Eastern Conference First Round Previews

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Can the Flyers be competitive with the Capitals? Is this the year when Sidney Crosby returns to the Cup final? Are the Lightning toast without Steven Stamkos? How do the Rangers overcome their defensive woes? This preview tries to solve these questions and many more before the games start tonight. Enjoy the playoffs!

New York Rangers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

What makes this series so enticing is pageantry fused with complexity. Sidney Crosby vs. Henrik Lundqvist represent two of the biggest hockey markets – this is an ideal matchup for the NHL. But hidden information provides additional intrigue: Ryan McDonagh, Evgeni Malkin, Olli Maatta, and Marc-Andre Fleury are all injured. Timetables for their return are hazy. Each one of those players’ absences has the potential to dismantle his team’s chances. And yet, at this time of year, every player is nicked up. Along with luck and matchups, health is a key variable in postseason success. Virtually every contender needs depth to advance deep, so how the Rangers and Penguins respond will be instructive for these playoffs and beyond.

This series narrowly beats out the Stars-Wild matchup for biggest margin in terms of Corsi for percentage. The Penguins rank second in the NHL (!) and the Rangers place 26th. At first blush, this seems confusing. The Rangers have impressive forward depth and pay their defense a lot of money. But The Rangers struggle mightily to exit their own zone. The mobility to escape pursuit on retrieval is not there from Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, and Dan Boyle, and the entire defensive group is guilty of poor decision-making and accuracy on first passes. In the neutral zone, the passing and facilitating is not much better, as the poor footwork and impatience to wait until a suitable passing lane opens up result in the Rangers conceding possession.

This enlightening video on YouTube montages not just Girardi’s ineptitude, but also the lack of harmony between the forwards and defensemen when moving the puck.

One interesting way the Rangers might try to mitigate the defective first-pass effort on breakouts is by asking some of their savvier forwards (Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello, Jesper Fast, and Derek Stepan) to play an even larger role in retrievals. Those players will all sporadically retrieve the puck like a defenseman, which pushes the strong-side defenseman into the spot along the boards or in the middle as the near-post outlet. Asking them to do that more would be a novel solution. Why not put your best passers in the area of the ice where your passing is most needed and most inadequate? A learning curve might be expected, but what is clear is that, without McDonagh, something needs to be tried because the Rangers’ Team Hextally Chart is flecked with red everywhere but at the low slot.

While a portion of the Penguins’ Team Hextally Chart is also red, there has been a sharp contrast under coach Mike Sullivan in terms of structure on breakouts and in transition. Sullivan shrewdly has his wingers sink deep in the zone and work the boards in an effort to spring the puck for a rush attempt, and when it does, Crosby, Malkin, and Phil Kessel are eager recipients. That trio gets to initiate the rush, but it also leads to opportunity for the speedier players to accelerate and get behind the defense, like Carl Hagelin does here.

Sullivan recognized and implemented the proper way to channel his role players; now they work to leverage the superstar players’ skill sets. Freed from the dirty work, the stars can expend their energy on offensive production; once possession is gained, they can be the fulcrum of the sequence. The previous regime had Pittsburgh try to grind their opponents down; the present one wants them to create.

This sounds like it will spell doom for the Rangers. But there is reason to challenge that wisdom. The ingredients are there for the Blueshirts to steal this series, but that will depend heavily on Lundqvist. True, Lundqvist was not sublime this season like he has been in past years, but the bet here is that he raises his game and outperforms the Penguins’ goaltender(s). If New York can keep the lid on Pittsburgh’s offense and not blow coverage assignments in their defensive zone – this is a concern every shift – they have the right pieces to win. When they show coherent form outside of the offensive zone, the Rangers are dangerous.

Mats Zuccarello is a wizard with the puck, and his distributing and puck-handling open up quiet ice for teammates. Derick Brassard brings a similar skill set, and like Zuccarello, is relentless on the forecheck. Most encouragingly, Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider had strong finishes to the season. Incredibly, J.T. Miller, Rick Nash, Kevin Hayes, and Eric Staal have yet to be named but should be counted on for contributions.

When a team is really poor at controlling shot attempts and still makes the playoffs (Colorado 2014, Calgary 2015), the reasons are usually puck luck, timely scoring, and excellent goaltending. All three of those played a part in the Rangers’ success this season, albeit to varying degrees. (The Rangers finished first in PDO.) But what separates the Rangers from the Avalanche and Flames, who both lost in the first round those seasons, is that the Rangers have many talented forwards and a first-rate goaltender. Like most teams, they have a conspicuous flaw. The bet here is that the strengths of Lundqvist and the nucleus overwhelm the weakness.

Prediction: Rangers in seven

Tampa Bay Lightning and Detroit Red Wings

A lot can change in a year. When these two met in the 2015 playoffs, it was Detroit who felt the uneasy tension of possibly losing their star free agent, coach Mike Babcock. The Lightning were an inferno offensively. The Triplets were at the peak of their powers, and Steven Stamkos and the rest of the supporting cast submitted gaudy numbers on a macro and micro level. Still, Detroit nearly beat Tampa Bay. The Bolts staged a miraculous comeback and pulled out the series by the skin of their teeth. It led to a Stanley Cup appearance in which the Bolts barely lost. Survival can presage great things.

Over the last twelve months, Babcock left the Red Wings, and now Stamkos is poised to leave the Bolts this summer. Tampa Bay’s top pair defenseman, Anton Stralman, is injured. Expectations for the Bolts are depressed and so are the numbers from two of the three Triplets. And to be fair to Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, Ryan Callahan and Valtteri Filppula’s numbers dropped sharply as well.

But the playoffs allow for a reset. Detroit narrowly qualified for the playoff field under new head coach Jeff Blashill, and for long stretches of the regular season they struggled to score. They are also starting Jimmy Howard in goal, but that is subject to change if he struggles. Like Tampa Bay, the Red Wings have the talent to airbrush the agitation from the regular season. The mix of youth versus age is Shakespearean in its gravity. The Red Wings are currently trying to bridge their old Stanley Cup Hall of Fame years of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk with Dylan Larkin and to a less successful extent Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist.

The nuts and bolts of this series are that both teams control the puck well and have depth up front. These strengths will be manifested in a healthy dosage of backdoor cuts, slap-passes, and cross-and-drops. Yet a portion of that puck control stemmed from quick zone exits. Both teams were top five in Corsi against per 60 minutes. Forwards on both sides were saavy, dipping low in the zone to help battle enemy skaters for possession. And defensemen knew that, if they cleanly retrieved the puck, their forwards would place themselves as available outlets on the first pass.

With Stamkos out of the lineup, the only player who scored above 20 goals this season for Tampa Bay was Nikita Kucherov. Palat notched the third highest goal total with 16. The Lightning rolled the dice with not meeting Stamkos’ contract demands and now he will hit free agency. Implicit in that tactic was the notion that Tyler Johnson can reach the heights that he did last season when he scored 29 goals in the regular season and 13 in the postseason. To do that, he needs to stay healthy, and the Spokane, Washington native has been banged up all season and will enter tonight questionable.

When Johnson was healthy, he did show flashes of the brilliant player he was last year. At his best, he wields the puck confidently, threading pocket passes to his linemates and using his balance and elusiveness to cut into valuable parts of the ice. He also employs anticipation with his forecheck and reads away from the puck, which enables Tampa Bay to sustain possession. His power to influence play also trickles into the defensive side, because if he is lagging, it will make the Bolts defense, who is without Stralman, that much more vulnerable.

Offensive responsibility will not only fall on Johnson. Palat and Vladislav Namestikov will both need to be offensive creators. Their roles will be to chip in scoring and keep the puck away from Detroit’s end, a task both are greatly capable of due to their prowess carrying the puck. If goal-scoring responsibilities fall on the Triplets in Stamkos’ absence, part of their success strategy will be to soak up time in the offensive zone and incorporate their defensemen. That bumps up against maybe the most important adjustment that the Lightning must make to win this series. With Stamkos injured, they are without their best shooter. With Stralman injured, they are worse in all spaces of the ice. Therefore, simplifying their game is paramount to the Lightning winning. If Johnson, Kucherov, Palat, Namestikov skate themselves into a clean look, or set up a teammate for a shot in the off-slot, fire away. The only way they win this series is by shooting and retrieving frequently. Even if that stunts creativity, it a necessary means. Those four forwards will determine whether the Lightning advance or not. (Goaltender Ben Bishop outplaying his counterpart is an obvious need in any scenario envisioning the Lightning winning.) Any production they get from Callahan, Filppula, Alex Killorn, J.T. Brown, Brian Boyle, and Jonathan Drouin is a bonus.

How the Red Wings win has a more egalitarian feel, but in many respects it is the same. They probably won’t score a lot, so possession time in the offensive zone is essential, as is shooting when there is daylight. Tampa Bay has the possibility of unleashing a fierce rush game, so transition defense will also be important for Detroit.

Last year, Babcock deployed Luke Glendening, Landon Ferraro, and Joakim Andersson as the shutdown line against the Triplets and it worked well for a few games. It will be interesting to see how Lightning coach Jon Cooper deploys his high-end talent, but Detroit might want to try that tactic with whichever line Kucherov is on. If Kucherov stumbles, the Lightning won’t win. The Red Wings understand that a source of their strength is controlling the puck, even when there is not a lot of space. Possession is power. Without Stralman, the Lightning defense is ripe for exposure, and Detroit has a plethora of forwards who are capable of adding offense. Unlike Tampa Bay, the Red Wings’ success is not dependent on a few players.

In many respects, this series will look a lot like last year. A cascade of speed and skill splashed across television screens across North America. But there is also opportunity. The East has been reduced to a parlor game of “Can Anyone Beat the Caps?” The winner of this series will get the Islanders or Panthers, and would face the Capitals in the Western Conference finals. Unforeseeable events happen every season, and by that time Washington’s fortunes could look drastically different than they do now. A singular focus is desperately needed by both teams. Win the series and anything is possible.

Prediction: Lightning in seven

Washington Capitals vs. Philadelphia Flyers

There is an interesting subtext to this series that can escape notice if only examined at the surface level. There is still a stigma about whether Russian players have the heart and can lug their team to a championship. Directly and indirectly, this Scarlet Letter has been affixed to Ovechkin his whole career. Now he is in his best position ever, and that is not because a North American player joined him. Rather, fellow Russian Evgeny Kuznetsov has emerged as a bonafide superstar. Washington is set for a deep playoff run, and the response to this narrative will be fascinating.

And then there is the Philadelphia Flyers, a franchise that branded itself as the Broad Street Bullies and reveled in a power and physical style of play that sometimes crossed the line. Browbeat their opponents and win on the scoreboard, too. But as hockey’s mores have changed, the Flyers have evolved. Finally. They still have a few players with some bite, but Philadelphia has adapted to an NHL landscape that prizes speed over size.

Flyers coach Dave Hakstol has done an outstanding job, and should be seriously considered for the Jack Adams Award for what he has accomplished. Philadelphia finishing in the top ten in Corsi for percentage in close-game situations and in the middle of the pack at 5v5 in all situations is the quantitate proof of how Hakstol took a team with limited talent and enabled them to overachieve. For context, their shot attempt percentage in the former was better than the Capitals, and slightly worse in the latter.

The Flyers finished top five in Corsi for per 60 at even strength, 16 spots higher than last year. To be fair, the Flyers did finish with the best even-strength save percentage in the league despite a red-covered Team Hextally, but Hakstol’s defensive group is well below average. Still, the blue line managed to stay above sea level, Shayne Gostisbehere established himself as a dynamic, game-changing defenseman, and Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, and Brayden Schenn all posted stout offensive numbers.

But enough with the praise. The Flyers are playing a juggernaut. Every ingredient a general manager could want is infused in the Capitals: shooting, playmaking, puck-handling, predatory forechecking, hockey intelligence, outstanding goaltending, top-five special teams. Coach Barry Trotz installed the framework to house the untrammeled skill, and GM Brian MacLellan furnished it by adding T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams. From top to bottom, this team is loaded.

The Capitals have far too much scoring, and when John Carlson was healthy the defense really collated under his stewardship. Still, there are a few concerns. Somehow, incredibly, even with all we know about sports science and the importance of rest, Braden Holtby inexplicably played 66 games. This made zero sense when considering that the Capitals had the conference clinched by a country mile. Additionally, because Washington exceeded their peers by so many points, they have been playing meaningless games for a while now. The aggregate talent spells a quick series victory, but it may take a game for Washington to get humming.

Prediction: Capitals in five

 New York Islanders vs. Florida Panthers

Hockey media and fans generally see Cup contention as a space of time (or “window”) during which the best players can compete for the championship. But a more evolved view on the matter appreciates the fragility of contending, and the cultivation it takes to keep that window open. This metaphor can be applied to the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that reached consecutive cups in the late aughts, but has not been back this decade. But the most recent example is the Tampa Bay Lightning, a. young team on the rise that reached the Cup, lost, and now might lose their top scorer and captain, and virtually everyone meaningful needs a new contract. It makes what the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings have accomplished that much more impressive.

Which brings us to this series, where one team is in danger of seeing whatever hopes they had of contending in the future dissipate if its core dissolves, and the other appears to be on the precipice of great things.

For the Islanders, this has not been a good year. Their No.1 defenseman, Travis Hamonic, wants to be traded. Rumors have been floated about John Tavares leaving for Canada when his contract expires. Also, Kyle Okposo posted another big year offensively, raising his price tag this summer if the Islanders want to retain him. And the move to Brooklyn has been a disaster. If they lose to Florida, it would be the same result as last year – another first-round exit. But if you include all the internal and external variables, this team may be closer to reverse than neutral.

The Panthers are playing with house money. Their No. 1, 2, and 3 draft picks that they made in 2011, 2013, and 2014, have all translated into building blocks, and GM Dale Tallon made acquisitions (Brian Campbell, Reilly Smith, Jaromir Jagr, and Jussi Jokinen) and draft picks (Vincent Trocheck and Nick Bjugstad) who have moved the needle as well. The product has been exciting, a nice blend of puck skills and size. The Aleksander Barkov line is the one the Islanders need to fret about.

Barkov is a phenomenal player, so good that the often-used comparison to a young Anze Kopitar does not seem blasphemous. Jonathan Huberdeau is an adept passer and puck-transporter who is still honing his goal-scoring at the NHL level. And Jagr has been great in his role at his age. Barkov and Huberdeau have the legs to take the puck from Point A to Point B. Jagr does not have the speed anymore, but he has the experience to know where the puck will land two seconds before it gets there, which has proved invaluable. The Islanders weren’t especially good at deterring shot attempts this season, and whether they have the right defensive pairing and line to match up against the Cats’ first line is questionable. In addition, assuming Trocheck makes a speedy recovery, the Panthers have two more forward lines (Trocheck- Jokinen-Smith and Bjugstad-Teddy Purcell-Jiri Hudler) that should overwhelm a stale Islanders’ group.

The Panthers’ top players are inexperienced, and in theory, the Islanders prior postseason experiences should help them. But it is unclear if there is any unit of the Islanders team that improved from last year. Their ability to generate and prevent shot attempts (CF60 and CA60) both got worse, and their shot attempt creation dropped significantly. There was not a single player on the team who had a season that would signal they made any improvement aside from 31-year-old Frans Nielsen. The young players seem to have stagnated. Maybe a coaching change is needed, but the Islanders have been listless all season and IH likes the talent and energy surrounding the Panthers’ forwards, defensemen, and goalie much more. It seems very plausible the Islanders could unravel in an ugly way after this loss.

Prediction: Panthers in six

Posted in the Category of: Features

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *