What a night. The sun rose this morning and I'm sure many Canadians woke up expecting to see Leafs fans with smiles on their faces. But the world doesn't work like that. Hockey doesn't work like that. But life goes on, and after going
5-3 6-2 (thanks, Boston), including correctly predicting the Penguins to win in six with extreme difficulty, I am back with my second round picks.
Considering how overmatched the Leafs looked on paper at the beginning of their series, it's tough to make any predictions with conviction, which is why it's important to remember that close analysis like this only brings one percentage-points closer to confirming an outcome. So much is determined by chance.
So it's on to Round 2, a new set of picks, a new series of logic. Let's see how it all breaks down.
Considering how strong they were for an eight seed, it's hard to fault the Penguins for struggling against the Islanders. New York is a good team, and it showed, as they dominated possession with a 52.35 FenClose% in the series, good for third overall in the playoffs thus far. The Penguins obviously had goaltending issues, and for now those issues have been resolved. Tomas Vokoun has been the better goaltender for a number of years, and although he is getting up in age and isn't the stud he once was, he is a solid starter-caliber goalie and having him back there erases some of the worry that was instilled when the younger Marc-Andre Fleury was to start the playoffs. That said, this is a team with a lot of issues that were perhaps masked by the fact that Evgeni Nabokov at the other end was far from stellar.
The Senators, on the other hand, suffered awful injury luck during the regular season, riding great goaltending and solid coaching to a playoff spot. Once they got there, the luck turned, and now, with the exception of Jason Spezza - timeline unknown, but I don't expect him back in this series - they are completely healthy. Craig Anderson, meanwhile, has been an absolute stud. He's posted a .950 so far in the playoffs, which would be tied for the best in the league, if it weren't for Vokoun's .957 in two games. Possesssion-wise, the Senators were pushed around by a depleted Canadiens squad, but that was out of character for a team that had impressive numbers in the regular season. Paul MacLean is a good coach who's talked about shot attempts in the past, and he's a product of Detroit's puck-possession system. I expect him to fix some of those issues prior to puck-drop.
I don't know what the problem is with Pittsburgh, however. They have so much talent - although their talent level likely doesn't live up to its name value - and yet the Islanders outplayed them in almost every game. Bylsma hasn't been able to adjust so far, and his defense has looked almost as shaky as his goaltending. The great equalizer in this series could be the Pens' powerplay, but only if the Senators allow it to be. I'm sure that MacLean will be working on Ottawa's first-ranked regular season penalty kill to make sure it's in top form against the opposition, who are clicking at a 33.3 percent clip with the man advantage in the six games so far.
This series is likely to come down to discipline and goaltending. If Vokoun can go save-for-save with Anderson, and Ottawa gets into penalty trouble, the Pens can take it to the bank. But that's not how I see this playing out. There is nothing to suggest that Anderson is coming back down to earth, and I would wager at this point on the Senators winning the possession battle. They may not have a superstar forward like Tavares, but their back-end is to be envied, and their goalie is a rock. That can make all the difference in the playoffs. Prediction: Senators in 7.
Judging playoff possession between these two teams thus far is difficult not only because of the small sample size, but because of the differences between their respective opponents. The Capitals ended up as the superior possession club, losing ultimately because at the same time they decided to have an off-game, Henrik Lundqvist decided to turn out the lights (Side-note: I know neither team actually decided these things).
The Bruins, meanwhile, dispatched a Leafs squad that was far more impressive than in the regular season. Toronto was the worst possession club in the Eastern Conference going in, but truly went toe-to-toe with Boston, as the Kessels were the better team for large stretches of the series, pushing the black and gold to their limits.
Both these two teams have great goalies. Lundqvist has a .947 to this point, Rask a .923. Neither of their special teams can really be counted on as a force, although at least through seven games the Rangers' powerplay is definitely a weakness.
So what will decide this series? Well, like in the Rangers/Caps series, home ice, and the ability to line match will be huge. The Rangers will want to get their top defensive pairing out against the Krejci line, and the Bruins will want to get Chara out against Hagelin/Stepan/Callahan. But those matchups will open things up for secondary scorers. One would have to think that the Marchand/Bergeron/Seguin line, shooting a combined 2% at even-strength, would be awoken by their Game 7 goals, but Zuccarello/Brassard/Nash could be as well. In the end, I'll take the better goalie, and the hungrier team at this point. Prediction: Rangers in 6.
(1) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (7) Detroit Redwings
Another Original Six matchup features teams that last met in the Conference Finals in 2009. This time, however, the Hawks are the clear Cup contender, and the Redwings will be hoping to spoil the party. The short story here is that the Blackhawks are for real, and the Redwings aren't. The former lived up to its billing in Round 1, dispatching a highly inferior Wild team lacking its starting goalie. The latter took out the number two seed Ducks in a series that ended up being a lot closer than I expected it to be. It becomes clear just how mismatched these teams are when you examine their defense corps:
Yeah, losing Lidstrom, Rafalski, and Stuart within two years certainly hurts. Then there's the special teams. Detroit has a decent powerplay, but Chicago has yet to surrender a PP goal in these playoffs. Meanwhile, the Detroit penalty kill struggled against Anaheim, and with talented players like Toews, Kane, Sharp, and Keith, that unit can certainly get hot. Jimmy Howard is a decent to good goalie, and with Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and good coaching, Detroit may be able to take a game or two from the favorites. It won't go any farther than that though. Prediction: Blackhawks in 5.
What's up with the 2 and 3 seeds this year? Not much luck for the division winners.
Anyway, San Jose was a possession demon after jettisoning Ryane Clowe and Douglas Murray, and Los Angeles was elite in that regard all year, but neither team fired the bulk of the shots in their first round matchups. Both series were fairly even though, despite the Sharks sweeping, and it's possible that luck is shining kindly on them after so many years of disappointment.
These are two very solid teams with good goalies that have the potential to get hot. Quick is registering at .944, shaking off a rough regular season, while Niemi is continuing his Vezina-caliber campaign with a .937. The Sharks powerplay was great in its sweep, while the Kings hold a slight edge in penalty killing, but unlike the other series out west, this one is incredibly tough to call. I believe the Kings are a slightly better possession club, but the Sharks are peaking at the right time. In a close series like this, I'll lean to the side that's due for some luck. Prediction: Sharks in 7.