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.

Image result for jt miller erik karlsson

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.

Image result for connor mcdavid


2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round Prospectus: St. Louis Blues vs. Minnesota Wild

2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round Prospectus: St. Louis Blues vs. Minnesota Wild
M.D. Wright

This is the least interesting series out of the four. Outside of their respective fanbases, neither team is particularly fun to watch. At least the Wild were until March, when everything fell apart for them; winning only three games in regulation. Devan Dubnyk appeared to be both overworked and rattled. Will his slide be beyond retrieval? The Blues will certainly put it to the test early and often.

Minnesota lacks that certain “it” that you get from certain teams. Oh, they have talent for sure. Plenty of forward depth, including stalwart Mikko Koivu, Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund, and everyone knows about Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon on the back end. Matt Dumba and Marco Scandella are pivotal on the back end. However again, the team just feels as though it is missing something.

The Blues have it all, ranging from one of the best snipers in the game in Vladimir Tarasenko, to Alex Pietrangelo on the back end. The Blues pretty much play a grind and mash game with some occasional slick skill.

Image result for mike yeo

Photo Credit: Bleacher Report

Will the moment be too big for Jake Allen serving as the main guy in net for St. Louis? Maybe later. Not this series.

Call: St. Louis in 5.

2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round Prospectus: Calgary Flames vs. Anaheim Ducks

2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round Prospectus: Calgary Flames vs. Anaheim Ducks
M.D. Wright

Cam Fowler.

The Ducks will be inspired by the loss of arguably their best and most impactful blue liner in this series — and potentially the entire playoffs, unless the Ducks make it to the Cup Finals — due to…

this intentionally dirty hit by Mark Giordano...

… who plays for the Flames.


You can see where the intensity level in this series will be off the bat.

Calgary Flames (WC1/Pacific) vs. Anaheim Ducks (Pacific Division Champion)

The Fowler injury set off a series of scrums, totaling over 20 penalties and over 100 penalty minutes. Anaheim was already in a shaky position on the blue line with Sami Vatanen only recently returning, and Hampus Lindholm being (pardon the poor ability to avoid the obvious play on words)… hampered by injury himself. The Ducks almost certainly will not have Fowler in this series, but they still have impact players on the back end.

As it turns out, it was prescient (if not fortunate) by them to bring up puck-rusher Brnadon Montour earlier this season. They need him. He brings the element of the game that Fowler possesses; speed, skill, playmaking ability and coverage, just minus the wealth of playoff and international experience that Fowler accumulated over the years. Josh Manson will have to play more responsibly, even if he may end up “getting involved” at times. Vatanen, Lindholm and even Clayton Stoner will have their say.

The Ducks have come on of late offensively. They were sitting ducks offensively for a good part of the season. Ryan Getzlaf is playing some of the best hockey of his NHL career. It was needed. His play spearheaded a run to the division title. A division the San Jose Sharks had relative control over just 30 days ago. Corey Perry has awakened from his season-long slumber. More accurately, though, he had tons of chances and was simply snakebitten. Ryan Kesler is still one of the premier two-way players (and agitators) in the game. The Selke is really between him, Nicklas Backstrom and Patrice Bergeron, honestly. The Flames better be aware of Rickard Rakell whenever he is on the ice. He is sneaky. He can get to wherever he wants on the ice. He has silky hands and can finish in tight. He paced the Ducks in goal scoring for a reason. Glue guys like Jakob Silfverberg and Andrew Cogliano can turn a series, and we think they probably will here.

Giordano should be on lookout whenever he is on the ice with Chris Wagner and Jared Boll. They will be looking to make him pay for injuring Fowler. They cannot take foolish penalties in the process, however.

Image result for giordano fowler

Photo Credit: Yahoo Sports

Calgary is a high flying offensive machine. Their defence get involved as well, particularly Dougie Hamilton, Giordano and T.J. Brodie. Their bread and butter is the mixture of speed and physicality throughout each line. The top line of John Hockey, Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Micheal Ferland epitomizes this. Gaudreau is the smallest player in the league, but his hockey IQ is off the charts and he never takes a big hit. If someone dares to take a run at him, Ferland is ready and willing to take up for his teammate. Ferland can also finish, which is why having him on this line works for Calgary. Monahan can do everything that his wingers do, which is critical, as well.

The Mikael Backlund line (rookie Matthew Tkachuk, and Michael Frolik) is a “Lite” version of the top line. Backlund has been a good playmaker this year. Frolik can score and Tkachuk will mix it up with whoever gets in his way. And he has the touch like his father, “Big Walt”, Keith Tkachuk. The Sam Bennett line features Kris Versteeg and Alex Chiasson. Again, more of the same. The Matt Stajan line of Lance Bouma and Troy Brouwer features no easy shifts for the Ducks, either.

The questions here are can the third pair of Matt Bartkowski and Deryk Engelland and Brian “Moose” Elliott backstopping the team do enough to hang with the constantly-in-your-face style of the Randy Carlyle-coached Ducks? This will be the most intense series of all of the first rounders, we think. Whoever comes out of the series will be limping into the conference semifinals, that’s for sure.

John Gibson finally gets his chance to shine without looking over his shoulder at Freddie Andersen. However, while Gibson was injured (shocker; an annual rite of passage for him, sadly), Jonathan Bernier has played borderline great in his stead. If Gibson has any rough patches, Carlyle will not hesitate to pull him and play Bernier. In fact, some believe there is tension regarding the goaltending in Carlyle’s mind, even if Gibson is clearly better than Bernier, who just happened to play his best in net this season with… wait for it… the best and most responsible players in front of him to this date. Goalie play isn’t so much about athleticism and reaction time, but consistency, positioning, reading plays and having good defence and responsible back-checkers in front of you. Gibson can do all of the technically sound things, and the exceptionally athletic, which gives him the edge. The Ducks are perennially one of the stingiest teams in the league, and nothing changed in 2016-2017. They will lean on the Flames just enough to get past them, but it will be far from easy.

Call: DUCKS IN 7.