The NHL playoffs begin Tuesday night. Today’s NHL analysis will preview the four first-round matchups in the Eastern Conference (click here for the Western Conference), starting with one point that summarizes each series in a nutshell and then moving into fuller analysis.
(1)Pittsburgh vs. (8) NY Islanders: In a series likely to be wide-open on offense how much will the absence of Sidney Crosby amount to?
(4)Boston vs (5)Toronto: Can Toronto keep from being badly outshot and give its goaltender a chance?
(3)Washington vs. (6) NY Rangers: Will the Rangers’ offense show up and can Caps goalie Braden Holtby recapture last spring’s magic?
(2)Montreal vs. (7) Ottawa: It’s Montreal’s complete team against Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson. Who prevails at a time when goalies are of paramount importance?
Now on with further thoughts on each series…
The Islanders aren’t being given enough credit for their upset chances here. Pittsburgh is missing its best player—the league’s best player in fact—with Crosby’s jaw injury. He’s returned to practice, but no one knows his status. Since the Penguins can’t grind games out defensively, that means they need to continue to win wide-open games, but without the man who led the NHL in assists in spite of missing a quarter of the season.
New York center John Tavares was one of the best goal-scorers in the league in 2013, lighting the lamp 28 times. While he’s something of a lone wolf, at least compared to Pittsburgh’s depth, there are good passers in Frank Nielsen, Kyle Okposa and Brad Boyes. The Islanders were 7th in the NHL in scoring. Even though the Penguins were 1st, how far do they fall without Crosby?
Pittsburgh isn’t without complementary offensive talent. Pascal Dupuis was a 20-goal scorer, as was Chris Kunitz. A trade deadline acquisition of Jarome Ignilia gives the Pens another weapon. Kris Letang is a defenseman, but excels at feeding his teammates from the back line. Evgeni Malkin is the big X-factor. He’s been a good passer all season, but last year he also gave Pittsburg scoring punch en route to the MVP award. After a nine-goal season, can Malkin re-find his scoring prowess and give the team a lift?
I’m not sold on Pittsburgh for a deep playoff run, because Marc-Andre Fleury is a big liability in goal, just as he was last season when the team was ousted by Philadelphia in a high-scoring series. But the Isles just aren’t the team to take out the favorite. Evgeni Nabokov ranks 27th in save percentage and I don’t see him stopping an offense that can beat you on both the power play and traditional 5-on-5 action.
That’s why, even though I’m intrigued by this series and think the Islanders are going to make it interesting, I still see Pittsburgh closing it out in six games.
The Bruins enjoy most statistical edges over the Maple Leafs and it starts with shots. Toronto is one of the worst in the NHL at getting shots for themselves and preventing them by the opposition. It’s going to be hard enough for the Leafs to score on Boston goalie Tuuka Raask, who’s 92.9% save rate ranks 3rd in the NHL, if they’re limited in their opportunities. While Toronto’s own netminder James Reimer is a Top 10 goalie, his job’s been made a lot tougher by the onslaught of pucks he gets every night. With Boston the second-best in the league at generating shots, there’s no reason for Reimer to expect a break.
If that fundamental dynamic holds, it’s going to take a miracle for Toronto to win. What the Leafs do have going for them is that while Boston gets a lot of shots, they aren’t great at the bottom line of conversion, ranking 13th in lighting the lamp. With Nathan Horton still questionable because of a chest injury, the one Boston scorer who could change that equation, is on the shelf. It’s worth noting that with a healthy Horton, the B’s won the Cup in 2011. With him out, they lost a defensive-minded series in the first round to Washington a year ago.
Boston’s defenseman, specifically Zdeno Chara, have not had good years. While the Bruins rank in the top half of the NHL in shot prevention, they haven’t been as dominant in years past and it’s only the brilliance of Raask that’s kept their defensive identity. Chara also saw his usually high assist numbers take a fall.
If Toronto has any kind of edge, it lies with the fact that Phil Kessel—a former Bruin—is the best offensive player on the ice, and that the Leafs power play is better than Boston’s. The counter to that is that the “best player” is more a basketball thing than a hockey thing, and the power play edge is more about the fact that Boston’s is terrible rather than Toronto’s being really good. And both teams excel at killing penalties.
I’m a Boston fan and very hungry for another big playoff run, and my tendency is to get paranoid. But honestly, if this were a series that I had no emotional investment in, there’s no doubt I’d be on the Bruins.
It’s not been a vintage year for the New York Rangers, after a 2012 that saw them post the best record in hockey and then reach the conference finals. The culprit has been offensive performance. The Rangers were a mediocre scoring unit and ended up shipping
Marian Hossa Marian Gaborik out of town. They need better play from Ryan Callahan and more scoring from Brad Richards in the playoffs—though Richards has remained a solid assist man at center. If they do that, those two players can join with Rick Nash and Derek Stepan to form a potent offensive team.
A potent offensive team is what Washington has become after a slow start. Alex Ovechkin is back to his MVP-caliber level of play, scoring 32 goals and passing for 24 assists. Troy Bouwer is a quality secondary scorer and there are some superb passers on this team, starting with centers Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro and including defenseman John Carlson.
Where the Rangers have a big edge is between the pipes. Henrik Lundqvist has to answer some critics regarding playoff performance, but there’s no denying his 92.6% save rate, 5th-best in the NHL. Washington’s Braden Holtby was one of the great stories of the playoffs last year. He was thrust into the job because of injuries in spite of having only played five games and then almost singlehandledly led his team past Boston and then into a Game 7 with these Rangers before it come apart.
Holtby has the job full-time now and while he’s showing long-term potential, the reality of youth is setting in and it’s hard to see a goalie who ranks in the middle of the NHL catching lightning in a bottle twice. Washington is the higher seed because division champs are guaranteed a top-three position, but the Southeast Division was weak and I can’t imagine anyone will be surprised if the Rangers win. That’s what I expect and see it happening in a crisp five games.
In yesterday’s discussion about the NHL MVP for this season I was unequivocal in my advocacy for Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson. The case was simple—he’s great, the rest of the team is lousy and they’re still in the playoffs. That sums up a team that’s a complete contrast to Montreal.
The Canadiens have the fourth-best offense in the NHL and can attack on every level. They have two defenseman in P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov who are big contributors on the offensive end. I still remember a goal Subban had in a Game 7 at Boston Garden back in 2011 when the puck looked a laser coming off his stick. Montreal also has Max Pacioretty, a good blend of scoring punch and passing skill at the left wing. Tomas Plekanac is a nice scorer and passer at center, and Lars Eller is a solid assist man at the same position. Michael Ryder and Brendan Gallagher are both respectable scorers on the right side.
But what about the goaltending position? Carey Price has not had a good year—a 90.5% save rate is very poor and it’s why Montreal only ranked 14th in defense in spite of being in the top five at preventing shots.
We saw a similar series to this last year in the Western Conference. Then it was multi-talented Chicago with its goalie inconsistencies, going against Phoenix, who was carried by Mike Smith. It was the goalie who won the series that year and I think the same happens here. A further bonus is that Ottawa’s Daniel Alfredsson has the potential to produce more than he did in the compressed regular season. If that happens, Anderson’s job becomes even easier. I’m calling it for Ottawa in six.
IMPORTANT NOTE: THE NHL playoffs re-seed after each round, so if the scenarios I’m predicting actually happen (hold the laughter please), that would create second-round matchups of Pittsburgh-Ottawa and Boston-NY Rangers.