The second round of the NHL playoffs, beginning Thursday, brings a historically strong set of teams and three fresh and interesting matchups—Vegas vs. San Jose, Nashville vs. Winnipeg, and Boston vs. Tampa Bay—plus, of course, the annual Washington-Pittsburgh reunion. Here’s what we learned in Round 1 as a preview of the conference quarterfinals.
The Predators Have Forward Depth
Michael Baumann: The Predators could’ve won the Stanley Cup last year. Not getting screwed on offside reviews would’ve been a start, but the real problem was that Nashville, amazingly, ran out of centers. Ryan Johansen, its first-line center, went down in the conference finals, and for all their quality on the blue line and all their dynamic wingers, the Predators didn’t really have a second-line center to promote. When they lost captain Mike Fisher to a head injury, the problem only got worse. Freddie Gaudreau, who had played in nine career NHL regular-season games, played in eight playoff games last year, including all six games of the Cup final at more than 11 minutes a night.
They’re not going to run out of forwards this year. Nashville signed a solid third-line center, Nick Bonino, in the offseason, then spent big in terms of prospects and draft picks for Kyle Turris (42 points in 65 games for the Preds). Playing on Turris’s wing, 21-year-old winger Kevin Fiala tripled his point total from last year. The Predators also picked up winger Ryan Hartman at the deadline. Fisher even came out of retirement on March 2 and played 16 of the last 19 regular-season games. Hartman got suspended for Game 5 of the first round, and coach Peter Laviolette scratched him for Game 6. Remember Eeli Tolvanen, the Finnish whiz kid who cut the KHL to ribbons as an 18-year-old this year? He was supposed to be a game-changer when he came over. Well, guess what? He came over, and he can’t even crack the lineup. The Predators—he says, inviting some sort of mass-injury calamity—have more forwards than they know what to do with right now.
The Smashmouth Jets Could Be a Nightmare for the Rest of the West
Megan Schuster: Before the start of this season, the Jets were searching for an identity. The second iteration of the franchise (established in Atlanta in 1999) had never won a playoff series, and despite carrying a deep, young, talented roster in 2016-17, Winnipeg finished fifth in the Central and missed out on the playoffs once again. This season, the team’s fortunes seemed ready to turn, but who could say for sure? Could the blue line stay healthy? Was adding Steve Mason the answer to the team’s goaltending issues? What would Patrik Laine’s sophomore campaign look like?
Now, entering the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, we know the answers to those questions: yes, no, and pretty damn amazing. Winnipeg cemented its identity in the first round of the postseason: a bruising, blistering unit that dominated the Minnesota Wild in every game that didn’t contain a Connor Hellebuyck meltdown. From top to bottom the Jets played bigger, stronger, and more confident than the Wild, despite having considerably less playoff experience across the board and the relatively young Hellebuyck in net. Dustin Byfuglien led the charge on the defensive end, shutting down guys like Eric Staal and Jason Zucker—two of Minnesota’s three regular-season leading scorers—and Blake Wheeler kept things physical on the offensive end, which gave speedsters like Laine and Mark Scheifele room to work. It was a coordinated attack, and the fact that it was so effective should have the Nashville Predators concerned about what they’re going up against this weekend. These Jets got their first taste of playoff victory, and they seem ready for more.
Meet Steven Stamkos, Playmaker
Donnie Kwak: “Listen, my body will never be 100 percent regardless, going through the stuff I’ve been through.” So said Stamkos on the eve of the postseason—harrowing words for Lightning fans for myriad reasons, not least of which is the fact that the oft-injured centerman is on the books for another six seasons. But Stammer at less than 100 percent is still a major threat, as proven by the six points he accrued in Tampa Bay’s 4-1 series win over the Devils in the first round. Five of those points were assists, coming off a regular season in which he had a career-high 59. Stamkos, once the Lightning’s main triggerman, is passing that title to linemate Nikita Kucherov.
The J.T. Miller–Stamkos-Kucherov line and the rest of TB’s mini-mite forward core scorched New Jersey, but it’s on defense that problems could arise against the Bruins. While both Tampa Bay and Boston have elite offenses and power-play units, the Lightning were 28th on the penalty kill in the regular season and conceded 34.2 shots per game in the first round, the most of any advancing team. Unlike the Devils, the Bruins have scoring depth, which means creaky Dan Girardi could get exposed on Tampa Bay’s top D pair. Regardless, these are the two best regular-season teams in the Eastern Conference, and it’s shaping up to be a high-scoring, exciting matchup. For the past two years, most assumed the winner of the Caps-Pens series would go on to the Stanley Cup final. In 2018, that may not be the case.
Marc-André Fleury Is a Playoff Hazard No More
Schuster: We’re not far removed from a time when Marc-Andre Fleury was being talked about as the worst playoff goaltender in the league. In fact, before he was drafted by Vegas last summer, Flower had posted a playoff save percentage above .930 just once in 11 tries with the Penguins. Fleury partially quelled his playoff demons last season when he shut out the Capitals in Game 7 of the second round, but his reliability in the playoffs was still a big question hanging over the Golden Knights as they entered their first postseason.
In Vegas’s first-round matchup with the Kings, Fleury was solid. Better than solid, actually. He recorded two shutouts, despite facing 61 total shots in those games, and he leads the league with a .977 playoff save percentage and an outstanding 0.65 goals against average. But that sample size is small (just four games because the Knights SWEPT L.A.) and meaningless if that form doesn’t continue against the Sharks.
The Sharks’ first-round series was similar to Vegas’s, defensively—San Jose gave up just four goals in four games—but the team’s offense broke through in much more pronounced ways. The Sharks put up eight goals in Game 3, and five different players—including Evander Kane, whom the team added from Buffalo at the trade deadline—recorded at least four points in the series. Defenseman Brent Burns, the team’s regular-season leading scorer, has been battling through an undisclosed injury but is expected to be ready for Game 1. And with Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, and Marcus Sorensen each on a tear, Fleury will have his work cut out for him in Round 2.