Wednesday night the NHL playoffs will open. This year there will be five Canadian teams ready to dance when the puck drops, two California teams, and only one Original Six matchup.

The Montreal Canadiens vs The New York Rangers

Unlike last year the Canadiens have a playoff berth. Also unlike last year they now have Shea Weber, Carey PriceAlex Radulov, Andrew Shaw and a cup winning coach behind the bench in the person of Claude Julien, The edge in this series is going to belong to which ever team can force the other to play their game. The Canadiens allowed fewer goals, the Rangers scored more. The Rangers aren’t far removed from a Stanley Cup Finals appearance, but no one is talking about them. The Rangers head into the playoffs remarkably healthy with no major players on the injury report. The Canadiens have the best pairing of top end number one defenseman and top flight goalie, and no one is talking about them either.

For the Canadiens it is really simple: Can Gallagher, Galchenyuk, and Radulov play in the Rangers end and score?

For the Rangers it is equally simple: Can they shore up the aging and infirm Lundqvist?

Biggest Strength

  • Canadiens: Goaltending
  • Rangers: depth of scoring

Biggest Weakness

  • Canadiens: goal scoring
  • Rangers: coaching

 

Minnesota Wild vs Saint Louis Blues

This series will get written off by many as “low key” and “boring”, don’t believe it for a minute. Both teams are happy to have avoided the Blackhawks in the first round, and the two central division rivals have been going at it since the Twin Cities reentered the NHL.. Special teams could be where this series is decided. The Blues and Wild each finished the season at over 21% on the powerplay. Expect a good amount of physicality. Vlad Sobotka has returned to the NHL in time to play for the Blues, Charlie Coyle and Nino Neiderietter will be there to deliver hit for hit.

In pure stats, the Wild have a marked advantage on both sides of the puck. That may well be offset by the invigoration former Wild coach Yeo has brought to the Blues who had a strong run to the end of the season.

Biggest Strength

  • Wild: balance
  • Blues: momentum

Biggest Weakness

  • Wild: Iffy and arguably overplayed Dubnyk in the last six weeks of the season.
  • Blues: Scoring depth

 

Edmonton Oilers vs San Jose Sharks

This series can be subtitled A Tale of Two Cities, it is the best of times, it is the worst of times. The Oilers charged hard and climbed into a home ice advantage in the first round. The Sharks were grabbed by the undertow and yanked from a nine point lead in the division to making people doubt they’d see the second season with their skates on. The Sharks are built around an aging core, the Oilers are a team for whom the oldest members of the core are in their early twenties at the latest. The Oilers haven’t been in the playoffs in a very long time, and the Sharks were within reach of getting their names on the Cup last year.

For the Sharks to move on they have to find scoring. Their bottom six, their defense not named Burns will all need to pitch in.

For the Oilers, they will need to expand their core and learn how to play in the playoffs from the guys who have gone deep.

Biggest Strength

  • Oilers: Offense
  • Sharks: Experience

Biggest Weakness

  • Oilers: Penalty Kill
  • Sharks: Depth

Pittsburgh Penguins vs Columbus BlueJackets

This might just be the best, hardest fought series in the first round series this year. The Pittsburgh Penguins have to be considered the Columbus BlueJackets biggest rivals at this point, and I don’t think the Penguins like the Jackets very much either. It goes beyond Dubinsky versus Crosby. It’s going to be Bobrovski versus Murray, Seth Jones against Phil Kessel, Jack Johnson against Bryan Rust. This series will get personal, and will feature some of the best play in the NHL playoffs.

This is likely the the most evenly matched series in the east. The Penguins are better offensively, the Jackets defensively.

Biggest Strengths

  • Jackets: Defense and goaltending
  • Penguins: Offense

Biggest Weakness

  • Jackets: Inconsistency.
  • Penguins: Dinged up defense

 

Anaheim Ducks vs Calgary Flames

The Ducks and Flames both played strong at the end of the year. The Flames are highlighted by the dynamic Sean Monahan, Mark Giordano on the backend, and Johnny Gaudreau the Boston College alumni. The Flames are a pretty balanced team, they aren’t very good or very bad at anything. The Ducks team needs to find some offense from their best players. The Flames need to be consistent sixty minutes a game. This is likely to be the lowest scoring series in the first round.

Biggest Strength

  • Ducks: John Gibson
  • Flames: Balance

Biggest Weakness

  • Ducks: Scoring
  • Flames: Netminding

Don’t forget to listen to this weeks Two Man ForeCheck and look for part two around noon eastern on Wednesday for the rest of the previews and some predictions for the first round.

I finally return to my favorite feature column.

If I told you in September that

Teams:

  • on 2/12 there would be three teams in playoff spots, including the Canadiens, Senators, and Leafs with the Calgary Flames knocking on the door
  • the best penalty kill in the NHL would belong to the Carolina Hurricanes.
  • the Montreal Canadiens would be 2nd in times shorthanded, with 197 times through 57 games
  • the Dallas Stars would not only have a worse powerplay than the Boston Bruins but be in the bottom third of the league
  • the Columbus Blue Jackets would be the only team in February with zero shorthanded goals allowed.
  • three of the top five NHL teams in five on five goals for would be outside the the playoffs
  • nearly one quarter of the teams holding a playoff spot including the Saint Louis Blues, Boston Bruins, Ottawa Senators would have an even or negative goal differential.

Players

  • Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators would be tied for second in blocked shots per game.
  • Brayden Schenn would lead the NHL in powerplay goals
  • that Sidney Crosby would tied for 86th in powerplay assists
  • Jeff Carter would lead his team and the NHL in game winning goals, including one third of the tallies for the Kings
  • three of the top five rookies in the NHL in scoring would all play on one team: Mitchell Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander
  • Peter Budaj would have his best career save percentage, the Kings in a playoff position, 26 wins, and the lead in shutouts.
  • two goalies would hold 30 win seasons, Devan Dubnyk and Sergei Bobrovsky, in less than 45 games played and also both be in the top 5 in total saves.

 

If I told you any of this in September would you have believed me?

Look for the next episode of Two Man Forecheck soon!

We’ll talk: Mike Illitch and his legacy, Claude Julien, expansion, the New York Islanders and more. Give my co-host @TheOffWing a follow and catch up on what he’s writing at TheOffWing.com .

With the bulk of the NHL’s best free agents signed, its time to look at who did best.

Metropolitan Division

Winners

Washington Capitals:

They were 21st in goals against last year. What did they do about it? They picked up two 21+ minute a night guys. One who averaged almost 3 minutes a night shorthanded, the other who specializes in lugging the puck out of the defensive zone. Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen are at least for the next two to three seasons good gets.

New York Islanders:

Signing up Grabovski long term and sliding him in behind Tavares gives them a smart, two way center who plays with passion. Chad Johnson gives them a pretty solid backup goaltender as well. Are the Islanders suddenly cup favorites? No. Are they are probably eight or ten points better than last season just based on those moves.

Losers

Pittsburgh Penguins:

Greiss is a good pickup, but Ehrhoff is going to cost them one way or another, he’s not good defensively, and if he puts up offensive numbers on his one year contract he’s either bolting for more money elsewhere next year or is going to demand a contract on par with Letang’s. The rest of their pickups were spare change.

Pacific Division

Winners

Dallas Stars:

With the addition of Spezza  (via trade) to the free agent signings the team can look forward to offensive balance for the first time in a decade.

Losers

Arizona Coyotes:

Last year the franchise was on the outside looking in and while Devon Dubnyk is well suited to their needs, I’m not convinced he’s enough to get them into the playoffs.

Central Division

Winners

Chicago Blackhawks:

They found a motivated guy who can play in the 2nd pivot slot and it didn’t cost them much.

Saint Louis Blues:

Taking one of the veteran leaders of a conference rival is always a good get, adding a guy with preexisting good chemistry with some of your top players just makes it even better.

Losers

Vancouver Canucks:

Despite the addition of a good goalie, they are no closer to playoff contention than they were at this time last week.

Atlantic Division

Winners

Tampa Bay Lightning

Adding Anton Stralman to the rest of an underrated cast makes this one of the most credible defensive units in the East heading into the season.

Florida Panthers

They added lots of highly competitive veterans, the skilled Jussi Jokinen, to wrap around their core of young players like Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov. They are a very long shot to make the playoffs, but the pieces they added were priced appropriately (and in Jokinen’s case low) and unlike other teams they haven’t crowded other young talent off the roster allowing for young players to come in and win a roster spot and NHL experience for the future.

Losers

Boston Bruins

A laundry list of miscues means that the players signed by this team since noon on July 1 and the departures of a very solid backup and hall of fame forward leave the team worse off than they have been in years. Realistically, I doubt any Bruins fan had even heard of either guy, and its not a stretch to say their agents probably have trouble picking them out of a crowd.

Detroit Red Wings

What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. The Red Wings didn’t add any talent via free agency, and history tells us any of their draft picks this year are four or more years from the NHL.

If there is a more pressure packed position in any team sport than hockey goalie, I’ve never heard of the sport. Not only are they the last line of defense, they are often relied upon to coordinate the skaters in front of them, and provide a catalyst to kickstart the offense. At this time of year the masked men’s work gets its greatest regular season focus. Nearly everyone is healthy, there isn’t much wear and tear on the body coming out of training camp, and winter colds and flus are still weeks away.

Comparing the standings for the league, and the stats for goalies makes it clear that some goalies just aren’t supporting their teams. Calgary’s 3-0-2 record is not quite what people expected of them to open the season. When you realize they’ve scored just one more goal than they’ve allowed and that Karri Ramo who the Flames billed as the best goaltender outside the NHL, and his partner in net Joey MacDonald each sport a .897sv% you have to wonder how long the team can keep its head above water. If there is a saving grace to the Calgary Flames situation in net it must be the less than four million spent on the two goalies this year.

At the other end of the province, Devan Dubnyk’s collapse from .920sv% a year ago, to .829 is baffling. He’s got an improved defense, a coach and captain who are all about responsible play, and yet of the 54 goalies to take the crease this season, he’s 51stin save percentage. Where is the man who played 38 of 48 last season and finished 14th in save percentage and kept the Oilers perilously close to a playoff spot? His two previous seasons show last years mark is a little high, but not a complete fluke. What gives?

Is Cory Schneider’s goaltending skill operating on west coast time? Was it seized by customs after he was traded from Vancouver Canucks to the New Jersey Devils? While gaining familiarity with a new team can cause goaltenders issues, and moving across country isn’t easy on anyone Schneider was traded in June, and had all of training camp to get on the same page as his defense. Right now, he’s pretty bad. He’s allowed 6 goals on 53 shots.

On the other hand, close examination of the careers of Semyon Varlemov and Jean-Sebastion Giguere, might have closed a contract with a nefarious entity in the not to distant past. The pair have faced a combined 171 shots through five games. In those games they are unbeaten, with four goals given up.  This leaves the Avalanche as one of two unbeaten teams, and at the top of numerous key team metrics.

Anyone who has watched even a single Buffalo Sabres game knows how well Ryan Miller is playing. Unfortunately for him, his NHL experience is about equal to the combined games played of all the healthy members of the defense. If you were to count minutes played, he’d probably dwarf them. As of yet, none of his defense has displayed an aptitude for a key role as a powerplay specialist or shutdown defender. On the surface it is baffling to look at a team record of 0-5-1 and realize the goalie is the best player on the team. But that’s exactly the case, Ryan Miller has made 144 saves on 153 shots in just four games. It takes an incredible about of talent to build a team where the goaltender has a .941 sv% and a losing record.

This is a feature that will run about every two weeks with improbable stats and situations in the National Hockey League.

If i told you in September:

  • James Neal would be the Penguins leading scorer
  • Teemu Selanne would be leading the Anaheim Ducks is goals, assists, points and penalty minutes
  • The Edmonton Oilers would not just lead the Northwest Division, but have the stingiest defense in the NHL
  • rookie Senators defenseman Jared Cowen would lead the NHL in hits while averaging just 16:26 in TOI/G
  • The only team in the western conference to allow more goals than the Vancouver Canucks would be the Columbus Blue Jackets
  • that Dan Ellis, Brian Elliot, Al Montoya, and Devan Dubnyk would be well above Ryan Miller in save percentage
  • that Matt Cooke would have more goals through the Penguins first 15 games than suspensions and more points than penalty minutes
  • on 11/6 Tuukka Rask would have less appearances, less wins, and a worse goals against average than Rick Dipietro
  • of the four conference finalists the only one in a playoff spot on the first weekend of November would be the San Jose Sharks
  • the marquee-less Dallas Stars would be the first team to ten wins, own the conference lead, and that star studded New York Rangers would have less goals, a worse differential and
  • Vladamir Sobotka would enter play on Sunday with more assists than Ryan Kesler

would you have believed any of it?

This series will cover all thirty teams and go over the most important player, and player who’s performance most needs to improve to help the team succeed.

 

Last season a roster loaded with young potential took the first steps towards realizing it. Taylor Hall adjusted to the NHL well enough to earn 42 points in 65 games. Linus Omark specialized in highlight reel goals, and the forward corps proved that if any part of the team is set to compete in the NHL it is them. If they can find a defensive prospect or two in the next few years who can skate with this group of forwards Lord Stanley may return to this long abandoned summer home.

 

High Card:

Ryan Whitney should be returning to the lineup in time to see yet more forwards drafted high join the club. With 27 points, 29 hits,  and 87 blocked shots in 35 games last season you have to wonder if as weak as the bottom half of the conference proved to e last year if the Oilers couldn’t have climbed at least out of the lottery. Unfortunately for the Oilers he is not yet fully recovered from the ankle injury that ended last season. His leadership and play will both be felt when he is cleared to play.

 

Wild Card:

Nikolai Khabibulin has had well documented problems over the last year few years. His play last season can’t be termed anything less than awful as a whole. A twenty point drop in save percentage and the worst GAA since he debuted in 1994 were only part of the Oilers issues, but they were still a big part. If he can bounce back from last years .898 Sv% to something closer to his career average of .907 the team can look forward to a better season.  If he falters early, don’t be surprised to see Devan Dubnyk assume the reigns. If he has a good to very good season, it might not be too much of a shock to see the well traveled 38 year old Russian shipped to a contender for pick or defensive prospect. With one year left on his contract after this season, and more than one team with questions in net and the Bulin Wall solid again he’d be a solid chip to replace a faltering or injured goalie on a team with a more solid defense.