NHL Playoff Preview – Part 1

Everything you know is about to be turned upside down. The NHL playoffs are here, which means it’s time to get weird.

This is both the best and worst time of year for hockey fans. The first round means up to 4 games every night. The teams are evenly matched. The stakes are nearing their highest. No more 3 on 3 overtime or shootouts. We play until someone scores or everyone drops dead.

I’m rolling out the first part of my playoff preview today, covering the 3 series that start tonight. I would have loved to post the entire thing at one time, but, well, I haven’t actually written anything for the other matchups yet. So bear with me, and I’ll have them up before those games begin. 

Tampa Bay Lightning (A2) vs Detroit Red Wings (A3)

In the blue corner, we’ve got the Lightning, my preseason Stanley Cup favorite. That was, naturally, based on Tampa having its fully-armed and operational roster, which is not currently the case. Tyler Johnson suffered an inury in the last regular season game and is questionable to start the series. Anton Stralman broke his leg at the end of March and his return is uncertain. Most notably, Steven Stamkos underwent surgery to remove a blood clot in his arm earlier this month. The timetable for Stamkos’ recovery is 1-to-3 months, which means he could be back in time for the 2nd round, or he could miss the entire postseason.

And in the red corner, we’ve got the Wings, who extended the franchise’s consecutive playoff appearances streak to 25 by backing in with a loss to the New York Rangers. Detroit is in something of a transition phase from the Henrik Zetterberg-Pavel Datsyuk core to a new era led by Dylan Larkin. With Datsyuk announcing this might possibly just maybe oh please don’t be his last season in North America, the Wings will be something of a sentimental favorite.

The Lightning never really hit their stride this season, for whatever reason. Blame injuries, the off-ice drama involving Jonathan Drouin, the off-ice drama involving Stamkos’s pending free agency, whatver you like. They still look like a better team than the Red Wings, the only playoff team with a negative goal differential.

Tampa might be vulnerable, but I’m not sure that Detroit is the team to take advantage of it. Lightning in 5.

Pittsburgh Penguins (M2) vs New York Rangers (M3)

Pittsburgh looked to be in trouble. With the team struggling on the ice, despite a star-studded roster, the possibility of missing the playoffs was very real. The front office made a tough decision, replacing the head coach–who had been quite successful overall–with the coach from minore league Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The result was dramatic–the Penguins morphed into one of the league’s best teams down the stretch and entered the playoffs as the guys no one wanted to face.

Sound familiar? That paragraph could have described the 2009 Stanley Cup champion Penguins just as easily as this year’s edition. In 2009, it was Dan Bylsma taking over for Michel Therrien. This season, Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston in December. Since then, the Penguins have been a juggernaut in puck possession and on the scoreboard.

For the 3rd straight postseason, the Penguins will meet the New York Rangers. The Rangers, as much as ever, are Henrik Lundqvist’s team, getting outshot night after night and relying on their superstar goalie to handle the load. At an age when his skills are supposed to be slipping, Lundqvist turned in a magnificent season, making more saves than any other goalie. The Rangers feature 5 players who topped 20 goals this season, none of whom are named Rick Nash. Nash is the NHL’s 4th leading regular season goal scorer since the 2005 lockout ended. He has also shot a dreadful 4.8% in 60 career playoff games, scoring just 10 goals. Maybe this is the year his career trend reverses itself.

If you’re going with the Rangers, you’re banking on 2 things. First, Pittsburgh’s rotten health luck continues. Evgeni Malkin is recovering from injury and likely to miss at least Game 1. Olli Maatta is just coming back. Marc-Andre Fleury has had concussion issues this season, and now understudy Matt Murray is out with what looks like a concussion. To be fair, New York has to start this series without Ryan McDonagh. Second, that Henrik Lundqvist has the Penguins’ number in the playoffs. Having eliminated Pittsburgh 2 years in a row, surely New York can ride its all-world goalie to another victory.

I’m of the belief that Pittsburgh can’t possibly stay as hot as they’ve been, but they won’t need to. Penguins in 6.

St. Louis Blues (C2) vs Chicago Blackhawks (C3)

St. Louis has to be frustrated with the new playoff format. Under a conference seeding system based strictly on record, the Blues’ reward for finishing with the 2nd best record in the West would have been a first round matchup with the Nashville Predators, a team they largely dominated. The Blues’ young core, led by Vladimir Tarasenko and Alex Pietrangelo, would shine against a lesser opponent. The Blues could build confidence with a first round victory and use the momentum to propel themselves against the next, more challenging, foe.

Instead, St. Louis takes on the defending champion Blackhawks. You know, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith (suspended for Game 1, but still). Those guys. Add to that group Calder favorite Artemi Panarin and the ever-underappreciated Corey Crawford, and the Blackhawks look poised to make another run at the Cup.

These two teams are eerily similar. Chicago is a little better offensively; St. Louis a little more defensive-minded. Both teams have 8 double digit goal scorers apiece, led by forwards with 40+. Both are in the upper half of the league possession-wise, with the Blues among the elite in that category over the last 2 months. Even the goalies are evenly matched by the numbers. The biggest difference between these two teams is perception. The Blues overcame adversity in dealing with a rash of injuries and are peaking at the right time, while the Blackhawks have underachieved and looked more vulnerable.

Objectively, I think this series is too close to call. My intuition was to pick the Blues, and I haven’t seen enough evidence to sway my opinion, especially with Duncan Keith missing Game 1. Blues in 7.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2.

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