By: Luke Johns
The best playoffs in sports are finally among us. The qualifying teams are now essentially on equal ground and it’ll be another two months of hard-hitting, gritty hockey we’re all accustomed to this time of year until we know who will have their names carved in the Stanley Cup. Here is what to expect and look for from all 16 qualifying teams.
M1 Washington Capitals vs. W2 Philadelphia Flyers
The President’s Trophy Capitals had arguably their best season in franchise history with Alex Ovechkin leading the league with 50 goals and Braden Holtby tying Martin Brodeur for the most goalie wins ever in a season. But as we know if anyone’s capable of being on the bad end of an epic upset it’s the Washington Capitals, and if anyone’s capable of pulling it off as a wild card team it’s the feisty Philadelphia Flyers.
Washington Capitals: The last time the Capitals won the President’s Trophy they were knocked out of the first round in 2010. This year’s team has more offensive weapons and a probable Vezina Trophy winner in net. The biggest player to watch is Justin Williams, referred to as Mr. Game 7. Williams has three rings and proved he’s capable of dominating a post-season as evident with his 2014 Conn Smythe Trophy. Williams had a solid regular season with 52 points and is reportedly an outstanding veteran for the younger players to rally around. Keep an eye on him to see if he can already build on an iconic post-season legacy.
Philadelphia Flyers: I can’t choose between these two things to look for so I’ll say both. Shayne Gostibehere is one of the most exciting offensive-minded defenseman to watch with his skating ability and as a result the Flyers’ goals per game scoring increased by 0.75 since his call-up. He could be a huge difference maker. The other player to watch is goaltender Steve Mason. Since Michal Neuvirth’s injury, Mason has taken the workload and made some game-saving saves in the last few Flyers games. Mason will have to steal a couple games for Philadelphia to have a chance to beat heavily favored Washington.
M2 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. M3 New York Rangers
For the third straight year these two teams will meet in the playoffs. The Penguins finished the year 8-2 without Evgeni Malkin and may be without Marc-Andre Fleury who’s recovering from a concussion. The Rangers are banged up as well with Ryan McDonagh likely to start the series watching from the press box. Considering these division rivals are very familiar with each other, I’m betting on a high-drama series.
Pittsburgh Penguins: The Penguins are forming a reputation as a fast team led by Carl Hagelin. As I previously said the Rangers are banged up particularly on defense, so look out for Pittsburgh’s fast and skilled players constantly beating New York to the puck when dumping it in their zone, which almost always leads to scoring chances.
New York Rangers: Despite what the points say, this team has to be one of the worst Rangers team that made the playoffs in recent memory. They’ve been inconsistent in the NHL’s last month sometimes looking like world-beaters but sometimes being a very frustrating team for their fans to watch. Despite their puzzling nature, the Rangers always seem to find a way to make a deep playoff run and this first series will be an indicator of which Ranger team will show up this post-season. The one consistent this season has been goaltender Henrik Lundqvist who finished with a .920 save percentage. With the injuries and some of the underachieving performances from the skaters, the Rangers will need to rely on Lundqvist to get hot and carry them as he’s very capable of doing. When he’s on his game the Rangers are near unbeatable. If not, there’s not much for hope for the Rangers.
A1 Florida Panthers vs. W1 New York Islanders
The Panthers are this season’s surprise winning the Atlantic division. They get a tough draw with the New York Islanders in what should make a great series between two highly skilled teams.
Florida Panthers: The Panthers have so much young talent with no playoff experience. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau are two phenomenal top-line forwards where the sky is the limit for them—same with defenseman Aaron Ekblad. The Panthers can’t just rely on the playoff experience of Jaromir Jagr so the younger talent will have to step up and rise up to the playoff moment.
New York Islanders: The Islanders have one of the league’s best defensive pairings with Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk. After that they don’t know how good the rest of the defense will be with Travis Hamonic injured. Conversely on offense they lack scoring outside John Tavares. Look to see if a skater will step up to take the pressure off Tavares and shake off the notion that the Islanders are a one-trick pony.
A2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. A3 Detroit Red Wings
For the second year in a row the Lightning and Red Wings face off in the first round in a matchup that’s developing the nickname as the Steve Yzerman series. While both teams are significantly different from when they played 12 months ago, this should still be an interesting series to watch.
Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning lost one of the most irreplaceable players in the league in Steven Stamkos with a blood clot injury earlier this month. Tampa Bay will also likely be without defenseman Anton Stralman this series who logged over 20 minutes a game in the regular season. With the scoring and defense taking a hit, controversial center Jonathan Drouin has a second chance to prove himself after being suspended by the team and buried in the minors earlier this season. This is a golden opportunity to prove his worth to the organization, put the negative headlines behind him and be a significant contributor during the most important time of year. If he doesn’t, Yzerman will know he provides the franchise zero worth and will likely pull out all stops to get him out of town this summer.
Detroit Red Wings: After being given a gift by the Boston Bruins, the Red Wings are back in the playoffs for the 25th straight season. While they may not be as feared as they once were in the early 2000s, they have a lot of talented players in Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall and rookie phenom Dylan Larkin to name a few. With Detroit it’s going to come down to the goaltender. Petr Mrazek has not been good down the stretch and Jimmy Howard hasn’t been that much better this season finishing with a 2.80 goals against average. One of them will need to step up between the pipes for Detroit.
C1 Dallas Stars vs. W2 Minnesota Wild
It’s reasonable to say the Stars exceeded expectations finishing with the best record in the Western Conference. While the easy storyline is Minnesota’s current and former franchises square off, I’m predicting this will be no pushover series for Dallas.
Dallas Stars: The two things to look for are Tyler Seguin’s health and the Stars’ defense. Seguin’s status for game one is unknown to this point and his presence can’t be underestimated. On top of Seguin’s 73 points, Jamie Benn won an Art Ross Trophy playing an entire season next to him last year and was inconsistent after Seguin suffered the Achilles injury March 17. Dallas’ defense was a question mark to begin the season, and to Jim Nill’s credit he did a good job improving it with the acquisition of Kris Russell and the timely call-up of Stephen Johns that gave them depth to compliment John Klingberg and Alex Goligoski. Outside of Johnny Oduya the Stars don’t have much playoff experience on the back end, so how it affects the team is something to keep an eye on.
Minnesota Wild: The Wild really turned it around after naming John Torchetti interim head coach on February 13. However their climb back into the playoffs had a lot to do with Zach Parise whose status is unknown. While Devan Dubnyk’s play also played a huge role in the Wild’s turnaround, he was a little shaky down the stretch having a save percentage in the 80 percentile in four of his final five starts. The Wild’s chances will likely depend on Parise’s health and if Dubnyk can play the way he did in round one last year.
C2 St. Louis Blues vs. C3 Chicago Blackhawks
It’s the series that all hockey fans at Mizzou love. It dominates the campus conversation and will make Blues and Blackhawks fans that much more chesty toward one another. The teams of course don’t like each other either and anytime division rivals square off in the playoffs we’re bound to see a physical series whether it be crease-clearing scrums to intense corner battles or open-ice hits.
St. Louis Blues: The story with the Blues is that they go to the dance year after year but can never end the night with the pretty lady, as evident with three straight first round exits. General Manager Doug Armstrong denied any additional pressure to get out of the first round but I seriously doubt there isn’t. The thing to keep an eye on from the Blues perspective is their power play against the Blackhawks penalty kill. While both teams rank in the top ten on the power play, Chicago posted the 22nd ranked 80.3 percent penalty kill in the regular season compared to the Blues’ third ranked 85.1 percent. If St. Louis can find a way to expose Chicago’s weak PK in a series that likely will produce a lot of power plays, the Blues could find themselves a significant edge in an otherwise evenly matched series.
Chicago Blackhawks: They know what they’re going to get from their core veterans such as Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, etc. Probable Calder Trophy winner Artemi Panarin will still be a rookie Wednesday and we don’t know what type of player he is in the playoffs yet. If Panarin can keep up his successful regular season in the playoffs and fill Patrick Sharp’s 15 playoff point void from last year, Chicago will be in great shape for another deep playoff run.
P1 Anaheim Ducks vs. W1 Nashville Predators
After the disastrous start to the season, if you told a Ducks fans on Christmas they’d win the Pacific they’d laugh you out of town. But now that they did I’m sure any player on the team would tell you being satisfied with the epic turnaround isn’t enough. Meanwhile the Nashville Predators are back in the playoffs for the second year in the row despite Pekka Rinne’s inconsistent season.
Anaheim Ducks: The pacific division was so top heavy this year finishing first was huge for Anaheim. Offensively the Ducks have the most depth in these playoffs with four very reliable lines so it’ll be interesting to see who Bruce Boudreau sends out on the ice to match Filip Forsberg and James Neal. No doubt Ryan Kessler will be leaned on heavily to be a force on the forecheck and shut down Nashville’s offensive attack. While Anaheim has figured it out on defense since they’re atrocious start to the season finishing first in goals against, it may come down to the neutral zone battles between the teams forwards. Additionally the Ducks have been eliminated in game seven the last three years so if Nashville can push this to seven games I’ll wonder if doubt creeps into that lockerroom.
Nashville Predators: While you could say the same thing about the importance of neutral zone possession, they need to stick to Peter Laviolette’s defensive first system. Anaheim has lots of dynamic forwards and can give Roman Josi and Shea Webber fits when on the attack. If Nashville can limit the scoring chances in their own zone, their own offensive chances should take care of itself.
P2 Los Angeles Kings vs. P3 San Jose Sharks
This is the first playoff meeting since the Sharks became the fifth team in professional sports history to lose a best of seven series when up three games to none. Neither team made the playoffs last year but are back and locked up in a very even matchup on paper.
Los Angeles Kings: Down the stretch the Kings have not been good at holding on to leads. While that seems unusual with Jonathan Quick in net, from March 26 to April 5 the Kings were outscored 12-4 in the third period and blew a 3-0 lead against Winnipeg on Saturday. Avoid late-game lapses and the Kings can compete with anybody as they’ve proven this season.
San Jose Sharks: It’s going to take a lot of mental toughness for the Sharks to block out the painful memories of their 2013 and 2014 playoff defeats at the hands of the Kings. The Sharks rank in the top five in goals for, and top ten in goals against, so there aren’t many question marks with the skaters. I’m eager to see the goaltenders. I would guess Martin Jones will get the first crack between the pipes since he’s been the number one goalie all year, but he’s never started a post-season game so we don’t know what to expect from him. If he struggles, James Reimer will get the call and he has been in the playoffs before. A weak start by Jones will start a goaltender controversy, which is the last thing any playoff team wants.
I’m going to take Kings vs. Capitals in the Stanley Cup Final.
Washington has everything going for them with a goalie having one of the best seasons ever, Ovechkin scoring 50 goals again and Justin Williams and his intangibles. Its tough to bet against all that despite their past playoff struggles. With this being one of the more complete teams they’ve had, I think they’ll be able to steamroll through the eastern conference bracket just like they steamrolled through the regular season.
Los Angeles is always a dangerous team in the playoffs and I have a gut feeling Jonathan Quick, Drew Doughty and company will step up again and carry them all the way to the Final. Their puck-possession Corsi percentage ranked atop the NHL at 56.4 percent, and have physical forwards in Dustin Brown and Milan Lucic to anchor the forecheck. Additionally the core of this team has won two Stanley Cups so they have the experience factor on their side.