NHL Eastern Conference Round 2 Preview

The 2nd round of the NHL playoffs starts tonight! We’re down to the final 8… err, 9 teams. Anaheim and Nashville are still playing their 1st round series, which hopefully will conclude tonight.

I said I wouldn’t split up my previews again, but I also didn’t anticipate the NHL scheduling a 2nd round game before the 1st round officially ended. Since the Eastern Conference picture is set, I’ll begin my preview there, where we’ve got 2 long-time rivals squaring off for the first time in years, and 2 teams that don’t have any history whatsoever.

One thing to note: I offered some predictions before the playoffs started, but I reserve the right to change my mind now. It would be foolish not to make use of any new information. If you’re going to be upset that I didn’t stubbornly stick to my guns, and you read on anyway, well, you knew the risks.

Tampa Bay Lightning (A2) vs New York Islanders (A4)

I gave myself the reason to pick the Islanders to beat the Panthers in Round 1, and I didn’t go through with it. Lo and behold, Thomas Greiss continued a long tradition of unsung goalies turning in starmaking playoff performances. Had I talked myself into New York, I would have been 7 for 7 on my series picks thus far, with a chance for Anaheim to make it a perfect 8 tonight. Alas.

The Islanders’ upset of the Panthers raises an interesting question about the relative strength of the Atlantic and Metro divisions. Beating out the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals and red-hot Penguins would have been a challenge for any team, and it’ll be hard to convince anyone now that the Islanders didn’t throw away the last game of the season to avoid Pittsburgh in Round 1. Rangers fans probably wish their team had finished 4th in the Metro instead of 3rd.

Now the Islanders square off with a still-depleted Lightning squad. Anton Stralman hasn’t begun skating yet, leaving his chances of playing in doubt, and no one has any idea when–or if–we’ll see Steven Stamkos. Tampa dispatched the Red Wings in 5 games, but 3 of their wins were of the 1-goal variety, and Ben Bishop was the busier goalie in the series. The Lightning should have a larger share of the puck control versus the Islanders, but the presence of Greiss might offset that.

Even without Stamkos, Tampa still has some firepower. Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, and Alex Killorn were highly effective against Detroit. The prodigal son, Jonathan Drouin, returned to post 4 assists. Meanwhile, the Islanders leaned heavily on their top trio of John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, and Frans Nielsen, with Tavares in particular averaging more than 25 minutes per game (no doubt playing 5 overtimes had something to do with that).

The Lightning fascinate me with their style. By the eye test, they look like a team that plays fast and loose. By the numbers, they rank in the bottom third of the league in Corsi per 60 (that’s total shot attempts by both teams per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time) which is more typical of plodding teams like New Jersey. Tampa’s shot suppression fell off down the stretch, and they’ll need to limit opportunities against an Islanders team that boasts some dangerous offensive threats.

I picked the Lightning before the playoffs started on the assumption that Stralman at least would be healthy in Round 2. Without him, the Lightning will continue to lean heavily on Victor Hedman (over 27 minutes per game in Round 1) and hope the big Swede is up to the task.

The statistical models all favor the Lightning. There doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason to pick the Islanders. And, as any hockey fan well knows, it’s usually at times like these when a goalie catches fire and steals a series.

Thomas Greiss, come on down. It’s your time to shine. Islanders in 7.

Washington Capitals (M1) vs Pittsburgh Penguins (M2)

After 7 years, the Ovechkin-Crosby rivalry finally renews itself in the playoffs. Expect the NHL PR department to kick into overdrive with this storyline to shove down our throats.

In some ways, this makes sense. After all, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby are the focal points of their respective teams. Ovechkin became just the 13th player in NHL history to score 50 goals in his age-30 season or later. He led the league in goals for the 6th time, just once fewer than Bobby Hull’s all-time record. Crosby rebounded from a poor start to finish 3rd in the league in scoring, and remains the NHL’s active leader in points-per-game.

The Capitals are more than just Ovechkin, now more than ever. Nicklas Backstrom should get some serious attention for the Selke Trophy, as he’s balanced out his stellar playmaking this season by also taking on the best the opposition has to offer–and still coming out on top. The combination of Backstrom and the defense pairing of Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen helped contribute to Claude Giroux’s scoring woes in the 1st round series against Philadelphia. That will likely be the matchup Barry Trotz will look to establish against Crosby.

Of course, the Penguins are more than just Crosby. Start with Evgeni Malkin, who would be the best player on just about any other team in the league. Add Kris Letang to drive the offense from the backend. Phil Kessel is almost an afterthought, which seems absurd for a 5-time 30-goal scorer. The Penguins have taken to spreading their talent throughout the lineup, with Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel anchoring separate lines. What’s more, the 4th line with Matt Cullen, Tom Kuhnhackl, and Bryan Rust scored 5 goals against the Rangers. There’s no relief against these guys.

Which means if Washington hopes to win this series, they will need superb goaltending. Fortunately, the Capitals have just the guy in Braden Holtby, who now sports a career .940 save percentage in 40 career playoff games. Across the rink for the Penguins will be Matt Murray, the rookie with eye-popping AHL numbers and an impressive start to his NHL career. Marc-Andre Fleury is still out recovering from a concussion, and depending on who you ask, the Penguins may be better off that way.

I love the contrasts between these teams. Pittsburgh has great team speed and basically skated the Rangers out of the playoffs. Washington likes to set a more controlled tempo and suffocated the Flyers. The Capitals do have some players who should thrive in a more open series–looking at you, Evgeny Kuznetsov. But the Penguins have their grinders, too.

Black and yellow versus red and blue. Ah, brings back childhood memories… except that they’re all bad memories (the Pens have beaten the Caps 7 out of 8 times they’ve met in the playoffs). I want so badly to pick the Capitals to reverse their fortunes, but I can’t ignore how scorching hot Pittsburgh has been since January. Penguins in 7.

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