Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Second round predictions: Eastern Conference

The results of my first round predictions were grim: I only correctly picked the Capitals to advance in the East, and the Oilers and Ducks in the West.  This is the nature of playoff hockey, and why we love it so much.  The unpredictability keeps us glued to the couch for two (often disappointing) months.

Still, 3/8 is not so bad, considering no one in the world had the Predators sweeping a still very good Blackhawks team. But I am a Capitals fan, so falling short of expectations is the name of the game.  No harm, no foul.

As we move on to the second round tomorrow evening, with oddly both Western series beginning on the same day, we take a breath, restock the fridge, and prepare for disappointment.

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (2) Pittsburgh Penguins

Much has been written of this playoff matchup between the top two teams in the regular season.  Mostly, the public response has been negative.  While not perfect, the current format, based on that of 1981-82, allows for teams to play year after year when it matters most, whereas the previous format would see the division champions ranked as the two top seeds with the remaining slots filled by the next six teams in the conference, making repeated playoff matchups far less frequent. 

However, instead of fretting over the format, we should focus on the likelihood that the winner of this series will go on to win the Stanley Cup, as it did last year and twice in the early '90s. 

The Capitals have never been more motivated to play hard than they are now - after a surprisingly tough battle with the Maple Leafs over a six game series which saw every game decided by a single goal, they now face their nemesis, their greatest rival, the biggest bump on the road to success, a team they have not beaten in a playoff series since 1994.  The x-factor in this series is health.  The Capitals have a question mark on defense with Alzner missing games for the first time in several years, but having acquired depth in Shattenkirk, they have seven NHL defensemen on the roster. 

The Penguins, having lost Letang for the duration of the playoffs, with Kunitz and Hagelin remaining as big question marks, are depleted of much of the scoring depth that helped propel them past the Capitals last season.  The Capitals are a heavy team, perhaps the heaviest in the Eastern Conference, and rely on dumping the puck into the zone and maintaining long possessions to score goals.  Letang counters that by getting the puck first and moving it out of the zone quickly to the Penguins fast forwards.  His loss will be the difference maker.  Hagelin of course led the team against the Capitals, scoring three goals including a game winner, and assisting on Bonino's OT winner which ended the series.  Forming one third of the best line in the playoffs last year, if he is unable to gear up, Hagelin's skating ability will badly be missed against a team that often looked bad in transition against a high-flying Maple Leafs roster.  Kunitz, having lost a step, is still effective on the forecheck, is tenacious in front of the net, and scored as many goals and assists in last year's matchup as Malkin and Crosby combined.  Depth scoring matters in the playoffs, and with the potential loss of these two, the Penguins will have their work cut out for them. 

Prediction: Washington in 6

(2) Ottawa Senators vs. (WC1) New York Rangers

Four years removed from posting the best save percentage in NHL history, and two years removed from the Hamburglar's incredible run, Craig Anderson is back where he belongs: backstopping an upstart Senators team in the playoffs.  Following an up-and-down season with an unprecedented amount of stress due to his wife's health issues, Anderson is seated firmly atop the goaltender depth chart.  Establishing consistency late in the year helped drive the Senators ahead of a team that showed flashes of brilliance, Anderson, having won 7 of his previous 9 starts, bested the hottest team outside of DC in dramatic fashion.  Driven by a dominating series at the hands of Erik Karlsson, the Senators took advantage of a stupid penalty - in overtime, off the puck - to put the Bruins away. 

This series may be partially overshadowed by the Zibanejad/Brassard trade, but the Rangers are playing for much more.  No team has played more post-season games since 2012 since the Rangers, who are leaning heavily on an aging and now often hurt Henrik Lundqvist.  After another amazing series against a top flight goaltender, it is clear that he still has a lot left to give.  The question is whether or not the team will give him another chance. 

New York was the best team on the road, and they will need to steal a game from Ottawa to have a chance. 

Prediction: New York in 7

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