2017 Stanley Cup Conference Quarterfinals Preview

2017 Playoff Predictions

DCSportsDork via NHL.com

Some say Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, but to me, it is when high temperatures are set in stone to be 60 degrees fahrenheit or better and we all celebrate it by going indoors and watching playoff hockey or basketball. By the time this festive period is over, it will be June and we all wonder why we didn’t have the time to give ourselves a nice baseline tan before the summer solstice arrived. Now we’ll all be sunburned if we ever dare go outside when the heat is at its strongest, but for one team in each sport, it is more than worth it. That’s certainly what the Stanley Cup playoffs are all about. Blame it on too much expansion or Gary Bettman as to why the schedule makers to decide to have a winter sport being played into June, but it definitely has its novelty.

Anywho, that’s the most wax I’ll be putting on this poem as I’ll be in the most catatonic state imaginable hoping that the Capitals finally find a way to put an end to my city’s title drought that has been going on for too long. I just hope you all understand that if the Capitals finally win a Stanley Cup, we needed to have Donald Trump elected as President in order to make this happen. I apologize deeply to every one of you that hate this truth. Just don’t blame me for why Washington has never won a Stanley Cup beforehand, because that will always never make any sense.

In the meantime, let’s get a little logical and use some numbers to explain my first round predictions for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Chicago vs. Nashville

NHL: DEC 04 Jets at Blackhawks

Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire

Let me go ahead and get this sentence out of the way. I really hated looking at the Western Conference teams this season. Almost all of them that are in the postseason are either breakout teams that would be eliminated in this portion of the playoffs any other year or are so stale that their front office has to be screaming “rebuild” if they get knocked out so early. This is what happened to Los Angeles this year and the same fate could happen to as many as four other teams next season. There is certainly a case that Chicago is one of them.

It should be telling that in order to stabilize the defense, a past-his-prime Johnny Oduya had to return. While their offense has been spectacular, that is all to do with the heavy lifting the forward lines have been bringing this season. That is because the backend just seems like it’s in desparate need to get younger. While each defense pair is able to generate positive shot quality prevention, and Corey Crawford has been brilliant in stopping high level chances as well, you wonder if any of them are able to get going when they have pitch in on the offensive side of the rink. Not a single pair is able to generate an on-ice expected goal for rate above 2.40 per hour and that could be disastrous if Nashville is able to get in Crawford’s head.

That being said, the forward lines for Nashville line seemed to be a bit jumbled beyond the top six. According to Adam Vingan, its looking like head coach Peter Laviolette is giving Pontus Aberg a shot on the third line with Colton Sissons and Craig Smith. It’s been a never ending issue with the Predators that they just don’t have anybody good on the fourth line, especially after the acquisition of face puncher Cody McLeod, and P.A. Parenteau just doesn’t seem to be counted upon to deliver offensive depth. Still, any fourth line that features Jordin Tootoo should cancel out any negative qualities that Nashville will match them up with.

The top line of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson have been brilliant all season while a second line of Kevin Fiala, James Neal and Mike Fisher has not been trotted out before, but the performances with just Fiala and Fisher together have implied that this should be a solid trio. If these two line can work, than Smith’s experience as a two way forward should be able to balance the bottom six in a capacity.

This will be very important when you consider that Chicago had to split off their most important forwards (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa) into their own separate lines. With Hossa manning a third line with Markus Kruger and Ryan Hartman, they have been able to limit the opposition to 1.47 expected goals per hour at even strength. If they match up with Nashville’s top line, that will allow the rest of Chicago’s skilled forwards to dominate. If Chicago gets the upper hand in the forward ranks, the Predators will be hoping that Colin Wilson and Calle Jarnkrok can return to full health.

Otherwise, it will be difficult to get anything going for Nashville at even strength or on special teams. While Chicago’s penalty kill is one of the worst in the NHL at 77.7% efficiency, their 211 shorthanded situations is the lowest total outside of Carolina’s 202. If Nashville can not exploit that, and the Hossa checking line and Toews’ other shutdown line with Nick Schmaltz and Richard Panik, the Predators could be in for a long series.

Blackhawks in 7

Anaheim (9) vs. Calgary (15)

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Kyusung Gong/Orange County Register/SCNG

When coming into these playoffs, I really liked the idea of having Calgary go far this postseason. The second line of Matthew Tkachuk, Michael Frolik and Mikael Backlund plus the top defense pair of Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton have been a revelation this season. Some argue that one of those two defensemen should be the favorite for the Norris Trophy. But what makes the Flames the underdogs from my power rankings could turn out to be that head coach Glen Gulutzan simply doesn’t have enough depth to prevent his team from being too top heavy.

As mentioned all season, Calgary’s top line has struggled mightily to find the perfect right winger for Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau. While the duo are perfect in terms of generating offense and racking up points, they also need to figure out how to defend. When these two had the newly signed Troy Brouwer on their line, it actually hasn’t been all that bad. When that trio was on the ice, they have been expected to outscore the opposition 2.52 to 2.41 per hour. When Michael Ferland is that right winger, which is how it is currently set up, the Flames are still expected to win in the expected goal battle, but this is in a much higher 3.27 to 2.85 scoreline per hour.

That being said, none of that might matter when you consider that Cam Fowler could miss the entire series due to a knee injury he picked up on April 5th. That could result in having all three defense pair be about a complete mishmash and the chemistry would not be there at all. That being said, a Sami Vatanen-Josh Manson pairing has what it takes to be a deadly force. While those two have been on the ice, over 65% of the expected goals have gone in their favor at even strength. On the other hand, the Kevin Bieksa-Shea Theodore pairing could be the complete opposite of a success as the two have been on the ice for 41.9% of the expected goals going in their favor. Head coach Randy Carlisle will have to be smart in how many minutes each pair employs in order to get the most out of a makeshift unit.

Upfront, Patrick Eaves has done wonders in improving the depth of the Ducks forward lines. With him and the luckiest top line right wing in Rickard Rakell, the two are feasting on gorgeous Ryan Getzlaf passes and have generated high scoring numbers as a result. In 20 games, Eaves has put up 11 goals and 14 points, while Rackell has had a career season with 33 goals and 51 points in 71 games. It has allowed Carlyle to drop Corey Perry down to the third line and has allowed the Ducks to roll three scoring lines in the exact same way Pittsburgh rolls their three best lines.

Unlike the Penguins, Anaheim is unique in having their shut down line of Andrew Cogliano, Ryan Kesler and Jakub Silfverberg be its most dependable. With over 831 minutes of even strength ice time together, the trio is the most used forward line in the entire NHL and have continued to produce tremendous puck possession results while handling the toughest opposition.

Both teams do get aggressive as evidenced by their high total in power play and penalty kill situations. Anaheim has the tiniest of margins only because of their top ten level penalty kill efficiency, especially when you consider that Fowler was the worst defenseman on the unit (106.5 on-ice attempts per hour against) and yet had the most time on ice (over 211 shorthanded minutes). I do think Calgary has the potential of winning this series, but Eaves has really changed the complexion of the Ducks and we haven’t seen a consistent season out of Brian Elliott to convince me that he can out-duel John Gibson with full confidence. Maybe I’m wrong, but like all other Western Conference matchups, I won’t be losing sleep if I do mess up on this prediction.

Ducks in 7

Boston vs. Ottawa

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Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press

Free Erik Karlsson! Free Erik Karlsson!

Free him from the despair of playing with terrible defense partners. Free him from an owner that not only doesn’t spend any money ever in making the hockey team more than first round fodder, but treats any non-Canadian with such disdain if they dare play for their country in the Olympics.

Just imagine what would happen to him if he were to play for a bigger market or a team that knows a thing or two about building a talented hockey team. That example is what the Boston Bruins have become. They really aren’t the most perfectly built team, but through drafting a deep core of prospects and signing as many veterans as possible, the Bruins are set up to win now.

David Pastrnak has improved significantly to become the most important piece to Boston and his talents have now been spread towards the second line. What has been so amazing is the results that have come out when you consider the other winger on that line is Drew Stafford, a player Winnipeg could not wait to get rid of. With Pastrnak playing with him and David Krejci, that line has been on the ice with 2.92 to 1.96 expected goal scoreline per hour at even strength. When you compare that to having David Backes instead of Pastrnak, that line expects to generate the same amount of offense but gives up almost twice as many expected goals against at 3.70 per hour. That is why Backes has now moved on to the top line with the talented duo of Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron where the trio can produce two-way play the likes will not see anywhere else in the Eastern Conference.

One thing that is quite perplexing on Ottawa’s end is seeing the possibility of having Clarke MacArthur not only back in full fitness, but also seeing him on the top line with Kyle Turris and Bobby Ryan. Concussion issues have plagued the 31-year old veteran since the tail end of the 2014-15 season and who knows if he’ll be able to get back to full fitness to help out the Senators overall. It has forced head coach Guy Boucher to sit out Ryan Dzingel who, despite generating 32 points in 81 games, did not make the top line strong thanks to a line-wide 45.6% expected goals for ratio. Along with that, Ottawa’s other forwards don’t have enough data to prove that they can be able to match up with Boston’s lines. That being said, the Viktor Stalberg-Derek Brassard-Alex Burrows line does have potential despite playing only 42 even strength minutes together.

The defense pairs are also in just as rough a shape as Marc Methot will not be playing at 100% fitness after his nasty finger injury from a Sidney Crosby slash. It’s not like Methot is such a key piece that he will swing the needle in Ottawa’s fate, but if he were to go down, it will probably mean the promotion of Frederik Claeson who, again, doesn’t improve or worsen a defense corps that is quite mediocre on the whole. At least with Boston, if they were to have a Brandon Carlo go down, in will step in Charlie McAvoy who has been groomed to be the next great Bruins defenseman. I’m not saying he’s Ray Bourque in training, and throwing him into the team’s top pair is certainly something for any 20-year old first round pick with no NHL experience. But with 51 points in 65 games for Boston University, including six points in seven games for the World Junior Champion United States team and, the sky is the limit for McAvoy. It’s very difficult to remember a Senators prospect that got us excited since, welp, Karlsson.

Maybe Craig Anderson can outlay Tuuka Rask, but other than that, it’s quite difficult seeing how the Senators pull this series off.

Bruins in 5

Edmonton vs. San Jose

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Kelvin Kuo/USA Today Sports

There’s definitely a sense of old versus new in this matchup right here. No matter what happens, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton are unrestricted free agents after this season and the decision by general manager Doug Wilson as to whether or not they get resigned will have a profound impact on San Jose for years to come. Either way, San Jose has been a slumping team for a while and may no longer be good enough to overcome a young and hungry Oilers team.

Unlike the youngsters in Toronto, there is great talent across all three positions of this team. Say what you want about Adam Larsson, but his presence with Oscar Klefbom has improved the depth of the Oilers defense while Andrej Sekera and Kris Russell have also surprised all with a positive expected goal ratio as well. Meanwhile, Cam Talbot may finally be turning into the goaltender that the Oilers have been looking for sometime as he has posted career high numbers across the board.

The who defense corps may not be completely ready beyond the first round of the playoffs, but they may not have to face strong competition in this series. The Sharks may be missing Joe Thornton for at least one game and that might be enough to through the whole team off kilter. All year, San Jose has struggled to generate any form of offense and without Thornton’s passing, the source of where that comes from will be in extremely short supply.

That’s why Brent Burns has to win the Norris Trophy award this season because it is quite shocking how a roster that has gone this stale this fast has been able to rack up 29 goals and 76 points in 82 games. Even with his production, you wonder whether he or Paul Martin have forgotten to play defence while trying to do anything to spark things up front. While the two have been on the ice together, the Sharks have given up 3.17 expected goals per hour. The other two pairs have been able to generate a net positive in expected goals and have been better than league average on defense, but there’s no denying that Martin and Burns could get even 30 minutes a night and what they do on their own zone will be among the keys to winning this series.

Now it’s not like Edmonton lacks any flaws. Edmonton’s top three lines give up well above league average in expected goals and the third line of Zach Kassian, Benoit Pouliot and David Desharnais are the biggest culprits of them all. Could moving Kassian down to the fourth line or bringing in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins down into the bottom six be the best solution to solve such a crisis?

I do think Martin Jones will have something to say about this series but I don’t think his impact will be enough to swing the series in his team’s favor. I seriously fear this could be the last time we’ll see the Sharks look like a good hockey team for quite some time.

Oilers in 6

Minnesota vs. St. Louis

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Darry Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP

This upcoming series has the potential to go anyway because of the direction both teams have gone in recent months. While Minnesota may have hit well over 100 points and are my favorites to make the Stanley Cup final out of the Western Conference, they have gone 8-11-2 since the trade deadline passed. Meanwhile, St. Louis has gone 22-8-2 since Mike Yeo has taken over as head coach.

As mentioned in previous blog posts, Minnesota’s style of play hasn’t worsened since the losing skid, but their puck luck certainly has. That all being said, St. Louis has made some incremental changes to their forward lines that could see them through to the next round. For starts, Ivan Barbashev has done wonders to improve the top line of Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko. Along with that Vladimir Sobotka has returned to North America and replace Robbie Fabbri’s roll as go to shut down center with a third line of Jori Lhtera and Alexander Steen. With these adjustments, all four of Yeo’s forward lines can generate positive puck possession. Along with better goaltending, the Blues have given up two goals or less in 21 of Yeo’s 32 games in charge.

For Minnesota, it’s important that they stay true to who they are and continue to pound the puck on a usually inconsistent Jake Allen. Only Boston has done a better job than Minnesota when it comes to expected goals for percentage yet that hasn’t stopped Bruce Boudreau at throwing the kitchen sink with his forward lines. You know he is just throwing paint at a well when you see the possibility of Jason Pominville on a fourth line with Joel Eriksson-Ek. It will be crucial for this Wild team to keep their cool because they are the more talented roster and they have the better goaltender.

Along with that, Minnesota has the most depth in defense and have to find a way to attack St. Louis’ less mobile core. Even Jonas Brodin has performed well with Christian Folin’s as the team’s third pair. I still have the Wild winning this series, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Blues ruin my entire half of the bracket either.

Wild in 6

Montreal vs. New York Rangers

Jim McIsaac

Jim McIsaac

I am seriously looking forward to having Tanner Glass go toe-to-toe with Steve Ott for the battle for the worst NHL player ever in this series. They just find so many creative ways to force Alain Vigenault or any NHL playoff team to bring them back into the big show every season.

Kidding aside, this is an underrated match-up that looks like it could go down to the wire. These are two flawed teams that have found unique ways to reach 100 points in the standings this season. For Montreal, it is the need to bring in Claude Julien to change up the top two defense pairs and to maximize the third forward line. For New York, it has been consistently masking a worsening blue line and aging goaltending department with better offense.

Before Julien came in to replace the beleaguered Michel Therrien, Montreal’s penalty kill was falling apart and they were losing on the scoreboard as a result of it. Since Julien has returned, they have prevented teams from scoring 37 of their last 42 attempts. Their shot prevention did increase to a league average 98.3 attempts per hour during that span, but Carey Price and Co. also saved a fourth-best 90.6% of all shorthanded shots. Along with that Montreal was staying out of the penalty box as a whole by only being in those 42 shorthanded situations in Julien’s 24 games in charge. As a result, all of Montreal’s attention can be focused on even strength and that will surely be advantageous to them against a Rangers team that isn’t known for controlling the possession of a game.

That being said, the Rangers found a way to stay in the net positive all year in expected goals in all situations. Part of that is because the Rangers have been one of the elite teams in generating offense while shorthanded. Only the Carolina Hurricanes have bettered New York when it comes to turning over pucks and going the other way and creating a high expected goals rate (1.13 per hour) and scoring chance rate (4.43 per hour). It has been a staple throughout the Vigenault era, but what may be cause for concern is that none of these teams go into the penalty box at a league average rate or higher. As a result, the Rangers will have to impose their will up front to win this series.

In the Rangers forward ranks, you can see all four lines that are able to generate offense, but not all of them share the same deployments. While the top two forward lines are mostly starting in the offensive zone, the third line of Michael Grabner, J.T. Miller and Jimmy Vesey have all been shoved into the defensive zone. For Vesey, these zone starts and lack of quality linemates have hindered what could have been a booming rookie season (16-11-27 and a 45.7% expected goals for percentage at even strength). Still, this line has done wonders at turning bad situations into good ones. While the Grabner-Miller-Vesey trio have been on the ice, a massive 2.81 expected goals per hour are generated, while only 2.15 per hour go against them.

That being said, almost all that hard work gets cancelled out by a fourth line that is just a complete disaster. When Glass, Oscar Lindberg and Vesey are on the ice, they see only 1.58 expected goals per hour get generated, while having a whopping 2.70 per hour go the other way. Jesper Fast is expected to return from injury, but he is not a good enough player to swing the needle on this line. Rangers fans have to seriously wonder what Pavel Buchnevich and Brandon Pirri have done to offend Vigenault so much that they are not ahead of Glass on the depth chart.

For the Canadiens, watching Thomas Plekanec no longer be the goal scoring threat that he used to be has been quite depressing, but it has turned into a positive by the end of the regular season. The 34-year old is now part of a hard checking line with Brandon Gallagher and Paul Byron that has become Julien’s most dependable unit when the going gets tough. Plekanec has been able to see an extra 1.2% of Montreal’s even strength minutes share since Julien has been head coach and they have seen a shockingly low 1.89 expected goals against per 60 minutes when the trio have been on the ice. Expect those three to try to shut down the Rangers’ top line of Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello that has been the teams strength all year.

Both teams have experienced some changes in the last couple of months in their defense corps. After Andrei Markov returned from injury, the 38-year old veteran switched partners from Jeff Petry to Shea Weber. While fellow Russian Alexei Emelin moved down to the second pair. As a result, more offense has been generated by Weber (2.33 xGF/60 with Emelin vs. 2.64 xGF/60 with Markov) and the overall play of the second pair has been much better (52.4% xGF under Petry-Markov vs. 56.5% xGF under Petry-Emelin).

For the Rangers, their defense just seems to be in shambles and can only be masked for so long as they potentially move further into the postseason. They were able to pick up Brandon Smith at the trade deadline, but his addition was there to cover for the always-mediocre Kevin Klein and the always-terrible Dan Girardi when they were on the disabled list. With both returning to full health, Klein seems to be the odd man out of the defense pairings, but that is resulting in some wonky combinations. Girardi is back with Ryan McDonagh that only screams damage limitation while Marc Staal and Brady Skjei just seems like an unmitigated disaster waiting to happen.

Again, the Rangers will hope that their weaknesses don’t get presented that much and that Henrik Lundqvist is able to return to his former self. They have been able to mask it all year, but Montreal is a quality team with a better coach and a better goaltender in 2017.

Canadiens in 7

Washington vs. Toronto

Matthews-Farnsworth

@HeyJayRogers

In some ways, this series should be a blow out for the Washington Capitals due to Toronto’s overall inexperience in postseason play. In other ways, Toronto will bring a blissful ignorance to the playoffs that will make this series loads of fun to casual fans.

Only the Pittsburgh Penguins can rival Toronto’s run-and-gun style. While the Maple Leafs are second to those same Penguins in expected goals rate at 3.11 per hour in all situations, they also have the third worst defense in the NHL by giving up 2.96 expected goals per hour. Their forward lines don’t help that much when it comes to defense, but with the injuries to Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak, the emphasis of playing with a solid structure could be emphasized more in this series for them.

While Brian Boyle has come in and somewhat stabilized the fourth line, his offense is no longer as lethal as it was when he was with Tampa Bay. While the trio of him, Matt Martin and Kasperi Kapanen have been on the ice, they have given up 1.79 expected goals per hour, but they have also only generated 1.91 expected goals per hour. Head coach Mike Babcock has been a tremendous coach throughout his career, but this is not a line that he has completely trusted this regular season.

Meanwhile, Washington can unleash any of their top three lines to either prevent teams from scoring or generate the offense necessary to win hockey games. In fact, all four of Washington’s lines have been able to generate over 56% of the expected goals while each one have been on the ice, but no line has been more of a revelation than the Lars Eller led third line. While the trio of Eller, Andre Burakovsky and Brett Connolly have been on the ice, they have been able to generate 2.75 expected goals per hour while only giving up 2.07 expected goals per hour.

If anything, Washington’s weakness might be the construction of their defense pairs, which has been a consistent concern throughout the Barry Trotz era. It should never be forgotten how costly bringing in Mike Weber in game four of the Penguins series was last postseason. Kevin shattenkirk has been a wonderful addition to the Capitals since being acquired in the offseason, but that has led to another puck possession wizard in Nate Schmidt being surplus to requirements while Brooks Orpik and Karl Alzner, two defensemen that are not known for being analytically solid, have been getting sweaters on an every game basis. To Orpik’s credit, he has performed solidly with Shattenkirk as the team’s third pair (56.7% xGF while the two have been together), but it is Alzner that has been the worrying trend. When the 28-year old is paired with John Carlson, the duo becomes the only line combination or pairing to see a net negative in expected goal differential. When you consider that this is the team’s most trusted top pair under Trotz, that is worrying in the long run.

Still, I wouldn’t be all that concerned with that in this particular series. If anything, it is Toronto who should be worried about who they have left in defense. Babcock did change things up in his top four at the tail end of the season by having Nikita Zaitsev paired with Jake Gardner while Morgan Reilly was playing with former Capital Connor Carrick. The results have been positive defensively, but none of the current pairs were generating the same offense like they did previously either. No matter how it’s looked at, this area seems like a work in progress and half of this corps might be replaced by the time Toronto becomes a true Stanley Cup contender.

If Washington can be able to not be so aggressive that it goes against the approval of the referees throughout the series, then Washington should dictate the tempo and impose their will on an inexperienced Maple Leafs side. Still, Toronto’s offense is world class and it will be a massive challenge to stop it for four straight games. This series has the potential to be closer than it is, especially if Frederik Andersen plays well, but it is really difficult to see how Toronto wins this series unless something dramatic happens between the two teams that we haven’t seen before.

Capitals in 6

Pittsburgh vs. Columbus

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Aaron Doster

People. This is going to be a bloodbath. It can’t be any other way without John Tortorella coaching this team. Even if Jared Boll is gone and Tom Sestito should be a healthy scratch and deprive all of us of seeing him do Tom Sestito things, this is just simply unavoidable. It can’t be any other way with Patric Hornqvist, Chris Kunitz, Matt Calvert, Brandon Dubinsky, Scott Hartnell and Boone Jenner doing their thing. And who knows if Pittsburgh will be able to survive it.

The most obvious story for this match-up is whether the Penguins can win another Stanley Cup without one of the best defensemen in the world in Kris Letang. The 29-year old will be out until as late as the start of next season for surgically repairing a herniated disc in his neck. Like Peyton Manning, can Letang return to full fitness and play as well as he has been doing throughout the rest of his career. Considering all the injuries that he has had, it would just amaze me if that ends up being the case. But we have said the same thing with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby too.

Despite every injury you can think of to so many key players, the Penguins still found a way to be the scariest offense in the NHL and put up 111 standings points. The Vancouver Canucks and the New York Rangers have won Presidents trophies with those point totals in the last decade. Not even the bubonic plague can prevent this Penguins squad from repeating as Stanley Cup champions.

This is all due to the depth in talent among Pittsburgh’s forward ranks that just doesn’t seem to have an end in sight. After dominating at the NCAA level with Nebraska-Omaha, Jake Guentzel came out of nowhere as a no-name third round pick to be Sidney Crosby’s left winger and generate 33 points in 40 games. Connor Sheary might have the majority of his points come from secondary assists (18 vs. 12 primary apples), but that doesn’t stop him from being the leading point-getter at even strength at 3.05 per hour. Thanks to those three and the increase in playing time for Bryan Rust and Scott Wilson, this Penguins team is deeper than it ever has been in the Sidney Crosby era.

That doesn’t mean it will be a cakewalk for the Penguins against a Blue Jackets team that knows a thing or two about offense. Zack Werenski and Seth Jones have entirely changed the complexion of Columbus’ mobility in defense and it has opened up the forward lines as a result. If it weren’t for Matthews and Patrick Laine, Werensky (11 goals, 47 points, 53.2% CF) would be in a class of his own as the favorite to win the Calder Trophy, but the latest crop of under-21 rookies has been the best it has been in some time.

That being said, it turns out the shot quality in defense has not been all that great for Columbus. While Jack Johnson and David Savard have amazingly been great over this season (55.9% xGF!!!), the Jones-Werenski pairing has only been able to have 49.2% of the even strength expected goals go in their favor. Along with that, Kyle Quincey was supposed to stabilize the third pairing , but that is turning out to be a waste of an acquisition at the trade deadline. With him expected to be paired with Markus Nutivaara, good luck seeing the Blue Jackets not be pinned into their zone. The duo has seen 3.90 expected goals against per hour while they are on the ice. That simply isn’t going to cut it when you have any one of the 20 best players in the world tearing you to pieces the vast majority of even strength play.

With such poor performances on the backend, the forwards will have to step up in a major way and they have two lines that could be up to the challenge. The top line of Nick “Thoren Oakenshield” Foligno, Brandon Saad and Alex Wennberg have been brilliant all season in their two-way play while the third line of Hartnell, Sam Gagner and Oliver Bjorkstrand has the potential to be the hero line of the postseason. Despite having less than 55 minutes of even strength ice time together, the trio has seen 3.93 expected goals per hour go in their favor versus a minuscule 1.89 per hour go against them. Look for Bjorkstrand to be the find of the postseason as he was a former teammate of Jones while with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks and, for the exception of his transition to the AHL in 2015-16, has consistently racked up massive point totals everywhere he has gone.

That being said, the key to the Blue Jackets will be how the scoring line of Dubinsky, Jenner and Cam Atkinson performs on both ends of the rink. While the trio can rack up points, their 2.87 expected goals against per hour is simply not good enough when matching up against any of Pittsburgh’s quality lines. Along with that, the fourth line of Calvert, Josh Anderson and William Karlsson just seems like a mess thanks to their 3.04 on-ice expected goals against per hour.

That being said, Pittsburgh’s defense hasn’t been given enough criticism for how bad they’ve been. Are you kidding me that we might see another Stanley Cup champion with Trevor Daley as a top pairing defencemen?!?! Also, does anybody remember how bad Justin Schultz was when he was an Edmonton Oiler. Now he’s being counted upon to be the best power play quarterback on a dynastic cup contender?!?! Lastly, Olli Maata is just not the same player he used to be analytically and on the point production totals. There were genuine reasons why general manager Jim Rutherford had to pick up Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit at the trade deadline, but even those two seem like damage limitation additions rather than upgrades in hindsight.

Still, Pittsburgh is just too good even when the chips are down and higher powers just seem to like that city a little too much.

Penguins in 7

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