Down Goes Brown's First Round NHL Playoff Preview
We run through all eight series, crunch some numbers, throw a spotlight on a few key names, and then pick a few winners.
Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.
Let's run through all eight series, crunch some numbers, throw a spotlight on a few key names, and then pick a few winners.
The Metro is home to the Presidents' Trophy winner and trendy Cup favorite. Those are two different teams, by the way.
#2 Penguins vs. #3 Rangers
In this corner: The hottest team in the league. The Penguins (48-26-8, +42) have been a different group since Mike Sullivan took over as coach, roaring down the stretch to grab the Metro's second seed.
And in this corner: The Rangers (46-27-9, +18) have been one of the league's most consistent teams over the last five seasons, and have gone to at least the second round every year since 2011.
Dominant narrative: Goaltending. We don't know who's going in net for the Penguins, where starter Marc-Andre Fleury is apparently back but has been battling a concussion, rookie Matt Murray seemed to suffer a head injury in the team's final game, and Jeff Zatkoff has never played a minute in the postseason. Even if Fleury is back, Henrik Lundqvist gives the Rangers a big edge in goal. Big enough to steal the series? Quite possibly, yeah.
The big question: Is the Rangers' window closing? They've been to the conference finals in three of the last four seasons, but the core is an old one. Rangers fans will push back on that, and it's true that the team has some young talent (every team has some young talent). But Lundqvist is 34, and Rick Nash, Eric Staal, Derick Brassard, Marc Staal and Mats Zuccarello are all 28 or older. In today's NHL, that's old. Not "take them out behind the barn" old, no, but definitely "the point of diminishing returns" old. If the Rangers can't win this year, how do they get closer to a Cup next year, or the year after? At some point, they'll have to hit the reset button.
One player to watch: Dan Girardi. With Ryan McDonagh apparently out to start the series, Girardi will have a greater role. That's not good news for New York, since Girardi has struggled badly at times this year. If he can't hold his own against the Penguins' snipers, this one could get ugly.
Key number: 0.59—Career goals-per-game in the playoffs by Phil Kessel. Despite his reputation as a soft player who doesn't come through in big moments, Kessel actually ranks first among all active players in the category.
Prediction: Penguins in 5.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: Pittsburgh ends the series with an overtime win, at which point Lundqvist reminds us all that nobody in hockey pulls off a better "devastated goaltender reaction" than he can.
#1 Capitals vs. (WC) Flyers
In this corner: The Capitals (56-18-8, +57) are the owners of the best record in hockey by a wide margin and the oddsmakers' Stanley Cup favorites.
And in this corner: The Flyers (41-27-14, +1) snuck into the playoffs on the season's penultimate day.
Dominant narrative: The Capitals have a long history of taking big leads in the playoffs and then collapsing. They've looked great all year, but how will they respond when postseason adversity inevitably arrives?
The big question: Are the Flyers just happy to be here? You could forgive them if they were—this is a team that has been patiently rebuilding under GM Ron Hextall, so just making the playoffs feels like a bonus. But that's not really the Philadelphia way, and the franchise will be riding some serious emotion after Monday's death of longtime owner Ed Snider.
One player to watch: Alexander Ovechkin. OK, so there's no points for creativity here. But to be more specific: Let's watch Ovechkin on the powerplay. Special teams are crucial in the playoffs, and we all know how the Capitals powerplay works by now. Ovechkin gets open, you scream at your TV that he's open, he somehow stays open, and then it's a one-timer laser beam into the top corner. The Flyers' penalty-killing wasn't good this year, ranking 20th overall. If they can't take away Ovechkin's go-to play, this could get ugly.
Key number: Two—Lifetime playoff wins over the eight-year career of Flyers goalie Steve Mason. He's only made the postseason twice, and has a 2-6 record in nine appearances. But he was very good for the Flyers in 2014, taking over for Ray Emery and nearly outdueling Henrik Lundqvist.
Prediction: Capitals in 5.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: The Capitals blow a two-goal lead and lose Game 1, causing all of their fans to freak out. They don't trail again the rest of the series.
According to the oddsmakers, this division is an afterthought in terms of Cup contenders, with none of the four teams coming in any better than 20-to-1 to win it all.
#2 Lightning vs. #3 Red Wings
In this corner: The battered and bruised Lightning (46-30-5, +29). They were last year's Eastern Conference champs, but enter this year's postseason without key pieces like Steven Stamkos, Anton Stralman and (maybe) Tyler Johnson.
And in this corner: The Red Wings (41-30-11, -10), fresh off extending their postseason streak to 25 years on the season's final weekend.
Dominant narrative: The Wings had the Lightning on the ropes in last year's opening round but couldn't finish the job; with Tampa missing some pieces, Detroit has a golden opportunity for revenge in the rematch.
The big question: Who's in net for the Red Wings (and for how long)? Petr Mrazek won the job early in the year and was on his way to a Vezina-quality season. But he's faltered lately, leading Detroit coach Jeff Blashill to turn to veteran Jimmy Howard. He was up and down over that stretch, and would seem to be the favorite to start Game 1. But how quick will Blashill's hook be?
One player to watch: Jonathan Drouin. The former third overall pick has been a disappointment in Tampa; he didn't play much during last year's playoff run, was sent to the AHL this year, and then walked out on the team in an attempt to force a trade. That trade never came, and Drouin eventually swallowed his pride and returned to the AHL team. The Stamkos situation opened the door for him to return to Tampa, and he scored in his first game back. He'll be on a short leash, but sometimes the redemption stories just write themselves.
Key number: 15.9%—The Lightning's success rate on the powerplay, good for 27th overall in the league and the worst mark among the 16 playoff teams.
Series prediction: Lightning in 7.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: Detroit stays alive by winning Game 6 in overtime, with Pavel Datsyuk potting the winner in what ends up being his final home game as a Red Wing.
#1 Panthers vs. (WC) Islanders
In this corner: The Panthers (47-26-9, +32) are coming off their best regular season in franchise history, one that saw them make the leap from sixth place last year all the way to the top seed in the Atlantic.
And in this corner: The Islanders (45-27-10, +16) spent most of the season nestled into second or third in the Metro before a late-season drop to wild-card status, so it's easy to forget that they still finished as a 100-point team.
Dominant narrative: A Panthers co-owner made headlines last week by admitting he'd rather face the Islanders than the Rangers, in part because the Islanders have weaker goaltending. He got his wish. Now, he'd better hope the Panthers get out to a good start, because we all love us a good "bulletin board material gone bad" storyline.
The big question: What sort of home-ice advantage will the Islanders get? This series will mark the first time playoff hockey has been played at Barclays Center, and the Islanders' first year in Brooklyn hasn't been especially smooth. Longtime fans hated the commute, sightlines were bad, the ice was worse, and it all added up to a building that was oddly quiet on a lot of nights. Maybe the arrival of the playoffs flips a switch, and the Barclays Center finally feels like a real hockey home. Maybe not.
One player to watch: Aleksander Barkov. The ageless Jaromir Jagr gets all the attention, and rightly so, but Barkov's breakout was at least as big a key to the Panthers' leap forward. He led the team in goals and ice-time among forwards while playing an excellent two-way game. He's only 20 years old, and it's not unusual for young players to struggle in their first playoff action. If Barkov does, the Panthers' road gets a lot tougher.
Key number: 43—Combined years without a playoff series win for the two teams. The Panthers haven't won a round since 1996, while the Islanders' streak dates back to 1993.
Prediction: Panthers in 5.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: After a quiet series, John Tavares becomes the latest NHL star to get fed into the ridiculous "can't get it done in the playoffs" small sample-size wood chipper.
The Pacific was a punchline for much of the season, thanks to four awful teams. But with those bottom-feeders at home calculating draft lottery odds, it's down to the three-way Battle of California plus an interloper from the Central.
#2 Kings vs. #3 Sharks
In this corner: The Kings (48-28-6, +31) lost their hold on the Pacific's top seed on the season's final weekend, earning themselves a fourth date with the Sharks in the last six years.
And in this corner: The Sharks (46-30-6, +32) return to the playoffs after missing out for the first time in over a decade last season.
Dominant narrative: After years of postseason disappointments, the Sharks get what may be a final shot at redemption against the team that dealt them their most painful defeat.
The big question: Who'll get secondary scoring? A head-to-head matchup between Anze Kopitar and Joe Thornton would pit two of the league's best two-way players against each other, putting extra pressure on the other lines to generate some offense. The Kings have been top heavy at times, but Marian Gaborik may be close to returning and the Vincent Lecavalier revival tour has been rolling. The Sharks' forward ranks may be slightly deeper, and don't forget about Brent Burns' 27 goals from the blueline.
One player to watch: Joe Thornton. We all know the narrative by now: Thornton racks up points in the regular season, but disappears in the playoffs. Is it true? Not really, but when have we ever let that get in the way? Thornton's coming off another excellent season, one that's earning him some Hart Trophy buzz. But it won't matter if he strings together a quiet game or two against a Kings team that will be focused on shutting him down.
Key number: 28—Road wins for the Sharks, the most in the NHL.
Prediction: Kings in 7.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: You know that one series is going to feature a crucial game being decided by a controversial replay review. This feels like the one.
#1 Ducks vs. (WC) Predators
In this corner: The Ducks (46-25-11, +27), who came all the way back from last place over the Christmas break to steal the division title on the season's final night.
And in this corner: The Predators (41-27-14, +11) cross over from the Central after securing the top wild-card spot.
Dominant narrative: A team with a reputation for not scoring enough faces the toughest team in the league to score against. The Predators' offense isn't the issue it once was—they ranked 12th in goals scored, ahead of talented teams like the Lightning and Blues (and Ducks). But Anaheim allowed the fewest goals in the league, and can suffocate opponents. There's less to choose from between these two teams than you might think; while the Ducks' second-half surge was impressive, the Predators were pretty good themselves. But it won't matter if the Predators can't find a way to score.
The big question: Who's in net for the Ducks? It's rare to see a top seed head into the playoffs without a clear starter, but the Ducks are still playing coy with John Gibson and Frederik Andersen. In a way, it's a nice problem to have—both guys have had good years. But conventional wisdom says that one guy needs to take the job and run with it. It will be interesting to see who gets the first shot, not to mention what happens the first time he struggles.
One player to watch: In contrast to the Ducks, Nashville's goaltending situation is locked down. This is Pekka Rinne's team, and the Predators will go as far as he can take them. Unfortunately, that may not be all that far—Rinne is coming off of a lackluster season in which he posted a .908 save percentage, good for 33rd on the list of 42 goalies who played at least 20 games. For context, that's the same number Jonathan Bernier put up during a season that saw him banished to the minors by the league's worst team. Rinne can't be written off; he's one year removed from being the Vezina runner-up, and it's not like he stopped being 6'7" overnight. But if the assumption is that the Predators have a big edge in goal, that's based more on reputation than reality.
Key number: 1—Overall rank for both the Ducks' powerplay and penalty kill. That hasn't happened in over three decades.
Prediction: Ducks in 6.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: Both Ducks goalies record a shutout in the series.
The league's toughest division heads into the playoffs with two questions: Who'll make it out, and will they have anything left?
#2 Blues vs. #3 Blackhawks
In this corner: Stop me if you've heard this one before, but the Blues (49-24-9, +22) put together yet another solid year under Ken Hitchcock. Now about the playoffs...
And in this corner: The defending champs. The Blackhawks (47-26-9, +27) enjoyed another strong regular season. But as we all know, they're not built to do their best work during the regular season.
Dominant narrative: A Blues team that's been in do-or-die mode since giving Hitchcock a one-year extension last year faces their last chance to make noise in the postseason—and the biggest bully in the schoolyard is waiting for them in round one.
The big question: Are the Hawks still good? I mean, yes, they're obviously good, but are they still Chicago Blackhawks good? They've got the MVP, the reigning Conn Smythe winner, and a goaltender coming off an excellent year who's finally getting some respect. They've also lost 18 of 33 since their 12-game winning streak ended on Jan. 19 and finished outside the top ten in score-adjusted possession. Plus there's the fatigue factor—the Hawks have played a ton of hockey over the last three years, and that tends to catch up to teams.
One player to watch: In a series full of big names, keep an eye on Chicago defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk. Remember last year, when the Hawks seemed to spend the entire playoffs rolling just four guys on the blueline? With Johnny Oduya in Dallas, that group is down to three, and they've struggled to find someone to play with Brent Seabrook on the second pair. That job seems to be van Riemsdyk's for now, but it hasn't exactly gone well. The Hawks will need to hope he can step up or find another option quickly if they're going to make a long run. (And remember, Duncan Keith is out for Game 1 due to suspension.)
Key number: .930—Brian Elliott's save percentage, the best mark in the league. But do the Blues trust him? They've never seemed to in the past.
Prediction: Blues in 7.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: The series features four overtimes and is basically a coin flip, but we all draw ironclad conclusions from it anyway.
#1 Stars vs (WC) Wild
In this corner: The explosive Stars (50-23-9, +37) captured the Central crown while leading the league in goals by a wide margin.
And in this corner: With 87 points, the Wild (38-33-11, +9) head into the postseason with the worst record among the 16 playoff teams.
Dominant narrative: The Stars' high-flying was all sorts of fun to watch. But can it win in the playoffs, especially when it runs into a top-tier goaltender—like, say, Devan Dubnyk?
The big question: How do the Wild win this? Sorry, that seems harsh. But apart from Dubnyk standing on his head, this looks like a massive mismatch. Even at full health the Wild would be a longshot, but they're already missing Tomas Vanek and could now be without Zach Parise. Yes, the Stars' leaky goaltending leaves them vulnerable to a good team. But the Wild don't seem to be even that—remember, they finished six points behind a Boston Bruins team that didn't make the playoffs—so this should be easy money for the Stars.
One Two players to watch: Antti Niemi/Kari Lehtonen (tie). They're the two Stars goalies. They're also both not very good. Remember how we said Rinne ranked ahead of only nine goalies all season? These two were both on that list. Wait, am I talking myself out of this?
Key number: 230—Goals allowed by the Stars, the most by any playoff team. The Sabres and Hurricanes ran a tighter ship. I think I might be talking myself out of this.
Prediction: Stars in four. Goaltending aside, the Stars still feature enough talent to make easy work of the... wait a second, are you Minnesota fans all bookmarking this page right now? Stop that. I reserve the right to delete all of this. NO SCREENCAPS!
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: I have made a terrible mistake.
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