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NHL playoff preview: Capitals most likely to move on, Pens lose to Blue Jackets

by Washington Post Sports

It took until the final day of the regular season, but all 16 playoff teams have been decided, and we now know the matchups that will help determine who will ultimately win the Stanley Cup. Here is a first-round preview — and the teams most likely to move on to the second round.

Eastern Conference

Montreal Canadiens vs. New York Rangers

Prediction: Rangers win the series, 4-3

New York’s Henrik Lundqvist and Montreal’s Carey Price are two of the best goaltenders in the league, with Price stopping 1,656 of the 1,794 shots he faced this season (. 923). Lundqvist, on the other hand, had a down year, posting a career-low .910 save percentage.

Luckily for New York, coach Alain Vigneault has plenty of offensive depth to take some pressure off Lundqvist. The Rangers ranked fourth in goals scored this season (3.1 per game) with 10 players scoring double-digit goals, led by Chris Kreider, who set a career high in goals scored (28) this season.

Ottawa Senators vs. Boston Bruins

Prediction: Bruins win the series, 4-2

This series could tilt on the play of special teams. The Bruins had the best penalty-killing unit in the NHL this season (85.7 percent), allowing 38 goals against over the 265 times they were shorthanded.

The Senators, meanwhile, struggled with the man advantage. Ottawa scored just 43 power-play goals in 253 tries (17 percent), giving them a bottom-10 finishin efficiency.

Boston excels at even strength, too, and put the most shot attempts in its favor during the regular season after adjusting for score effects (54.8 percent). Since the 2005-06 season, eight of the 11 eventual Stanley Cup champions have been one of the three best puck possession teams in the league, making the Bruins a solid dark horse pick for a deep playoff run.

Washington Capitals  vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

Prediction: Capitals win the series, 4-1

The Capitals won a second consecutive Presidents’Trophy (118 points) this season, an unprecedented feat in D.C. sports history, but have yet to advance past the second round of the playoffs since Alex Ovechkin was drafted in 2004.

[Eight better ways to waste 26 bucks than on a Capitals Presidents’ Trophy T-shirt]

This time around, Ovechkin appears to be peaking at the right time, thanks to coach Barry Trotz closely monitoring his minutes during the beginning of the season. Ovechkin had six goals and eight assists in the final 15 regular-season games and averaged 4.3 shots on goal per game since March.

 

 

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

Prediction: Blue Jackets win the series, 4-3

The Penguins have injuries issues that could limit their ability to win back-to-back championships. Evgeni Malkin has been out since March 17 with an upper body injury, but Coach Mike Sullivan told Sam Werner of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette his star forward was “making progress” and expected Malkin to be ready for Game 1.

But Malkin isn’t the only Penguin with injury concerns. Forwards Carl Hagelin (lower body) and Chris Kunitz (lower body) are not expected to be ready in time for the opening series, and Kris Letang, the team’s best defenseman, required season-ending surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck. Letang was skating more than 25 minutes a night before his injury and was routinely tasked with shutting down the opposition’s best forwards.

That’s good news for Columbus, who can roll four lines capable of outscoring the competition, including its top line of Alex Wennberg, Brandon Saad and Nick Foligno, who held a 27-19 edge at even strength.

Plus, the Blue Jackets have Sergei Bobrovsky, a favorite for the Vezina Trophy, in net. Bobrovsky led the league in save percentage (. 933) and stopped 287 of the 333 (86 percent) high-danger shots against — those in the slot or near the crease — at even strength. That should help Columbus win the series even if its offense only gives the team a goal or two.

Western Conference

Chicago Blackhawks vs. Nashville Predators

Prediction: Blackhawks win the series, 4-1

The Blackhawks are already a modern dynasty after winning three Stanley Cups since 2010, and as the top seed in the Western Conference they are in good position to get a fourth.

Chicago’s top line of Patrick Kane, Artem Anisimov and Artemi Panarin was one of the best-scoring triosduring the regular season (33 goals) with Jonathan Toews’s line outscoring opponents, 17-4. Anisimov is recuperating from a leg injury and may not be available for the start of the series, but Chicago has the depth to compensate. The Blackhawks put seven rookies on the ice this season, with four producing at least 10 points: Ryan Hartman (31), Nick Schmaltz, (28), Tanner Kero (16) and Vinnie Hinostroza (14).

That depth will be enough to overwhelm Pekka Rinne in net. The Predators’ 34-year-old netminder stopped just 78 of the 432 high-danger shots he faced this season (78 percent; league average is 84 percent) and showed a lack of poise in December and February, two months in which his save percentage dipped below 89 percent.

Minnesota Wild vs. St. Louis Blues

Prediction: Wild win the series, 4-1

Eric Staal, the 32-year-old center who helped the Carolina Hurricanes win the Stanley Cup in 2006, had one of his best seasons in years for the Wild. Signed during the offseason to a three-year deal, Staal scored 28 goals and added 37 assists, giving him his highest point total (65) since the 2011-12 season.

Staal also anchored two of Minnesota’s three highest-scoring forward trios and was a staple on both special teams, playing 2:22 per game on the power play and 1:22 per game on the penalty kill.

Defensemen Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin will also help limit the damage the Blues can do. Those two limited opponents to 5.4 and 5.5 scoring chances against per 60 minutes, respectively — the lowest rates among defensemen this season. That gives Coach Bruce Boudreau two shutdown blue liners to carry him into the next round.

Anaheim Ducks vs. Calgary Flames

Prediction: Ducks win the series, 4-2

The Calgary Flames made the playoffs as a wild-card team with a record of 45-33-4, including a league-leading 69 percent win rate in their one-goal games. Some believe this style of winning is perfectly tailored to a playoff atmosphere, where the scoring tightens and one-goal margins are often the difference between moving on or going home. However, that logic doesn’t hold water.

Historically, a team that leads the league in one-goal wins usually has a disastrous playoff run. Since the 2005-06 season, just two, the 2008-09 Carolina Hurricanes and the 2013-14 Anaheim Ducks, have made it past the second round. One, the 2011-12 Tampa Bay Lightning, didn’t even qualify for the playoffs. That’s because the really good teams tend to win by larger margins.

 

 

Not only should Calgary’s luck run out in this series, they lost four of five to Anaheim during the regular season and their goaltending, comprised of Brian Elliott and backup Chad Johnson, is below average (. 910 save percentage).

Edmonton Oilers vs. San Jose Sharks

Prediction: Oilers win the series, 4-3

The Edmonton Oilers made the playoffs for the first time in 11 years, thanks in large part to center Connor McDavid, who won the Art Ross Trophy as the leading scorer in the NHL with 100 points and ended the regular season on a 14-game point streak to finish with 30 goals and 70 assists in 82 games.

The 20-year-old centered a line with Patrick Maroon and Leon Draisaitl that outscored opponents, 32 to 21, during the regular season, helping improve Edmonton’s goal differential from minus-43 in 2015-16 to plus-36 this season.

The Sharks have the experience, but also the injury concerns that come along with it. Center Logan Couture took a puck to face in March and missed the final seven games of the regular season. Joe Thornton, the team’s 37-year-old veteran, suffered a knee injury in April and missed the final three games. Couture (52 points) and Thornton (50) scored the third and fourth most points on the team, respectively, making them critical for San Jose to move on to the second round.

If they are less than full strength, the offense may become one-dimensional around defenseman Brent Burns.

[Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid have been sensational, but Brent Burns deserves MVP]

Burns scored 29 goals in 82 games and leads all skaters with 320 shots on goal, seven more than Alex Ovechkin (313), the next closest skater and the league leader in shots on goal in 10 of the past 11 seasons. But the Sharks were 10-17-4 when Burns was held without a point, giving the Oilers a key focal point in their quest for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1990.


Written by News Desk


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