NHL Stanley Cup Playoff Previews: Round 2

Hello, Nashville! Welcome, Edmonton!

The first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs featured some stunning upsets. Here’s a fresh look at the second-round matchups and where we might be from here.

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division Finals

2. Ottawa Senators (44-28- 10) vs. 1WC. New York Rangers (48-28- 6)

Though it took six games, four of which went to overtime, Ottawa dismantled the banged up Boston Bruins in round one. Despite a left heel injury, superstar defenseman Erik Karlsson dominated the series by carrying his Senators teammates on his back. Craig Anderson was his usual solid self in goal, while Ottawa found some unexpected offense in Derick Brassard, Clark MacArthur and Bobby Ryan to join its top scorers Kyle Turris, Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman, who outclassed the Bruins’ overmatched blue line.

The margins were of similar closeness in New York’s series one win over Montreal, as the Rangers had just enough offense and just enough depth to outlast the Canadiens. Mats Zuccarello’s big game six, plus solid play from Mika Zibanejad, Michael Grabner, Derek Stepan stood out, while Rick Nash shone in a lower-line role. New York goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was outstanding in goal, outplaying Montreal star Carey Price, and he had plenty of help on the blue line in Ryan McDonagh, Brady Skjei, and Brendan Smith.

Neither of these teams stood out in the first round, instead using more of a war of attrition approach with their depth. If Karlsson continues his great play, Ottawa has a chance, but I think New York’s depth combined with Lundqvist’s freshness means the Rangers will advance to the Conference Finals in six games.

Metropolitan Division Finals

1. Washington Capitals (55-19- 8) vs. 2. Pittsburgh Penguins (50-20- 11)

Washington fought off the young and hungry Toronto Maple Leafs in the opening round, winning four one-goal games, including three in overtime. Toronto carried the play at times throughout the series and tested goaltender Braden Holtby frequently. The series was closer than expected, but Washington has a pair of big positives to take into the second round. Its stars — T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin — all played well. And because the Leafs gave them no days off, the Capitals should be much more prepared for the challenge of the Penguins.

With the possible exception of Nashville no team impressed more in the first round than the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins. Pittsburgh steamrolled a more-than-game Columbus squad. Its high flying offense is clicking on all cylinders. Evgeni Malkin leads the playoffs with 11 points, Phil Kessel and Sidney Crosby are right behind with eight and seven apiece, and rookie forward Jake Guentzel is the budding star of this postseason and leads the way with five goals. Pittsburgh’s no-name defense without Kris Letang has also held up well, while goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, filling in for the injured Matt Murray, is reprising 2008-09.

This has the potential to be the best Washington-Pittsburgh series of the three in the Crosby/Ovechkin era. Both stars are playing well coming into this series. So are their teams. This is by far the best Capitals team to face off against Pittsburgh, while the Penguins’ defense remains a question mark. This series will depend on which team ca dictate pace. Pittsburgh has the potential to overwhelm Washington with speed, and I see that as being the difference maker in a seven-game Pittsburgh win.

Central Division Finals

3. St. Louis Blues (45-29- 7) vs. 2WC. Nashville Predators (41-29- 12)

St. Louis may not have been the better team, but it certainly had the better goaltender in Jake Allen as the Blues surprised the heavily-favored Minnesota Wild in round one. St. Louis might not be the same team as the squad that lost in the Western Conference a year ago, but their offense is deep. Jaden Schwartz, Alexander Steen and Vladimir Tarasenko are all playing well. Recently re-acquired from the KHL, Vladimir Sobotka was a matchup nightmare for the Wild. The Blues top defenders also stepped up, led by Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko and the surprising Joel Edmundson.

Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne (who sports a ridiculous 0.70 goals-against average and .976 save percentage in the playoffs), and a strong defense led by Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis, were the story of round one. A heavily favored Chicago team scored only three goals in what proved to be a four-game cakewalk for the Preds. Nashville’s offense, especially its depth, was another huge reason it became the first number-8 seed to eliminate a number-1 seed in a sweep. The top line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson led the way, with a young supporting cast also playing well.

Though St. Louis is red hot after knocking off Minnesota, Nashville is playing at an even better pace. Something has to give in this series, which will likely come down to depth, where the Predators have a huge advantage over the Blues. Nashville will come in waves against the Blues’ thin blue line and the Predators defense should hold up against St. Louis’ offense. I like Nashville to keep rolling and knock off the Blues in six games.

Pacific Division Finals

1. Anaheim Ducks (46-23- 13) vs. 2. Edmonton Oilers (47-26- 9)

Anaheim whitewashed an overmatched Calgary squad in the first round by extinguishing the Flames’ offense, while its own forwards overwhelmed Brian Elliott. Anaheim captain Ryan Getzlaf and running mate Corey Perry were a handful in that series, while the Ducks’ young defenders showed signs of special careers ahead. Goaltender John Gibson was not great in the first round, and likely will have to pick up his game in order to slow down the young Oilers. Forward Ryan Kesler, who shut down Johnny Gaudreau in round one, faces a much tougher task ahead in trying to prevent Edmonton’s Connor McDavid from continuing his offensive wizardry.

Edmonton impressed by beating the defending conference champion, San Jose, at its own game. The Oilers played with speed and tenacity. McDavid was terrific, while Oilers forwards Leon Draisaitl and Milan Lucic provided toughness against the banged-up Sharks. With the exception of their Game 4 blowout loss, Edmonton’s defense, led by Oscar Klefbom and Andrej Sekera, more than held their own. They will face a much bigger task trying to slow down Anaheim’s much more healthy, and heavy, lineup.

With a lack of recent history to lean on, Anaheim versus Edmonton is perhaps the hardest series to predict in round two. I like the veteran leadership of the Ducks over the youth and skill of the Oilers, but the margin will be razor thin here. Anaheim’s Achilles heel is its goaltending, and if Gibson doesn’t find another level, this will be Edmonton’s series for the taking. I like the Ducks to win a seven-game thriller, but this could go either way.

A quick look at the rest of the playoffs:

Eastern Conference Finals

Pittsburgh over New York in five games

Western Conference Finals

Nashville over Anaheim in seven games

Stanley Cup Finals

Penguins over Predators in five games

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