NHL Playoff Matchups: The First Round

The first round of the NHL playoffs is mere days away. The brackets are in and the playoff matchups set. The league has determined who will be playing who based on the results of the regular season and there is some exciting hockey ahead for fans of 16 NHL teams.

For Canadian hockey fans, the 2016-17 season was an especially good one. Five Canadian teams made the postseason this year and the odds are good that a team north of the border will advance into the NHL Conference Semifinals.

NHL Playoff Matchups
The Red Wings will not play in this year’s postseason for the first time in 26 seasons. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Some of the teams missing from this year’s postseason made headlines. There is no Detroit Red Wings after 26 consecutive postseason appearances. To say that just feels odd. Also, after winning two championships in five seasons, the Los Angeles Kings are out. And, Tampa and Dallas — two teams who were known in previous seasons as offensive powerhouses — struggled mightily and will not see any playoff action.

Perhaps the only thing more surprising than those who didn’t make the cut, are some of the teams who did. Toronto and Ottawa weren’t pegged to have strong seasons but both defied the odds and have slots in the Eastern Conference. The Calgary Flames were perhaps an on-the-cusp team, but a weak start, followed by a strong second-half secured them a wildcard spot in the west. The Edmonton Oilers and Columbus Blue Jackets were probably the biggest surprises, jumping from the bottom of the NHL standings in 2015-16, to near the top of their respective divisions this season.

These teams along with 11 others will make up the first round of the 2017 NHL Playoffs. How will these first-round matchups look? Who are the favorites and the underdogs in each series? How many games might we look for each round to go and what are the strengths of the series to watch for?

NHL Playoff Matchups: Eastern Conference

Montreal Canadiens vs. the New York Rangers

Carey Price, NHL playoffs star
Carey Price’s has a chance to steal this series for the Canadiens. (Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports)

This is one of those interesting matchups that determining who wins might be difficult based on their respective regular seasons. If the brackets were 1 vs 8, 2 vs 7 and so forth, these two teams wouldn’t be playing each other. However, while the New York Rangers finished with 102 points (only one less than Montreal), the Canadiens won the Atlantic Division title and as such have been “rewarded” with New York as their wildcard opponent. The Metropolitan Division was so strong, 102 points for the Rangers equaled a fourth-best finish and the Rangers are now a crossover team in the Atlantic Division.

To start, it’s important to note the Montreal Canadiens will have home-ice advantage. While the Rangers were the NHL’s best team on the road, New York lost both regular season games at home versus the Canadiens in 2016-17 and if all else stays the same, this could help put Montreal over the top.

On paper, the Rangers are the more offensive team. They scored more goals over the season, their power play is more efficient and while the shots per game were close between the two teams, the Rangers cashed in more frequently on their opportunities. On the other end, Montreal has the edge defensively. The Canadiens allowed fewer goals over the season, their goals-against per game was better, their penalty killing had the edge and shots-against were slightly ahead.

In goal, the leg-up clearly goes to Montreal where Carey Price — who at times struggled this season — still outplayed Lundqvist and scored better in most major categories. In more games played, Price allowed fewer goals. his save percentage was better and so was his goals-against average (GAA). In three games against Montreal, Lundqvist allowed 11 goals and had a horrid 4.04 GAA and a .871 save percentage.

While fairly evenly matched, look for the goaltending, special teams and home-ice advantage to be what gives Montreal the advantage.

Prediction: Montreal in Seven Games

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets

Somehow, despite a rash of injuries, the Pittsburgh Penguins kept winning hockey games. Leading the NHL in man-games lost-ps (lost point shares metric), they are missing some key players and on the back of Sidney Crosby, finished behind only Washington with the most points during the regular season.

Meanwhile, a Columbus team led by a potential Vezina Trophy candidate in Sergei Bobrovsky and Jack Adams Trophy candidate in John Tortorella put together one of the most surprising seasons in NHL history. With 106 points, Columbus was a force all year and never once was there a doubt they’d make the postseason.

Head-to-head these two teams were pretty even with both taking two possible wins out of four games. With the exception of a Columbus blowout victory by the tune of a 7-1 win in Columbus right before Christmas, the games were competitive too.

Pittsburgh was the highest scoring team in the NHL this season. They had more goals per game, more shots per game and their power play was a far more effective weapon than the Blue Jackets’. The problem for the Penguins is that the man-advantage provided no advantage when they played them. If that doesn’t change, it could be problematic for Pittsburgh.

Expansion Draft
(Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)

Defensively, the Blue Jackets allowed the second-fewest goals in the NHL but the key to this series might be the goaltending. Bobrovsky has struggled as of late and the Blue Jackets finished the season 2-6-2. They’ve lost six straight. Pittsburgh has one of the best goaltending tandems in the NHL and if that tandem can out-perform Bobrovsky, and the Penguins offense keeps ticking, this should go Crosby and company’s way. The Pens defense just needs to hold up.

Prediction: Pittsburgh in Six Games

Ottawa Senators vs. the Boston Bruins

Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins, NHL
Brad Marchand (Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

This is a matchup of two teams who waited until near the end of the season to clinch their spots. Not a lot of people considered them as playoff teams when the season started, but some strong team play by Ottawa and some excellent individual help by Brad Marchand in Boston put these teams in the postseason picture.

Head-to-head these two teams weren’t close. Ottawa took all four contests and outscored the Bruins by a 2:1 margin. That appears to be because Craig Anderson (the Senators starting goaltender) played out of his mind with a .946 save percentage and 1.47 goals against average over those four contests.

In a seven game series, it should be expected that Anderson’s numbers will fall back down to his league norms and with the power behind the Bruins special teams, the series will be much more evenly matched. The Bruins weapon here is their power play, which against the Senators was 5-for-8.

A one-two punch of Marchand and David Pastrnak will be a load for Ottawa to handle. If Senators’ defensemen Erik Karlsson and Codi Ceci are at full strength, Ottawa may be up to the task. While both are scheduled to play, neither may be fully healed. Ottawa simply isn’t the same team without them.

Prediction: Boston Bruins in Seven Games

Washington Capitals vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs

NHL Playoff Matchups
Photo: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Maple Leafs are young, talented and on their way up. They are also heavily the underdogs in this year’s playoffs. Against Washington, this is a series that has to provide the Leafs a ton of good bounces for them to even have a chance. With the news now that Frederik Andersson isn’t completely healthy, Toronto is in tough and a sweep might be in the cards.

There are few categories in which the President Trophy winners didn’t lead or were near the tops in the NHL. Washington finished with 118 points, allowed the fewest goals over the regular season, fewest goals per game, finished second in goals for per game, had the third ranked power play and sixth-ranked penalty kill and all while employing two of the top-20 scorers in the NHL. Oh, and yes, they also have arguably the best goaltender in the playoffs.

All that said, Toronto can score. They ranked in the top-five in terms of goals and goals for per game and their power play was second-best in the NHL. With 40 goals on the season, Auston Matthews may turn this into the Matthews versus Alex Ovechkin show. If he does, it will be fun to watch, but Washington still takes it with ease.

Prediction: Washington in Five Games

NHL Playoff Matchups: Western Conference

Chicago Blackhawks vs. the Nashville Predators

On paper, this matchup looks to be a clear-cut victory for the Chicago Blackhawks. This is the third time these two teams will have met in the conference quarterfinals and Chicago is 2-0, using the Predators as stepping stones on their way to the Stanley Cup on both occasions. This season, Chicago took the regular season series with four wins and one loss. Over the last 20 games between the two teams, Nashville has lost 14 of them.

To start the 2016-17 season, Nashville was expected to make a little more noise than they did. A blockbuster trade that brought flamboyant defenseman P.K. Subban to town, Nashville had a deep blue line and some powerful weapons on offense. They finished just outside the top-ten in the NHL for scoring, but their defense let them down a bit finishing just above average and letting in 2.73 goals per game. These blue line troubles can be attributed to some key injuries, but it will have to be better to stop Chicago’s potent offense.

Nashville Predators goal celebration, Flyers vs Predators, Dec. 19, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Predators are a well-balanced team with a top line led by Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson. The problem is, their depth has let them down. The key for the Preds will be to use their speed and defense to outlast the Blackhawks. If they can get scoring help from their blueliners and injuries don’t come back to bite them, it won’t be total domination for Chicago.

With two forwards in the top-eleven in scoring, Chicago has been their steady offensive selves. Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin lead the way and their team depth is still among the NHL’s best. They also have Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith ready to roll. That said, they have to shake four consecutive losses to end the season.

They should be able to do so as the Blackhawks offer a tremendous amount of playoff experience. With this in mind, the strength of their goaltending and their depth give Chicago the decisive advantage.

Prediction: Chicago in Five Games

Minnesota Wild vs. the St. Louis Blues

Vladimir Tarasenko (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Minnesota versus St. Louis is a tale of two teams who dealt with the second-half of the regular season very differently. Minnesota loaded up in preparation for the playoffs and St. Louis dumped one of their best defensemen, playoffs or no playoffs. Which strategy wins out will be a lead debate throughout the series.

This matchup will also be a battle of the coaches. In St. Louis, it’s the story of a returning Mike Yeo who is trying earn a playoff series victory as St. Louis’ new coach over his former team. In Minnesota, it’s arguably one of the best coaches in the NHL over the last decade trying to win when it counts. Both will have their work cut out for them.

For Yeo, facing the Wild means facing the NHL’s second-best goal differential team, a top-three offense and a top-ten team in goals allowed, power play percentage and penalty kill percentage. For Boudreau, facing the Blues means scoring on a sound defensive team and slowing down one of the most dynamic scorers in the NHL in Vladimir Tarasenko.

In five games over the regular season, these two teams were evenly matched. Both had two wins and two losses with Minnesota picking up an extra overtime victory.

In net, Devan Dubnyk is the story. If he plays like the Vezina Candidate he should be, St. Louis is in real trouble.

Prediction: Minnesota in Six Games

Anaheim Ducks vs. the Calgary Flames

(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Anaheim Ducks are favoured to win this first round matchup. That said, it might be closer than people think. The Ducks did take the regular season series winning four out of a possible five games, but this is a new beginning and a matchup that essentially comes down to the Flames defense versus the Ducks offense.

When it comes to comparing blue lines, the Flames have a distinct advantage. Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Dougie Hamilton can take over a game for the Flames and all year they’ve been providing both offense and defense. Anaheim’s blue line is fast, but they’re young and their most effective weapon in Cam Fowler who is out for the series with an injury.

NHL Playoffs
(Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

On offense, Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan lead the way for the Flames, while Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler and Corey Perry will be viewed as the guys who need to take this home for the Ducks. Calgary boasts multiple forwards with double-digit goals and close to 50 points. Anaheim counters with Rickard Rakell, Patrick Eaves and Jakob Silfverberg.

In goal, both teams are close. Calgary had some terrible goaltending to start the year, but Brian Elliot came on like a house of fire since the All-Star Break and the Ducks offer a potent duo in John Gibson and Jonathan Bernier.

Where it gets interesting is the home-ice advantage storyline. The Ducks have won an NHL-record 25 regular-season home games against the Flames. You have to go all the way back to 2006 to find the last time the Flames won in Honda Center.

Prediction: Anaheim Ducks in Seven Games

Edmonton Oilers vs. the San Jose Sharks

Connor McDavid, Upper Deck, CIBC, Edmonton Oilers
Connor McDavid is one of the 20 faces for Upper Deck’s new coin collection. (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)

When it comes to experience in the playoffs, it’s not close. San Jose has the heavy advantage. When it comes to speed and top-end skill, the Oilers have the edge and daily they look to be widening the margin. This series then becomes a youth and enthusiasm versus experience battle.

Over the course of the 2016-17 regular season, the Oilers and Sharks were fairly evenly matched but the points went to Edmonton. Through five games, the Oilers came away with three regulation victories and earned points in one overtime loss.  Goals for versus goals against favoured Edmonton as well with a 16-13 advantage.

In goal, the numbers heavily favour Edmonton’s starter, Cam Talbot. He likely won’t win the Vezina Trophy this season, but he’ll be in the conversation. Meanwhile, versus the Oilers, Martin Jones hasn’t been good. He’s allowed 15 goals in five games with a .883 save percentage.

The biggest difference between these two teams now is the depth of scoring and confidence each takes into the postseason. Edmonton is getting hot at just the right time and scoring is coming from a variety of sources. They are 8-2-0 in their last 10 games and have scored 55 goals in their last 14 games. Edmonton has five 20 or more goal scorers, four 50-plus point getters, two scorers in the NHL top-ten and a 100-point leader.

Edmonton’s power play finished fifth in the NHL at 22.9% and they offer a four-line scoring attack. Their faceoffs are a concern, finishing dead last in the NHL, but San Jose’s isn’t a whole lot better.

Defensively, the Oilers are starting to come together. With a stud blueliner missing on the backend, their defensive corps is still effective and balanced. Edmonton finished with a positive 36 goal differential. If there’s one glaring weakness for the Oilers, it’s their faceoffs where they rank dead last in the NHL. The good news is San Jose’s faceoff numbers aren’t a whole lot better.

The Sharks have experience. They have Brent Burns, they have Joe Pavelski and they have a good team. Which team Edmonton faces is the real question. Even experienced teams can see doubt creep into their game. Doubt can create mistakes and too many mistakes are death in the playoffs.

I like Edmonton’s chances in this series.

Prediction: Edmonton Oilers in Five Games