By: Tony Del Fiacco, KCOU Sports
With every team having played somewhere between 57 and 62 games, the 2014-15 NHL regular season is now approximately three quarters of the way finished. While the March 2 trade deadline, which signals the official start of the final stretch before the playoffs, is still a week away, the temptation to look ahead is nonetheless too good to resist. After all, the Stanley Cup playoffs are two months of top-level hockey played with the intensity meter dialed past “10”; what’s not to like?
So if you’re already drooling over the thought of upsets, playoff beards, bone-crushing checks, season-ending goals off weird bounces, goalie handstands, goalie meltdowns, retrograde Don Cherry opinions, etc., here are the five best possible first-round matchups you, as someone who objectively enjoys watching the game at its highest level, should be crossing your fingers to see.
Anaheim Ducks vs. Los Angeles Kings
The Battle of California! No, not that Battle of California. The other one.
The Ducks and Kings last met in the Pacific Division final last spring. The first four games all went to the home team. Anaheim took a 3-2 series lead following a 4-3 thriller in Game 5, but they couldn’t finish Los Angeles off as the Kings won the last two games by a combined score of 8-3.
The story for each team this year is the same as in previous years. Anaheim wrapped up another Pacific Division title sometime around Thanksgiving despite once again showing signs of being a paper tiger. (Though to the Ducks’ collective credit, their 50.60 SAT%* shows they’ve finally made that big first step towards driving possession.)
The Kings, meanwhile, seem content with their usual Cup-winning plan “buy big at the trade deadline, play just well enough to make the playoffs, catch fire and profit” because why fix what isn’t broken? You’ll want to see this on the off chance one of the Kings’ in-state rivals finally puts them away, but don’t get your hopes up. Los Angeles is still a very deep, very talented team. Their limited cap space may make them less likely to make a big deadline deal like the ones they made in years past for Jeff Carter and Marian Gaborik, but their 54.05% SAT tops the league.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals
Crosby vs. Ovechkin: The Sequel
The first and only playoff series between Sidney Crosby’s Penguins and Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals, in the second round in 2009, was a pretty big deal. Four years prior, both stars entered the league to much fanfare, the burden of reviving interest in the sport following the season-cancelling 2004-05 lockout resting on their shoulders. And they delivered. Crosby became the youngest Stanley Cup-winning captain that spring and has consistently been the league’s best overall talent for a decade now. Ovechkin, who broke the 100-point mark in four of his first five NHL seasons, will retire as one of the best goal-scorers of all time.
Under new head coach Barry Trotz, the Capitals (2.24 GA/G, 6th in the NHL) seem to have finally solved the defensive troubles that have plagued them since Bruce Boudreau’s firing. Previous coaches’ plans have either tried to shoehorn Ovechkin into a more defensive role and sacrificed his production (Dale Hunter) or fallen apart altogether (Adam Oates). But Trotz’s plan kept a small market team like Nashville competitive for 16 years, so one could only expect he’d succeed with more star power in Washington.
Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, the sky was falling last week. Crosby (six points in nine games this month) and Malkin (three in eight) had produced little as of late. And the Penguins’ struggles against division rivals (7-11-4 vs. the Metropolitan division) saw them fall to a wild-card spot. So, Pens broadcaster and former player Ray Bourque went off on the team following their 2-1 loss Thursday to Columbus. Pittsburgh then won both its weekend games by a combined score of 9-3, including a 4-2 victory in St. Louis Saturday night. I wonder if they received Bourque’s message.
Montreal Canadiens vs. Boston Bruins
Original Six matchup. Most-played rivalry in NHL history. ‘Nuff said.
Last year’s Bruins (54-19-9, 117 points) should have coasted to the Eastern Conference title. All season long, these two facts were well known: the Western was the better of the league’s two conferences, and only the Presidents’ Trophy winners in Boston stood a chance in the Cup final among the possible challengers from the Eastern. Then these two met in the Atlantic Division final and Montreal won in seven games. Trop mal, si triste.
So what happened in that second round series? Well for starters, Carey Price is fantastic. Price stopped 93.6% of the shots he faced against Boston and even added a shutout in Game 5. That the Habs didn’t last long in the Eastern Conference final after Price went down in the first game isn’t a coincidence. And in case you’re wondering, he still is fantastic: his 93.5% save percentage tops the league. When you take that stat and consider the fact that he’s also tied for 6th in games played (47), it’s not hard to figure out how Montreal has done so well despite being a mediocre possession team (48.93 SAT%.) The Habs’ chances at a 25th Cup begin and end with Carey Price.
The Bruins, meanwhile, have fallen on hard times as of late. A six-game losing streak before Sunday’s big 6-2 win over the Blackhawks nearly disappeared what was previously a comfortable eight-point lead over Florida for the last wild card sport. They’re not holding onto the puck quite as well as past seasons, although their 51.78 SAT% is still good for 8th in the league. And their 1002 SPSV% shows they haven’t been unlucky, either. The fact of the matter is, their scoring (2.6 GF/G, 21st in the NHL) has dropped significantly. Losing Jarome Iginla among others will do that to you.
A struggling offense vs. the frontrunner for the Vezina and Hart trophies? This should go well.
New York Islanders vs. New York Rangers
It’s the first all-New York series since 1994. That’s “New York” as in the league’s largest media market.
Like I said, this would be the first playoff meeting between these two since the 1994 Eastern Conference quarterfinals. (The Rangers swept the Isles on the way to their first Cup championship in 50 years.) To put that wait in perspective, anyone born right after the series is now only weeks away from legal drinking age. It’s been a while.
The Islanders have been one of the league’s biggest surprise this season. The defensive pairing of offseason acquisitions Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy has paid dividends; Boychuk has already reached career highs in assists (21) and points (25.) Captain John Tavares, only one year removed tearing his MCL and meniscus during the Sochi Olympics, is 4th in the league with 62 points and has an outside shot at the Hart trophy. Other newcomers like Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and goaltender Jaroslav Halak have all chipped into the team’s worst-to-first turnaround. It’s safe to say this last season at the Nassau Coliseum will be one to remember for long-suffering Isles fans.
So what better way to open the final postseason in Uniondale than to do so against their rivals from across the Hudson River? The biggest story coming out of the Rangers’ 2014-15 campaign is obviously the loss of world-beating goaltender Henrik Lundqvist for several weeks due to a frightening vascular injury. But the defending Eastern Conference champions have found ways to keep on winning despite the loss of their no. 1 netminder, winning seven of 10 in his absence and picking up 16 out of a possible 20 points. Their tendency to surrender early leads is concerning, though, and there’s no guarantee Lundqvist’s return would completely fix it. Getting leads early against the Islanders shouldn’t be a problem; the Isles’ defense lets up a whopping 2.8 goals per game. But the story of this all-New York series could come down to whether the best goalie in the business can hold those leads when his rivals and their high-octane offense come storming back.
St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks
What billing? Nothing to see here, just two friendly neighbors paying each other a few visits. No bad blood to be found between these two, no sir.
Honestly, I can’t remember the last time the Blues and Blackhawks played each other in the playoffs.
Hahaha, I’m just kidding. I remember. St. Louis took Games 1 and 2 in overtime. Then Corey Crawford happened. Then Patrick Kane did a thing, then Jonathan Toews did another thing, and then a four-goal third period for Chicago in the clincher. Hawks in six.
I’m not going to lie. As a Blackhawks fan, I was on pins and needles from puck drop in Game 1 until the last 20 minutes of Game 6 last spring. The Blues scared me then and still do now. And while the five combined overtime periods in that series would have you believe the two rivals were as even as can be—and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong—the enhanced stats tell another story. St. Louis out-possessed Chicago in every game except the Hawks’ 4-3 overtime win in Game 4, and the numbers still look lopsided in the Blues’ favor when you narrow them down to close-game, even-strength situations (a 53.7 SAT% share for St. Louis.) So what happened? Two things: Corey Crawford had an outstanding series (.935 save percentage) while Ryan Miller had the exact opposite of that (.897); and the Blues only converted 2 of 29 power play opportunities in six games. Those two misgivings alone can sink your chances in a series that close.
So with St. Louis and Chicago sitting comfortably at second and third place, respectively, in the Central Division, how will the rematch between these two titans go? My lazy answer would be “more of the same.” I doubt you’d see as many games go into overtime as last year, or someone attempt to decapitate David Backes again. But when consensus dictates these are two of the most talented, if not the two most talented, teams in the NHL, a one-sided affair seems out of the question. This is going to get really messy, really ugly, really stressful, and for fans looking from the outside in, really fun. Blues or Blackhawks, the winner of this series will at least be in the Western Conference final. Just who it will be might come down to simple chance.
*-With the advent of the NHL’s “enhanced stats” page on the official league website, it seems we have reached the twilight of the old names for “advanced” hockey stats (like Corsi, Fenwick, PDO) and the dawn of the labels “SAT” (even strength shot attempts), “USAT” (even strength unblocked shot attempts) and “SPSV%” (team even strength shooting + save percentage) for each respective stat. Corsi is dead; long live Corsi.