2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round Prospectus: Nashville Predators vs. Chicago Blackhawks


2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round Prospectus: Nashville Predators vs. Chicago Blackhawks
M.D. Wright
4.12.2017

“Can the Preds score?”

That will be the overarching theme of this series. Nashville certainly possesses enough grit and playoff experience. Chicago’s blue line isn’t exactly lock down (Nicklas Hjalmarsson is the closest thing to it). Brent Seabrook, while good, is overrated by many. Duncan Keith is overall good at everything, but he isn’t a lockdown defender. This series will be interesting. Along with Keith and Seabrook, Corey Crawford is good, but not elite. He has had some big game performances, however.

Nashville Predators (WC2, Central) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (Central Division Champion)

It is amazing how good of a job the Hawks’ front office and coach Joel Quenneville have done in evaluating talent both domestically and abroad and continue to plug and play on each one of their forward lines every year. This must be done because they are married to Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Seabrook and Keith with contracts that annually put them against the cap; necessitating this juggling of personnel. To their credit, they are consistently a favorite to make it to the Cup Finals, and are again this year in the minds of many (although not in this space). It will not be easy even if they get that far.

Nashville presents a gritty club. Ryan Johansen epitomizes this on the Preds’ top line, with high-flying Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson. This is a very good line. Forsberg is a game-breaker. Johansen will make Toews work hard. Arvidsson is full-speed 100% of the time. The Hawks will get no breathers there. The Mike Fisher line (Kevin Fiala, James Neal) must match what the Hawks second line will bring. To be clear, there really isn’t a 1-2 in Chicago, more like a 1a and 1b, and they fluctuate, because Quenneville is not averse to making line adjustments on the fly. He is one of the best in the league at this. It helps to have interchangeable talent like Kane and Toews to pull it off, though. Artemi Panarin owes his NHL career thus far to Kane. He doesn’t generate near as much without playing off Kane. Artem Anisimov’s status is critical, because beyond that, the Hawks have a ton of unproven depth players (excluding Marian Hossa).

What will P.K. Subban and Roman Josi do to the Hawks with their two pairings? Josi and Ryan Ellis form a tandem of rovers who can cover a ton of ice and create scoring opportunities from every angle. Subban and Mattias Ekholm do the same. The third pair of Matt Irwin and Anthony Bitetto cannot be caught out there against the Hawks top six. Pekka Rinne is in steep decline since the beginning of last season. This is an area of major concern for Nashville.

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Both teams have question marks both from a skill and inexperience standpoint. The defence is basically a wash, all things considered. Crawford is the better goalie and comes up big in big games more frequently than Rinne, who has  laid some of his biggest eggs in the Preds’ most important games over the past two seasons. We just don’t believe the Preds have enough, but they will make the Hawks work for it. Could even push it to Game 7, which the Hawks will win with ease.

Call: CHICAGO IN 7.

2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round Prospectus: Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Pittsburgh Penguins


2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round Prospectus: Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
M.D. Wright
4.12.2017

Take off your glasses and check your chiclets for this one. Someone’s probably going to lose a tooth or five in this series.

Columbus Blue Jackets (3rd/Metropolitan) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (2nd/Metropolitan)

Columbus has had the Pens’ number this season. One of the reasons why is that this is the best team coach John Tortorella has had since his final season with the New York Rangers in terms of skill and depth. Eternal Sidney Crosby nemesis Brandon Dubinsky is waiting in the wings to take Crosby off his game. Can he do so without costing Jackets more than benefiting them? Remains to be seen. How effective will Evgeni Malkin be? Will they get Carl Hagelin back at full go? The Pens, to their credit, did not lose much in the way of productivity with the numerous injuries they’ve had across the board, but large number of AHL-level players they have featured in the past month are not playoff tested; particularly against an equally skilled, speedy and more physical team like Columbus.

Sergei Bobrovsky will likely win the Vezina Trophy for the second time after this season. He deserves it, if he does. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski (whose health is up in the air after taking a nasty, but clean hit from Alex Ovechkin) have formed a formidable pairing for “Torts.” Columbus has been one of the best defensive teams all season, and generate a good deal of offence from their defence, as well. They can frustrate the Penguins, for sure. Outside of Werenski, you know what you are getting from Brandon Saad, Nick Foligno, and Alex Wennberg. The Pens will definitely look to utilize last change at home to keep Crosby away from the Dubinsky-centred line featuring Boone Jenner and leading goal-scorer Cam Atkinson. Wennberg cannot manhandle Crosby the way Dubinsky can. Keep an eye out for these line changes.

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Photo Credit: SportsNet.

Wild Bill Karlsson is not known to most casual fans, but he forms a line with the aforementioned Anderson and Matt Calvert. They cannot be overlooked. They play a heavy forechecking game, which is Tortorella’s calling card; particularly for his depth guys. When it comes to the third line, Sam Gagner and Scott Hartnell are playoff tested. Will Oliver Bjorkstrand be ready?

Bobrovsky is better than Matt Murray, who still gets beat quite often on his glove side and high, which was noted during last year’s playoffs. Columbus knows this.

Kris(topher) Letang’s injury may be too much for the Pens to overcome. He generates and helps sustain so much for the Pens, particularly on the power play. Pittsburgh is less flash and more meat and potatoes and staid on the blue line without him. It will ultimately be the difference in a grinding, physical series of sheer will. Crosby may be the best player in the league (and won’t continue to be for much longer), but he can’t do it all alone.

Call: COLUMBUS IN 6.

2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round Prospectus: Boston Bruins vs. Ottawa Senators


2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round Prospectus: Boston Bruins vs. Ottawa Senators
M.D. Wright
4.12.2017

Throw out the regular season records between these two. Along with the bath water (just save the baby). Ottawa faltered mightily down the stretch before finishing with wins that they needed, including one against Boston last week in a shootout. Boston was winless against the Sens all season. Bruce Cassidy has brought a more physical, fast paced and higher octane game in each zone since taking over for the departed Claude Julien. The results have been palpable. However, the Sens have had their number even since Cassidy came up from Providence.

Boston Bruins (3rd, Atlantic) vs. Ottawa Senators (2nd, Atlantic)

There isn’t much to say about Ottawa. They don’t score that much, which is a product of their philosophy (which befuddled Boston), involving clogging the neutral zone and forcing turnovers in that area; preventing teams from sustaining offensive zone time. One would think that with proper execution of this strategy, that it would generate more offensively for Ottawa, but the results have not been there, particularly coming down the stretch in March into April.

Ottawa has question marks coming into the series. How healthy is all world Erik Karlsson? He means everything to their defence and power play. They are still missing Mark Methot for the foreseeable future, after Sidney Crosby sawed off a portion of his finger with a vicious slash. To the Sens’ credit, however, guys like Cody Ceci and Dion Phaneuf have stepped up and played more impactful minutes. Can Phaneuf withstand the heavy attack of the Patrice Bergeron line, which includes the dastardly David Backes and equally devious Brad Marchand without taking crucial penalties? This is a match up worth watching.

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Boston doesn’t seem to boast enough scoring depth on paper, but along with David Pastrnak on the David Krejci line with Drew Stafford, their top six has carried the team since Cassidy’s promotion. Boston’s blue line isn’t the best, either, although Zdeno Chara still gets by on sheer size, reach and grit alone. The Millers on the third pair have been very good, rather surprisingly. They will need to continue to be.

One would think Ottawa would score more than do with the lines they have. Kyle Turris is consistent and a big-moment goal scorer on a line with recently returned Clarke MacArthur and the mercurial Bobby Ryan. This line is critical to Ottawa’s success here, as they will more often than not be on ice against the weakest of the three Boston defence pairings (John Michael Liles/Adam McQuaid) and the smallish Boston second and third lines.  J.G. Pageau has lethal sniper Mike Hoffman on his wing along with bruising Mark Stone. The Derick Brassard line will bear watching. Alex Burrows flanks him with speedy Viktor Stalberg. Watch them. Brassard is a big-game player. Zack Smith and Tommy Wingels know how to operate in their roles on the fourth line. Wingels was on the San Jose Sharks team which went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2016. He knows what it takes.

Tuukka Rask is regarded as elite by some, but he is not. He can be very good or horrific, sometimes in the same game. And that’s when he plays. Elite goalies don’t need numerous “rest” games that they wouldn’t erstwhile get during a 58-62 game workload during the regular season. And then there are the injuries. If the Bruins have to rely upon Anton Khudobin at all in this series, they are in trouble.

Craig Anderson is playing with tons of emotion in goal for Ottawa. His wife has battled cancer all season and he has been a steadying influence in the net for Ottawa, along with Mike Condon. Anderson will be up for the task. Will it be enough?

Call: OTTAWA IN 7.

2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round Prospectus: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Washington Capitals


2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round Prospectus: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Washington Capitals
M.D. Wright
4.12.2017

Having five of the seven Canadian teams in the Playoffs is good for the sport. Especially the two biggest bastions of Canadian hockey: Montreal and Toronto, the home of hockey. The Leafs are supposedly a year ahead of schedule and “shouldn’t be here”, but someone forgot to tell Mike Babcock — who looked about as pleased when his team clinched a playoff berth as someone getting a prostate exam — and his young troops.

Toronto Maple Leafs (WC2/Atlantic) vs. Washington Capitals (Metropolitan Division Champion/President’s Trophy)

On paper, this appears to be a mismatch for several reasons: Toronto’s youth, Toronto’s injuries on the back end, and the overall skill and experience of the Capitals. However, games are not played on paper, they are played by little men inside your TV set. The Leafs will be ready. iron-jawed Mike will see to it.

Washington has been here before. They were destined to at least get to the Cup Finals in 2016, and their bottom six — and honestly, every line outside of the Backstrom line — betrayed them. They clearly did not possess the speed and skill to compete with those on the Penguins’ bottom six, and that was the difference in the series; including Nick Bonino (3C) and his series-winning goal. Braden Holtby has to be better. He won the Vezina Trophy in 2016 in deserved fashion, but he had repeated troubles giving up goals through his five hole.

The Caps are actually better this year than last. They don’t really have any weaknesses. They roll four lines and each of them produces and does what coach Barry Trotz expects of them. Backstrom is known to start out the playoffs well, and wilt as they progress. That drags down Alex Ovechkin and TJ Oshie, both of whom scored 30+ goals this regular season. The scenario with Backstrom occurred in 2016. The Caps were far too much for the listless Flyers, so they won that series with relative ease. But the farther you go along, the tighter the checking becomes, the more difficult it becomes for your top two lines to produce consistently, and the more reliance you must have on your secondary scorers to come up big. Last year, the Caps’ bottom six could not get it done. this year looks a lot more promising. The Lars Eller line, flanked by Andre Burakovsky and Brett Connolly, has been consistently good all season. Eller, acquired via trade with Montreal, gave the Caps an element that they did not have last season: a mixture of size, skill, speed and willingness to go to the dirty areas and finish. Burakovsky has begun to come into his own, as a result. And the acquisition of Connolly and subsequent addition to that line has salvaged him from “bust” status with a fine season. The fourth line of Jay Beagle, Tom Wilson and Daniel Winnik brings the physicality, energy, forechecking and occasional goal-scoring that is expected from them. One would think that Tom Wilson, a former 1st Round pick, would at least be productive by now, instead of being another Chris Thorburn. He has excelled in his enforcer role. Teams know when he is on the ice. The same goes for Winnik, who isn’t afraid to drop his gloves, if need be.

The Caps’ defence is the best in the league. It is arguably not even close. They boast two-way threat John Carlson, one of the two quarterbacks of the team’s power play, and shutdown lefty Karl Alzer, blockbuster acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk and Dmitri Orlov, and speedster Nate Schmidt and +/- king Brooks Orpik. All Holtby has to do is be consistent and the Caps should — SHOULD — advance.

However.

There is a reason the games are played. Favorites don’t always win. Especially in hockey. Toronto will be game, spearheaded by almost-certain Calder Trophy winning rookie Auston Matthews (40 G, 29 A, 69 P) and other Calder candidates who were major scorers for them, William Nylander (22 G, 39 A, 61 P), Mitchell Marner (19 G, 42 A, 61 P), Connor Brown (20 G) and steadied by Nazem Kadri (32 G, 29 A, 61 P).  James Van Riemsdyk came on strong down the stretch. He will need to continue that for the Leafs to have a chance.

The concern for Toronto, in what would erstwhile be a much more even series, is the relative health of Frederik Andersen, who took another blow to the head from an opposing skater for the second time in a month, and Nikita Zaitsev, who will miss Game 1. Toronto’s blue line is going to come under the microscope, because they will get no shifts off with the aforementioned four lines that Barry Trotz gladly rolls in order to keep his top players fresh.

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Photo Credit: Jeff Burke, Getty Images

Is Andersen ready? Are his playoff debacles in Anaheim going to follow him to Toronto? For Toronto, they are certainly not content in merely making the playoffs, despite getting to this point sooner than most expected. However, even if their forwards produce, how much can their defence hold down the Caps? Whereas the Caps have the ability to shut down the Leafs, as they did a week ago, in a game the Leafs really “needed” to win. A semi-playoff game. If that most recent match up is any indication, the Leafs are not ready. But they will give the Caps everything they want. Air Canada Centre may be good for a win or even two. If the Leafs can pull off a split in Washington in Games 1 and 2, this series could get interesting. The Caps have all the pressure. Sticks can get gripped tighter if the series reaches a sixth of seventh game. We’ll give the youthful exuberance of the Leafs two games, but we can’t realistically pick them to win this series, although it would not entirely surprise if they somehow did.

Call: WASHINGTON IN 6.

 

2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round Prospectus: New York Rangers vs. Montreal Canadiens


2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round Prospectus: New York Rangers vs. Montreal Canadiens
M.D. Wright
4.12.2017

As always, once the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin, the whole tournament is a total crap shoot. Everything you think you know (mostly) goes out the window at puck drop from the onset of each series. You can take these predictions as a grain of salt, or somewhat of a guide to what to look for in each series. For instance, Montreal owned the Rangers during the regular season, and with trade deadline acquisitions — more on that later — they appear to be even more formidable as the kryptonite to much of what the Rangers like to do.

New York Rangers (WC1/Metropolitan) vs. Montreal Canadiens (Atlantic Division Champion)

Two Original Six teams. Gary Bettman’s dream.

As it is, Les Habitants have home ice advantage in this series. It doesn’t mean much. Match up advantages rule all team versus sports. The Rangers have been the best road team in the NHL all season, but the one venue that has been a veritable “House of Horrors” for them for years now is the home ice of the Canadiens.

What to look for? Goaltending, for one.

Carey Price has been rolling since Claude Julien took over for Michel Therrien on Valentine’s Day, and with the acquisitions of Dwight King (Kings), Steve Ott (Red Wings) and the emergence of Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen, the Habs can actually roll all four lines and be productive in the process. Montreal has so much depth that they have used Alex Galchenyuk on the fourth line (and could at times in this series). On defence, Montreal has no flash, but meat and potatoes stay-at-home guys who are generally responsible, if not beatable. Shea Weber is by far the best of the group, with Jeff Petry being arguably the second best defenceman the Habs possess. Erstwhile, they still maintain Nathan Beaulieu, Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin to go with former Tampa Bay Lightning Nikita Nesterov. This is not a great defence. They do what they are asked in their own zone, but if they allow the Rangers to get out in their favored transition game, Montreal could be in trouble.

Up front, pests such as Andrew Shaw, Brendan Gallagher are going to be in Henrik Lundqvist’s grill all series. The Philip Danault line with longtime Rangers nemesis Max Pacioretty and formerly exiled Alex Radulov has been rolling under Julien. The Habs have a balance of speed, skill and size to play any type of game, and Carey Price backstops them.

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(Photo Credit: Andy Martin, USA Today Sports)

On the Rangers’ side, their game is all about speed and skill. Teams know this and look to clog the neutral zone, standing up at the blue line and employing a heavy forecheck when possible in order to force the defence — half of whom are not good skaters (Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Nick Holden) or puck handlers — into turnovers. This makes Alain Vigneault’s pairings pivotal (and, since they have been released, quite dubious) but they are not engraved in stone and he is known to juggle when he doesn’t see things working.

One thing that “AV” does not adjust is when teams employ a 1-2-2 strategy to prevent the long breakout stretch passes which the Rangers love to employ in order to ignite their fast breaking transition game with odd man rushes. They even do this on penalty kills, as they were among the top teams in short handed goals and points. If the Rangers do not adjust their strategy, should Montreal be able to successfully stop the transition game, they will make a quick exit. Stubbornness is a quality that makes some coaches successful and others consistently fail in the same situations over and over. It has been the case whenever the Rangers have lost in the playoffs under Vigneault (and Tortorella before him), and it will bear watching if Vigneault has finally learned his lesson. Between adjusting puck movement strategies, his propensity for wearing out his top 9, and miscasting players like Tanner Glass on his fourth line — a fourth line that must produce if you expect to win, as the Pittsburgh Penguins proved last year — AV has his work cut out for him. Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast (who, at best, will be rusty after being out for about a month with an injury) had great chemistry heading down the stretch, and Pavel Buchnevich, while not officially relegated to the press box; although he will be there in Game 1, worked well with them. This intent on using the 4th line for grit and toughness only is old time hockey. No one has time for that anymore, nor the potentially of drawing silly penalties for roughing and fighting. Momentum does not always come from playing on the edge. It can sometimes have the opposite effect. The Rangers must be smart.

The top line of Kreider-Stepan-Zuccarello is key here. They must produce on par with the Danault line. The Zibanejad line with Rick Nash and Jimmy Vesey had been great to close the season. Zibanejad has found his game. Nash has played some of his best hockey, even if the geeky stats don’t always align with the eye test, and Vesey is a perfect match for those two big bodies who are strong with puck possession. The X factor in this series is the Kevin Hayes line. You are more apt to find Hayes on a carton of milk than producing on the ice. That must change. He hopes it does. AV hopes it does. His line mates hope it does. Rangers fans hope that it does. Otherwise, they waste the yeoman efforts of JT Miller, who was arguably the best player for the Rangers wire to wire. The Rangers also hope that Michael Grabner ascends back above earth, as he finished the season stuck on the same 27 goals he had at the trade deadline, despite having more glorious chances than some teams get over a 20 game period combined, all by himself.

Ryan McDonagh, Brady Skjei (who has quietly been on par with the best defencemen in the league in terms of production and playmaking) and Brendan Smith must be the puck rushers. The abomination that is the second pair, Marc Staal and Nick Holden; two big and stationary lefty d-men could doom the Rangers. They have by far been the worst pair on ice of any of the combinations the Rangers used all season. The decision to pair them is eyebrow-raising. But again, those pairings or line combinations up front are not necessarily permanent.

If that pairing is, however, the Rangers will lose. And with the stubbornness of Vigneault (that pairing, and playing Glass over Buchnevich or even Taylor Beck) — unless it changes here — that will inevitably be the case.

Special teams will be of great significance here. Montreal is pretty middling on both the power play and penalty kill, but better at home. The Rangers have been all over the place this season. Early on their power play was great, down the stretch it was about as good. For most of the middle of the season, it was abysmal. The penalty kill has gotten progressively worse since November. They have gotten pivotal kills at times, but the “PK” is either very good or dreadful, especially when it comes to chasing the puck below the goal line and leaving the slot wide open and making Lundqvist look like a fool.

The Rangers may win one game handily, come back from a one or two goal deficit to win another, but this series will turn on a game that comes down to the wire. If the Habs win it, they win the series in six. If the Rangers win it, they could push it to a Game 7, where Henrik Lundqvist, despite some ostensible slippage in the past 18 months, is still money, whereas Carey Price does not have the resume in such scenarios.

We do not think it goes seven, however.

Call: MONTREAL IN 6.