After a grueling six months and 82 games of hockey, the chase for Lord Stanley’s Cup begins this Wednesday. The regular season saw the dominance of the Washington Capitals, Patrick Kane’s historical run to become the first American-born player to win the Art Ross Trophy, and the brilliant start and then utter collapse of the Canadiens, and more teams qualifying for the playoffs from Florida (2) than Canada (0).
Despite the regular season dominance of the Capitals and the frequency at which the Blackhawks and Kings have claimed the Cup in recent years, the 2016 playoffs will be as they always are: wide open. The playoffs are as much about attrition as they are about technical ability. Will the talent-laden teams such as Pittsburgh and Washington be able to outlast their early round opponents? Is this finally the year that San Jose, led by a coach (Peter DeBoer) who already has made one trip to the Stanley Cup Final, can break through their usual playoff wall? Will goaltenders such as Henrik Lundqvist, Jonathan Quick, and Braden Holtby be stonewalls? Or will names like Crosby, Toews, and Ovechkin be the heroes? The next two months will tell. Over the next two days, we’ll take a look at each match-up in the first round, and give predictions on who will advance.
Washington Capitals (M1) vs Philadelphia Flyers (WC2)
The Presidents Trophy winners reside in the city that the President resides. Yet in spite of their season, the Washington Capitals still face uncertainty in the playoffs. Alex Ovechkin has never appeared in a Conference Final, and neither has head coach Barry Trotz. The Capitals had three chances to close out the New York Rangers in the 2015 Conference Semi-Finals, but lost the next three games by one goal, two of which in overtime. They responded by acquiring T.J. Oshie in the off-season to help increase depth. Add that to the continued development of Evgeny Kuznetsov and the brilliance that Ovechkin brings, plus the out-of-this-world goaltending from Holtby, and you have a team that is dangerous. But if there’s one team that is the antithesis of what Washington is, it’s Philadelphia. The Flyers, still known throughout the league more for their punishing physical play, present the Capitals with a challenge. If the Flyers want to have any chance of stopping the Caps, they need to play with a no-limits attitude. They’ll need to harass Ovechkin as much as possible, try and slow the game down and frustrate Washington as much as possible. Rookie defenseman sensation Shane Gostisbehere will need to be effective on both ends of the ice, and the Flyers will need to have Claude Giroux and Jacob Voracek on the top of their games if they want to pull off the upset.
Lock It In: Capitals in 5
Florida Panthers (A1) vs New York Islanders (WC1)
The Islanders limped into the playoffs. Not only did they lose Jaroslave Halak to injury in early March (the goalie only just resumed skating this past week and it would seem improbable for him to factor into the first round of the playoffs), but defenseman Travis Hamonic and forward Anders Lee also went down during the home stretch. And as any Islanders fan will tell you, you can’t spell Islanders without Anders. All kidding aside, their top line forwards are still very dangerous. Although the assists weren’t there as often as they were in 2014-15 when he nearly won the Art Ross Trophy, John Tavares still scored 33 goals. And of course, their consistant fourth line of Matt Martin – Casey Cizikas – Cal Clutterbuck netted a combined 32 goals on the season.
They face a Florida team that lacks what the Islanders do have: Playoff experience. The last time the Panthers made the playoffs was a one-and-done appearance in 2012. Their two most recognizable players, Jaromir Jagr and Roberto Luongo, were not even on the team. 9 skaters who see regular playing time are under the age of 25. This is a group of kids supported by one of the game’s most prolific scorers and one of the longest tenured goalies in the league. Jussi Jokinen, and Brian Campbell add some experience on either end of the ice. Does that inexperience hurt them? Yes, and it might make the series more of a challenge, but it doesn’t mean it will stop them from winning. Ultimately, the series will come down to whether or not Roberto Luongo retains the form he had in the regular season and whether or not the young Thomas Greiss can hold down the Islanders net in absence of Halak. This will be a fun series to watch, and it could go either way.
Lock It In: Panthers in 7
Pittsburgh Penguins (M2) vs New York Rangers (M3)
No team enters the playoffs as hot as the Penguins are. No team in the East was as inconsistent as the Rangers. At 5 on 5 hockey, this is an even match-up. However, it’s what happens on special teams that will probably decide this series. The Rangers penalty kill, even with a goaltender the caliber of Henrik Lundqvist was a paltry 78.2%, which ranked 26th in the league. This season has seen the normally defensively solid Rangers regress to a below average unit. Marc Staal and Daniel Girardi put up their worst seasons, and Ryan McDonagh, injured last week, will not be healthy to start when the puck drops for Game 1 on Wednesday night. The Penguins, despite a rocky start to their season which saw Mike Sullivan assume coaching duties for Mike Johnston, who was shown the sack in December. But since mid-March, Pittsburgh has won 14 of their last 16 games. The one ray of hope for the Rangers is the health of the Penguins. Evgeni Malkin missed practice again on Monday, still recovering from an upper body injury sustained in March which he was given a timetable of 6-8 weeks to recover from. Marc-Andre Fleury suffered a concussion in late March, but did practice on Monday. If he is not healthy for Game 1, which he may not be, and with back-up goalie Matt Murray taking a knock in Saturday’s game, the goaltending duties would fall to Jeff Zatkoff. He has appeared in only one game since February 20th.
But the Penguins are rolling so well offensively that it might not even matter who is in goal for them. Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, and Chris Kunitz have shown themselves to be more than capable of winning a playoff serie even when their goaltending was, errr… not good. The Rangers need to keep things at 5 on 5 if they want any chance of winning this series. Keep in mind that after falling behind to the Penguins 3-1 in the 2014 Conference Semi-Finals, the Rangers have defeated the Penguins in 7 out of 8 playoff games, including a 5 game series victory in 2015 where Fleury played arguably his best series in net since the Penguins won the Cup in 2009.
Lock It In: Penguins in 6
Tampa Bay Lightning (A2) vs Detroit Red Wings (A3)
A re-match of last year’s first round series, which Detroit lost in 7. Detroit had a chance to take control of the series in Game 4, where they led the series 2-1 and were up two goals in the third period, but the Lightning stormed back to win the game and eventually made a run all the way to the Final. Neither of these teams were overwhelming in the regular season. Tampa Bay’s season was riddled with Jonathan Drouin drama, where he was sent down to the AHL and nearly banished from the franchise altogether, and yet will probably find himself a spot as a Top 6 forward when the puck drops for the series on Wednesday night. The Lightning also find themselves without all-world goal scorer, Steven Stamkos, who is sidelined with a blood clot issue. Anton Stralman also suffered a late season injury and will not participate in the postseason. Detroit has also seen themselves to a strange season. The team lost 8 of 12 games spanning from mid-February to early March, which forced them into a brutal playoff race with Boston for the final playoff spot in the Atlantic Division, a spot they only acquired because the Bruins could not beat the Senators on the season’s penultimate day.
Goaltending, as it often is this time of year, means everything. Petr Mrazek started well over half of the games for Detroit instead of Jimmy Howard, and Mrazek was the better goalie on the statline until the home stretch of the season. But the Red Wings will enter the playoffs with Howard as their starting goalie. Whoever is in net needs to be especially sharp; the Red Wings averaged 2.55 goals per game, the lowest out of any playoff team. This series is a toss-up, and with Pavel Datsyuk telling Mitch Albom that he is thinking about walking away from the NHL, it could be a special one. Datsyuk only put up 49 points in 66 games this season, and the 13-year veteran is showing his age, but he may yet have one more special run in him.
Lock It In: Red Wings in 7
Check back in tomorrow for a preview of the Western Conference playoffs