The first round of the NHL playoffs is in the books. Some major upsets led the way in terms of storylines and some valiant efforts come in at a not too distant second.
In the Western Conference, the Nashville Predators were selected by a few people to put up a good fight, but it would be hard to find anyone that would have predicted a four-game sweep of the Blackhawks. Thanks to an all-world performance by goaltender Jake Allen, St. Louis made short work of Minnesota. The Ducks disposed of the Flames rather quickly and the Edmonton Oilers used youth and enthusiasm to outlast an injury-riddled San Jose Sharks.
In the Eastern Conference, the Toronto Maple Leafs weren’t given anything close to decent odds to advance but only lost after making the series look competitive. The analytics favored a disappointing Boston Bruins team who fell to the Ottawa Senators and Montreal’s offense fell flat and the Canadiens lost to the New York Rangers. Finally, Pittsburgh disposed of an outmatched and outcoached Columbus Blue Jackets team.
How will the second round go? Will there be as many surprises as there were in the first round? Or, will the favorites make short work of their opponents? The NHL set a record for the most games settled in overtime. Are we in for more of the same? Let’s take a look.
NHL Playoff Matchups: Eastern Conference
Ottawa Senators vs. the New York Rangers
Viewed as outmatched in round one, it appears as though Henrik Lundqvist has found his game in net. The combination of a motivated New York Rangers netminder and a better-rounded and deeper Rangers team should outlast a defensive-minded Senators team whose offense has come from some unlikely sources.
For the Senators, Erik Karlsson may be the part of the equation that changes everything. Even at less than 100 percent healthy, Karlsson was amazing and Ottawa’s (perhaps round one’s) all-around best player. He leads a resilient team who isn’t just winning despite some emotional side-stories, but are winning, in a way, because of them. Can Karlsson and that emotion carry the Senators past a Ranger’s team that on paper should be better?
One area that New York will need to improve is their power play. A horrid six percent, the Rangers were tied with the Blues as the worst team on the man advantage in round one. I don’t expect the Rangers to stay that snake-bitten.
Prediction: Rangers in Six Games
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. the Washington Capitals
The Washington Capitals disposed of the Toronto Maple Leafs in round one but they can’t be happy about how hard it was to do so. Washington shouldn’t have struggled against the inexperienced speed and youth of the Leafs and if the reality that they did isn’t seen as a wake-up call in the Capitals’ locker room, Washington could be in trouble.
Pittsburgh scored more goals in fewer games and had a better power play than the Capitals. They have a goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury who is motivated and playing some fantastic hockey and they are the defending Stanley Cup Champions who moved past Washington last year in the second round. They also have the advantage of bottom-six depth that contributed while Washington does not.
Frankly, this could be the best series of the entire 2017 NHL Playoffs. I would expect that the team with a better goaltender, better defense, a healthier roster, home-ice advantage and a very cagey coach will win the series. That team is Washington.
Prediction: Washington in Seven Games
NHL Playoff Matchups: Western Conference
St. Louis Blues vs. the Nashville Predators
Is Nashville the new team everyone thinks makes it out of the west? After not just defeating Chicago in four games, but holding them to only three goals in the series, the Predators and their defense will have all the confidence in the world. The key will be whether or not Jake Allen stays hot in net for the Blues and if Nashville has enough offense to crack him.
St. Louis eliminated Minnesota, but the underlying numbers were not on the side of the Blues. The Blues have the best offensive weapon in the series in Vladimir Tarasenko, but St. Louis was out-chanced and at many times outplayed. That sort of luck despite poor play usually doesn’t last more than a few games.
The Predators proved they are a well-balanced team with a top line led by Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson. Their depth isn’t letting them down like it did in the regular season and if they continue to get stellar defense it could be total domination. Allen will help St. Louis put up a fight, but I don’t see it lasting long.
This is the first ever time these two teams have met in the playoffs. It should be a good matchup and much more competitive than the Predators and Blackhawks were.
Prediction: Nashville in Five Games
Anaheim Ducks vs. the Edmonton Oilers
The Anaheim Ducks had little to no trouble with the Calgary Flames who were a decent team in the regular season. This seems to be giving people some false idea that the Ducks will walk over the Oilers and I don’t see that happening. The Ducks are one of the hottest teams in the NHL right now, but the Oilers are resilient and fast. It should be an interesting series.
In much the same way the Sharks did, Anaheim heavily holds the playoff experience factor in the series. The key matchup might be Connor McDavid versus Ryan Kesler. If a strong two-way game by Kesler can hold McDavid, the Ducks are the favorite. If not, and Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins can keep Ryan Getzlaf’s production to a minimum, McDavid and company should be in good shape.
As he has been all season, Cam Talbot was strong for the Oilers but was overlooked as a Vezina candidate. That might be enough to motivate him to be even better. He’s playing behind a defense in Edmonton who is coming into its own and outside of a 7-0 nothing loss to the Sharks, kept San Jose to only seven goals in the other five games. Add to that fact, the Oilers haven’t had the chemistry in the playoffs on their top offensive lines they did during the season. If all of a sudden their top-six starts to click offensively, the Oilers could break out and score in bunches.
Prediction: Edmonton Oilers in Six Games