The first round of action in the NHL playoffs included all the excitement and bitterness that fans expect come April. Fans were treated to brilliant performances by goaltenders Marc-Andre Fleury, Jonathan Quick, Martin Jones and more. We saw a brilliant four goal outburst by Jake Guentzel and a rejuvenated Capitals team overcome a 2-0 series deficit. The Winnipeg Jets captured the hearts of Canadians everywhere, and the Boston Bruins fended off a young Maple Leafs squad in a thrilling seven game set. The Predators and fans reminded us that Nashville really is a hockey town, the Sharks reemerged as a perennial contender, and the Golden Knights continued to shock the hockey world.
As the second round begins tonight, story lines abound that promise even closer games and more electrifying action. Our staff writers offer insight into each matchup:
Capitals vs. Penguins
We’ve seen this one before, and it has ended the same way each time in recent memory. Since generational talents Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin broke into the league in 2005-06, these star-powered rivals have crossed paths in the playoffs three times, always in the second round – in 2009, 2016, and 2017. The well trained eye may recognize that these years share something in common – they all hang from the rafters of PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.
In each of these three meetings, the Capitals have entered as division champions and boasted home ice advantage, as they do for this meeting. The Penguins will head into Washington on tonight with a desire to repeat this cycle once more. Despite being forced into six games, the Penguins appeared dominant through most of their first round series against their cross-state enemy, the Philadelphia Flyers. The Penguins buried nearly five goals per game, and goaltender Matt Murray stood strong between the pipes, posting two shutouts en route to a 2.5 goals against per game average. Crosby and his second-year line mate Jake Guentzel are tied for the league lead in both points and goals through one round, with 6 goals and 7 assists apiece. The Penguins controlled the pace of play, accounting for 54.43% of scoring chances over the course of the series.
While the Capitals appeared less dominant over the course of their six game series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, they enter the second round with a four game win streak. They remain focused on the task at hand, willfully ignoring their reputation for second round woes. As the division champion with home ice advantage in hand, they are slightly favored by bookkeepers, currently listed at -122 to win the series. Capitalizing on that advantage will require focus in net from Braden Holtby, whose first round statistics drastically outperformed his atypically poor regular season numbers. Holtby posted a .932 save percentage and a 1.92 goals against average against Columbus, having reclaimed his net after backup Philip Grubauer started each of the first two games. His performance under pressure certainly inspired his teammates’ confidence.
This series is bound to be as hard fought as the split season series. Both teams have all the inspiration they need – the Penguins seeking a historic third straight championship, and the Capitals seeking to wash away their troubled post-season past. We’re in for a great one.
Keys to victory
1. Evgeni Malkin’s health. The Penguins regular season points leader missed the final game of the first round after suffering a lower body injury in Game 4. He will miss game one, but the Penguins have kept quiet regarding a timeline beyond that.
2. Win Game 1. Since 2016, the Penguins have lost back-to-back playoff games three times (out of 55 total games). If the Penguins win Game 1, the Capitals will be forced to win back-to-back to recover the series.
1. Braden Holtby stands strong. Holtby was not his usual self in the playoffs last year, nor in this regular season. Goaltenders play under a microscope in the playoffs that can impede performance for some. But Holtby is a word class goaltender and could sway this series in the Caps’ favor.
2. Ovi takes over. No NHL player of this generation has been more criticized for failure to produce in the playoffs than Alex Ovechkin. The superstar has never made it past the second round, scoring .95 points per playoff game, compared to 1.12 points per regular season game. He needs to find a way to elevate his play in this series.
Prediction – Penguins in 7
Lightning vs. Bruins
The Boston Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning will meet in a second round battle between the two top teams in the Eastern Conference. The two teams met twice in the last two weeks of the season, and many core players on both perennial contenders have a longer playoff history. Veteran leaders Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara led Boston past Steven Stamkos and Tampa in a thrilling seven game Eastern Conference finals series in 2011 en route to the Stanley Cup Championship. Tampa Bay will be well rested and will enjoy home ice against Boston, but then again the Bruins’ last cup run involved three game seven victories (one down, two to go).
The Tampa Bay Lightning will enter into the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs well rested after soundly eliminating the New Jersey Devils four games to one. Tampa Bay was in the first round led by forwards Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos who combined for six goals and ten assists in the five games. With the third most points in the NHL and an Atlantic Division title, this is as strong a Lightning team as we’ve seen since Tampa Bay lost in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2015. The Lightning were very close in 2016 as well with a trip to the Eastern Conference finals against Pittsburgh, but they have failed to capitalize on the prime years for a career-long Tampa star in Stamkos. They will look to take their second step against Boston.
The Boston Bruins will come into this second round bout with Tampa Bay two days out from a thrilling Game 7 victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs. After 5-1 and 7-3 wins at home to start the series, it had appeared as if Boston was going to cruise into this heavyweight matchup. However, playoff hockey will be playoff hockey. Toronto proceeded to win three of four including a Game 5 victory in which Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask was pulled after allowing four goals on thirteen shots, including two within two minutes in the second period. Boston found a way, however, but will need to finish scoring opportunities if they hope to knock off the Eastern Conference one seed. The Bruins had over 20 shots in the third period of a heartbreaking 4-3 Game 5 loss, but failed to find the back of the net. Boston also must be stronger on the blue line, as the Maple Leafs used long distance breakouts on a consistent basis to generate quick and lethal scoring opportunities on the other end.
Keys to victory
1. Kucherov stays hot. Kucherov was absolutely prolific against New Jersey, with two points per game in a very comfortable week of playoff hockey for the Lightning. If Tampa Bay can count on consistent scoring from the 24-year-old breakout star they should be in good shape
2. Defend Home Ice. With a 4-0 playoff record and a 29-10-2 regular season record in Tampa Bay, the Lightning have proven to be a force to be reckoned with at Amalie Arena. With home ice against Boston in the second round, Tampa Bay won’t want to drop one of the first two games of the series against a Bruins team coming in with momentum.
1. The First Line. The Bruins need strong production from a star-studded first line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak. Pastrnak led the Bruins with 11 points in the first round and Marchand and Bergeron combined for another 10. The top line is the engine that drives this Bruins team, and in a contested matchup with Kucherov and Stamkos this will continue to be the case.
2. Tuukka Rask. Rask went through an up and down first round series against Toronto. Rask was pulled in Game 5, as mentioned, but proceeded to rack up highlight reel saves in Games 6 and 7 to keep Boston in it. Playoff hockey is often dominated by a hot goalie, and if Rask continues to play well I like Boston’s chances
Prediction – Bruins in 6
Predators vs. Jets
For two teams meeting for the first time ever in the playoffs, the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets are plenty familiar with one another. These Central division powerhouses were separated by only three points for first and second place in the regular season, not only in their division, but in the entire league. Both franchises have set a series of firsts in the past year. The Predators, who came into last year’s tournament as the last seed, reached the Stanley Cup finals and followed it up with a President’s trophy winning record this season. Just last week, the Jets beat the Minnesota Wild to win their first ever playoff series, only the second they’ve played in since relocating from Atlanta seven years ago. Both teams set franchise record regular seasons, but neither wants to stop there – there’s one more first they have yet to check off. A feat that so narrowly evaded Nashville last June, and for Winnipeg, seemed so distant for such a long time. One of these teams very well may be lifting Lord Stanley in June, but first they’ll have to go through the other.
Though Nashville is structured around its top-four defensive core while Winnipeg rests on its offensive star power, these teams fared pretty similarly in the regular season. Both teams were in the top end in goals for and against in the league, and they were essentially identical in shots for, shots against, faceoff win percentage, and penalty kill. The Jets did edge the Predators on the power play, however, finishing fifth in the league at 23.4% to Nashville’s fourteenth at 21.2%. The Predators led the league in penalty minutes, averaging three more than Winnipeg per game, but also drew a minute more in penalties out of their opponent.
After the first round, both teams rank in the top five amongst playoff teams for shots for and in the top three for shots against. Contrary to design, Nashville actually has the slight edge in goals for while Winnipeg has it in goals against, but even so these numbers are comparable. As far as special teams go, Winnipeg has a huge edge on the power play, having maintained regular season form while Nashville underperformed, but Nashville put up one of the top penalty kills while the Jets fell towards the bottom of the pack. Special teams will likely play a large role in this series as Winnipeg averaged 12 penalty minutes per game in just five games while Nashville fell just shy of 10 per game in six.
The Jets made quick work of the Minnesota Wild, taking Round 1 in five games. They came out on the right side of a couple of close games and bounced back nicely from a four-goal loss in Game 3, eventually winning Game 5 in convincing fashion. The players expected to show up offensively did, as did defenseman Dustin Byfuglien who is tied with Mark Scheifele for the team lead in points. Goaltender Connor Hellebuyck played like the Vezina trophy finalist he is, posting shutouts in Games 4 and 5 and an overall save percentage of .924.
The Predators seemed to struggle a bit against the eighth seeded Colorado Avalanche who forced them to six games. The Avalanche handed Nashville their first home loss of the playoffs, where they’d been virtually unbeatable last year, and effectively neutralized their top two lines. Luckily, Colorado had no answers for the depth of the Predators, most notably the third line of Austin Watson, Colton Sissons, and Nick Bonino, who contributed in clutch situations. Pekka Rinne, also a Vezina trophy finalist this season, shut out the Avalanche in the final game as Nashville closed out the series with a five-goal statement win. Despite a less dominant first round, the Predators have home ice advantage and are still the favorite in Vegas at -140.
Keys to Victory
1. Get on the power play. The power play has been a huge tool for this team, and it will no doubt be a factor if this series is to go their way. They are matched up against a tough Predators penalty kill, but forcing their defenseman into more minutes of sustained pressure can possibly serve to wear them down as the series goes on.
2. Byfuglien playing big. The Predators played a rough series against the Avalanche, but it doesn’t even compare to what they’re up against in Dustin Byfuglien. If Byfuglien can continue to produce offensively, lay his bone-crushing hits on Predator forwards, and keep himself out of the penalty box, things will be looking good from the Jet’s blue line.
1. Offense from the defense. The Nashville Predators have the best offensive defense in the league. Without a standout scorer, the defense has been relied on to contribute – jumping up into plays and constantly posing a threat in the opponent’s zone. They were quiet last round, but the Predators will need all hands on deck to beat Hellebuyck.
2. Rinne outdueling Hellebuyck. With two Vezina trophy finalists going head to head, this series could easily turn into a low-scoring nail-biter despite the offensive talents on both ends. Both goaltenders had their moments in otherwise solid first rounds, but Rinne will need to be on top of his game to keep Winnipeg’s offense from taking over.
Prediction – Jets in 7
Golden Knights vs. Sharks
The Vegas Golden Knights and San Jose Sharks both enter the second round with confidence, as the only two teams to have swept their first round opponents. Vegas relied on the leadership of veteran goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who came out on the right end of one of the greatest goaltender duels in recent memory. Through four games, Fleury allowed just three goals, allowing the Golden Knights to sweep despite only putting seven goals past Jonathan Quick of the Kings. The Sharks arrived on the backs of a well-balanced four game victory over the Anaheim Ducks, with nine unique goal scorers and another excellent goaltender performance by Martin Jones.
These combatants have been quite comparable in terms of defensive efforts throughout the season. San Jose and Vegas respectively sat at 6th and 7th in the league in fewest shots against, and 9th and 8th in fewest goals against. Both teams controlled the pace of play throughout the regular season; the Golden Knights attributing for 52.23% of scoring chances in their regular season games, compared to 51.82% for the Sharks. Those numbers exploded to 57.58% and 54.23%, respectively, proving that both clubs are prepared for hockey in the spring.
The Golden Knights were slightly more prolific scorers in the regular season, netting 21 more goals over the course of the 82 game season. They ran into a wall in Quick against Los Angeles, though, scoring only 1.75 goals per game, compared to their regular season total of 3.27 per game. Jones and Fleury were two of the only three goalies to post better save percentages than Quick in Round 1, so we could be in for another defensive gem.
Keys to victory
1. Secondary Scoring. The Golden Knights scoring drought against the Kings came due to a lack of production from the bottom two lines. Leading scorers William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault could have produced more, but the more glaring issue is that only six players posted more than a single point throughout the series. This must change in Round 2.
2. Keep dominating in possession. Marc-Andre Fleury was excellent in the first round, but his job was made easier by excellent defense. Fleury’s play will continue to reflect the play in front of him. If his team spends more time in the offensive zone than not, he will carry his weight when the Sharks do come knocking.
1. Silence Vegas’ Power Play. If the Kings did one thing right in the first round, it was kill penalties. Vegas converted on just 8.3% of power play chances against Kings, who boasted the best regular season penalty kill. The Sharks had the next best regular season penalty kill, though, and must replicate that aspect of the first round if they are to move past Vegas.
2. Fear the Beard? Sharks practices have been absent of the league’s best beards since Round 1. Both Brent Burns and Joe Thornton have health concerns heading into Vegas. Thornton, recovering from surgery for a torn MCL, has been ruled out for Game 1. Burns is expected to play, but has been held out of practice with an undisclosed injury. His health is paramount to the Sharks’ success.
Prediction – Sharks in 6