The first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs reminded me of that Shel Silverstein poem, “Almost perfect … but not quite.”
We saw 18 games go to sudden death overtime, a record for a single playoff round. But we didn’t have any Game 7s.
We saw the top two teams in the Western Conference not just get upset, but dominated. But we didn’t have any Game 7s.
The Leafs-Capitals series was end-to-end action from start to finish. But we didn’t have any Game 7s.
Montreal lost out in embarrassing fashion while Nashville remained, giving us a chance to make fun of them for the P.K. Subban trade. But I’d trade all of those easy jokes for one Game 7 because, as great as postseason hockey is, the winner-take-all stakes of Game 7s are the best part.
So while round one was an A-, let’s hope for better in round two. As a bettor, here’s who I’ll be hoping for better from in the next round.
2017 Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions: Round Two
Pittsburgh Penguins (+125) vs Washington Capitals (-145)
It had to be this way for the Capitals. The 49ers had to go through the Cowboys. The Red Sox had to beat the Yankees. The Bulls had to beat the Pistons. The only way Washington is going to join those teams as champions is if they can overcome their rivals in Pittsburgh.
While this is only the third playoff meeting between Sidney Crosby’s Penguins and Alex Ovechkin’s Caps, Pittsburgh has been torturing Washington throughout its franchise history, winning eight of nine playoff series all-time between the two.
Coming into the tenth installment, the Penguins were one of the most impressive teams in the first round, dispatching of a 50-win Columbus team in five games, with backup goalie Marc-Andre Fleury making every start and key players Kris Letang, Carl Hagelin and Chris Kunitz watching from the press box. The league’s leading offense poured in 21 goals over the short series, getting huge contributions from guys not exactly known for their scoring; Jake Guentzel (5 goals) and Bryan Rust (4 goals).
It goes to show, as long as Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are healthy, Pittsburgh will have at least two incredible lines to throw at opponents, no matter who plays on the wing. Now, if Hagelin can return for this series, the Penguins could reunite the “HBK line” (Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel) and roll three strong against Washington.
If Pittsburgh is still running with just a top-heavy two lines, they’ll encounter mismatches against this loaded Capitals team. The Penguins were badly outshot by Columbus in the first round and, while the Jackets didn’t generate a ton of high-danger chances, they also don’t boast the kind of snipers that Washington does. If Pittsburgh can’t be better in the possession game, they’ll need their goalie — likely Fleury, at least for Game 1 — to win them another series.
Last year, in the Penguins’ six-game victory over Washington, Matt Murray had a .926 save percentage while out-dueling Vezina-winner Braden Holtby. This postseason, Holtby once again looked shaky out of the gate, but found his rhythm late in their first round series against Toronto, backstopping Washington to a pair of 2-1 OT wins to close out the series.
Though a one-seed beating an eight-seed in six games shouldn’t be looked at as impressive, it was certainly different to see the Caps thrive with their backs against the wall, rather than wilt. From 2008 through 2016, the Capitals were just 10-15 in playoff overtime games. In round one, they won three of five OTs over the Leafs thanks to veterans like Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams, and one surprise contributor: 22-year-old Tom Wilson.
Now, against their biggest rivals, things have never looked more promising for the Capitals. Letang’s injury means Washington boasts the superior blueline (even with Kevin Shattenkirk playing terribly in round one). And though goaltending can be unpredictable in the playoffs (see how Pittsburgh tore through Sergei Bobrovsky), the Capitals should at least be even with the Pens on that front.
All that said, it won’t be a shock if Pittsburgh takes another series as the higher seed, given Washington’s history. But I think it’s finally time for Ovi, Nick Backstrom and the rest of the Capitals to bury this narrative that they’re playoff chokers. Knowing this team, it won’t be easy; but in a Game 7 at home, where they’re 34-7-3 this season, I’ll take the Capitals to finally get it done.
Pick: Capitals in 7 (+400).
Ottawa Senators (+125) vs New York Rangers (-140)
If you’re feeling really nostalgic for 2012 (the year, not the movie), then this is the series for you. Not only is it a rematch of a 2012 first-round series, but it has all the same storylines from that year as well. Henrik Lundqvist is back to being unquestionably the best goaltender in hockey, Bobby Ryan looks like a gifted goal scorer again, and even Clarke MacArthur is over-achieving.
However, the biggest thing to come out of that 2012 season was the realization that Erik Karlsson is one of the best players on the planet. As a 21-year-old, the Senators defenseman scored 78 points on his way to his first Norris Trophy. Flash forward five years, Karlsson is still the game’s best offensive threat on the back end (sorry Brent Burns) and has become even more of a beast in his own end. Despite reports of a foot fracture, Karlsson led all Senators in ice-time in their first-round win over Boston, playing over 30 minutes a night.
It seems important to highlight how great Karlsson is, not only because he’s the best skater in this series, but because New York doesn’t have a defenseman within a mile of his talent. Heck, the Rangers barely have a guy up to Marc Methot’s level. New York’s blue line has basically been Ryan McDonagh and a rotation of different sized pylons. If not for the heroics of Lundqvist — who had a .947 save percentage in six games — their first-round series would still be going, if not already over in favor of Montreal.
But while New York got significantly outshot, their win over the Habs proved that, sometimes, it matters who is taking the shots. Montreal was not a deep scoring team, relying on one line to do a lot of the heavy lifting. Similarly, Ottawa doesn’t have a ton of scorers on the front end beyond Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone and Kyle Turris. Playing a rather defensive system that doesn’t create a ton of 5-on-5 scoring opportunities, this is looking like another series that will be full of 2-1 games.
Heading into the series, Ottawa’s Craig Anderson has only been good: to beat Lundqvist, it’s looking like he’ll have to be outstanding. The good news for Sens fans is that we’ve seen Anderson hit another level in the playoffs before. He has a career save percentage of .931 in the postseason, a whole percentage point better than his 2017 playoff numbers (.921).
So to recap, the Rangers have a deeper forward group than Ottawa; the Sens are better defensively; and both goalies are capable of stealing this series. Yes, it’s basically a repeat of the Montreal-New York battle we just watched. I had the Rangers losing the first time, and now, it’s time to double down.
Pick: Senators in 7 (+450).
Nashville Predators (-125) vs St. Louis Blues (+105)
Orchestrating the playoffs’ two biggest upsets so far, Nashville and St. Louis will now meet in an interesting series to see who moves on to the Conference Finals. However, don’t mistake an interesting matchup with fun hockey, because this series is going to be a slog. Under bettors, eat your hearts out.
The Predators toppled the West’s best team in a shocking four-game sweep, holding the Chicago Blackhawks to just three goals in the series. It was a masterful demonstration of how to use a speed advantage to trap opponents in the neutral zone, but as a sour Patrick Kane noted, it’s not the most exciting hockey to watch. The Preds would jump out to a lead, then use their “Red Rover” trap to limit scoring chances off the rush, while giving themselves opportunities on the counter attack.
You can’t fault the Predators for playing a system that accentuates their strengths (four excellent defenseman and three relentless checking lines), but it is worth questioning if they can find the same success against St. Louis. The Blues just stole a series where they were largely outplayed, thanks to Jake Allen doing a Martin Brodeur impression for five games (allowing just eight goals on 182 shots).
St. Louis could move on again, as long as they can limit Nashville’s line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson. The trio combined for 15 points in the first round, proving to be matchup nightmare for even Chicago’s experienced D-men. The Blues have two quality pairings themselves, with Alex Pieterangelo, Jay Boumeester, Colton Payarko and Joel Edmundson; but even they had trouble wrangling Minnesota’s top lines, none of which had the skill of the “JOFA line.”
On the other end of the ice, the Blues will hope for better puck luck for Vladimir Tarasenko, who mustered just one goal against the Wild, despite leading all skaters with 21 shots in the series. Of course, with Pekka Rinne playing outstanding in the Preds net (stopping 123 of 126 shots), any sort of scoring luck could be hard to come by.
Overall, Nashville has a very 2012 Los Angeles Kings-feel to them (another reference to a fine year, not a sub-standard disaster movie released in 2009). Both those teams were popular preseason Cup picks, but they took most of the regular season to find their game, before absolutely pounding a one-seed in the first round of the playoffs.
The Kings carried that momentum all the way to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup, and now the road has opened up in the West for the Preds to do the same. Ironically, both teams met the Blues in the second round of the playoffs. I’ll take Nashville to dispatch St. Louis almost as efficiently.
Pick: Predators in 5 (+650).
Edmonton Oilers (even) vs Anaheim Ducks (-120)
So far, the Pacific bracket has been a battle of young, quick teams against experienced, slower teams, and we’ve seen each side take one series. The rubber match will see the NHL’s next transcendent player, Connor McDavid, face the league’s most annoying player … take your pick between Corey Perry, Ryan Kesler or Kevin Bieksa.
Though this is the Oilers’ first postseason trip in a decade, the moment was never too big for this young team, responding to a 7-0 drubbing by the Sharks in Game 4 by winning the next two games to close out the series. There’s reason to think the Oilers can keep climbing, too. Edmonton has the traits of a team that can go far in the playoffs: good 5-on-5 production, strong physical play, and a goalie who’s still playing his best despite heading into his 80th start of the season. Plus, they have the favorite for funniest name in the playoffs: Anton Slepyshev. How can you not like this team?
If there’s a way to hate them, the grumpy old men in the Ducks locker room will find it. Anaheim won its first and only Cup the year after the Oilers’ playoff drought started, and since then, Perry and Ryan Getzlaf haven’t been able to lead their team back to the finals. The Ducks have undergone a number of changes since that time, but this season, they reverted back to what worked in 2007: a tight defensive approach under Randy Carlyle. Anaheim stifled Calgary in the opening round, pushing the kids around along the boards and in the faceoff circle, while benefiting from some brutal goaltending from Brian Elliott.
The Oilers won’t be such a pushover. (For starters, they’ve actually won at the Honda Center this decade.) They were able to dictate the pace against an aging (and as we’re learning now, beat up) Sharks team. The longer the series went, the more Edmonton’s young legs were able to wear down San Jose. And while McDavid was held to just four points in the first round, the attention his line demanded from the Sharks’ top pair opened up space for other, more unlikely scorers (Zack Kassian) to thrive.
With Cam Fowler and Sami Vatanen banged up on the back end, the Ducks will be sure to put former Selke-winner Kesler on McDavid as much as possible. It’s going to be a tough battle for both sides, but it should open up space for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle’s line to get off the schneid.
Edmonton had a slight edge in the season series, taking three of five regular season meetings. Call it disrespecting your elders, but I like the Oilers to prevail here, closing out the series at home.
Pick: Oilers in 6 (+400).