2016 Stanley Cup Conference Quarterfinals Preview

NHL: Washington Capitals at St. Louis Blues

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

So after a busy work and blogging week, I finally have my playoff previews ready to share to the world. I would like to note that all opinions on all playoff series that started on Wednesday were written before their respective game ones. In other words, yes, the Rangers-Penguins preview was written before Henrik Lundqvist had Marc Staal’s stick go through his mask and catch him in the eye that may or may not prevent him from missing the rest of the postseason.

Until then, I hope you all enjoy them and Go Caps!

Detroit vs. Tampa Bay

If this series were to occur a month earlier, I would have told you that this was going to be a Tampa series win in five or six games. That was until not only Steven Stamkos was ruled out of for the first month or three with blood clots, but also Anton Stralman having a fractured leg that could rule him out the rest of the season. That is a death blow to Tampa’s chances of winning a Stanley Cup as those two, no matter what their seasons have looked like this year, have been the most important players on the roster.

While much anticipation will be on Jonathan Drouin to finally show what the former third overall pick of the 2013 draft is made of, the real focus should be the jumbling of John Cooper’s blueline. Both Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn have been on slow declines since arriving from Philadelphia and to see any one of them playing top pairing minutes could be disastrous, as it may be the case with Carle being Stralman’s replacement to play with Victor Hedman. If anything, Carle and Coburn were deployed as cannon fodder so that Hedman and Stralman can be given offensive zone starts and attack opponents from there. Now, Hedman will be forced to play shutdown minutes and play more of a Zdeno Chara style more so than that of an Erik Karlsson. Whether or not the 24-year old Swede is capable of playing that way is nothing short of a distraction. Rather, is Hedman’s deployment the most ideal for Tampa’s style of play.

What the Stralman injury also does is force Cooper to not use his usual 11-forward, seven-defensemen roster like he did most of the playoffs last year. Instead, he’ll go with the conventional 12 forwards up front and with all the injuries to the forward lines, Tyler Johnson will hope to capture his playoff magic from last season on the top line this year. His production with Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov last season were the talk of the playoffs and was clearly Tampa’s biggest strength that lead them to the Cup Final. This year, injuries were abound amongst the forward group. Both Ryan Callahan and Johnson will be playing after recovering from lower and upper body injuries, respectively and Kucherov will be playing with an injury that won’t be disclosed to the media (I love the NHL!!!). Both Palat and Cedric Paquette have been dealing with ankle and foot injuries all season and Stamkos has now been building up an injury record that may or may not scare teams that want to pursue him for free agency this summer.

With all that being said, it will be important for Tampa to have the most optimal lines possible. What’s quite perplexing is seeing a fourth line that consists of Vladimir Namestnikov and Mike Blunden getting a sweater instead of Erik Condra. While Blunden isn’t a terrible fourth line player at the NHL level, his offensive output is very subpar in comparison to the former Senator. As for the top six, there is plenty of evidence that Valtteri Filppula shouldn’t be there anymore. It’s one thing to have the lowest shooting percentage of your career, but with only eight goals this season and a measly 6.94 shot attempts per 60 minutes at even strength, there are reasons for concern for the 31-year old and whether it would be best to promote Paquette or Namestnikov instead. Either way, all the forwards will have to click on all cylinders to beat Petr Mrazek and Detroit.

Now you may think after all these paragraphs that I will be picking Detroit to win this series. Surprisingly, that is not the case. While Detroit did make it to the playoffs for the 25th year in a row, they have stumbled all year to create any skill that will make them an elite NHL team. Meanwhile, through all the adversity, Cooper’s system has allowed Tampa Bay to be one of the best shot prevention teams in the NHL at even strength.

It can’t be state how boring the Red Wings have become this season under new head coach Jeff Blashill. Things also don’t help when a fourth line of Andreas Athanasiou, Joakim Andersson and Luke Glendening have clearly been so bad for Detroit from a deployment and production standpoint that Blashill can’t wait to put them back on the bench. That’s not good when you have a team full of veterans with plenty of miles on their bodies that probably can’t afford to play longer than most top nine units in the NHL do already. All the attention will be on how Pavel Datsyuk will perform in his final NHL season, but Henrik Zetterberg, Darren Helm and Brad Richards have seen it all too. So has Justin Abdelkader a little too much and yet he’s back on the top line again for no reason. Meanwhile, Dylan Larkin seems to be demoted to the team’s third line. One would hope this unit will be given plenty of shutdown minutes, otherwise this could end up being a complete disaster when it comes to generating offence. With Ben Bishop performing much better than he did last season, I can’t see Detroit’s lack of creative line combinations being able to score goals at a much higher rate than they need to advance to the second round.

Tampa Bay in Six

New York Rangers vs. Pittsburgh

We turn our attention now to the first of two rivalries that will catch plenty of imaginations this postseason. However, like what Tampa is going through, both teams in this playoff series are dealing with series altering injury lists. For Broadway, Ryan McDonagh’s injury could be a death blow for their chances of winning a playoff game, let alone a series. For Pittsburgh, Marc Andre-Fleury’s concussion and Evgeni Malkin’s upper body injury could play a factor as well.

With all that said, the Penguins has turned into the derecho that no one saw coming since the hiring of Mike Sullivan. For all the eternal criticism of general manager Jim Rutherford’s tenure, he has also played a major part in Pittsburgh’s turn around by bringing in impact skaters like Trevor Daley, Justin Schultz and Carl Hagelin.

If there’s any criticism for the Penguins, it will be their lack of a shutdown defense pair. Coming into the regular season, hopes were that Ben Lovejoy would be a perfect fit with Kris Letang. Predictably, that didn’t go over well. Instead, Lovejoy has been scratched from the lineup and has proven how embarrassing Rutherford and Mike Johnston lost on the Simon Despres trade. However, Olli Maatta has been able to shake off his injuries and form a strong tandem with Letang while Brian Doumolin has been among the breakout players of the season with his work with Daley.

Up front, Eric Fehr and Matt Cullen have come in to do yeomen’s work as the team’s defense first line with Tom Kuhnackl, but like the Rangers’ and Blackhawks’ fourth line led by Dominic Moore and Marcus Kruger, respectively; it has opened up the rest of Pittsburgh’s forwards to score goals. That has certainly been the case for out-of-nowhere prospect Connor Sheary who has performed brilliantly with Oskar Sundqvist and Beau Bennett. Look for the 23-year old’s even strength shooting percentage to dip a bit lower than the 14.4-percent he achieved in the regular season.

Meanwhile, it is absolutely criminal how Hagelin never worked in Anaheim. As it turns out though, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure as the high flying swede has racked up over two points per hour at even strength and has been a perfect complement to Phil Kessel on the second line. Where Malkin’s absence hurt could be the utilization of Nick Bonino along the top six forward group. If things start to falter there and if Malkin doesn’t return to the lineup, will we see Sundqvist or the luck-induced Cullen to be getting more playing time?

It is one thing to question said derecho when you ask if it could defeat a fragile street sign. It’s another to question if it could defeat Henrik Lundqvist, because as usual, he has been extra-terrestrial this season. At 34 years old and 685 regular season games under his belt (good for 26th all-time); he has had no business continuing to be the best and most consistent goaltender in the world, but here we are in 2016 and Lundqvist missed beating Steve Mason for save percentage amongst goalies with 2,000 even strength minutes by 0.1%.

However, McDonagh’s injury spells complete doom on a defense core that is aging fast. Dan Girardi continues to be one of the worst possession defensemen in the league with only 41.7-percent of shot attempts going in his favor. Along with that, half of the blueline has been pelted with bad assignments Girardi, McDonagh Marc Staal, rookie Brady Skjei have amongst the 20 worst relative defensive zone start percentages in the league. The purpose behind it was to generate as much offense from Dan Boyle and Keith Yandle, but it’s clearly not ideal to have the team’s proverbial bottom pair to get all the good assignments while damage limitation is the only thing you can hope for the rest of the group.

Up front, there’s plenty of concern as well. Eric Staal still hasn’t seemed to shake off the bad luck that he was suffering in Carolina while Tanner Glass is still playing professional hockey for some reason. That being said, it’s another Alain Vigenault coached team where he sends his fourth line to the wolves and tricking us that they’re all “good defensive players” in hopes for the rest of the top nine to generate offense.

Still, the top nine has not been ideal all season and it has been a slow decline since their run to the Stanley Cup Finals two years ago. Now that good possession players like Brad Richards, Benoit Pouliot and Martin St. Louis and any shrivel of salary cap space are gone, all will be banked on having newly acquired Eric Staal and Rick Nash to score goals at an elite level. While Nash is still an incredible volume shooter at 19.21 attempts per hour at even strength, his 5.47-percent shooting and individual point percentage of 64.7 under those situations are the worst in the nine years these numbers have been tracked by hockeyanalysis.com.

If Vigenault needs to put an immediate spark plug on the team’s forward group, he should do so by replacing Nash with Mats Zuccarello. Yes, the 26-year old has had an awful 48.1-percent puck possession this season, but so has Nash at 47.7-percent. With Zuccarello and Derick Brassard expected to play together, only 46-percent of the shot attempts go in their favor during their 709 minutes of even strength ice time together. With Zuccarello and Derek Stepan together, that number increases dramatically at 52.9-percent despite only playing over 358 minutes of even strength together. Another wrinkle to throw against Pittsburgh could be Vigenault’s third line of Staal, Kevin Hayes and Jesper Fast. With less than 72 minutes of ice time together, third line has had an amazing 54.5-percent of the shot attempts go in their favor and an on-ice shooting percentage over 11-percent. If Staal can join in the fun, then some form of parity can created in this series.

Until then, this series is Pittsburgh’s to lose. There’s just too much talent across the Penguins roster and Mike Sullivan has been the better coach, with or without a handful of their star players.

Pittsburgh in five

Chicago vs. St. Louis

What do you do when you have to face two Stanley Cup contenders just to make it to the Conference Finals. That’s what a team like St. Louis has to asking themselves every year since Ken Hitchcock’s arrival as head coach. During that time, he has seen Chicago and Los Angeles pounce them in the early stages of the playoffs before their respective journey’s towards the Stanley Cup title.

Last year, Jake Allen laid an absolute egg against a weaker Minnesota team and, for the most part, St. Louis has moved on with Brian Elliott ever since. Goaltending can be an absolute fickle mess to predict, but Elliott has shown throughout the latter stages of his career to be a dependable player in net. To his credit, Allen has played well himself this season thanks to saving 92-percent of his shots in all situations and having 59.1-percent of his starts of a quality variety. However, Elliott has just been that much better with a quality start percentage of 69.4 and a 93.0-percent save percentage.

While St. Louis has always been a stout defensive-first team under Hitchcock, it is really their shot generation that has propelled St. Louis towards their 107-point season. Despite only scoring a fifteenth-best 224 goals in all situations, the Blues certainly aren’t shy of unleashing shots from all corners of the rink by putting a fourth-best even strength rate of 55.8 attempts per hour. Leading that group is the exciting Vladimir Tarasenko who made his confirmation as one of the best players in the world with 40 goals in all situations and a second straight year of averaging over 20 even strength individual shot attempts per hour. Now that Jaden Schwartz is healthy after missing all but 33 games this season, St. Louis’ forward lines have been back to their most ideal. If there is one weakness in this group, it could be that Ryan Reaves is getting a sweater over Dmitrij Jaskin. The 22-year old Russian has been constantly in and out of the lineup for a second straight season despite putting up better numbers in even strength scoring and puck possession. This might be me being nit-picky to mention a change on a fourth line that Hitchcock very rarely gives tons of playing time to, but they will be facing a Blackhawks side that usually likes to utilize all four lines the best they can.

Sadly, this hasn’t been one of those years where the “usual” happens. Losing the likes of Brandon Saad, Jonny Oduya and Patrick Sharp are starting to wear out a side that has gone through so much together to be the best franchise in the NHL over the past six years. For starts, no longer are the Blackhawks shutting down teams defensively as well as they used to as they are no longer a top-ten side at even strength or shorthanded shot suppression (the latter is actually amongst the ten worst in the league). Duncan Keith will be able to return to the lineup after game one of the series from suspension, but outside of him and Nicklas Hjalmarsson, there’s not that much to like about the backend these days. Brent Seabrook’s puck possession has been an uncontrollable nightmare at 47.5-percent as a result of not having a single defense partner play with him for even half of his 1379 even strength minutes this season. Personally, it’s time to bring back the Keith-Seabrook pairing with Hjalmarsson playing with Trevor Van Riemsdyk. The two pairings have been superb despite limited time together by generating 59.8-percent and 54.9-percent of the shot attempts in their favor, respectively.

Up front, why is Brandon Mashinter getting a sweater, let alone playing on the team’s third line with Teuvo Teravainen and Thomas Fleischmann. Despite negative puck possession throughout his career, this is where Dale Wiese’s playoff heroics come in on the fourth line while Andrew Shaw should be promoted to the third line. Even with Corey Crawford playing brilliantly this season, this is the first time in a while where; man for man, their opposition is just that much better. The second line of Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimove and Patrick Kane has been beautiful to watch, but they do give up enough shot attempts the other way that St. Louis should be able to pounce on. The same can also be said of the top line where Andrew Ladd has returned to his old stomping grounds in hopes of replacing Saad’s heroics of last season. This might get exciting if Chicago remembers what 2010, 2013 and 2015 was like from some of their mainstays and chasing away ghosts of playoff disappointments past is hard, but this is 2016 and St. Louis could start a new world order.

St. Louis in seven

Philadelphia vs. Washington

Go check out the preview on my latest piece from The Hockey Writers.

New York Islanders vs. Florida

This is quite a perplexing series that starts Thursday’s round of games due to the massive injury lists for both teams. While Florida will be without Dave Bolland, Willie Mitchell, Vicent Trochek and Erik Gudbranson, the Islanders will be without Jaroslav Halak, Anders Lee and Mikhail Grabovski. While all of the Islanders’ casualties are expected to be out for the rest of the season, at least Gudbranson is expected to return in the middle of this series.

For the Islanders, losing both Lee and Grabovski has the potential to create some very unconvenient forward lines. Ryan Strome now has no choice but to play with Shane Prince and rookie Alan Quine. While the trio has had some good puck possession while together, the sample size is extremely small (especially in regard to Quine and his 27 minutes of even strength ice time) and in the playoffs, who knows how they will perform against the opposition which should perform at an elite level. However, the Islanders will be happy to see Trochek out of the lineup due to a fractured ankle. Nick Bjugstad will now have to step in his place to replace the influence he had on Florida’s best line with Jussi Jokinen and Reilly Smith. It will be critical now for the top line of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Jaromir Jagr to produce against the tried and trusted duo of John Tavares and Kyle Okposo.

In goal, Thomas Greiss is not a bad alternative to turn to when your expected starter is injured. Throughout his 130-game career, the 30-year old has had a quality start percentage of 56-percent. This year, that number increased to 59.5-percent, as well as a 92.5-percent save percentage in all situations. While Greiss can have the potential to be very good, Florida has one of the legends in net in Robert Luongo. I would think that the finer margins such as these will be the potential difference in this proverbial war of attrition.

Panthers in seven

Minnesota vs. Dallas

I’m just going to make this explanation frank, because Minnesota has been written about on this blog ad nauseum. They are an aging team, with a head coach that lacks credentials to be anything more than a below-average bench boss and little resources to help the team retool in an instant. Now that they’ll be without Tomas Vanek, Zach Parise and Erik Haula, that eliminates the majority of the Wild’s most dependable forwards. To make matters worse, Zach Prosser is the candidate to be poisoned chalice that is Minnesota’s sixth defensemen.

As for Dallas, sure they will be without Tyler Seguin from his torn Achilles and the two-headed monster that is the usually untrustworthy Antti Lehtonen or Kari Niemi will be in goal, but Dallas has too much talent clicking on all cylinders. I would like to see what happens with Valeri Nichushkin now that he has a full NHL season under his belt on the top six and how John Klingberg performs as the team’s most dependable defensemen. Sure, Dallas’ weakness of leaking shot attempts might come to haunt them, but I can’t see Minnesota slowing Dallas’ offense either. Whatever happens, I wouldn’t write off a handful of 5-4 or 6-5 kind of games unless Ryan Suter reminds us all why he’s a Norris Trophy candidate. Until then, I refuse to trust John Torchetti on Minnesota’s bench and this should be one of the most one-sided matchups in the playoffs.

Stars in five

San Jose vs. Los Angeles

This series could end up being an interesting game of chess when you see that there are no pressing weaknesses amongst each team’s forward lines. While Los Angeles is a better team with Marian Gaborik on the roster, they have certainly prepared for him missing 28 games due to injury. Vincent LeCavlier still hasn’t been that strong of a puck possession forward since his arrival to the Kings, but a third line with Dwight King and newly acquired Kris Versteeg could be an interesting comination. With only eight minutes together King and Versteeg has seen 62.5-percent of their shot attempts go in their favor. If they can produce at the same level with LeCavlier,that relieves pressure on the top six that should still be in good condition come playoff time. Along with that, there are set roles for each member of the top six while San Jose seems to have a set nine groups of forwards but with combinations that are splattered up against the wall.

There doesn’t seem to be anyone that is willing to take a shutdown role on the team. If anything else, it will be interesting to see how Patrick Marleau can perform on a third line with Melker Karlsson and Matt Nieto. Also, with a series so close, the third pairing defensemen could end up making a huge difference.

To the surprise of no one, Rob Scuderi is terrible at hockey now and he will be counted upon to play well with Alec Martinez. Despite only playing over 37 minutes together, the pair has experienced a dreadful 38.3-percent puck possession. Let’s hope head coach Darryl Sutter doesn’t have that pairing come to haunt them on a historically good puck possession team.

Kings in six

Nashville vs. Anaheim

If Nashville can perform to the best of their abilities, they could shock some people and win this series. They have the top nine forwards to generate plenty of offense and pin the opposition to one side of the rink. The key for them will be to pin Anaheim’s top pair of Cam Fowler and Kevin Bieksa, whom have a habit of being pinned in their own zone no matter how tough their assignments are.

Meanwhile, Anaheim is back at it again with having some random stranger play on the top line. Last year, it was Patrick Maroon. This year, it’s Mike Milbury’s favorite, Chris Stewart. Either way, the shutdown line of Ryan Kesler, Andrew Cogliano and Jakub Silfverberg has been fantastic and the duo of Corey Perry and Rikard Rakell should work wonders on the second line. The key to the whole series will be whether Pekka Rinne can stop playing like an AHL goaltender. Otherwise, he will easily be most untrustworthy goaltender in the entire postseason and the Ducks should take this one home. It’s a tighter series that can get away with being a conference finals in other years, but this just so happens to be a first round matchup. At the end of the day, I trust John Andersen or Fredrik Gibson over Pekka Rinne.

Ducks in Seven

 

 

 

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