The Second Round of the NHL Playoffs Promises to Be Thrilling
From Jets-Preds to another Pens-Caps series and Vegas' push to the conference final, the storylines are juicy. Here's Down Goes Brown's second-round preview.
Photos by Ed Mulholland, Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Well, that was a bit of a letdown. After a first-round that saw just one Game 7, no significant upsets and only a handful of especially competitive series, we're onto round two. If you're keeping track, our round one picks were seven-for-eight, with three of those also nailing the correct number of games. That's not bad, but let's see if we can do better with a look ahead to round two.
Metro Division: #1 Washington Capitals vs. #2 Pittsburgh Penguins
In this corner: The Capitals (49-26-7, 105 points, +18), who survived a scare against the Blue Jackets, dropping the first two before winning four straight.
And in this corner: The Penguins (47-29-6, 100 points, +22), who beat the Flyers to make it nine straight series wins since the start of the 2016 playoffs.
Head-to-head: They split four games.
Injury report: The Penguins had to finish off the Flyers without Evgeni Malkin, and right now he's expected to miss Game 1 with his status for the remainder of the series unknown—obviously, any absence there would be huge. Carl Hagelin is also a question mark. The Capitals should have everyone other than Andre Burakovsky.
Dominant narrative: History. Every Capitals series has the cloud of past playoff failures hanging over it, and by this point the whole "How will it all go wrong?" story has probably been done to death. But with the Penguins waiting for them in round two, the past is unavoidable. The Caps have had home ice in a second-round meeting against the Penguins in each of the last two years, and each time they've lost in heart-breaking fashion. Stretching back further, they've lost seven straight series to the Penguins since 1995, and nine of ten going back to 1991. Four of those losses have come in seventh games, including last year's.
For the Capitals, the Penguins are basically the bully who stuffed you in your locker in grade school, if you'd been stuck in the same grade school for nearly 30 years and the bully kept showing up every few semesters wearing another Stanley Cup ring.
The big question: Who wins the goaltending battle? That's a big question in every series, of course, but it's especially relevant in this one. Heading into the season, you'd have figured that both teams were all set at the position, with Vezina winner Braden Holtby in Washington and two-time Cup winner Matt Murray in Pittsburgh. But Holtby struggled this year and actually lost his starting job to Philipp Grubauer for the first two games of the Columbus series. And Murray has been inconsistent, looking brilliant one night and shaky the next. Both these guys can steal games, but neither is inspiring much confidence right now.
One player to watch: Alexander Ovechkin. Sticking with our obvious theme, let's turn to Ovechkin. You may know him from such narratives as "never wins the big one" and "always disappears in the clutch." The first one has been kind of true, if we're being honest. But the second one hasn't been—he scored his 51st career playoff goal in the clincher in Columbus, and ranks near the top of the cap era leaderboard despite never playing past the second round.
But it doesn't matter, because nothing he does will matter until the Capitals win. If he lights up the scoreboard and the Caps lose again, he'll be the guy who only puts up numbers when it doesn't matter. If he has a quiet game or two, it will be because he's a choker. It's not fair, but that's sports. The good news is with Sidney Crosby and the Penguins showing up, Ovechkin's got yet another chance to have the sort of climb-on-my-back performance that wins the series and shuts up his critics once and for all. (At least until the next round.)
Key number: 1.10 – Career points-per-game in the postseason for Pittsburgh's Jake Guentzel. That ranks second in the cap era among players with at least 30 playoffs games, trailing only Crosby's 1.15. In case you're wondering, Malkin ranks third, and Phil Kessel shows up 14th. The Penguins have a little bit of scoring depth.
Prediction: Capitals in five.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: Ovechkin's big breakout finally comes, as he has two hat tricks in the series.
Atlantic Division: #1 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. #2 Boston Bruins
In this corner: The Lightning (54-23-5, 117 points, +56), who took care of business in five games against the Devils.
And in this corner: The Bruins (50-20-12, 112 points, +56), who needed a third-period comeback to get past the Maple Leafs in seven.
Head-to-head: The Bruins won three of four, including two of the three games these teams played against each other in the season's final few weeks.
Injury report: The Lightning don't have any major names on the injury report. Neither do the Bruins, apart from Brandon Carlo being out for the season. But Patrice Bergeron missed a game in round one and looked off in the second half of the series, so that's a situation worth watching.
Dominant narrative: The battle of the big lines. There's always been two schools of thought when it comes to arranging your forward lines. The first is that you spread out the offense, getting at least one genuine threat on as many lines as you can and making it as difficult as possible for the other team to match up with you. The other is that you load up one line, throw your very best out there together, and say "try to stop us."
In recent years, the trend has been toward the former approach. But these two teams both lean toward the latter. The Bruins load up their three best forwards together on the top unit, and Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak form what may be the best line in the league. The Lightning tend to pair their two superstars, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, with a winger (recently it's been J.T. Miller). Both teams have depth up front, so it's not like shutting down the top line means you win the series. But this matchup will feature some big-name forwards, and there will be times that they're all out on the ice going head-to-head. That will be fascinating to watch.
The big question: Does the extra time off help or hurt the Lightning? The series features a Bruins team coming off a seven-game battle to face a well-rested Lightning squad that will have been off for a full week by the time we get going on Saturday. The conventional wisdom says that should help Tampa in the long run, but could hurt them in Game 1 as they shake off the rust. In what figures to be a much tougher challenge than they faced against the Devils, the Lightning can't afford to cough up home-ice advantage with a sluggish opener.
One player to watch: Victor Hedman. The Tampa defenseman is probably going to win the Norris Trophy at the end of the year, and it won't be undeserved. The Lightning leaned heavily on him in the first round to the tune of 26:24 of ice time per game, which is a ton considering the series didn't see any overtime. Still, he wasn't quite up to his usual standard; he failed to record a point and his most memorable highlight involved sticking an opponent in the groin. He'll need to do more in this series, where he figures to get plenty of minutes against that dangerous Bergeron line.
Key number: .300 – The Lightning's winning percentage in games they trailed through two periods, by far the best in the league. The Bruins came in at .214, good for fourth place. In other words, don't assume any of these games are over jut because one team holds a lead heading into the third. Um, sorry to bring that up, Leaf fans.
Prediction: Bruins in seven.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: Rick Nash has a big series, scoring four times. Hi, it's me, the guy who never learns from history ever.
Pacific Division: #1 Vegas Golden Knights vs. #3 San Jose Sharks
In this corner: The Knights (51-24-7, 109 points, +43), who continued their miracle season by sweeping the Kings.
And in this corner: The Sharks (45-27-10, 100 points, +21), who had a surprisingly easy time shutting down the Ducks in four in the only first-round series that saw the lower seed advance.
Head-to-head: The Knights took three of four. The teams split a pair of one-goal games over the season's last few weeks.
Injury report: Both teams are coming off of sweeps, which is exceedingly rare, so in theory both teams should be well-rested. Shaking off the early rust may be as big an issue as any lingering injuries.
Dominant narrative: Cinderella vs. midnight. OK, yes, we used that last time around when the Knights were facing the Kings. But it's the elephant in the room that will follow Vegas all the way to the final, if they can get that far. At this point, the story of an expansion team dominating the league right out of the gate is so unprecedented that you almost just have to throw up your hands, stop trying to figure it out, and enjoy the ride. But the Sharks will be looking to put an end to the story, and they should match up better than the Kings did.
The big question: What happens when the Knights face some on-ice adversity? I mean, it has to happen eventually… we think. Given where expectations were for this team early on, you could argue that they haven't faced a truly challenging stretch all season long. They should have—remember when they were down to their fifth-string goalie?—but it never seemed to stick in any meaningful way.
Still, you'd have to think that a veteran Sharks team will be able to apply some pressure. How do the Knights respond? Probably pretty well. This is a team made up of castoffs from around the league, and most of them sure rebounded from that pretty well. But doing it in the playoffs can be another matter entirely, as the Knights will eventually find out. Maybe.
One player to watch: Joe Thornton. The Sharks' veteran hasn't played since January and we're not even sure when we'll see him in the series. But he sure seems ready to return—he took warmups early in the Anaheim series, suggesting he could have played if he'd been needed. He will be against the Knights, and while he's not the Art Ross candidate he was a decade ago, he can still give the offense a boost. And they'll need it, because of what's in this next section.
Key number: 7 – Total goals allowed by these two teams in the first round, the lowest for any matchup in the modern era. That means that either we're in for a dreadfully low-scoring series, or one (or both) teams will see their defensive mastery cracked.
Prediction: Sharks in six.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: With everyone focused on the stingy defense and goaltending, the two teams both allow at least as many goals in the opening game as they allowed all last round.
#1 Nashville Predators vs. #2 Winnipeg Jets
In this corner: The Predators (53-18-11, 117 points, +57), who needed six games to dispatch a feisty Avalanche team.
And in this corner: The Jets (52-20-10, 114 points, +57), who cruised past the Wild in five.
Head-to-head: The Predators won three of five. A late February matchup that Nashville won by a 6-5 final was one of the best regular-season games of the year.
Injury report: The Jets are banged up, and finished the series against the Wild without Toby Enstrom (lower body), Mathieu Perreault (shoulder) and Nikolaj Ehlers (malaise—no, really). Tyler Myers returned to lineup after an ugly collision, but may not be close to 100 percent. The Predators are relatively healthy, with only Yannick Weber appearing on the injured list.
Dominant narrative: We don't need one. The Jets and Predators were the two top teams in the regular season, and while the standings can sometimes lie, these really do seem like the two best teams in the league right now. Slap your fancy storylines on the other series—this one is just going to be two amazing teams going head-to-head, with the winner emerging as the Stanley Cup favorite.
The big question: Will the winner have anything left? When fans get overly excited about a specific matchup, we're often punished by the hockey gods with a short series. Maybe that happens here. But this sure feels like a seven-game classic that's going to feature at least a few overtimes, and it's going to be a physical war. That should make for some fascinating entertainment. But it could also mean that whoever's still left standing at the end might be easy pickings for a well-rested Pacific team. Keep an eye on ice time and the injury report, as this one could turn into a battle of attrition.
One player to watch: Dustin Byfuglien. There's a ton of talent in this series, much of it on the blueline, including Norris nominee P.K. Subban. If you wanted to, you could probably make a case that Byfuglien is only the fourth or fifth best defenseman in this series. But in what promises to be a physical battle, there may not be a player on either team who could have as big an impact—literally. Just ask Minnesota's Mikko Koivu or Joel Eriksson Ek. Byfuglien gets too caught up in the physical side sometimes and ends up running around, and the Jets need his offense, too. But if you're a Predators forward, the thought of a full seven-game series of Byfuglien lurking as a potential wrecking ball has to worry you.
Key number: 2 – The number of goalies in the league this season who started at least 50 games while posting a goals-against average under 2.40 and a save percentage over .920. That would be Winnipeg's Connor Hellebuyck and Nashville's Pekka Rinne. Sure, we're playing with some arbitrary end points there. But whichever way you slice the numbers, these are two of the best goaltenders in the league right now, which is why both are Vezina finalists. One factor to keep in mind: Hellebuyck is in his first playoff run as a full-time starter while Rinne is in his seventh, including last year's run to the Stanley Cup Final.
Prediction: Jets in seven.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: The home team wins every game… until the seventh.