The Stanley Cup playoffs are finally here! Though they have a stupid format that is punishing the league’s best teams for all being in the same division while simultaneously not giving fans the rivalry matchups they wanted, this year’s playoffs will still be great, because the NHL playoffs are always great.
Who cares if Toronto and Washington or Ottawa and Boston have no history? A seven-game series will build hatred. Seeing any team that many times always builds contempt. Heck, if you’ve ever read more than one of my pieces, you probably already hate me. And if you don’t now, you will, because I’m going to preview every series all the way to the Cup finals. Today, we start in the East.
We start here because, like Toronto’s stay in the playoffs, it will be quick. The young Leafs’ run to the postseason was a fine story, but they’ve charged right into a juggernaut against whom they stand no chance. If you’re an optimistic Toronto fan who doesn’t believe me, quick, point to one area where the Maple Leafs are superior to the Capitals.
It’s not scoring: Washington is the far better team in five-on-five possession, and finished top-three in goals per game. It’s not preventing goals: the Capitals were the best in the league in that area led by sure Vezina nominee Braden Holtby, while the Leafs allowed the third-most shots on net in the league. It’s not special teams: Toronto had a slightly more efficient powerplay, but the Capitals boast a significantly better penalty kill. And it is certainly not playoff experience: the Leafs are making their first trip in four years, led by a gaggle of rookies.
The only question I have with this series is how long it will last. Toronto lost starting goalie Frederik Andersen and defenseman in Nikita Zaitsev over the weekend and, if neither are able to go for the start of this series, a Washington sweep could be in the cards. But working with incomplete information, I’ll give the Leafs the benefit of one win for now.
Pick: Washington Capitals (in 5 games).
For a playoff matchup that’s been penned in for a while now, it’s difficult to know what to expect, in part because these teams haven’t played an important game in so long. Yet, even though they’ve been coasting through the final weeks of the season, the expectation with goalies Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist is that they’ll immediately come out looking sharper than a Gordie Howe elbow. There’s certainly no reason to doubt Price at this point, but if 35-year-old Lundqvist can’t find a Howe-like fountain of youth, he may lose his last opportunity to bring New York a Stanley Cup.
It’s been a down year for King Henrik dating back to last season’s quick exit at the hands of Pittsburgh, when he was pulled twice. To avoid losing an offensive series like that again, the Rangers got much faster in front of him, finishing the year as one of the top-five scoring teams in the league. On defense, no improvements were made, perhaps with the hope that Lundqvist would go back to his usual .920 save percentage. But that hasn’t happened; his performance has been average at best.
The Canadiens’ offense isn’t terrifying anyone, but it’s a frustrating bunch. Rolling four of the most annoying lines in hockey, with pests like Andrew Shaw, Brendan Gallagher and Steve Ott, Montreal dominates possession and generates far more shot attempts than opponents.
The Rangers are more of a quality over quantity team, finishing third in the league in shooting percentage. But in the playoffs, puck luck can stop going your way without warning, especially when you come up against a goalie like Price. There’s a reason “get pucks on net” is a favorite cliche among hockey players; it’s an effective strategy come playoff time.
In this series, take the crashing, ugly-style team to beat up on the objectively handsome goalie.
Pick: Montreal Canadiens (in 6 games).
This series should provide a fascinating divide between the old and new school approaches to hockey. On the one hand, Ottawa is a team built on heart. The Sens rallied around goalie Craig Anderson — whose wife was diagnosed with cancer this season — and finished second in the Atlantic when many projections had them out of the playoffs entirely. They are a tight defensive team, ranking fourth in the league in hits (and fourth in penalty minutes), while allowing the tenth-fewest goals per game.
Then there’s Boston, the analytics darlings of this year’s playoffs. The Bruins finished first in Fenwick (meaning they had the biggest margin between their shot attempts and their opponents’ shot attempts, not counting blocked shots) indicating that they controlled play for most of the season, but some bad puck luck held them back. Not only did they have a below average shooting percentage on the year, but they had no luck with backup goalies: if Tuukka Rask wasn’t in net, the team was usually losing.
Another thing that jumps out about this series is a lack of star power on both sides. Brad Marchand has made a case this season that he’s more than just a pest, but fans are reluctant to buy in, especially when he gets suspended right before the playoffs for sticking a guy in the Don Cherrys. On the other side, Erik Karlsson is the greatest player in the NHL you never watch, because the Senators are never on TV. But he will have the biggest impact on this series, playing nearly 30 minutes a night and creating chances from everywhere on the ice.
The Senators actually swept Boston this year, taking all four games against their division rival. But even still, I’m hesitant that a statistically overachieving team can keep it up in a best-of-seven series. I think this could be a lengthy affair, but one that the Bruins ultimately take.
Pick: Boston Bruins (in 7 games).
The Penguins are probably the biggest rival to the Blue Jackets, but the feeling is far from mutual. Columbus is the little brother who hasn’t hit his growth spurt yet, and can’t go toe-to-toe with his older sibling. But puberty may be around the corner for a franchise still searching for its first playoff series win.
Pittsburgh comes into the series as one of the the most hard hit teams when it comes to injuries and man-games lost. With Kris Letang out for the playoffs, Evgeni Malkin missing the past month, and depth guys like Carl Hagelin, Chris Kunitz, Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley all struggling to get back in the lineup, the defending champs are vulnerable. If ever there was a year for the Blue Jackets to get over the hump, this could be the time.
Not much separated these teams in the regular season: both teams won two of four and they finished the year separated by just three points in the standings. The Penguins led the league in goals with 278 while the Blue Jackets were second in goals-against, allowing just 193.
For Columbus, Sergei Bobrovsky has been the NHL’s best goalie over the entire season, leading the league in save percentage and goals-against average. But in his nine career playoff starts, things have not gone Bobrovsky’s way, sporting an .890 save percentage and a 2-6 record. No matter what happens up front, you can’t win in the playoffs without great goaltending. Columbus needs Boborovsky to stay at a high level, because the kid across the ice is not going to be worried about the moment: Matt Murray has already won a Stanley Cup in his short career.
Besides being strong on the back end, the biggest reason the Blue Jackets are going to be trouble for Pittsburgh is that they know how to get under their skin. Brandon Dubinsky has pretty much made a career out of annoying Sidney Crosby, and John Tortorella is going to make getting after “the Kid” a top priority. Even if Crosby fires back on the scoreboard like he’s wont to do, the Jackets have some scoring power of their own, with 12 players hitting double-digit goals this year.
This series feels destined to go the distance, and it wouldn’t be the first round without one head-turning upset. Columbus can hang with Pittsburgh and if it gets down to one do-or-die game, I’ll take the Blue Jackets to grow up before our very eyes.
Pick: Columbus Blue Jackets (in 7 games).
Photo Credit: Robert Kowal (Flickr: Henrik Lundqvist) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
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