The Key to Victory in Each First Round Matchup

On the eve of opening night of the 2015-16 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the pundits are all getting their picks in, and making predictions in their brackets to guess who will eventually raise the Stanley Cup in June. There is a legitimate argument that almost every team in the field has a legitimate shot at winning it all. But if they are going to win it all, they have to make it out of the first round.

To do that, there are some key factors and matchups that will ultimately determine the victor in each series. Let’s take a look at the biggest one for each series:

The Battle of Ovechkin vs. Couturier

Sean Couturier (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports) stanley cup playoffs
Sean Couturier (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

If the Flyers are going to stand a chance to knock off the Presidents’ Trophy winners, they are going to need to shut down Alex Ovechkin. To do that, coach Dave Hakstol will lean heavily on the Sean Couturier line. Couturier’s defensive exploits against the top centers in the East are well documented. But his success isn’t limited to centers, he’s done an extremely effective job of defending Ovechkin, a winger, at even strength as well.

In 122 career minutes at 5-on-5 against Ovechkin, Couturier has allowed him to score just once, back in December 2013. That’s a G/60 of .49. For a reference, Ovechkin’s career 5-on-5 G/60 is 1.44. That’s a 66% decline in goals when facing Couturier compared to Ovechkin’s career average.

Couturier has also had the better of Ovechkin in the shot attempt battle, 130-109, despite starting 58% of their shifts in the Flyers’ defensive zone. Finally, the Flyers have outscored the Capitals 5-3 when Couturier is on the ice with Ovechkin at 5-on-5.

The Capitals obviously have plenty of other weapons that Philadelphia needs to worry about, but if they have to shut one down they should try for Ovechkin.

King Henrik Saves the Day Again?

Henrik Lundqvist (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
Henrik Lundqvist (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Every year, it seems as if the Rangers’ offense dries up at the wrong time, leaving Henrik Lundqvist to singlehandedly win games by himself in the playoffs. He’s proven that he can do just that, but over the past few years (posting a combined .930 save percentage), he’s been asked to do it too often, and the Rangers have not been able to push themselves over the top as a result.

Over their last four playoff runs, the Rangers have averaged a paltry 2.34 goals per game. With Ryan McDonagh out at least to start the series against Pittsburgh, New York’s offense will need to take care of business against a scalding hot Pittsburgh offense that will get pucks by Lundqvist, no matter how good he is.

The issue last year was an injury to Mats Zuccarello, but this year, the Rangers’ forward corps looks to be completely healthy to start the playoffs.

With Jeff Zatkoff potentially starting the series in net for Pittsburgh as Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray recover from injuries, New York could jump out into an early lead before Pittsburgh is fully healthy again.

Youth Up Front vs. Inexperience in Net

When the Panthers and Islanders square off for Game 1 on Thursday, it will be the first career NHL playoff game for five of the Panthers’ top eight scorers. The Panthers have a few players that bring a wealth of experience, including Jaromir Jagr, Brian Campbell and Roberto Luongo, but the roster as a whole is very young and lacking experience in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

On the other side, the Islanders will be relying on Thomas Greiss between the pipes, who has one career NHL playoff game to his credit, which came in 2010. Greiss is enjoying a career year in New York, but has never been relied on as “the guy” for an extended period of time. It’s up in the air which one will prevail, the young and talented Florida offense or the inexperienced New York goaltending.

Can the Walking Wounded Survive?

When healthy, the Lightning have one of the most talented rosters on paper in the entire league. Problem is, they are far from healthy right now. Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman are both out for at least this series, and Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, and Ryan Callahan all missed time at the end of the season.

The latter three are all good to go for Game 1, but Johnson’s status is still up in the air. It’s good that they are able to get a number of them back, but it’s unlikely that any of them are feeling 100% right now. Both teams enter the playoffs going 5-5 in their last 10 games. If the Lightning can get production out of their players returning from injury, they shouldn’t have a problem with the Red Wings. If they struggle, the Lightning will be in trouble.

Dubnyk Must Stop the Bleeding

After a stellar March in which he was named 2nd Star of the month, Devan Dubnyk struggled in his final five games of the season. He lost his last four decisions, posting a .875 save percentage in the process. The Wild limp into the playoffs as losers of five straight after having won six in a row right before the rough patch.

(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Even though the Stars may be without Tyler Seguin to start the series, they are still an extremely dangerous offensive team. They scored 17 more goals than anyone in the NHL this season, and are hot, finishing the season 8-2-0. Seguin will return at some point during the series, so Dubnyk is going to need to be very good if the Wild are going to have a chance. Many are picking this matchup as the most likely to have a four game sweep in the first round.

St. Louis’ Offensive Blues

Vladimir Tarasenko
St. Louis will need a big series from Vladimir Tarasenko to beat the Blackhawks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In each of the past four years, the Blues have entered the playoffs as the team with the 1st, 2nd or 3rd most points in the Western Conference. Despite that, they have won just one playoff series in that time span. Yes, they’ve had unfortunate draws in the sense that they’ve been knocked out by the powerhouse Kings and Blackhawks three of the past four years, but that doesn’t help ease the pain for an increasingly impatient Blues fanbase.

Their biggest problem has been their offense, which, similar to the Rangers, tends to disappear in the playoffs. The Blues have averaged 2.73 goals per game in the regular season during the past four years, but that number drops to just 2.14 in the playoffs. A 22% decline in offensive production is not a recipe for success. If the Blues are going to go anywhere this year, they need their offense to step up.

Unfortunately for Blues fans, it may not get any better this year as the Blues have drawn the Blackhawks yet again. Despite Chicago sputtering down the stretch by going 5-2-3 in their last ten and 6-5-4 in their last 15, it would be foolish to expect anything but an extremely difficult series from the dynastic Blackhawks.

Unstoppable Force Meets Immovable Object

After sputtering to a 12-15-6 record to start the season, the Ducks caught fire in the second half, to the tune of a 34-10-5 record to finish the regular season. They’ve completely revamped their style, opting for a more defensive mindset that has clearly been effective. It led them to the best power play, best penalty kill, and fewest goals against during the regular season.

The immovable object is the combined defensive corps and goaltending from the Predators. The Predators are the only team in the league that can say they have two elite #1 defensemen, and even after trading away a stud in Seth Jones, they still have the best defense in the league. Rinne’s numbers have not been stellar this year, but he’s still a very good goalie capable of stealing games.

(Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)
(Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

If anyone is capable of handling the physical, bruising style of the Ducks’ forwards, it’s Shea Weber and the Nashville defense, who will use a quick transition game to get the puck out of their zone before the Ducks can get in on the forecheck and establish a heavy cycling game. If they can do that, it will go a long way in breaking up Anaheim’s attack.

Will the Sharks Finally Figure It Out?

Since the beginning of the 2005-06 season, no team has won more regular season games than the Sharks (501). And yet, in that time span they’ve made it out of the second round of the playoffs only twice. The Sharks are probably the most puzzling team of the last decade. They can always score goals and the roster always looks great on paper, but they can never put it together in the postseason.

Could this be the year? With Brent Burns on defense, the Sharks have two legitimate #1 defensemen at their disposal, their offense can still score goals with the best of them, and Martin Jones is the best goaltender they’ve had in years. As usual, the Sharks look great on paper.

However, they are facing the ultimate playoff team in the Kings. The Kings are the best possession team in the league once again, and have been the team to eliminate the Sharks during each of San Jose’s last two playoff appearances. However, LA didn’t play great down the stretch, going 4-5-1 in their last 10. If San Jose is going to win, they need to step up and match their quality of play in the postseason with the play they’ve consistently shown in the regular season over the past few years.