The first round of the NHL playoffs came to a premature end on Friday night. All eight series concluded in five or six games. With no need for a Game 7 this weekend, the league has moved the start of the second round ahead to Saturday night. Here’s a few thoughts on the end of the first round and the opening of the second…
I’ve already touched on how good Vegas looked in knocking out Chicago and on Thursday’s podcast, discussed how well Boston performed in getting rid of Carolina. One other story that deserves mention before we move on to Round Two is just how good the New York Islanders looked in eliminating Washington.
Isles-Caps was a classic contrast of one team (New York) that wanted to turn the games into a grinding battle and another team (Washington) that wanted more open ice. It was also a test case for the idea that a player with a proven track record—Caps goalie Braden Holtby—but performed poorly much of this season, could turn around once given a clean slate in the playoffs.
The Holtby issue was the big one going into this series and we got an early answer. Despite being staked to a 2-0 lead in Game 1 and a 1-0 lead in Game 2, Holtby lost both games. The Islanders are not an explosive offensive team. When Washington couldn’t hold a multi-goal lead in the series opener, it was a pretty strong indication of where this series was head.
New York also did a terrific job controlling pace. Shots on goal were moderate for both teams. Washington’s stars—Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetzov—deserve credit. They worked within the grind-it-out pace, got their shots and had their moments. But in the face of their own goalie struggling and the Islanders in command of the general pace of play, it was nowhere near enough.
The Islanders don’t bring headline star talent to the table, but anyone that eliminates them from this postseason is going to have to play very complete hockey. That wasn’t the Caps. After their breakthrough Stanley Cup of 2018, Washington has reverted to form and failed to win even a single playoff series the past two seasons.
EASTERN CONFERENCE BATTLES AHEAD
Both second-round matchups in the Eastern Conference look like extremely even battles. The Islanders will play the Philadelphia Flyers. This shapes up to be a very defensive-minded series. Flyer goalie Carter Hart is in a zone right now. Philadelphia’s team profile is very similar to New York’s. No big-name stars, but a good complete team that’s playing well right now. Goals will be at a premium here.
The marquee matchup is Tampa Bay and Boston. The Lightning and Bruins were Stanley Cup co-favorites when the league reconvened at their Canadian bubble locations. Boston stumbled in their seeding games, but found their footing against Carolina. Tampa Bay survived a five-overtime epic in Game 1 against Columbus and then systematically took out the Blue Jackets.
There’s great individual talent on both sides, each team plays good defense and each has a goaltender playing well. This is a titanic showdown and even bettors can’t pick a side—The Lightning and Bruins are each at (-110) betting odds to win the series, meaning it’s a pick-‘em.
Both Eastern Conference matchups have the feel of seven-game series, or at the very least, ones that produce riveting individual games. Even more intriguing is looking ahead to the conference finals.
The Tampa-Boston winner will be favored to move on the Stanley Cup Finals. But Philly and New York each have the look of a guerilla army—they might be undermanned against the heavyweights, but there’s no way the favorite is ever going to feel comfortable. Regardless of who survives these second-round series, that will be the narrative going into the Eastern Conference Finals.
Colorado joins Tampa and Boston as Cup favorites right now and the Avalanche looked every bit the part in a five-game series win over Arizona that can be charitably described as an utter beatdown.
The Avs are doing everything well. They are playing smothering team defense. Their best offensive players, Nazem Kadri and Nathan MacKinnon are engaged in the flow and productive. Goaltender Phillip Grubauer is red-hot and if he should stumble, Colorado also got excellent play in net from Pavel Francouz, who split time with Grubauer during the season and has gotten two starts in the bubble.
So there’s no reason to bet against Colorado, at least not right now, but Dallas won’t be an easy opponent. The Stars’ overall team defense was really good in their six-game series win against a quality opponent in Calgary.
Dallas is another team with depth at the goalie spot. Ben Bishop was so-so early in the Calgary series and the Stars lost two of the first three games. Anton Khudobin, who got plenty of time during the regular season, stepped in and Dallas won three straight. Most impressive was their resilience in spotting the Flames a 3-0 lead in Game 6 and then storming back to have a 6-3 lead by the time the third period began.
Of course in the series ahead, the Stars won’t be able to mess around and spot the Avs any type of cushion. But Dallas is a good team that’s shown toughness and at the very least, it’s worth watching to see how this series shapes up early on.
I made a public promise on the podcast to stop underestimating the Golden Knights and at the very least, to no longer see them as a vulnerable favorite. And against the Canucks, Vegas is not only favored, but at (-275) is the biggest favorite in this round.
That’s well-deserved. I believe Vancouver’s six-game triumph over St. Louis is more about the inability of the Blues to ever find their footing inside the bubble. Their trademark team defense wasn’t as good. And goaltender Jordan Binnington was an utter disaster. As a Boston fan, I could only wish this version of Binnington had shown up in the Garden last June.
My first-round picks split out, with four winners and four losers. Secure in the knowledge that I’m as reliable as the flip of a coin, here’s the picks for Round Two…
NY Isles over Philly in 7
Tampa over Boston in 7
Colorado over Dallas in 5
Vegas over Vancouver in 4