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Into the Boards: Playoffs Round One Matchup Analysis

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The best time of year is finally upon us: the NHL playoffs start tonight and we can’t wait to get in front of our TVs! This season has flown by, but we aren’t finished yet.

Today on ITB, Scott will preview the Eastern Conference matchups and Vin will break down the Western Conference. We’ll look at strengths and weaknesses of each squad and pick winners. Keep in mind, these aren’t necessarily the teams we want to win, but rather the teams we think will win. Cheers to you all and feel free to add your picks in the comment section!

Eastern Conference Playoff Matchups

(1) Washington Capitals v.s. (WC2) Toronto Maple Leafs

Winner: Washington Capitals in five games

Everybody has kept their eyes on the Toronto Maple Leafs this year and pegged them as that fun team full of young guys who might just have enough to make the playoffs. Well, they did, but boy, do they ever have their work cut out for them. The Leafs will be in Washington this Thursday to start the tall task of taking down Ovechkin and friends and, like many others, I don’t like their chances.

This one is sure to be an offensive series as the Caps and Leafs are third and fifth respectively in goals this season, but the story lies on the other side of the coin. Washington, who’s been traditionally characterized as an offensive juggernaut that needs help on defense, is number one in the NHL in goals against. Barry Trotz has effectively changed the reputation of the Caps and I highly doubt that the young Maple Leafs have enough in the tank to dismantle the league’s best. The Caps are especially hungry this year after yet another disappointing finish last season and have iced maybe their best team in franchise history. Ovi, Backstrom, Oshie, Shattenkirk, Carlson, and Kuznetsov will likely be too much to handle for the inexperienced Leafs.

(2) Pittsburgh Penguins v.s. (3) Columbus Blue Jackets

Winner: Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games

Originally I would’ve picked Pittsburgh in five if you told me to predict this series with the opening night rosters in my hand. Pittsburgh is a much better team on paper, and while Columbus is damn solid, I’m not sure I believe that they are quite as good as their regular season point total suggests. That being said, this becomes a hell of a lot more of a series because of one gigantic factor: Kris Letang won’t touch the ice for four to six months.

This news broke last week and my thoughts on this series immediately changed. I thought the Pens were too huge of a powerhouse for Columbus to take down, but losing their best and most mobile defenseman will be a huge blow for Pittsburgh against a heavy forechecking team like Columbus. The larger issue is that it’s not just Letang: Malkin’s status for game one is in question and role players Carl Hagelin and Chris Kunitz are also out of the lineup. That being said, Pittsburgh has made its name from winning when they are missing important players, so I do think that the defending champions will find a way. Having Sidney Crosby and a healthy Matt Murray means anything is possible, so while I think Columbus will give them a hard time, the Penguins will win this series in seven.

(1) Montreal Canadiens v.s. (WC1) New York Rangers

Winner: Montreal Canadiens in seven games

This matchup, in my mind, is the most evenly matched. The Rangers finished the regular season with 102 points versus the Canadiens’ 103 points, so it’s about as close as it gets in that respect. The netminder matchup of Carey Price vs. Henrik Lundqvist is easily the best in the NHL, so there is even potential on both sides for a goaltender to steal a game or two.

So, what is different between these two evenly matched teams? Well, they have opposite problems: the Canadiens can’t score and the Rangers can’t keep the puck out of their net. The Habs are 15th in goals while the Rangers finished fourth. On the defensive side, the Habs are third in goals against while New York finished 13th. This isn’t a reflection of Henrik Lundqvist, but more of the tire fire that is the Rangers defense. With Dan Girardi and Marc Staal still playing hefty minutes, the mediocre Canadiens offense will have something to exploit. Playoff hockey is an extremely tight brand, so in my mind it is far more likely for the Rangers high-flying offense to be shut down than the Canadiens brick wall defense and goaltending to be ripped to pieces. This one will be as tight as they get, but I think Henrik’s days of bailing out the Rangers defense are over. Also, this prediction is assuming Chris Kreider DOESN’T murder Carey Price again, which he very well might.

(2) Ottawa Senators v.s. (3) Boston Bruins

Winner: Boston Bruins in six games

This one was a particularly tough series for me to call as both teams have been alternatingly impressive and lackluster this season, so I don’t necessarily trust either to be consistent. With that being the case, it’s important to take a look at some deeper numbers and try to get a lead on who will prevail.

Both teams have suffered pretty awful shooting percentages with the Bruins and Senators clocking in at 8.5% and 8.4% respectively, which are both below league average (amongst all teams, including those not in the playoffs). That being said, the Bruins generated 2721 shots on goal this season which is 243 above league average as opposed to the Senators 2463 shots, five below league average. With this all in place, it stands to reason that the Bruins shooting percentage is much more likely to increase than Ottawa’s and in a series with two excellent goaltenders I’ll go with the numbers here. On the other side of the ice, Ottawa allowed 277 more shots than Boston, so the Bruins also keep the puck away from their net better than Ottawa. This one will be tight — and I sure hope Craig Anderson pulls out a humongous emotional win for his team and his family — but my gut says Boston.

Western Conference Playoff Matchups

Chicago Blackhawks (1) vs. Nashville Predators (WC2)

Winner: Chicago Blackhawks in six games

Chicago Blackhawks, hands down. I’m sorry, Nashville fans, but even you all know this is a no-brainer. If this was any other team in the West I would say you have a chance because of Pekka Rinne in net, P.K on the blueline, and a solid top six, but you’re facing Chicago. I believe this matchup will be won in six games with the mighty Patrick Kane pushing the dagger into the heart of the Sabertooth. The Blackhawks have it all: experience, depth in all positions and goaltending. Artem Anisimov, who is back to health, will be leading the PP2 unit and feeding the puck to Patty Kane on the second line every chance he gets. The young talent has emerged in Chi-Town this year and they look to team up with the veterans to add another Cup to their dynasty.

Minnesota Wild (2) vs. St. Louis Blues (3)

Winner: Minnesota Wild in six games 

This is by-far the hardest matchup decision for me to make. Both teams have shown flashes of greatness and have had hot streaks throughout the year. The Blues have had such a strong finish and have turned their game around after the resurgence of netminder Jake Allen. However, my vote is going to the Minnesota Wild. No disrespect to Vladimir Tarasenko, but he can’t singlehandedly beat the Wild. Coach Boudreau is looking to take the Wild all the way to the final with his team and upper management backing him. After some key moves this season, the Wild have all the right pieces in place to make that happen. Minnesota has veterans who have the post season experience in Zach Parise, Eric Staal, and Mikko Koivu. They have a great defense and they have Devan Dubnyk, who has been a stud and dependable all year long.

Anaheim Ducks (1) vs. Calgary Flames (WC1)

Winner: Anaheim Ducks in five games

I’ve been backing the Mighty Ducks all year and I won’t turn my back on them now. After some struggles in the beginning of the year, the Ducks finally got their groove back and at just the right time: Anaheim fought all the way to the top and ended the regular season in first place in the Pacific Division. The Ducks are looking to break their streak of choking super hard in the postseason and I think they will do just that. The acquisition of Patrick Eaves has done wonders for the team and Corey Perry is finally back to putting the puck in the net. The Ducks aren’t so top heavy this year and have talent throughout the lineup. Not to mention goaltender John Gibson is healthy and killing it since returning from an LBI and has an equally solid backup in Jonathan Bernier. The Mighty Ducks take this series in five games, but if it goes to seven I think they’ll still clinch the series.

Edmonton Oilers (2) vs. San Jose Sharks (3)

Winner: Edmonton Oilers in six games

This one pains me (Vin). The Sharks are my favorite team out West and have some of my favorite players on their team. However, the writer in me just needs to be real with you all and only write my honest opinions (sigh). I believe the Edmonton Oilers will be taking this series in six games. The Sharks started off amazing and had the first seed all but guaranteed before sliding down to third place, just escaping the wild card position by the smallest hair on their nutsack. Connor McDavid is fucking amazing, the closest thing to Jesus Christ on ice skates. There is some great talent on the Oilers and they finally have a solid and dependable goaltender in Cam Talbot. When it comes down to it, I just think the Oilers can score more goals in this matchup. Not to mention they destroyed in regular season meetings with the Sharks all year long. Speed kills the aging Sharks and it pains me to say that. Joe Pavelski is without his key assist man Joe Thorton due to injury, affecting the top line and their bread and butter PP1 unit. It gets worse with sniper Logan Couture out with an injury, doubtful to start game one. I really hope I’m wrong here, and I do have a history of underestimating this team even though I like them so damn much, but I think Edmonton takes this one.

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