2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: First Round Prospectus


2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: First Round Prospectus
M.D. Wright
4.10.2016

Hockey is a total crapshoot once the playoffs begin. Most of us know this, and as such, these predictions should be taken as a grain of salt (excluding a couple of these series). However, the thing about this year’s pool is that all eight series will have a high level of intrigue and there will be no dull moments in any of these series (unlike the first round of NBA playoffs in recent years). Be there, or miss it at your own peril. The playoffs begin Wednesday night, April 13, 2016.

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Washington Capitals (1st, Metropolitan Division; 1st, Eastern Conference; President’s Trophy Winner) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (2nd Wild Card, Eastern Conference)
The Capitals have plenty of depth throughout all four lines and have a solid defence, with Braden Holtby in goal, coming off what will most likely be a Vezina Trophy season. Part of the intrigue of Stanley Cup Playoff hockey is the randomness and the irrelevance of regular season. As it is, however, the Flyers and Capitals split four games during the regular season, with the Flyers winning both their games in overtime and in a shootout. Records don’t matter as much as matchups do, and the Flyers match up very well with the Capitals.

Claude Giroux is a master in the faceoff circle, Wayne Simmonds basically sets up a camping tent in front of the crease all game (particularly on power plays, of which there figures to be plenty early on in this series, for both teams — more on the Washington side of this later in this piece), and Jake Voracek is very strong on the puck, matching up well with the once-again-winner of the Maurice Richard Trophy, Alexander Ovechkin. The Flyers’ fourth line is productive, and the Flyers kill penalties very well. Then there is the newfound X-factor, Shayne Gostisbehere on the blue line for the Flyers, which will dictate how the Capitals play defence themselves. Steve Mason will be in goal for the Flyers and his right hand catching glove has presented some teams problems while he stands (or kneels?) at 6’4″ taking up a good amount of the net, with some of the largest shoulder pads that you will see in the NHL. Goaltending will be solid in this series. The key may be which blue line pairing can have a bigger impact in generating offence, as both teams’ top two lines will pretty much cancel out the other.

John Carlson and Matt Niskanen are well-established and solid on the power play, often looking for Ovechkin for arguably one of the best one-timers in NHL history on the left faceoff circle. Gostisbehere possesses a wicked wrist shot and a heavy slap shot (and a quick one-timer, as well). Simmonds tracks the puck very well from the point and redirects the puck better than most in front.

This series may come down to who can avoid the penalty box; particularly in the 3rd period of games. But it will be close, and to go out on a limb…

Call: Flyers in 6.
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New York Rangers (3rd, Metropolitan Division) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (2nd, Metropolitan Division)
The Penguins were predicted to falter once C Evgeni Malkin went down with what many thought was (and can potentially still be) a season-ending injury, but they went in the complete opposite direction: winning 11 of 12 games (and the lone loss came in their final regular season game sitting several starters and playing second and third string goaltenders). However, their starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is battling concussion symptoms, and his backup, Matt Murray, may have one as well. It will be interesting to see who will be in goal for Pittsburgh for Game 1, whether it is Murray or Jeff Zatkoff. We can be almost 100% certain that it won’t be Fleury.

The Penguins’ top two lines have been lethal, and even their bottom six have been, as well, in Malkin’s absence. The Penguins moved Nick Bonino up to Malkin’s line to run with former Ranger Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel, both of whom possess high-end skating ability, giving most teams nightmares on defence. Sidney Crosby elevated his game to near-Hart trophy levels since February, which has been key in the Penguins’ run. Outside of Kris(topher) Letang, the Penguins’ blue liners are nothing special to write home about, although they are solid enough that they do not cost the team games, regardless of the output of the offense.

The Rangers have issues across the board. Derick Brassard has not played well of late (although Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider are in playoff form already). Rick Nash is just finding his game after missing 20 games due to a leg injury. For long stretches of time, the Rangers’ fourth line was their best line, which is not a good thing. All world goalie Henrik Lundqvist appeared fatigued in the final weeks of the season (or fatigued by the ghastly play of the defencemen in front of him for most of the season), while injuries began to mount just as the regular season came to a close. D Dan Girardi has dealt with a cracked kneecap and various nicks and bumps — the latest being a heavy hit into the boards from former Ranger Brian Boyle in the 80th game — and is in rapid decline physically overall, while logging major minutes. Team captain Ryan McDonagh broke a bone in his hand in the 79th game. Dan Boyle has practically calcified before Ranger fans’ eyes since he came to New York before the 2014-2015 season, although he played well to close out the season. Kevin Klein has been steady (although a turnover machine of late), and Keith Yandle is always going to be high risk (giveaways and weak along the boards in his own zone) and high reward (arguably a top 3 defenceman in quarterbacking power plays in the NHL). Marc Staal has had an uncharacteristically shaky season overall, and with the uncertainty of McDonagh and Girardi’s respective availabilities, young defencemen Brady Skjei and Dylan McIlrath may be pressed into duty. Both have been far more efficient with the puck than Girardi and Staal, it should be noted. The Rangers have played the Penguins well enough to win three of the four games this season, but the team’s bugaboo all season has been giveaways in their own zone by defencemen (mostly) and those foibles cost them each time the Rangers lost to the Penguins this season (three out of four games). The Eric Staal line is one to watch in this series, just as much as the Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel line for Pittsburgh.

With the playoffs being a tighter checking game and generally less open ice with which to generate wide open scoring plays, and the Rangers having a decided advantage at goalie, much of the conjecture about teams wanting to avoid Pittsburgh is overblown. Had Fleury been healthy and in net, the predictions would have been amended in a major way, but as of now…

Call: Rangers in 6.
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Florida Panthers (1st, Atlantic Division; 2nd, Eastern Conference) vs. New York Islanders (1st Wild Card, Eastern Conference)
The Islanders have not won a playoff series since 1993 and their blatantly obvious tank job to close out the season will not be lost on the Panthers, who are a match up nightmare for the beat-up Islanders, who have injuries to a key defenceman (Travis Hamonic) and one of their netfront presences (Anders Lee), which will affect the Islandes’ power play. Goalie Jaroslav Halak will be out with a groin, pressing Thomas Greiss into duty, and it will be key to see whether the Islanders’ defence can handle the heavy Panthers forwards, including the ageless Jaromir Jagr, Nick Bjugstad, Alex Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and several others. The Panthers had Vincent Trocheck emerging in the second half of the season before he got hurt, but they still have the consistent Jussi Jokinen in the fold, as well. Another key will be the Panthers’ young defence. Brian Campbell, Aaron Ekblad, Erik Gudbranson (should he return from a concussion in time for the series), particularly the top pair against the John Tavares line with Kyle Okposo.

Former Islander Roberto Luongo (ironically) is in goal and had a good season for the Panthers, helping them to their best win total in team history. The Panthers are young, big and fast, and without Hamonic, guys like Nick Leddy, Calvin de Haan and others will log bigger minutes. Considering the Penguins’ goalie situation and lack of physicality (Phil Kessel hit hot dog stands more than he hit opposing players all season) one would think that the Isles would have done everything to maintain integrity of competition and draw a slightly more favorable match up than the nightmare that awaits them in Sunrise, Florida.

Call: Panthers in 5.


 

Tampa Bay Lightning (2nd, Atlantic Division) vs. Detroit Red Wings (3rd, Atlantic Division)
The Red Wings have made it to the playoffs now for the 25th straight season, and are in line for a rematch with the team that eliminated them last spring, the Lightning.

Lightning C Steven Stamkos (blood clot) will not play, nor will D Anton Stralman (broken leg). Stamkos’ loss is huge, but Stralman’s is as well, as he is important to the Tampa Bay power play.

This will be a speed game, and it will be interesting to see the deployment of the Lightning defence against the Wings’ speedy forwards such as rookie Pavel Datsyuk, Dylan Larkin, and Andreas Athanasiou. Overall, the Wings don’t have much quality depth beyond their top two lines, with Henrik Zetterberg, Gus Nyquist and Tomas Tatar rounding out those lines. Athanasiou is mainly a 4th liner, it should be noted, but maximizes his limited ice time in a way that could give the Lightning fits. Detroit only really has one very good defenceman, but at this point, the Lightning only have one, as well. Tampa’s X-factor will be Jonathan Drouin. If he can come of age and produce as the team envisioned when taking him early in the draft a couple of summers ago, then the Lightning will have a chance with Ben Bishop consuming nearly all of the net.

Then again, the Red Wings were beat up on the blue line last year and had the series wrapped up before choking it away — and this was with the Lightning healthy.

Barring something unforeseen from the Tampa blue line offensively, the Wings should win this series.

Call: Red Wings in 6.
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WESTERN CONFERENCE
Dallas Stars (1st, Central Division; 1st Western Conference) vs. Minnesota Wild (2nd Wild Card, Western Conference)
The Wild are in trouble. They have been maddeningly inconsistent all season, prone to long streaks of both good and poor play. Dallas is the most explosive offensive team in the NHL; leading the league in goals scored in back to back seasons. Their offence is spearheaded by C Tyler Seguin and winger Jamie Benn, along with an assortment of good forwards, including the still-useful Patrick Sharp. The major question with Dallas is their defence; and if Minnesota is to have any chance to win more than one game in this series, it will be because they take advantage of what has largely been an issue for Dallas the past two season: defensive lapses (although the team strangely got marginally better after Seguin’s late-season injury).

Minnesota has the ability to score, and goalie Devan Dubnyk will keep them in most games (while giving up three or four quick ones in one of these games, I can almost see it from here), but how well can the Wild defend after Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon? Too many questions and too much inconsistency from this team to think that they can generate enough on offence to match Dallas.

Call: Stars in 5.


 

Anaheim Ducks (1st, Pacific Division; 2nd, Western Conference) vs. Nashville Predators (1st Wild Card, Western Conference)
This series could go either way, if we’re being honest. The Ducks finally played up to expectations after a brutal start to the season that left many dumbfounded. Nashville has been similar to Minnesota in regards to up and down play over the past month, and as always, the play of Shea Weber (along with Roman Josi) will have a say in the Preds’ fortunes, but newly formed combo of Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg has lit up the skies since the trade deadline (especially Forsberg). Along with Pekka Rinne in goal, the Preds can beat anyone, but the Ducks are a heavy, tight-checking, puck-dominant team, and this will be a slugfest; which the Ducks want. Between Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Corey Perry and the emergent Jakob Silfverberg, the Ducks have plenty of depth. Additionally, they brought up another big body in Nick Ritchie to bang even more throughout all four of their lines. The Ducks defence is solid and often jumps into the rush offensively, which will press the Preds’ forwards into duty all game. This may be the difference in the series, if, if we are to believe what appearances show… which is that goalie play is virtually a wash (even if Bruce Boudreau sticks with Frederik Andersen over John Gibson, who is potentially every bit as good). Andersen’s meltdown against the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks last year is not a distant memory, however.

A tough call, but the Ducks’ home ice advantage is palpable. They’ve virtually not lost there (other than a game against the Rangers, strangely) in eons.

Call: Ducks in 6.
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Los Angeles Kings (2nd, Pacific Division) vs. San Jose Sharks (3rd, Pacific Division)
This could very well be a toss up. Joe Thornton  is still doing “Jumbo Joe” things, and Patrick Marleau came on late in the season, to help the consistent Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and the revelation that is Joonas Donskoi.

You know what you get with the Kings: goaltending (Jonathan Quick) big, heavy, mashing, high-possession (Anze Kopitar, Tyler Toffoli, Milan Lucic, Jeff Carter, etc.) and the best defenceman in the NHL: Drew Doughty.

The Sharks use former Kings/Quick backup Martin Jones as their starter, and should he falter (and it is entirely possible, given that nearly everyone on the Kings knows his strengths and weaknesses), James Reimer, but the Kings have a major advantage in goal. Brent Burns jumps into the rush at times as a “winger” for the Sharks, giving them a heavy presence out high and a hard shot from the point, with the hands of a 6′ centre. On the surface, one would think that this could go either way, with a slight edge to the Kings, but keep in mind that the last time the Sharks made the playoffs, they inexplicably blew a 3-0 series lead by losing four straight to the Kings, who won the Stanley Cup at the conclusion of that 2013-2014 season.

For now…

Call: Kings in 6.
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St. Louis Blues (2nd, Central Division) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (3rd, Central Division)
Some tend to think that there is a magic light switch to turn on and off, but this is not the Chicago team that won the Cup last year, nor was there any expectation for it to be so, given the amount of roster turnover. Artemi Panarin, aka the “Bread Man” (Panera Bread, for my slow readers) may very well win the Calder Trophy for best rookie given the season he has had, filling a void left by the departure of Patrick Sharp. The Blues know what they are going to get from Art Ross Trophy winner, Patrick Kane, along with arguably the best two way centre in the NHL, Jonathan Toews, and the Blues are certainly equipped defensively to slow down the Blackhawks enough to manage offence of their own. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock preaches defence wherever he goes, and the Blues will be ready in that regard, from the blue line on in.

Corey Crawford is so schizophrenic. He led the league for most of the season in shutouts, but also had (seemingly) numerous games where he gave up goals in bunches. He had to be pulled several times due to ineffectiveness last year. Brian Elliott (presumably) will get the nod for St. Louis, which is awash in offensive firepower, ranging from the speedy Robby Fabbri, to the steady Alexander Steen, to the big bodied David Backes (presuming he will be able to go, coming off injury), Jaden Schwartz, and all world Vladimir Tarasenko.

That’s before getting into Kevin Shattenkirk, Alex Pietrangelo and the other stalwarts on defence who contribute in the offensive zone as well. The Blues are in the best position that they have been to beat the Blackhawks in ages (as they seemingly lose to Chicago each time they square off in the playoffs). Regular season means little, but the Blues did play Chicago very well this regular season (then again, so did the Wild, who swept Chicago, and the Wild had lost something like a dozen games in a row at one point, so there’s that). You can’t ever really bet against a team like Chicago, but in some regards this has to feel like a “House Money” season for them, regardless of the outcome of this series.

This might be the Blues’ year (and those who know me know I love to ridicule them for choking every year).

Call: Blues in 7.
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CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS PREDICTIONS FOLLOWING THE CONCLUSION OF THE FIRST ROUND.

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