After an exceedingly tense first round — featuring a record-setting 18 overtime games — the NHL playoffs resume Wednesday with the start of the second round. Gone are three of the top five regular-season teams — Chicago, Columbus, and Minnesota — but four enticing matchups remain: St. Louis vs. Smashville, McJesus vs. Kesler, Swedish God vs. Swedish King, and, of course, Ovechkin vs. Crosby. Here are our picks for the conference semifinals.
St. Louis Blues vs. Nashville Predators
It’s cliché to say that a playoff series will come down to hot goaltending, but here we are with two goalies — both largely average in the regular season (and at points, quite bad) — essentially loading their teammates into the back of a semi and dragging said semi into the second round. In the first round against the Wild, the league’s second-highest-scoring team, Blues goaltender Jake Allen tallied 51 saves in Game 1, 40 saves in Game 3, and finished the series with a .956 save percentage and 1.47 GAA. Meanwhile, Nashville’s Pekka Rinne stonewalled Patrick Kane and the top-seeded Blackhawks, shutting them out twice and allowing just three total goals in the Predators’ sweep.
The Blues and Predators have never faced off in a playoff series. Nashville won three of their five regular-season matchups, but if their respective goalies remain stingy, much about this series will look different. It’s unlikely that either team will be notching six goals in a game (as Nashville did against the Blues in December), that Allen will allow three goals on 14 shots and get pulled, or that P.K. Subban will finish minus-6 in four games.
Nashville appears to have the offensive edge in the matchup, looking steady against the Hawks while St. Louis sputtered and stalled at times against Minnesota. But goaltending will be the great neutralizer in this series, and there was no better first-round goalie than Allen.
Better tell the Preds to aim high on the stick side … I guess?
Blue to Watch: Vladimir Sobotka
After three years in the KHL, the Czech left winger returned to the Blues in early April just in time for the playoffs. Having last played for St. Louis in 2014, Sobotka returned under a new coach (Mike Yeo), and on an overhauled squad minus departed veteran leaders T.J. Oshie and ex-captain David Backes. Sobotka played in just one regular-season game and headed into the postseason on the third line with Jori Lehtera and Magnus Paajarvi. After scoring the first goal of the series against Minnesota, he continued to pester and prod the Wild for 18 and a half minutes per game. He was an effective forward on a team that desperately needed one, and he’ll hope to be that again in Round 2.
Predator to Watch: Filip Forsberg
It’s easy to forget that Forsberg is 22. The Swede has been in the NHL for parts of five years now, and just finished his third straight 82-game season. Despite being close in age to players like Connor McDavid and William Nylander, Forsberg came into 2016–17 with playoff experience — and a pretty memorable one at that, having scored the first hat trick in Predators playoff history mere hours after being snubbed in the 2015 Calder Trophy voting.
Forsberg is second on the Predators in playoff scoring and averaging the most time on ice of any Nashville forward, and his line with Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson looks nearly unstoppable.
On the Hot Seat: Vladimir Tarasenko
Tarasenko tallied three points against Minnesota, but I don’t remember any of them. He was ineffective for large swathes of the series and was heavily criticized by the NBC announcers, who enjoyed reminding viewers that he signed a $60 million contract with St. Louis in 2015. Tarasenko was tied for third on the Blues in points in Round 1, but if they hope to advance he needs to be a larger presence on the ice and a much more dangerous threat around the net.
Predators in six. — Megan Schuster
Anaheim Ducks vs. Edmonton Oilers
Connor McDavid is a vision. Watching him play is one of the most fun things about the NHL, and watching him in his first playoffs is even better. Turns out the members of the San Jose Sharks, the Oilers’ first-round playoff opponent, were mostly just watching McDavid, too; by the end of the series they were reduced to fractured faces, broken feet, and knees that were “just floating.”
But waiting in Round 2 is a worthy opponent — the Anaheim Ducks, the top team in the Pacific this season and a squad that’s now made the postseason five years in a row. The Ducks are deep, full of vets that can hit as well as they can score and young players learning to follow that same system. They’re looking to prove that they can get over the Bruce Boudreau–shaped hump that’s been in their way the past four seasons and make it back to the Stanley Cup final under returning head coach Randy Carlyle. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, both 31 years old, were part of the Carlyle-led Cup winners in 2007, and 10 years later they may have all the pieces to get back there — if they can make it past a team whose seven leading scorers are under 30.
Ahh, I love the smell of overconfident bets in the morning.
Duck to Watch: Ryan Kesler
Kesler vs. McDavid is the marquee matchup in this series, and it’s one that we’ll likely see a lot of. Kesler is an extremely skilled agitator on the ice — a player capable of shutting down and frustrating just about anyone who comes across his path — and Carlyle seems ready to wield him against McDavid’s line. As an anonymous coach told SportsNet’s Mark Spector, “Carlyle is married to matchups. If McDavid plays 30 minutes, Kesler will play 30.” Kesler had only one point in Anaheim’s first-round sweep of Calgary, but scoring isn’t his primary objective: He’ll be busy making sure Edmonton’s young stars don’t find the back of the net.
Oiler to Watch: Leon Draisaitl
Draisaitl finished with 77 points this season — good for eighth in the league in scoring — and is one of the more overlooked young talents in the league. Playing on the same line as an Art Ross winner is bound to keep him in the shadows to some extent, but the 21-year-old German winger has been putting up big numbers in his third season. He was second on the team in scoring and is tied for second on the Oilers with three points so far in these playoffs (he also leads the team with 15 playoff penalty minutes, and was fined for spearing San Jose’s Chris Tierney in a decidedly unpleasant place during their series).
After reportedly battling through an illness in the first four games of Round 1, Draisaitl notched two assists in Game 5 and a goal in Game 6 to help push Edmonton past the Sharks. With linemate McDavid likely keeping Kesler occupied for much of the series, Draisaitl will play an important role for the Oilers in Round 2.
On the Hot Seat: Randy Carlyle
More than five years after he was fired by the Ducks, Carlyle is on a redemption tour. After he was rehired in June, he led the Ducks to the Pacific Division title this year and swept the Calgary Flames in the first round. Carlyle is the only coach to bring a Stanley Cup to Anaheim, and many of the big names on the roster are familiar with him and his style. But when his hiring was announced, a looming question remained: Can Ducks go backward and forward at the same time? So far Carlyle’s team has found success, but these playoffs are a step toward proving that Anaheim management was right to bring him back.
Ducks in seven. — Megan Schuster
Ottawa Senators vs. New York Rangers
It seems like ages ago that the Rangers outlasted the Senators in a seven-game first-round series in 2012. (Between the two teams, only 12 current players competed in that series, and neither franchise has the same coach or GM as it did then.) Now, the two teams again face off in a matchup that brings to mind a line from A League of Their Own: “This is our daughter, Dottie, and this is our other daughter … Dottie’s sister.”
Yes, the Rangers-Senators matchup may lack the starry pizzazz of the big Penguins-Capitals pairing, but it still has its compelling attributes and a whole lot of pluck. Henrik Lundqvist, arguably the best goaltender of his generation, will try once again to earn his king’s crown on this side of the pond. The Senators’ Derick Brassard and the Rangers’ Mika Zibanejad, who were swapped by the two teams last summer and who now lead their new squads in playoff scoring, will try not to pass the puck to the wrong teammates. The Senators will try to keep the Rangers’ power-play dial pointed to “abysmal,” while the Rangers will try to solve the enduring mystery of just how Bond villain/Ottawa coach Guy Boucher got that badass scar.
Lundqvist had one of the worst statistical regular seasons of his career, and he isn’t getting any younger. And yet, against Montreal in the first round, he was one of the major reasons that the Rangers advanced, finishing with a .947 save percentage. Lundqvist has a style of play that can work against him, optically: He’s so often in the right position that the saves don’t always look hard. (And of course, sometimes, the post helps.) But make no mistake: This guy has the reflexes and spatial awareness of a big cat. If his goaltending doesn’t convince you, maybe his water-bottling will.
Senator to Watch: Erik Karlsson
“I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this,” Senators general manager Pierre Dorion said during media availability Monday, “but whether you believe in whatever you believe in, they always say God rested on the seventh day. I think on the eighth day, he created Erik Karlsson.” The 26-year-old Swedish defenseman is as slick as the hair on his head and as smiley as Senators fans must be when they watch him play. His over-the-rainbow pass to Mike Hoffman in Game 3 caused eyes to bug out. And a few nights earlier, Karlsson toyed with the puck (and the Bruins) for a bit before hoverboarding a pass across the ice to Derick Brassard for a game-tying goal.
Puck Daddy’s Ryan Lambert compiled “7 Erik Karlsson stats that are as perfect as Erik Karlsson” late last week. (Sample stat: Since that sterling 2011–12 season, Karlsson is 15th in the league in total points — as a defenseman.) Hockey analytics guru Micah Blake McCurdy reminded everyone that when he creates a new data visualization, he tests it out on Karlsson first because the guy is such a reliable outlier that he messes up the scale otherwise.
Following the Bruins series, Karlsson admitted he had hairline fractures in his heel, typically the kind of injury that would be obscured with a vague “lower body injury” report. But maybe this was a brilliant act of gamesmanship: If Karlsson can play this well while dealing with cracks in his foot — and he led all nongoalie Senators in ice time despite this — just imagine what he might do after a few days of rest. Be afraid.
Ranger to Watch: Mats Zuccarello
It’s been a tough few years for Zuccarello. In 2015 he fractured his skull so badly after being hit by a puck that at one point he was unable to speak. More recently, he lost both of his besties: Carl Hagelin was traded to the Penguins two years back, while Brassard went to Ottawa this summer. (Zucc and Brass did celebrate Christmas together this season, thanks to favorable scheduling.) But the diminutive Norwegian has rebounded from both these setbacks, and his two goals in Game 6 against Montreal clinched the series and led to this beautiful, impish grin.
On the Hot Seat: the Rangers’ Blue Line
Until he recorded four goals in six first-round games, including two game winners, the answer may well have been Bobby Ryan; the Ottawa Senators forward had scored only 13 times in 62 games during the regular season, and was even driven to delete his controversial Twitter account. But really, it’s the New York Rangers’ defensive corps that will likely be under the gun (team captain Ryan McDonagh excepted). “While Dan Girardi had faint moments of competency,” as Rangers blog Blueshirt Banter put it, “the legendary Marc Staal and Nick Holden pairing is working its way up the rankings of the greatest natural disasters to ever hit New York City.” With the Senators likely to bring more speed than the Montreal Canadiens did, the Rangers’ blue line could find itself ungracefully exposed.
Predictions, just like hopes, dreams, and random acts of kindness, are meaningless in this doomed and turbulent world. Rangers in six. — Katie Baker
Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Let’s skip over the generic “Ovechkin vs. Crosby” and “Caps curse” narratives. I recently heard SportsNet pundit Jeff Marek opine about a possible shift from the timeworn philosophy that contending teams are required to rely on one stud defenseman to eat up minutes and play in all situations. To his point, Duncan Keith (Blackhawks), Ryan Suter (Wild), Brent Burns (Sharks), and Shea Weber (Canadiens) have all been eliminated; Drew Doughty (Kings) didn’t even make the postseason. But if you look at the rosters of the remaining playoff teams, the majority are still anchored by a big-minutes blue-liner — except Pittsburgh, for which Justin Schultz led all defensemen in average time on ice in the first round with a paltry 21:17.
The Kristopher Letang–sized hole in Pittsburgh’s D could be the difference in the Capitals-Penguins second-round rematch from last season. In the 2016 playoffs, Letang led his team in average ice time (nearly 29 minutes per game); the Pens, of course, beat the Capitals and went on to win the Cup. In this season’s first round, without the injured Letang, Pittsburgh had little trouble in dispatching Columbus. But the Capitals have more top-end offensive talent than the Blue Jackets. Pittsburgh’s forward lines are always dangerous; it’s on defense, in front of an intermittently leaky Marc-Andre Fleury, that the Pens could be vulnerable.
There has been a lot of hand-wringing about the NHL’s divisional playoff seeding, given that the league’s best two regular-season teams are meeting now, in the second round. I choose to look on the bright side — we should be happy that we’re getting Ovie-Crosby III, no matter what round it’s in.
Capital to Watch: Lars Eller
Last year, the Pens’ third line — Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel — murdered the Caps. Meanwhile, Washington’s third line was centered by a way-past-his-prime Mike Richards, who failed to register a point in the series and is now out of the NHL. To fortify their bottom six last offseason, the Caps traded for the dependable Eller, who now centers a third line flanked by Andre Burakovsky and a newly promoted Tom Wilson. Neither Bura nor Eller scored a goal in the first round (Wilson had three). They’ll need more production for the Caps to advance past Pittsburgh, which has scoring depth across its lineup.
Penguin to Watch: Jake Guentzel
Seems like the Penguins can just shake a tree and a speedy rookie to slot alongside Crosby will fall out. Last season’s version was Conor Sheary; this year, it’s the Nebraska native Guentzel, who moved to Sid’s wing in late February and has been parked on the top line ever since. Like Sheary, Guentzel is undersized but elusive, and an adept finisher of 87’s feeds. The 22-year-old, a third-round pick in 2013, scored 33 points in 40 regular-season games and led the Pens with five goals in the first round against Columbus. Where the hell do they find these guys?
On the Hot Seat: Braden Holtby
The Caps netminder and reigning Vezina Trophy winner was good enough — but not great — in the first round against Toronto. Though the Leafs benefited from some fortuitous puck luck, there is a sense that Holtby wasn’t quite at his best. Of the remaining eight goalies, Holtby ranks sixth in both goals-against average and save percentage thus far in the postseason. Caps fans have a term for being stonewalled by an opposing netminder: Halak’ed, in memory of ex-Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak, who famously stymied the 2010 Washington Capitals in the first round. As good as Holtby’s been in the past few regular seasons, nobody uses the term “Holtby’ed.” If the Caps are to win the Cup, Holts may need to steal a game or two along the way.
Yeah, I wrote this in January. But I’m putting off heartbreak for another round. Caps in six. — Donnie Kwak