Photo Courtesy: Keith Allison
The first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs is in the books and, despite not featuring a single Game 7, it was one of the most exciting in recent memory, setting a single-round NHL record with 18 overtime contests. The Toronto Maple Leafs turned some heads by making things much harder than most people expected for the Washington Capitals, and the Predators shocked the hockey world with a sweep of the Western Conference’s best team. After a few days off, round two is beginning tonight, and it features eight teams who all seem like credible threats to win the Cup with the way they are currently playing. So as we get ready for round two, let’s talk about the biggest question each remaining team has to answer if they want to survive another playoff series.
ST. LOUIS BLUES vs. NASHVILLE PREDATORS
St. Louis: How long can Jake Allen keep this up?
“They weren’t the better team, but they won four games.” That’s Minnesota Wild coach Bruce Boudreau talking about his team’s first round ouster at the hands of the Blues. That may sound like sour grapes, but you can forgive Boudreau because he’s absolutely right. For five games in the first round, the Wild outplayed St. Louis in almost every facet of the game, as they averaged 15 more shot attempts per game than the Blues and generated 60% of the series’ scoring chances. So why did they lose in five games? They just had the bad luck of running into a goalie on a ridiculous hot streak.
No matter how one-sided a playoff matchup is on paper, a hot goalie is the great equalizer. It’s the oldest story in playoff hockey, and the latest reboot stars young Jake Allen, who until recently was usually described with words like “frustrating” and “inconsistent”. Well, no one is frustrated with Allen right now (I mean, except the Wild) after he tallied a .956 save percentage in the first round and more or less single-handedly sent Minnesota home for the season. Allen is on the kind of streak that has “Conn Smythe” written all over it…but can he sustain it over four playoff series? Hockey goaltenders are the most unpredictable athletes in professional sports, and streaks like this tend to start and stop with spectacular abruptness. If Allen keeps playing like he did against Minnesota, the Blues are more than capable of taking down all comers. If not…well, there’s a reason the Vegas oddsmakers gave St. Louis the lowest Stanley Cup odds of any playoff team heading into the first round.
Nashville: How long can Pekka Rinne keep this up?
I could reuse basically everything I just said about the Blues and just substitute Pekka Rinne’s name in for Jake Allen’s. As good as Allen was in knocking off the Wild, Rinne may have been even better in Nashville’s shocking first round sweep of the vaunted Blackhawks. The Predators goaltender stopped 123 of 126 shots through four games, absolutely shutting down one of the league’s most dangerous offensive units. Unlike Allen, there is at least some precedent for Rinne’s outstanding performance, as he was considered one of the best netminders in the game for much of his career. However, he hasn’t been the same player in recent years, and it’s fair to say that few people expected such a dominant performance going into the series against Chicago.
In addition to his previous success, Rinne can boast of something else that his counterpart can’t—a stacked blue line in front of him, led by the stellar first pair of P.K. Subban and Roman Josi. Rinne’s brilliance was instrumental in dismantling the Blackhawks, but it didn’t hurt having that kind of talent patrolling the defensive zone. Everyone seems to have been sleeping on Nashville after they started the season with an extended slump, but this team is loaded with talent on offense and defense. If Rinne can continue his Dominic Hasek impersonation, this team will be borderline unbeatable.
Prediction: This series will likely come down to which goalie falls back to Earth first, and my money would be on Allen, given that he is facing a much tougher collection of scoring talent than Rinne; the Predators clinch their first trip to the Western Conference Finals in six games.
EDMONTON OILERS vs. ANAHEIM DUCKS
Edmonton: Will Connor McDavid be able to get it going against Ryan Kesler?
This is without a doubt the matchup to watch in this series, and one that you can expect Ducks coach Randy Carlyle to chase aggressively. In one corner you have McDavid, the exciting young superstar who looks poised to take over the league; in the other you have Kesler, the savvy perennial Selke candidate who makes his living by making life difficult for opposing first lines. You can bet that Carlyle will put Kesler on the ice against McDavid every chance he gets, particularly in Anaheim when the Ducks have the last line change; how McDavid handles the matchup will be very telling about just how far he’s come as a player, and how far he has left to go.
This has been a banner year for the Oilers young star, who bounced back from the injury that ended his rookie year to deliver a Hart Trophy-caliber campaign that included running away with the scoring title. However, he made his playoff debut with more of a whimper than a bang, posting just a single even-strength point against San Jose in round one (in fairness, he also put home the empty-netter that iced the series for Edmonton). The fact that the Oilers were still able to put away the series in six without much of a contribution from their best player shows how far this team has come in the past year, but it’s hard to imagine Edmonton making a deep playoff run if McDavid continues to scuffle. If Kesler can do what he does best and get under McDavid’s skin, this could be a rough series for the Oilers.
Anaheim: Can the blueline hold up?
Considering the Ducks boast as deep a D-core as any team in hockey, it’s a little surprising that this would be their biggest concern heading into the second round, but here we are. The Ducks’ best defenseman, Cam Fowler, has been pinned to the bench with a knee injury since the first week of April, while top-four defensemen Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm were both sidelined during Anaheim’s first-round sweep of the Flames. All three are expected to return at some point in round two, but that certainly doesn’t mean they will be one hundred percent.
So what happens if Anaheim’s key defensive cogs can’t perform up to their usual standard, or if one or more of them don’t make it back into the action at all? It’s going to mean a lot of pressure on youngsters like Shea Theodore, Brandon Montour and Josh Manson to pick up the slack against Edmonton’s speedy forward group. The Ducks are better built to deal with this issue than most teams—as I said, their blueline depth ranks among the league’s best—but they’d better cross their fingers and pray that their injury problems don’t get any worse. One more defenseman going down would push this into a full-blown crisis.
Prediction: Constant pressure from Ryan Kesler keeps McDavid from ever finding his groove, and the battle-hardened Ducks roll past the upstart Oilers in five.
NEW YORK RANGERS vs. OTTAWA SENATORS
New York: How will the Rangers stop Erik Karlsson?
If there was any doubt how dominant the Senators’ number one defenseman is, he gave us all a reminder during round one. Karlsson delivered a fantastic performance against the Bruins, averaging over 30 minutes of ice time and tallying six assists while playing with two hairline fractures in his left heel. There may not be any defenseman in the league who is more valuable to his team than Karlsson, and New York’s strategy for this series has to be focused on how to stop (or at the very least slow down) number 65.
The best way for New York to neutralize the threat of Karlsson on offense may be simply to play keep-away as much as possible—keep a body on him at all times and clutter up the passing lanes to make it hard for Ottawa to get their best player the puck. That’s a lot easier said than done, and Karlsson’s strength and athleticism make for a huge challenge for whatever Blueshirt gets stuck shadowing him around the offensive zone, but the Rangers can’t afford to let Karlsson take over the series the way he often did against Boston in round one. How well they can keep Karlsson quiet will go a long way towards determining the winner of the series.
Ottawa: Is there any way the Senators can score enough to win this series?
Even though the Senators are the higher seed in this series, this sure looks like an awful matchup for them. Nobody wants to go up against a great goalie in the playoffs, particularly one that’s already on a hot streak; that’s what Ottawa has to deal with in Henrik Lundqvist, a generational talent who just had a phenomenal series against the Canadiens in which he tallied a .947 save percentage on 206 shots against. Scoring was already the biggest problem for the Sens—they ranked a lowly 22nd in goals scored during the regular season, and they put the puck home just 15 times in their first round tilt against the Bruins. 15 goals won’t be enough to beat the Rangers, who boast a much faster and more physical offense; if Ottawa wants to survive the second round, they have to find another gear on offense, and they have to do it against one of the best goaltenders in hockey.
So where will the scoring come from? Bobby Ryan was the driving force behind their offense in the first round, scoring four of the team’s 15 goals in their six-game victory over the Bruins. In fact, other than Ryan, Erik Karlsson, and former Ranger Derick Brassard, no Senators player tallied more than 3 points in the opening round. That absolutely has to change in round two. Karlsson has publicly suggested that he has a trick or two up his sleeve for beating Lundqvist that he picked up while the two were teammates on Team Sweden at this summer’s World Cup; among other things, he noted that, “If [Lundqvist] sees the puck, it’s not going in.” Expect to see tons of traffic up front as the Senators try to screen Lundqvist and set up deflections on shots from the perimeter. The Senators are a good enough team defensively that they will be able to keep the series low scoring—if they can consistently pepper Lundqvist with shots that he can’t see coming, they may just be able to eke out an unlikely victory.
Prediction: The low scoring Senators can’t muster enough offense to hang with the fast and physical Rangers, who take the series in six games.
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS vs. WASHINGTON CAPITALS
Pittsburgh: How much gas does Pittsburgh have left in the tank?
18 years. That’s how long it’s been since an NHL team has won back to back Stanley Cups. There are plenty of reasons for this—the institution of a salary cap and the resulting era of increased parity has certainly played a role—but one of the biggest factors is simple fatigue. The team that wins the last game of the season has to play a ton of extra games to get there, which means a shorter offseason and a lot of cumulative wear and tear. By the time the next season’s playoffs roll around, that wear and tear is often keenly felt. This Penguins squad has the talent to beat any team in hockey, but their biggest enemy at this point may be their own bodies.
That’s not to say that Pittsburgh has looked slow or sluggish in these playoffs—quite the contrary actually, as they barely seemed to break a sweat while speedbagging the Blue Jackets in five games—but health has already become a significant issue for the Pens. Star defenseman Kris Letang is done for the season and key cogs Matt Murray, Carl Hagelin and Chris Kunitz all missed the first round with injuries. Other than Letang, all those guys are expected to be back at some point in the second round (and Marc-Andre Fleury was sharp filling in for Murray between the pipes), but depth and fatigue have to be major concerns for Pittsburgh right now, particularly as they get set to face the high-powered Capitals.
Washington: Can the Capitals slay their dragon?
Every Capitals fan out there knew it would come to this. Another Presidents’ Trophy-winning season, another stacked team that looks like the Stanley Cup favorite on paper…and another date with the dreaded Pittsburgh Penguins. There may not be any team with a richer history of playoff agony than the Capitals, and there certainly isn’t a team that has served it up to them more consistently than Pittsburgh. The two franchises have met nine times in the playoffs (beginning with the 1991 Patrick Division Finals), and the Penguins have emerged victorious in all but one of those meetings. Pittsburgh has eliminated Washington after trailing in the series seven times, including four times when the Capitals led by two games; in fact, all four of Pittsburgh’s title runs have included a playoff tilt against the Capitals. Suffice to say that there is no matchup that Washington fans are more afraid of…and no matchup that they would enjoy winning more.
So is this the year that the Caps flip the script? They have already flashed some resilience in these playoffs, shrugging off consecutive losses to the underdog Maple Leafs to take control of the series and win in six. Braden Holtby rebounded after a rough start to the series, allowing just two goals on 63 shots in the final two games; that’s the kind of performance Washington will need from their star netminder if they hope to keep Pittsburgh’s explosive goal scorers in check. And unlike the Penguins, the Capitals are as healthy as you could hope to be in the second round of the playoffs, with an upper-body injury to blueliner Karl Alzner representing their only significant medical concern. We already talked about the physical challenge Pittsburgh is facing trying to go deep in the playoffs the year after a Cup run. Nn paper, it sure seems like the Capitals have every edge going into this matchup.
And yet…it’s the Penguins. It’s the dragon that has guarded the crossing for 25 years. The boss fight the Caps just can’t figure out how to win. The Caps are going to be feeling more pressure than any other team in the second round and it isn’t remotely close. How they handle that could go farther than any other factor in determining the outcome of this series.
Prediction: I doubt a single Washington fan will have the courage to say this out loud, but I will: the Capitals are the better and healthier team in this series, and they’ll eke out the win in seven games.