simply filled in for Letang by evenly distributing ice-time between his defensemen, with Justin Schultz, Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley, Ian Cole, Ron Hainsey and Brian Dumoulin all averaging over 19:30 per game. The result saw Pittsburgh still allow 2.60 goals per game, which was 11th among first round teams.
The Penguins cruised past the Blue Jackets due to a dynamic offense, which features four players in the top-12 point scorers (Evgeni Malkin, 11; Phil Kessel, 8, Crosby, 7, Jake Guentzel, 6). The power play will need to continue to click, as the Penguins were 5-for-15 (33.3 percent) against Columbus.
One thing the Penguins’ coaching staff will have to stress is staying out of the box. The Capitals’ offense was just as hot, going 5-for-17 (29.4 percent) against Toronto, with Ovechkin compiling two power-play markers.
Prediction: Capitals in six games. It’s a shame these two teams cannot compete in the Stanley Cup Final, as entertaining hockey would captivate the sports world. However, these two are destined for second round match-ups, and this year it will slide in the favor of Washington. With Pittsburgh’s inability to keep the Blue Jackets off the scoreboard in Rd. 1, it’s alarming to think what they will do against the Cup-hungry Capitals. Letang’s injury and Marc-Andre Fleury‘s previous playoff struggles push Washington over the edge (although a return in net for Matt Murray could be a series changer).
(3) St. Louis Blues vs. (WC2) Nashville Predators
Season Series: Nashville – 3-0-2
Blues 4-1 (Wild)
Predators 4-0 (Blackhawks)
How the Blues Win It
Although the Blues and Predators have faced off in some fierce battles through the years, these two teams have never met in the postseason. Home-ice advantage, which the Blues possess, could prove to be a major factor in what is expected to be a hard-fought series.
In their first round series, the Blues relied heavily on their goaltending and defense to oust the Wild. Through the first round, netminder Jake Allen posted the second best GAA (1.47) and save percentage (.956). The only man to beat him in both statistics will be on the end of the ice in this series (Pekka Rinne, 0.70 GAA, .976 save percentage). If the Blues are to advance, Allen will have to continue his strong play and hope his team’s offense can end Rinne’s impeccable run.
On offense, the Blues’ coaching staff hopes that superstar winger Vladimir Tarasenko will have a stronger series than he did against the Wild. Although the Russian sniper tabbed a goal and was always the center of Minnesota’s attention when on the ice, he’ll have to break through and be a key against a powerfully intimidating Predators defense.
How the Predators Win It
The Predators’ first round upset against the Blackhawks was one for the record books. Not only was goaltender Rinne superb, as previously stated, but Nashville added goals early in games, accompanied with timely goals late in contests to fend off the Western Conference favorites. Much like how the Blues’ defensive play will have to continue if they plan to win the series, Nashville’s remarkable offensive play will have to be the difference in the series. Accompany this with some more memorable games from Rinne, and the Predators could easily skate away with a quick series victory.
However, the Blues are not to be trifled with. Third round contestants in last year’s postseason, the Blues rely on puck-moving defensemen Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester and Colton Parayko to carry the puck out of the zone and find quick outlets to their skilled forwards. If Nashville can cut the Blues’ transition game at the source (in the neutral zone), they can stymie their quick rushes and keep them hemmed in their own zone.
Of course, forwards Filip Forsberg and Victor Arvidsson, who combined for nine points against Chicago, will be relied upon to break through Allen’s impenetrable wall.
Prediction: Predators in six games. As we’ve seen in various series throughout this postseason, every game should be a one- or two-goal finish with the possibility of overtime. Nashville is simply on a roll after an emotional first round sweep and do not look to be coming back down to Earth any time soon.
(1) Anaheim Ducks vs. (2) Edmonton Oilers
Season Series: Edmonton – 3-2-0
Ducks 4-0 (Flames)
Oilers 4-2 (Sharks)
How the Ducks Win It
The looming factor for this series lies in the health of the Ducks’ defense. Cam Fowler is yet to play a game this postseason, while No. 1 stand-in Sami Vatanen played in just one playoff contest (Game 1) before exiting the lineup with an upper-body injury. Fowler has been skating with his team, so if he is to appear in this series, it will be quite the lift for his team.
The loss of the key defensemen did not seem to faze the Ducks in Rd. 1 though, as they allowed just 2.25 goals against per game, which was actually lower than their 2.40 goals against per game in the regular season. However, the potent Oilers offense will be a bigger test, as they tallied 2.40 goals per game in the first round when factoring out their 7-0 drubbing in Game 4 against the San Jose Sharks.
A major piece to Anaheim continuing to Rd. 3 will rely on defensive center Ryan Kesler, who will be tasked with battling superstar Connor McDavid on nearly every shift. Kesler, who took four minor penalties in the first round, will have to remain a thorn in McDavid’s side all series long to force frustration on the Edmonton bench. If McDavid can find time and space, the Ducks will find themselves in a hole nearly every time.
How the Oilers Win It
The Oilers’ first round win over the Sharks was the organization’s first series victory since 2006 (which, coincidentally, was the last time the team was in the playoffs). The veteran-laden San Jose roster seemed to take a stranglehold on the young Oilers after their series-tying, shutout victory in Game 4, but the resiliency of the Edmonton roster pulled out memorable performances in Games 5 and 6 to shut their critics up and move on to the next round.
This will have to be a focal point for the Oilers moving forward. Outside of Milan Lucic, Benoit Pouliot, Patrick Maroon and a few others, the Oilers’ roster has slim playoff experience (if at all). Their boisterous young core will have to continue to prove they belong by playing their fast-paced game and simply outskating their opponents to loose pucks and the few rebounds Ducks goalie John Gibson will allow. With the supreme skill of McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and their cast of characters up front, they will give the Ducks’ depleted defense a lot to handle.
Prediction: Ducks in six games. Despite their tremendous talent up front, the Oilers’ defense is still suspect and has a lot to prove if they can stand strong against another veteran team with gifted offensive firepower. However, the Oilers’ offense can carry them into a decisive Game 7 and, as anyone who watches hockey knows, anything can happen in the final game of a series.
Stay tuned with the Everything Hockey blog for coverage throughout the playoffs, including previews and predictions for each round.
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