2017 Stanley Cup Conference Semifinals Preview

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Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP

Hey everyone? How’s everyone’s hearts? How’s everyone’s brackets? Oh, Terrible?! Yeah, mine too. This has really been a rough postseason for everyone in the analytics community as almost everyone (including me) picked Minnesota to reach the Stanley Cup finals. That being said, almost everyone on social media reveled in Nashville taking Chicago to the cleaners because everybody knows what happened with Patrick Kane was not sketchy one bit.

Anywho, we’re on to the second round. You would think by now that the cream of the crop is still available, but my power rankings certainly do not suggest that. Only two of the five best teams in the NHL are still standing and Gary Bettman thought it was a great idea to have them go against each other in the second round instead of the Stanley Cup final. Along with that, three teams outside the top ten still have a shot at the Stanley Cup and one of them is owned by the Grinch, I mean, Eugene Melnyk.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at each series and see who’s got what it take to make it into the Conderence Finals.

 

Ottawa vs. New York Rangers

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Marc DesRosiers/USA Today Sports

If one team wins this series, will it determine who wins the Derrick Brassard-Mika Zibanejad trade? I seriously hope not even though both players led their team in scoring. Hockey is just too much of a team sport for it to be decided by one individual.

Both teams will need to bring something different to the table this time around in order to win this series. In some ways, another goaltending match up is upon the New York Rangers as Craig Anderson has not been a slouch this season. That being said, Anderson’s goals saved above average skyrocketed from 85 in the regular season to 107 in the postseason according to hockey-reference.com. Some of that does have to do with the fact that, despite the skaters around him only giving up the equivalent of 9.78 goals in all situations, Anderson gave up 13 of them in the series.

It just goes to show how terrible of a state the Boston Bruins were in when scoring that few would be considered an over-achievement. Keeping Bruce Cassidy as head coach is also a fascinating choice by front office management, but now is not a time to talk about it. The point is, Anderson will have to step up in order for the Senators to find a way past a deep Rangers offense. While they did give up plenty of shot attempts, the Rangers did rack up 59.7 shot attempts per hour from their own account. Along with that, nine skaters have over 10 shots on goal in the Canadiens series with Rick Nash leading the way with 23.

What will be critical of the Rangers, however is not continuing the same defensive miscues that they had in the first round against the Senators. It was quite fortunate for Zibanejad to have the goal-scoring numbers he had in the Canadiens series, because his underlying numbers were not great. Despite getting the most minutes against Montreal’s top line, Zibanejad was on the ice for 73.1 shot attempts against per hour at even strength. It was numbers like these that made head coach Alain Vigenault move the young Swede on the third line with Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich.

The Rangers will have to make sure that their line combinations are perfect against a Senators team that, despite not being world class offensively can still cause some damage by rolling four even lines. Still, I feel like the Rangers’ flexibility up front should be enough to overcome the Senators. I would love to see Erik Karlsson shine, but the idea of Guy Boucher continuing to roll out a shutdown defense pair of Dion Phaneuf and Cody Ceci is laughable to me.

Rangers in 6

Anaheim vs. Edmonton

Martin Jones

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press via AP

After looking like they may fall apart at the seems, the Oilers were able to remember what got them into the playoffs and played some good hockey. They ended up out-attempting the San Jose Sharks at even strength 63.8 to 57.4 per hour and it resulted in a 12-7 scoreline excluding the nutty 7-0 blowout loss in Game 4. Most importantly, the Oilers only gave up four more penalty killing opportunities the rest of the series.

The Oilers did not have one individual stand out from the goal-scoring department, but from a puck possession stand point, two groups spring to mind. The first was the entire second forward line of Jordan Eberle, Milan Lucic and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins who were able to shutdown any of San Jose’s star players when they were on the ice, including Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski. The second group is the defense pair of Oscar Klefbom and, yes my friends, Adam Larsson who were able to be apart of feisting the power-for-power match-up with Burns and Paul Martin as well as out-working the Justin Braun-Marc-Edouard Vlasic partnership.

It has been mentioned on this blog many times that San Jose was an aging team with limited depth, however. Against, the Ducks, that might be a different story. Anaheim does have a flawed blue line, but they will be welcoming the return of Cam Fowler after recovering from a knee injury. What will make the Ducks so elusive is their usage of three top tier lines now that Corey Perry has been implemented onto the team’s third line; continuing a trend of breaking up star players to lead their own lines that was deployed first by Mike Sullivan’s Penguins last year.

Many teams can try it, like the New York Rangers, but for teams even like the Oilers, who knows if it can present the most positive results possible. Anaheim wasn’t able to deploy such combinations until they acquired Patrick Eaves at the trade deadline and the rest has been history. The Ducks have become a much more well rounded team and they will continue to use the Ryan Kesler-led second line as the opposition’s poison every game. Head Coach Todd McClellan will have to find a solution to get Connor McDavid away from him as well as unleash the new second line out as a counter to whenever Kesler is not even on the ice. Edmonton’s home games will be really intriguing because of that.

I can see Edmonton going neck-and-neck with Anaheim, but the Ducks are employing things they wished they could have done under Bruce Boudreau. Because of that, the Ducks barely squeak by.

Ducks in 7

Nashville vs. St. Louis

Mike Fisher, Jake Allen

AP Photo/Mark Zaleski

If this series occurred last year, I would have absolutely looked forward to this series in a heart beat. Instead, I see teams two teams that could bring out some fireworks, but simply don’t bring the same pizzazz as they did previously. If anything, my choice of winning the series will go down to which team still is maintaining their style of hockey from years past.

Simply put, St. Louis destroyed by Minnesota when it came to the shot count, but unlike their series in 2015, it was St. Louis’ turn to have the better goaltending and the better puck luck to win their series. As a result, not a single skater had over 50% of their shot attempts go in their favor at even strength. On the other side of things, Nashville was simply brilliant against Chicago, especially when talking about the power-for-power matchups.

That being said, anything Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester will bring has to be much better than what an aging Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith did against Nashville’s top line. Also, I trust the Joel Edmundson-Colton Parayko pair to be a good plan B. The Predators will need to continue to have their depth forwards play well along with Viktor Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen as that trio can not do it on their own. It is why Nashville couldn’t get over the 100-point mark in the first place.

Still, St. Louis’ forward lines still seem to be a little overrrated once you get passed their top forward line. There’s a feeling like this series is the second round equivalent of the Sharks-Oilers series where the friskier younger team will send the older, worn out opposition back to the drawing board from whence it came. Maybe it won’t be that lobsided and maybe St. Louis will show some good offensive firepower for once. I just can’t imagine it to be enough to do it four more times.

Predators in 5

Pittsburgh vs. Washington

Karl Alzner, Sidney Crosby

AP Photo/Nick Wass

It has been already discussed here many times in this blog that the Capitals and Penguins are basically doing battle to claim the Stanley Cup in the second round. These two teams are that much better than everybody else left in the playoffs.

The Capitals were able to get the job done but not before going after the offensive buzzsaw that is the Toronto Maple Leafs. Not only did Nate Schmidt’s presence help the team turn the series, but Trotz’s decision to play the Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen more as the shutdown pair they were in the regular season more was imperitive. More tactical adjustments will be required for the Capitals to adjust to another transition team in Pittsburgh.

That being said, it is not like the Penguins played a perfect five-game series to make it to the second round. As has been the story all season long, Pittsburgh’s defense is much worse than last year and that was not hidden against a feisty Columbus Blue Jackets side. This was evidenced the most by the fact that John Tortorella’s team was able to put 13 pucks passed Marc Andre-Fleury but were expected to score more than 17 in all-situations according to corsica.hockey. Along with that, they were able to generate just over 66 shot attempts per hour at even strength. Only the Capitals and Maple Leafs have attempted more this postseason.

What led to Columbus’ downfall, however, was their inability to stay out of the penalty box. It should be noted how controversial the goaltender interference call was towards Alexander Wennberg that led to Pittsburgh scoring two straight goals in the series-deciding Game 5, but that was just a microcosm of their problems. In total, Pittsburgh had the edge in the penalty count department 16-12 and Sidney Crosby and Co. scored on five of those chances versus Columbus’ two. Columbus implimented the correct game plan and losing Zack Werenski in Game 3 was rough, but Tortorella just couldn’t help but be himself and push that “more aggressive” narrative a little too much.

Washington won’t be fooled by such things, but they’ll still have to stay disciplined in this series. Their penalty kill is one of the best in the NHL, but Pittsburgh’s firepower is something to behold when given the chance. Chris Kunitz is also expected to be back in this series while Carl Hagelin is more of an uncertain guarantee. As for the goaltending situation, it is looking like Fleury will still be the starter until further notice.

While the 32-year old veteran (it is so weird to put those last four words together!!!) posted his worst all-situations save percentage since 2009-10 and his worst even strength save percentage since 2011-12, that still didn’t stop him from over-achieving beyond his means in the first round. He will have to do that and more against a Capitals team that should be able to generate shots on him. With Kris Letang still being out with his neck injury until October, you could argue Pittsburgh’s defense corps is worse on-paper than Toronto’s were.

Still, Justin Schultz is a power play magician and any break he gets will be used to punish the opposition. Washington had a major concern of staying out of the penalty box the majority of the season. In the regular season, Washington had the fifth highest total in penalty kill opportunities, but they were still a +15 in special teams goal differential. The same occurred during the postseason when Washington outscored Toronto 5-3 on special teams despite a 17-18 deficit in avoiding the sin bin.

This series will be tight. Line matching will be critical here for Barry Trotz to continue his path towards a Stanley Cup. Will Crosby go toe-to-toe with Nicklas Backstrom as was the case in the regular season (21:04 of ice time against each other) or will Trotz unleash the second line against him as he had to do in the Toronto series. Remember, Alex Ovechkin has had his worst relative puck possession season in the “behindthenet” era, so it will be important for Washington’s star as well to get the most favorable competition possible.

Either way, this will be a star-studded and nauseating series as it has been expected to be from the very beginning.

Capitals in 7…..after I sacrifice everything that is necessary from a spiritual standpoint

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