Congratulations, we have survived the first round and boy were there some interesting matchups. In the last hockey-graphs podcast, Garret Hohl was dead on the money in mentioning that last round contained matchups of teams that were pretty even with eachother and it was going to take some producing or stealing of lucky charms to determine who was going to come out of round one. With getting five of the first eight series correct, let’s see how things go this next series.
Minnesota vs. Chicago
Like their previous series against St. Louis, Minnesota’s matchup against cup favorites Chicago will be even more intense. It’s been brewing since October that the Wild had the potential to be one of the best teams in the NHL, but their goaltending tandem of Darcy Kuemper and Nicklas Backstrom was constantly killing any potential for them to even make the playoffs, let alone win the Stanley Cup. Now with Devan Dubnyk in the fold, this team is rolling and it’s not going away anytime soon.
Despite getting out-shot all series, the Wild were doing a much better job than in the regular season of limiting “high danger” shots. This is going to be a very important thing to continue against a Blackhawks team that is still trying to shake off the shooting percentage cobwebs off and beginning to perform like a cup contender again. Of 1160 even strength shots Dubnyk faced during the regular season, Minnesota’s skaters gave up 23.7% of those shots in what is considered high danger areas. In the playoffs, that number dwindled to 17.3%. That will be crucial for Minnesota to continue because while Dubnyk’s even strength save percentage has been dropping, that is due to his struggles from making saves in those dangerous areas from point blank range. Dubnyk will have to clean that up if the Wild are to advance to the Conference finals for the second time in franchise history and their first since 2003.
One thing that also should concern Mike Yeo’s men is their shot generation has been plummeting ever since the trade deadline and with their scoring chance and total shot attempts trend almost in sync most of the year, you would think that all it takes is a little more effort to win puck battles and take over Chicago’s battle along the offensive zone, right? Well, yes and no. While the Blackhawks have more often then not righted the ship defensively, their scoring chance data has fluctuated and it could hold the key for Minnesota to score goals; especially when you consider that Joel Quenneville was too busy chucking and changing goaltenders during the Nashville series. However, the Blackhawks have been one of the better offensive teams in the league and considering that Minnesota couldn’t shut down St. Louis, they might find it difficult to shut down such an experienced and talented group of skaters.
On special teams, Minnesota has a wonderful opportunity to exploit the Blackhawks. Both teams are evenly matched with below average conversion rates on the power play and top ten rates on the penalty kill, Minnesota’s shot suppression on the kill and shot generation on the power play are much better and more consistent than Chicago’s. The one thing that might cancel it out is the the fact that Chicago is the second best penalty differential team in the league and committed the third fewest penalties in the NHL. That advantage has not trended in the right direction this season, but neither has Minnesota, so both teams share the same propensities and trends considering that the Wilds also had their differential in the black.
The three keys that are being seen so far could be which goaltender can achieve their past success and can the Blackhawks make this an even strength free for all or can the Wild turn this into a penalty fest and dominate on special teams. It should be a tighter series than people imagine as both teams have individual flaws that are preventing them from achieving their coach’s systems.
Thomas Vanek continues to struggle on two-way play. Patrick Kane began to turn the corner but has not looked the same all year. Brent Seabrook had to be removed from his pairing with Duncan Keith to help out Kimmo Timmonen. Matt Dumba has been an upgrade, but Jordan Leopold may not be as much of an upgrade to Justin Falk/Nate Prosser/Christian Folin as Wild management would have hoped. Either way, the team that exploits their strengths the best and shows their weaknesses and struggles the least will win this series and it is much harder to decide that than people realize. Hash brown, Central Division Problems!
Blackhawks in Seven
Calgary vs. Anaheim
We go from two well structured teams to two teams that make advanced stats people want to puke. That may not be fair towards more traditional hockey writers and supporters for their team to describe Calgary and Anaheim and there’s no hiding the fact that these two teams are in the second round with the winner playing conference finals games. It’s truly remarkable, especially for a team like Calgary that was hoping to rebuild slowly and develop their core for the long run. Welp, this team has grown up in a very big way and they have done so all year with being more in favor with the refs than any other team in the NHL. Add the fact that fans, referees and everyone else can’t stand Cory Perry (but please, don’t chant “Katy Perry”. That’s just not respectful. Thank You) and Co’s complaining and diving and you have a major advantage for Hartley Magic to work with.
One thing that also can’t be denied by the Flames has been their constant improvement in shot generation. Yes, they are one of the luckiest shooting teams in the NHL, but within the past month, their scoring chances for per 60 minutes has hit a 10-game rolling average in the 28-30 range: usually deemed for some of the best teams in the league. The question will be whether or not they can maintain that against one of the best shot suppressing teams in the league post-trade deadline.
There is no doubt that whether or not someone as bad as Clayton Stoner is in the lineup, the Ducks’ depth in defense and the additions of true two-way forwards like Jiri Sekac have compensated him immensely. Simon “Yarp” Despres had a fantastic series shutting down Winnipeg’s secondary units, and the top pairing of Francois Beauchemin and Hampus Lindholm did a fantastic job in creating damage limitation to the opposing top units. They will have to continue the same job at limiting time and space for Calgary’s dependable top line in Sean Monahan, Jiri Hudler and Johnny Gaudreau.
That being said, it was quite remarkable how much the Matt Stajan, Michael Ferland, David Jones line really rattled the Canucks second line and really through them off their game offensively. They will have to continue to perform with the same manner of Disney Channel adjectives towards the Perry and Ryan Getzlaf and that is certainly a very tall order. If Calgary’s top line can not get anything going, it may come to their third line of Sam Bennett, Mikael Backlund and Joe Colborne. Frankly, this is where Anaheim should have the edge if it ever get’s down to a matchup of bottom six forwards, especially when you consider that Bob Hartley never played his fourth line in the Canucks series.
As much as Calgary will need to continue to make Anaheim and any other opponent to draw penalties the rest of the postseason, the Ducks are really good at both the power play and penalty kill. While the Canucks were good shorthanded too, the Ducks brink an offensive element that is one of the better ones in the league. Considering that Calgary is at about league average in giving up shorthanded chances, they will need to be aware of this. Unlike the Canucks, the Ducks will present a really strong challenge on the power play and it’s not like the Flames have been a well-oiled machine on the penalty kill the last month or so. If the refs no longer are in the mood to call things Calgary’s way all the time, they could be in deep trouble.
So there it is, a team that is very green in playoff experience and has been the story of the season versus one of the more veteran laden teams in the NHL. I just can’t see many flaws out of this Ducks team now and it will have to take some indiscipline, untimely injuries or really bad coaching out of Bruce Boudreau for them to lose this series.
Ducks in Five
Tampa Bay vs. Montreal
After the seven game shot suppression and Mensa coaching fest between Tampa Bay and Detroit was over, the Lightning came out victorious and will now face a Montreal team that, like the Flames, has defied logic all year. That being said, all the evidence for their luck induced success points towards one man with many pads. Frankly, Carey Price should win the MVP and there really should not be anybody close to him with the way he has helped this team all year. Name any goaltending category and he leads it and add the fact that Montreal leaks shots at even strength and you understand how important Price has been more than any goaltender this season than any other goaltending season in the last decade.
Ben Bishop, on the other hand, has just been okay this season. While he can get away with that competing against anyone else in hockey, he’ll have to step up his game even further than he did in the regular season. He showed that he can go toe-to-toe against the green Petr Mrazek and it was enough for Tampa to come out of an unsurprisingly cagey series. It was one that would be considered a great win for Jon Cooper on his coaching resume, but now he has to go out and beat a team that should be worse than his.
The Canadiens did bring their A-game offensively in their previous series against Ottawa, but their top pairing was not good when matching power for power at even strength. That’s not a good sign, especially when you consider that Tampa’s top line, with or without a single goal coming out of Steven Stamkos, was tremendous against Detroit’s. However, Tampa’s second and third forward lines were abysmal and that could play into Montreal’s hands where their bottom six performed to the task they are capable of. Unlike most bottom six lines, every forward that has played the vast majority of the series in that group was above league median in Quality of Competition in round one, so head coach Michel Therrien can line match if he so chooses against Tampa’s weaker lines.
Also, the more shutdown portion of Tampa’s blue line in Brayden Coburn, Matt Carle and Jason Garrison did not perform so well and will need to pick their game up. However, this could all blow over if it turns out that the reason for such failures was Coburn trying to shake off the rust of a lower body injury he suffered in Mid March. Montreal’s blueline is not much better and even the likes of Tom Gilbert have not helped in the cause. P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov can not do it all by themselves at even strength.
What will help Montreal has been their consistently strong play on special teams, but their 320 penalty minutes drawn is tied for the 12th fewest in the NHL while Tampa draws the 3rd most penalty minutes. Add the fact that their power play and penalty kill has improved immensely since the trade deadline and this probably should end up as a wash.\
Unlike the Flames-Ducks series, I can at least envision weaknesses to Tampa’s game and Montreal has a few pieces to exploit them. From here, this is where you play the percentages and pick the best team when things go according to plan. Montreal has been able to stay healthy so if they can continue having the upper hand in this department, maybe they have a chance. Until then, I’ve liked Tampa since July and I am sticking to them.
Lightning in Six
Washington vs. New York Rangers
Check out my latest from The Hockey Writers
Lucky Rabbits have been installed on every square inch of my apartment. Capitals in Seven
Now the nitty gritty starts. Enjoy the Second Round everyone!