There were a number of surprises in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. But if you read our first-round preview, you shouldn’t have been surprised. With the exception of the Capitals eliminating the Bruins, last year’s Stanely Cup champions, we weren’t surprised.
Aside from picking the Capitals, Ron Opher picked the correct winner in every other series except the Flyers-Penguins series, going 4-for-4 in the Western Conference. The Capitals-Bruins series was the only blemish for Eric Fisher, who selected the correct winner in the other seven series.
Will Ron’s and Eric’s prognosticating success carry over to the second round? More importantly, which teams’ success will carry over to the second round and propel them into the conference semifinals? Read the following preview to find out.
BLUES (2) vs. KINGS (8)
The St. Louis Blues were the most impressive team in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Sure, it’s possible that the San Jose Sharks were the least impressive team. But San Jose sure had a lot of firepower, and were reduced to a popgun offense at the hands of Blues coach Ken Hitchcock’s outstanding team defense and the goalie tandem of Jaroslav Halak (1-1, 1.73, .935) and Brian Elliott (3-0, 1.37, .949).
Not only did we see the Blues advancing out of round 1, we called their top playoff performer, Andy McDonald (4G, 4A, +2, team-leading 18 shots), a “wild card,” “sizzling” and a “difference-maker” in our playoff preview. What we didn’t see was his linemate Patrik Berglund, after a 38-point regular season, stepping up with 7 points in 5 games and a team-leading +4 rating. Keep an eye on that duo, because if they stay hot, you know that Alex Steen, T.J. Oshie and David Backes, who combined for 7 points, will pick up their games as well, and likely carry the Blues far.
The Los Angeles Kings rode a terrific series by their captain, Dustin Brown, who led L.A. in goals (4), points (5) and +/- (+4) and their own terrific defense and Jonathan Quick’s goaltending (4-1, 1.59, .953) to dethrone last season’s Western Conference champion, the Vancouver Canucks.
The Canucks, like the Sharks, looked like a team one step behind in their 5-game series. Still, Vancouver held leads over Los Angeles for substantial stretches of games 4 and 5. L.A. simply got the right play at the right time — getting their game-winning goals in the third period of each of Games 1-3, and then getting a game-tying goal in the third period of Game 5, followed by the series-winner in overtime, to emerge on top.
In contrast, over the span of 5 games, the Blues trailed for only 26:49 of game time, more than half of which was in Game 1. After dropping Game 1 at home in overtime, St. Louis took control of the series, winning 4 straight and playing from in front much of the time.
The Blues-Kings series features mirror-image type teams, but the Blues look like they are playing at a higher level. And they have home ice. I think they will lock down the Kings late in games — something the Canucks failed to do — and it won’t be as close a series as many think.
Upset probability: Low
Prediction: Blues in 5
Eric’s analysis: For the first time in the Western Conference playoffs, Ron and I disagree on the outcome. The Sharks-Blues series featured a contrast in styles. Unlike the Sharks, the Kings are comfortable playing low-scoring games. When they acquired former Flyer Jeff Carter at the trade deadline, the Kings were the NHL’s lowest-scoring team. There seemed to be a ripple effect after the acquisition of Carter, but the Kings still favor a low-scoring defensive style. We could hype the matchup of Carter and Mike Richards against Hitchcock, their first NHL head coach, but that isn’t what this series is about. The series will be won by the team with opportunistic goals and better goaltending. I can’t predict which team will score opportunistic goals, but Quick gives the Kings an edge in goal. The Blues stumbled a bit down the stretch, causing me to write last round that if it were the Kings playing the Blues instead of the Sharks, I would pick the Kings. I haven’t changed my mind. KINGS in 6
COYOTES (3) vs. PREDATORS (4)
Defense and goaltending dominated in the West, as the flashy teams from Detroit, San Jose, Vancouver and Chicago went down, one by one. Maybe that’s why Eric and I went 4-for-4 in picking the West’s winners. We appreciate good defense and good goaltending and think those are keys to winning in the playoffs, where every inch of territory is contested and every mistake between the pipes could cost a team a game.
The Nashville Predators‘ Pekka Rinne (43-18-8 in 73 games, 2.39, .923 regular season; 4-1, 1.81, .944) is an elite goaltender. The Phoenix Coyotes‘ Mike Smith played like an elite goaltender all season (38-18-10 in 57 regular season games, 2.21, .930; 4-2, 1.81, .950 playoffs). Is it time to buy into Smith? I’m not sure. But what I do know is that if Smith were on the Blackhawks and Corey Crawford were on the Coyotes, there is no way that the Coyotes would have advanced. Phoenix is here because Crawford (2-4, 2.58, .893) was among the worst goalies in the first round, excluding the Flyers-Penguins ’80s throwback series. Crawford’s stats were comparable to Roberto Luongo’s (0-2, 3.59, .891) and Jimmy Howard’s (1-4, 2.86, .888), both of whom also lost in the first round.
It also helped that Phoenix took out Chicago’s top point man, Marian Hossa (29G, 48A), early in Game 3. Sure, Raffi Torres is out for the whole playoffs — even if every series goes 7 games (hence the 25-game total, just as Arron Asham was kicked out of 4 games so as not to rear his ugly head in the Flyers-Penguins series again). There is a method to Brendan Shanahan’s madness.
By the way, we said this about Torres 2 weeks ago: “The key player in the whole series, however, may be ex-Canuck instigator Raffi Torres. If there is a guy who can get under Chicago’s skin and kick the Blackhawks in the proverbial shins, it’s Torres. Sometimes, you have to flash a nasty attitude to show you can go toe-to-toe with a championship-caliber team. … Torres knows what it takes to beat the Blackhawks in the playoffs, and will likely factor prominently in this series’ outcome.” While we don’t condone Torres’ behavior, perhaps fueled by Andrew Shaw running over Mike Smith late in game 2 — which clearly turned the tide in that game — there’s no doubt that Torres flashed his nasty attitude and factored prominently in the outcome of the Phoenix-Chicago series, even though he played in less than half of it.
Phoenix did also find solid backline play from Harry Potter look-alike Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who, along with Keith Yandle (0G, 5A, +5), forms nearly as good a duo as Nashville’s Ryan Suter and Shea Weber. The Coyotes also got timely goal-scoring from Antoine Vermette (4G, 1A), Gilbert Brule (2G, 1A) and Mikkel Boedker (2G, 2A with both goals being OT game-winners). Add captain Shane Doan’s and Martin Hanzal’s gritty play and Ray Whitney’s creativity and Phoenix punched through just enough goals to win the series, including 3 times in OT. 35-goal scorer Radim Vrbata was invisible in the Chicago series (0G, 1A, and a team-worst -4), and it’s fair to say that with Rinne in the nets for the Predators, the Coyotes need a sniper like Vrbata to score, since it’s less likely that marginal talents will dent Rinne.
Nashville had their own power outage up front against Detroit (scoring 13 total goals, and only 9 from the forwards), but managed to find goals from the line of David Legwand (2G, 2A), Alexander Radulov (1G 4A) and Gabriel Bourque (3G, 1A), each of whom were a +5. Every close follower of the NHL knows about Legwand (501 career NHL points), who, like head coach Barry Trotz, has been with the Predators since they formed in 1998. In our playoff preview, we told you to keep an eye on Radulov, who returned from 3 seasons in the KHL and tallied 7 points in 9 games down the stretch of the regular season. In the same preview, we were wondering who this season’s Joel Ward would be for the Preds. While we listed four candidates, we missed Bourque, who scored 7 goals in the regular season, but leads Nashville with 3 so far in the playoffs.
Phoenix does get home ice, but the likelihood of this series getting to a 7th game is low.
Upset probability: High
Prediction: Predators in 6
Eric’s analysis: Congratulations to the Coyotes for winning their first playoff series since the franchise moved to Phoenix. But the Coyotes’ run ends here. As Ron points out, Rinne and Crawford are at opposite ends of the goalie spectrum. The Predators handled the Red Wings without too much of a problem. The Coyotes aren’t as good as the Red Wings. Smith has been terrific, but that will only allow the Coyotes to hang in there with the Predators, not to beat them. Before the season, I predicted a Kings-Predators Western Conference final. I’m sticking with that prediction. PREDATORS in 6
RANGERS (1) vs. CAPITALS (8)
The New York Rangers go from barely beating one surprise team to taking on another. The Blueshirts most definitely had their hands full with Ottawa. As we noted in our playoff preview, the Rangers’ suspect firepower was a weakness in this series – as it may be for them throughout the playoffs. It didn’t help matters that Craig Anderson (3-4, 2.00, .933) was perhaps the most overachieving goalie in the first round. And if Anderson wasn’t the hottest goalie, the Rangers are about to face another hot goalie – Washington rookie Braden Holtby.
Marian Gaborik has drawn criticism for his round one performance (1G, 2A, -1 in 7 games), but that’s all relative. Brad Richards led the Rangers with 5 points, and four players were tied with 4 points apiece. Brian Boyle ended up leading the Rangers with 3 goals, and he was out for games 6 and 7 – both key Rangers wins. All that leads me to believe that goal-scoring is an issue, but so far has not done the Rangers in. Statistically, New York was led past Ottawa by two players – defenseman Anton Stralman (2G – both on the power play, 2A, +3 – after a 2G, 16A, +9 regular season) and Hart Trophy finalist, goalie Henrik Lundqvist (4-3, 1.70, .945).
The Washington Capitals changed their game and changed their fortunes as a result. I called out Washington in the playoff preview, missing badly on my prediction of a Bruins sweep. I tried to make amends on our Sunday 4/15 radio show, singling out the Caps for their commitment to defense when the series was 1-1. Clearly, it didn’t take much watching Washington to see that something was much different with this team under new head coach Dale Hunter. I also had mentioned in the playoff preview that there was dissension on the team and that Alex Ovechkin would get a chance to prove his critics wrong.
On those points, the jury is still out. Hunter benched Ovechkin for stretches throughout the series – even late in the series, on the theory that Ovechkin is a defensive liability. When Washington had a late lead, Ovechkin was often nailed to the bench. In the end, Ovechkin led the team with 5 points, but both of his goals – as key as they seemed (a go-ahead goal in Game 3 and a tying goal in Game 6) – were scored in losing efforts.
Considering that flashy players like Ovechkin, Brooks Laich, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Marcus Johansson were the top 5 names on the Caps’ playoff scoresheet, but also get a lot of power play time and averaged between 18-21 minutes of ice time per game, one can argue that Washington is getting more mileage out of players like Joel Ward (1G, 2A in 9:28 average ice time) and Mike Knuble (1G, 1A in only 4 games, and 8:59 average ice time). It was Knuble and Ward who teamed up to score the series-winner in overtime Wednesday night.
After spending all this time talking about the Captials forwards, I need to mention that defensemen Mike Green and Roman Hamrlik led Washington with impressive +5 ratings – trailing only Claude Giroux and Nashville’s Francis Boullion (both +6) among playoff participants. Karl Alzner led Washington defensemen with a 24:55 average time on ice per game. And of course rookie goalie Braden Holtby (4-3, 2.00, .940) was very impressive. But perhaps most impressive of all was the fact the the Capitals won 3 road games in their series win over Boston. The Caps have altered their style for the playoffs, particularly on the road where they don’t feel pressure to impress or entertain the home crowd, and simply go about their business trying to win hockey games.
I think the Capitals will give the Rangers everything they can handle, especially since most of the series figures to be played with one team no more than a goal ahead. If that team is the Rangers more often than not, this could be a short series. But I’m giving Dale Hunter props in how to handle his personnel and when to go for the throttle and when to play lock-down defense. This series should end up going the distance – but it’s too much to ask me to pick against the Rangers, who finished #1 in the East in the NHL’s toughest division for a reason.
Upset probability: Moderate
Prediction: Rangers in 7
Eric’s analysis: This is the third time in four years the Rangers and Capitals have met in the postseason. The Capitals won both of the previous meetings, including a five-game series last season, but this is a different Rangers team. The Rangers have more scoring and leadership in front of Lundqvist this season. Holtby, pressed into action due to injuries to Washington’s top two goalies, more than held his own against the Bruins’ Tim Thomas in the first round. The Capitals are playing a much more defensive style in front of Holtby than they have in the past, but low-scoring defensive games are right up the Rangers’ alley. RANGERS in 6
FLYERS (5) vs. DEVILS (6)
The Philadelphia Flyers sent back the DeLorean and Doc Brown with it on Sunday, after going back to the future in games 2-4 with the Penguins (with scores of 8-5, 8-4 and 10-3). 1980′s hockey returned to Philadelphia, even as the Spectrum – which hosted so many memorable series in the Mike Keenan era – is gone, and a freshly-paved parking lot stands in its place. In the other 3 games of the Penguins series, the 2012 playoff version of the Flyers emerged – in a 4-3 come-from-behind win in overtime (game 1), a 3-2 loss that saw the Flyers take the second period off and then try to recover in the third (game 5), and the series finale, where the Flyers kept the Penguins away from the middle of the ice, Claude Giroux played like the best player in the world – ripping that moniker off the evil CrosbyMalkin and ripping the hearts out of the Penguins – and Ilya Bryzgalov had the type of game in goal that the Flyers need every game (game 6, a 5-1 win).
In round two, the Flyers want to skip past the 1990′s and 2000 as well, a time when their playoff opponent, the New Jersey Devils, got the best of them in 1995 (Claude Lemieux’s late goal) and 2000 (blown 3-1 series lead, Scott Stevens conucussing Eric Lindros, Patrik Elias’s late goal) and rode those Eastern Conference finals victories all the way to Stanley Cup wins. The Flyers have won the last 2 meetings, both in the first round (2004 and 2010) and both in 5 games. The Flyers used their wins over the Devils as springboards to long playoff runs of their own, losing in 2004′s Eastern Conference final to Tampa Bay in 7 games and losing in 2010′s Stanley Cup final to Chicago in 6 games.
Yes, Martin Brodeur (4-2, 2.06, .922, after a 31-21-4, 2.41, .908 regular season) and Elias (2 goals and 18+ minutes of ice time per game, after a resurgent 26G, 52A regular season) are still around, but these are not exactly the Devils of old. The Devils have significant offensive threats in Ilya Kovalchuk (3G, 2A), Zach Parise (2G, 2A) and rookie Adam Henrique (2G, 1A – both goals coming in Game 7). Travis Zajac (3G, 3A, after tallying 6 points in 15 regular season games) and David Clarkson (0G, 5A – odd stats given is 30G, 16A regular season) are stepping up, and are a big reason the Devils survived the Panthers. Stylistically, New Jersey still tries to put up a wall in front of Brodeur and counterpunch – but the reality is that Brodeur is not nearly as formidable as he once was, and the Devils often play Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, vascillating between up-tempo hockey and neutral-zone clogging that is as entertaining as watching paint dry. Some of that is due to the round peg that Kovalchuk (-3 in round one, -9 in the regular season) is in the square hole that is the Devils’ team. The Flyers need to find ways of keeping the tempo up, as that type of game favors them – even with Kovalchuk out there. Make that especially when Kovalchuk – who is allergic to backchecking – is out there. Making sure the Flyers dictate the tempo is a task which sits squarely with the head coach.
First-year head coach Pete DeBoer is far from a forceful presence behind the Devils’ bench. He looked like he was nearly in tears after Florida’s furious 2-goal third period comeback in Game 7 of their first-round series. Maybe DeBoer saves his histrionics for behind closed doors, but I have to figure that having Peter Laviolette behind the bench is a huge advantage for the Flyers. So too is the likelihood of having their regular lineup (aside from Chris Pronger) on the ice to start the series.
Nicklas Grossmann and Andrej Mezsaros are poised to return from injury, and figure to bump two of Pavel Kubina, Eric Gustafsson and Andreas Lilja out of the lineup. My guess is Kubina – who has contributed very little since his trade-deadline acquisition – is bumped for sure, but the other choice is tougher, as both Gustafsson and Lilja played extremely well in Game 6 over Pittsburgh. James van Riemsdyk is still finding his form after playing sparingly in the last 2 playoff games. There’s an outside chance that with 2 defensemen returning from injury, Peter Laviolette will dress 7 defensemen for game 1 as a precaution in case one or both of them find they can’t log enough minutes to help. But with JVR ready, it’s hard to justify sitting a forward from among the current group. So figure Meszaros might be held back. Either way, Brayden Coburn could once again play 27+ minutes, as has been the case throughout the playoffs so far. Besides, the Devils don’t figure to put nearly the kind of pressure on the Flyers’ backline that the Penguins did.
Upset probability: Low
Prediction: Flyers in 5
Eric’s analysis: Both teams have scoring depth and like to roll out four lines. This series may hinge on special teams. The Flyers scored just three power play goals against the Devils in six games this season, but scored 12 in 23 attempts against the Penguins. The Devils’ normally excellent penalty killing gave up nine goals to the Panthers during their first-round series. With Kovalchuk, the Devils have a dangerous power play. But it isn’t any more dangerous than Pittsburgh’s, and the Flyers scored three short-handed goals against the Penguins. Fortunately for the Flyers, Martin Brodeur is no longer the old Martin Brodeur. He’s still pretty good, as he showed during Game 7 against the Panthers, but he’s not invincible. As long as Ilya Bryzgalov is steady — and he should be helped by the return of Nicklas Grossmann — the Flyers should win this series and set up a Winter Classic rematch. FLYERS in 6