2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals Prospectus: Edmonton Oilers vs. Anaheim Ducks

2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals Prospectus: Edmonton Oilers vs. Anaheim Ducks
M.D. Wright

Edmonton Oilers (P2) vs. Anaheim Ducks (P1)
Now this will be a battle of wills. The Ducks have been here many a time over the past decade. Granted, they have not won the Cup since 2007 with stacked teams. Their record of losing in Game 7s under former coach Bruce Boudreau is well-noted. It follows the team, whether they want to acknowledge it or not. Specifically, Ryan Getzlaf (who has been on a ridiculous tear since the All-Star Break), and Corey Perry (who came on late in the season, after a brutal, almost snakebitten first four months of the season scoring-wise). They are the two lone holdovers from that 2007 team that hoisted the Stanley Cup over the Ottawa Senators. Most of the rest of the team is young (and adequately rested), especially on the back end. Will they get Cam Fowler back at some point in this series? We’ll see. Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen are critical, but the Ducks have also gotten contributions from Josh Manson and Brandon Montour. Kevin Bieksa continues to be a stalwart, although in a reduced role, as he isn’t the skater or overall defender he once was.

John Gibson is in goal. He was pulled once during the Calgary series, but Jonathan Bernier came in, held the fort, and the Ducks scored on three straight deflected goals to eventually win. It was the nail in the coffin for the Flames, even though there was still one game yet to play, as it turned out. That was a killer loss. It may have galvanized the Ducks in the process. Gibson came back and was stellar in the close-out game. Along with Getzlaf, Perry (who was moved down to the 3rd line at times), the Ducks rely heavily on the all-around skill set of Ryan Kesler. Kesler, who is a Selke Trophy level centre, wins tons of draws and often gets into the head of whoever he’s on ice against. Rickard Rakell had a breakout season, and continued his good play in the first round.

The big deal for the Ducks was the acquisition of Patrick Eaves. He had been having a banner season in Dallas before the trade, and only elevated his game further upon arrival in Anaheim, and on into the playoffs. Wingers such as ironman Andrew Cogliano, Jakob Silfverberg and Nick Ritchie have made important plays for the Ducks which set up scoring opportunities in seemingly all four games against Calgary. The fourth line, centered by Antoine Vermette — a faceoff maven — has dictated pace and possession with hard hitting from Chris Wagner and forechecking by Logan Shaw. The third line (with Perry) centered by Nate Thompson and flanked on the left wing by Rakell is the one that could give Edmonton problems.

Speaking of third lines, Edmonton features Mark Letestu — who has been good on the power play, among other things — with wingers like the speedy Drake Caggiula and the hard-hitting, fast-skating Zack Kassian, who absolutely dominated two games against Calgary. The fourth line with Benoit Pouliot, David Desharnais and Anton Slepyshev have been noticeable in their roles. Some make Edmonton out to be all about sure-fire Hart Trophy winner Connor McDavid, but this is not so. To go along with the aforementioned bottom six, the second line of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who was all over the place against San Jose, they have him lined up with experienced Milan Lucic, and Jordan Eberle (who will need to contribute more, but was okay against San Jose). The McDavid line of Patrick Maroon and Leon Draisaitl is electric and flat out astonishing to watch. Maroon had a career season on McDavid’s line. McDavid himself had 100 points in the regular season (30 goals, 70 assists; 2 goals and 2 assists in 6 games against San Jose). Draisaitl was 8th in the NHL in scoring at nearly a point per game with 29 goals and 48 assists for 77 points while playing in all 82 games. He had a goal and two assists in the San Jose series, but make no mistake, each of those numbers could have been doubled (and the goals could have been tripled or quadrupled; that is how many golden chances he had on breakaways and point-blank chances in front). Getzlaf is leagues stronger than McDavid, but no one on Anaheim can skate with McDavid, and arguably only Cogliano can skate with Draisaitl, which may not be a match up except on Edmonton power plays.

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These are two fantastic goalies. Along with Gibson, the Oilers counter with should-have-been Vezina finalist and former New York Ranger season-saver Cam Talbot. Both had one forgettable game apiece in their first rounds. Both teams are capable of having a game or two which puts the opposing goalie in peril. Who will dictate?

Edmonton must stay out of the penalty box. They committed what seemed like 50 penalties against San Jose. It might have actually been. In their 7-0 shellacking at the hands of the Sharks, Edmonton surrendered four power play goals. This cannot happen again. The Ducks’ PP is probably even more lethal, especially with all six of the forwards on the two units being regular contributors on the score sheet in that scenario. The PKs of each team are about a wash, and the goalies probably are as well. Who can make a play? Edmonton’s defence is alright with Kris Russell and Adam Larsson, but young and mistake-prone players such as Darnell Nurse and Matt Benning have gotten the Oilers in trouble quite a few times thus far in the playoffs. It bears watching. The Ducks have a decided advantage on the back end, particularly if Vatanen and Fowler are able to play.

Do you rely heavily on the experience (but lack of ability to get over the hump since 2007) of the Ducks? Or the speed and youthful exuberance of the Oilers? Edmonton just seems destined for the Stanley Cup Finals. We don’t disagree.


2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals Prospectus: Nashville Predators vs. St. Louis Blues

2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals Prospectus: Nashville Predators vs. St. Louis Blues
M.D. Wright

Nashville Predators (WC2) vs. St. Louis Blues (C3)
This series won’t garner the national coverage that Pens vs. Caps will, but if you are a hockey purist, you will enjoy it. Two teams who play similar styles of game and have hit their respective strides. Both of these teams looked like they would be on the outside looking in on the playoffs before the trade deadline. Then the Kings dropped back and the Blues really took off (ironically) following the trade of Kevin Shattenkirk to Washington.

Which team can figure out the other team’s goalie? Jake Allen was on the money putting up ridiculous goals against and save percentage numbers against the Minnesota Wild. Pekka Rinne shut out the Chicago Blackhawks twice in a four-game sweep, while out-pointing any individual player on the Hawks by himself. The Preds were utterly dominant in every facet of the game. They clogged the neutral zone, they pressured all over the offensive zone both while in their offensive zone and defending their own. It was a masterful effort and fewer people are talking about this instead of expressing shock of the Hawks both losing, and getting swept. You shouldn’t be surprised about Chicago losing. The Preds got healthy and they’ve gotten their Forsberg-Johansen-Arvidsson line going. Players like James Neal, Kevin Fiala, Mike Fisher, Colin Wilson and blue line stars P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis are all rolling right now. It is a collective effort. The layoff may be a concern. The Preds haven’t played in a week.

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For St. Louis, they will need to generate scoring. They did enough against Minnesota, largely due to the brick wall efforts of Allen. The Preds will test him (mind you, Minnesota outshot and out-chanced the Blues all series) and with more precision than the Wild did. Vladimir Tarasenko was active, although his numbers were not eye-popping (goal, 2 assists in 6 games). However, St. Louis gotten contributions from young players such as Ivan Barbashev and Vlad Sobotka, and the return of Paul Stastny (in Game 6, in which he immediately scored). They even got two goals from depth blue liner Joel Edmundson. If they can continue to get that, along with the consistently stellar efforts from Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko on the back end, they can get to Rinne. Will the Blues get something from David Perron and Jaden Schwartz (who was noticeable in every game (2 goals, 3 assists). The Blues will need it.

This is a series that will be too close and too tough to call. Jake Allen’s track record isn’t as established as Rinne’s. Meanwhile, it was thought that Rinne was on the decline the past two seasons. It may or may not be true, but his performance in the first round isn’t indicative of such. Jake Allen can’t possibly play any better than he did in the first round. However, can he sustain even what he did against the Wild?

It just feels like the Preds have more overall talent and their style of play can dictate affairs on the ice more than the Blues. But we’ll see.


2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Semifinals Prospectus: New York Rangers vs. Ottawa Senators

2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Semifinals Prospectus: New York Rangers vs. Ottawa Senators
M.D. Wright

New York Rangers (WC1) vs. Ottawa Senators (A3)
The Sens had a tough time with a shorthanded, but game Boston Bruins team in the first round. They were a bad penalty away from potentially being pushed to seven games with nearly a half dozen AHL players among the regular 18 skaters for Boston. This is not good. However, Ottawa made the plays they needed and buried power play goals when they most needed them, as they whiffed on most of their nearly two dozen chances with the man advantage in the series.

Craig Anderson was a brick wall early in the series, then began to misplay the puck and got fortunate officiating in Games 4 and 5 to either help his team win or keep them in it. Boston did not have much offence. New York is a different animal. Everyone on Ottawa must raise their games. Derick Brassard is a perennial playoff performer. Bobby Ryan has come alive after another lackluster offensive season in 2016-17. They will need more.

The Rangers found their game after one of the most pitiful and embarrassing efforts from the coach down to the players (minus Henrik Lundqvist) in Game 3 in the first round versus Montreal. They deserve the adulation for what they did in Games 4 through 6. They were the better, deeper and more skilled team, and it eventually showed.

Of note in that series, the Rangers defence (minus Nick Holden) was very good in front of Lundqvist. The centres all had mind-boggling gaffes on back checks that led to goals (Zibanejad with Plekanec, Stepan with the loaf on an odd man rush off a linesman, Hayes also). This cannot continue. Ottawa is nothing, if not crafty down low and off the break. Particularly with their vaunted 1-3-1 neutral zone trap. The Rangers just faced a good bit of similar principles against Montreal and cannot just throw away a game as they did in Game 3 (at home, no less) in the first round.

Henrik Lundqvist has regained his all-world form. If he continues this, Ottawa — which still struggled to score against Boston — will be in trouble. Once again, the Rangers are better, more skilled and deeper than Ottawa, and the defences are a wash (even with Erik Karlsson tipping the scales for Ottawa). And Karlsson’s got a busted foot. The (likely) cortisone shots that he takes before the games clearly wear off by the third period.

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Mike Hoffman, Kyle Turris and Alex Burrows must contribute more for Ottawa. The Rangers got past Montreal with Derek Stepan, JT Miller and Chris Kreider having forgettable series. Stepan did score the final goal of the Montreal series, and Kreider did “assist” on Mika Zibanejad’s game-winning goal in Game 5, but Miller has been unfathomably invisible through one series. That cannot continue if the Rangers want to advance.

Rick Nash has some favorable matchups to continue crashing the net and creating rebound chances for his line mates. Jimmy Vesey is due for a goal. The Rangers’ 4th line is every bit as good as Washington’s, which is arguably the best in the NHL. Oscar Lindberg centers Jesper Fast and whoever Alain Vigneault uses on the the fourth line with him. “AV” is noted for juggling lines when they do not work. Make no mistake, while Tanner Glass played well in his role early in the series against Montreal, and was not a liability, the insertion of Pavel Buchnevich has given the Rangers extensive depth and scoring potential from every member on each line. That is dangerous.

The Rangers have the edge at goalie. This is without question. The Rangers have the skill, speed and depth advantage at forward. Collectively, the Rangers have a better and more battle-tested defence, even if Holden is still a massive liability in his own zone. Dan Girardi and Marc Staal stepped up their games, while Ryan McDonagh, Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith were magnificent against Montreal.

Games are not played on paper, and puck luck, timeliness of power play goals and penalty kills can swing a game and a series on the whole. We’ll take the Rangers, albeit not extremely confidently, because they have maddening inconsistencies in their play which makes series difficult to predict. The Sens simply do not have enough with their bottom six to mask what the Rangers have with their bottom six. Particularly if Hayes (who was dominant in Games 5 and 6), Miller and Michael Grabner finally break through, which had been expected to be a pivotal line versus Montreal.

Call: NEW YORK IN 5.

2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Semifinals Prospectus: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals

2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Semifinals Prospectus: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals
M.D. Wright

Pittsburgh Penguins (M2) vs. Washington Capitals (M1)
Another renewal of the longtime utter domination rivalry between these two. The Caps knew that they would likely need to go through the Pens in order to advance through the Eastern playoffs and onto the Stanley Cup, and here we are. In showing that they knew this, they went out and upgraded their third line by acquiring Lars Eller from Montreal and signing Brett Connolly in the offseason. Their fourth line, centered by Jay Beagle and flanked by Daniel Winnik and Tom Wilson remains the best in the NHL.

Ultimately, it will be up to the Nicklas Backstrom (Alex Ovechkin/T.J. Oshie) and Kuznetsov (Justin Williams/Andre Burakovsky) lines to get it done so that there isn’t the amount of pressure on the bottom six to score. Pittsburgh’s bottom six carried the Pens vs. Washington last year, while Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby were largely shut down.

The Caps have confidence in Braden Holtby, who got better as the series went on in the first round versus Toronto. He was still shaky at times, however. And his five-hole still remains an issue. Holtby needs to be better. Both for the Caps to advance, and to shake the growing reputation of being a playoff choker. The Caps still cannot compete with the Pens’ overall speed, but they have upgraded their defence by moving up speedy puck rusher Nate Schmidt and acquiring power play quarterback Kevin Shattenkirk for forward Zach Sanford.  Shattenkirk has been good — not great — but he has helped create balance on the Caps’ power play. John Carlson does not always have to be the one to set up Backstrom down low, or Ovechkin in his “office” on the left wing. Overall, the Caps “D” is the best in the league and, minus the calcified Brooks Orpik, the best overall pairing of Matt Niskanen and Dmitri Orlov provides Washington with coverage on the back end, and a puck rusher with a heavy shot in Orlov. Orpik will have troubles with the Pens’ speedy bottom six. Barry Trotz will utilize last change expertly to avoid having Orpik on the ice at the same time as the Crosby and Malkin lines, so the speed of the Pens’ bottom six vs. Orpik and Shattenkirk will bear watching.

Pittsburgh caught a bad break at the onset of their series with Columbus. Down went Matt Murray. It was unfortunate. Marc-Andre Fleury did the job, but in reality, the Blue Jackets aren’t all that skilled. He will be under the gun against the Caps, who had to pull out every stop — maybe to their benefit — against the young and highly game Maple Leafs. Fleury is not what he used to be. Anyone who suggests otherwise is a fool.

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The key here is the absence of Kris Letang due to injury. This is pivotal. He had a direct hand in two game-winning goals against Pittsburgh last spring. The Pens don’t really have anyone who is a legitimate offensive threat on the back end. The key will be for Washington to get pucks in deep, work the boards and pressure the Pittsburgh defence in order to set up a forecheck and slow the Pens’ open ice game. In the zone, the Caps have as good of a chance as ever to beat Pittsburgh, but the aforementioned must occur with regularity, because Washington still isn’t going to compete with the overall speed of players like Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Connor Sheary and Scott Wilson. Never mind Crosby, Malkin and Phil Kessel. Will we see Carl Hagelin make his return from injury in this series?

We’ll make a call here based upon the assumption that Holtby’s strong finish to the Leafs series carries over. The Caps don’t have to worry about Letang (or anyone in his absence) jumping up and creating passing and shooting lanes, which killed Washington so frequently in game-winning situations last year. If they don’t do it now, the Caps as we know them are finished. Cap hell awaits. As does the expansion draft. The urgency and desire for retribution should be enough to get them through here, as the Pens aren’t exactly playing their best lineups. Take nothing from the Columbus series. The Jackets only had one line working; and that wasn’t even consistent from game to game. Trotz rolls four and they have all shown the scoring touch at times in the playoffs. This should be the difference. It won’t be easy.


2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round Prospectus: San Jose Sharks vs. Edmonton Oilers

2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round Prospectus: San Jose Sharks vs. Edmonton Oilers 
M.D. Wright 

Quite honestly, the Sharks caught a ton of bad breaks down the stretch. They blew a 9-point division lead after mid-March, lost Logan Couture (who lost a half dozen teeth) for nearly three weeks, and are without Joe Thornton for the foreseeable with a knee.

San Jose Sharks (3rd/Pacific) vs. Edmonton Oilers (2nd/Pacific)

The Oilers are in the playoffs for the first time since 2006, when they went to the Stanley Cup Final and lost in excruciating fashion in Game 7 to the Carolina Hurricanes. Connor McDavid has literally elevated the play of everyone on Edmonton’s roster. Former trade deadline afterthought Patrick Maroon became a 27-goal scorer while skating with McDavid. Leon Draisaitl, who had a steep learning curve and had come on late in the 20-15-16 season, was nearly a point per game (29 G, 48 A for 77 P in 82 games) while predominantly skating with McDavid after big free agency acquisition Milan Lucic stumbled out of the gate.

Moving Lucic down to the Ryan Nugent-Hopkins line with Jordan Eberle has given the Oilers more depth on the wings, which is when the team really took off in the second half of the season. This will be extremely problematic for the Sharks, who will be without Joe Thornton for a while (and if/when he returns, how effective will he be on a compromised knee?) The Sharks simply cannot skate with Edmonton. Joe Pavelski, Tomas Hertl, Patrick Marleau and Couture must step up their games. Joel Ward is money in the playoffs. He will need to be in order to give the Sharks a chance. Martin Jones hasn’t quite had the season he had last year. The Sharks also have question marks on the back end. Even Brent Burns cooled off big time from a scoring standpoint after the trade deadline. For a while, the only goal he scored came on a game-winner against the visiting Rangers (naturally).

Cam Talbot has had a brilliant season, with 42 wins and has had experience playing in high leverage situations, saving the New York Rangers’ season two years ago when Henrik Lundqvist was injured for a long stretch. Talbot’s play has been a stabilizing force, to go with the electric offence for the Oil. With offensive threats such as Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse, and heavy hitters like Adam Larsson, the Oilers have what it takes to make a deep playoff run. And this is after being a bad team loaded with #1 overall picks for the past half decade; perennially missing the playoffs.

The McDavid Effect.

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