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.

The two elder goalie prospects in the Boston Bruins system have both matured nicely, and are contributing to the organization. They don’t however play the same style.

On the goalie scale there are two extremes on the continuum of employing theoretically pure position and its opposite number pure reaction goalies. While every goalie is a mix of the two extremes some lean more toward one end than the other. Both require a certain level of athleticism and ability to read the game. A frequent position for the positional goalies is that they have a superior ability to predict where the avenues opposing players will attack down are, and be in position to make shots from that angle low probability shots. For the other side, most of them show more athleticism, and tend to be flashier.

Zane McIntyre on the scale of Tim Thomas to Henrik Lundqvist does trend heavily towards the Lundqvist end, although he may actually move faster. Like most of the upright goalies he’s got very good lateral movement when  down on his knees. He stays square to shooter, is solid with the stick and blocker as well as the glove and appears unflappable.

If I were to compare Malcolm Subban to any goalie, it wouldn’t be Tim Thomas, although he does trend further in that direction than McIntyre, I’d compare him more to Martin Brodeur. In particular he tracks the puck when down well enough to bring his feet into making saves even when flat on his stomach.

On ice, Subban is the more flamboyant, if not to the point of a certain recently acquired Nashville Predator. McIntyre is quick, collected and doesn’t waste any motion and doesn’t look unbalanced on the rare occasions it takes more than two tries to smother or clear a puck. Subban has had three years pro already, and topped off in his second season at a.921 sv% over 35 games. In 31 games McIntyre played over his rookie season, struggling with the transition from college to pros but pulling it together for a final month with a .940 sv%. It’ll be a while longer before we can say definitively which is the better netminder, but the two both look to have respectable upside.

For the second year in a row, the Metropolitan is the weakest division in hockey and it isn’t even close. Some teams are better than last year, others are worse, and anyone who tells you what the others will do is just a bit out of their mind.

Top shelf:

New York Rangers

The Rangers are a safe bet for the playoffs and likely for the division title as well. Lundqvist will be entering the season with a quality backup, and most of the key players in front of him healthy. Despite an injury to top center Stepan that will keep him until around Halloween, the Rangers have otherwise good health up and down the lineup, McDonaugh, Staal, Girardi on the backend, St. Louis, Nash, Brassard and Hagelin up front will do the heavy lifting for the team again.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Like the Rangers, the Blue Jackets have a high quality goalie, this one who just happens to be in a contract year. They also have an underrated defense group. Jack Johnson, Ryan Murphy, James Wisniewski and the rest will contribute at both ends of the ice. The forward group is unheralded as well, Brandon Dubinsky rarely gets the recognition he deserves, Scott Hartnell is a legitimate scoring threat who should be entering the season with something to prove. If Johansen can be signed, and retained, and Horton can have a healthy season, this team is going to be more than a handful.

Wild Cards

Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins have a lot of chaos factors to contend with this year. A new coach is one. Their putative number one goaltender is on an expiring contract and unlike Crosby, Malkin, and Letang was not extended early. They lost two of their top four defensemen from last year. Matt Niskanen was their top points producer and Brooks Orpik led the team in short handed time on ice. To replace them they brought in Christian Ehrhoff. Aside from the top 3-4 names, it would be hard for an observer to guess where the rest of the forward group sits as most of them look a lot like bottom line players.

New York Islanders

The Islanders actually made some smart moves this summer. They picked up and locked up Grabovski giving them a compelling one two punch at center. Their defense is a whole lot of young and learning with Visnovsky and Carkner for contrast. On the backend they have two goalies new to the system, the up, then down, then sideways Jaroslav Halak and the surprising Chad Johnson. I will be equally unsurprised if this team is in the playoffs, or in the bottom five in the league.

Washington Capitals

The Capitals are the east coast equivalent of the San Jose Sharks. On paper they’ve had the talent to win the Cup at lest once in the last decade, on ice, not so much. They too have a new coach, and possibly more importantly they have a coach who recognizes what he’s dealing with. Barry Trotz did what was probably the smartest thing a Capitals coach has done in several years and put Ovechkin back on left wing where he is most comfortable and had several pretty good seasons. The defense could shake out into pairings of Carlson-Greene, Niskanen-Orpik, and Alzner-Erskine, which as top six defense units go, is better than many can boast.

The Rest

Philadelphia Flyers

Even allowing for the Pronger/Timonen money once the season starts and he can be placed on LTIR, the Flyers are still in cap trouble. The roster genuinely looks like the team is trying to tank but just doesn’t know how. Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, and Jacob Voracek are all top end players, the rest of the forward group and much of the rest of the roster feels like the punchline to an inside joke that you’re not quite inside enough for. That said, this is largely the group that managed to make the playoffs last year.

New Jersey Devils

On the plus side the added Mike Cammalleri and finally admitted who their number one goaltender is. On the other side of the balance they added Martin Havlat who is generally good for one bizarre injury and twenty or more man games lost. The defense is rather bland, no one makes over Zajac’s $5.75m and yet they are still only three million from the cap, all without their seeming to have found a backup goalie.

Carolina Hurricanes

The season will kickoff on a sour note with Jordan Staal down-checked for an unknown amount of time with a broken leg. Even assuming Jordan Staal and he rest of the top six forwards were healthy and productive all season, Caniacs were still in for a long slog. The teams defense has high water marks that are merely average followed up by players who are at historical drought levels of talent. It would not be a surprise to see this team draft in the top three next June. The only real hope in season for this team is for the coach with the enthusiastic backing of management to go with whichever goalie is playing better and not with the one they’ve been trying to pass off a a franchise goalie for half a decade.

With each first round series begun, it is time to take our first serious look at who might be carrying around the extra hardware this summer.

Before we get to the men still playing there are some honorable mentions that had individually stellar first rounds. Out west that list is headed by pending UFA Paul Stastny who contributed not just a lot of points, but timely ones. In the east no one deserves more respect than Steve Mason who came into the second season behind a pretty porous defense and put up a more than respectable .939 Sv%.

West:

  • Ryan Suter, 29:14 a night is more minutes a night than any one else still playing. His 14 hits and 15 blocked shots blocked piled up in 8 games.
  • Anze Kopitar, the Selke finalist leads all players in post season points with 13 through 8 games, 51.6% on the faceoff dot, and is a +5 to go with it.
  • Ryan Getzlaf, seven games, 9 points, 3 power play points, a shorthanded point, and a +3 say he’s doing the job in all three zones and all situations over almost 22 minutes a night is quite the workout for a forward.
  • Jonathan Toews, three game winning goals in seven games, 23:16 a night in TOI, and 62.5% in the faceoff circle are a step or three above good.

East:

  • P.K. Subban, 6 games, 2 goals, 7 assists, 9 points, leads the Canadiens in scoring.
  • Torey Krug over the regular season his ice time has increased 2:30, his on ice save percentage has climbed, he’s a point per game in the most defensive minded system left in the playoffs.
  • Henrik Lundqvist, through eight games he’s allowed 2 or less goals in six games. His sv% is up over the regular season, and of all the goalies left, he’s the only one not playing behind someone in the top 15 in post season scoring.
  • Paul Martin 7 games, 8 points, three powerplay points, 2 shorthanded points, +7, 27:29 of TOI, 20 blocked shots, arguably.

Honorable mentions still playing, Evgani Malkin, Tuukka Rask, Corey Perry, Patrick Kane, Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Lars Eller, Corey Crawford, Drew Doughty, Zach Parise, Marian Gaborik, Matt Niskanen, Marc Staal.

 

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

 

Players:

  • that Joe Thornton would be in the top ten in the NHL in scoring when he last finished a season there in the 2009-10 season.
  • of the top five goal scores, Ovechkin, Steen, Perry, Kane and Kunitz, Ovechkin would have both overtime goals in the quintet.
  • the leagues three leaders in PIMS Derek Dorsett of the New York Rangers, Chris Neil of the Ottawa Senators, and Antoine Roussel would combine for more penalty minutes (275) than the New Jersey Devils (251) or San Jose Sharks (271) and each be playing 11:35 a night or more.
  • Brandon Dubinsky would be the only player over 20 points and 60 PIMS, and have a 56.1 FO%.
  • Mike Santorelli of the Vancouver Canucks and Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings would be tied for the NHL lead in overtime points.
  • last years Masterson Award winner Josh Harding would be dominating the league and have the best save percentage of any goalie with more than 1000 minutes on the season and be sitting pretty with a .938 sv% and a 16-5-3 record.
  • undrafted rookie goaltender Cam Talbot with ten games played would have a significantly better sv% (.934 vs .910) than teammate and the NHL’s highest paid netminder Henrik Lundqvist.

Teams:

  • a month after losing Steven Stamkos to injury, the Tampa Bay Lightning would still be holding a top 3 spot in the Atlantic division.
  • on December 13th the spread betwen the 1st and 8th place teams in the east and west would be 10 in the west with 3 teams tied for 8, and 13 in the east.
  • to date, no team in the east would have scored 100 goals.
  • Of the teams in the bottom five (tie for 5th) last year in the NHL, only two would currently be in that place.
  • the Buffalo Sabres who are dead last in the NHL in points would have allowed just one more goal than the Chicago Blackhawks who have the most points in the league.
  • the Edmonton Oilers would be the only team to allow more than 4 shorthanded goals.
  • there would be no apparent pattern to the four teams yet to score a shorthanded goal as to date the Coyotes, Penguins, Panthers and Sabres would all be on the outside looking in.
  • four teams in the west would have scored 100 or more goals.
  • under offensive minded coach Alain Vigneault the New York Rangers would be producing over half a goal per game less than under the blueshirt’s previous bench boss in prior two seasons.

The New York Rangers have to get better performances out of some of their key players if they are going to even make a series of it much less win. Lots of players haven’t shown up. Lots of players have failed to execute, but there are three players who are crucial to the success of the team who haven’t executed at the level they should.

Step Up:

Will the real Dan Girardi please show up? Game two against the Boston Bruins as possibly the worst game of his playoff career, in game two. Yes he picked up an assist in game two, but that isn’t why Girardi is in the NHL. Dan Girardi, the draft leftover is the best damn shutdown defenseman no one talks about. He needs to revert to his normal excellence or he’s going to be golfing with the rest of the team in less tan a week.

Show Up

Derek Stepan.

He was the leading scorer in on the Rangers in the regular season, and yet in his last five games he’s put up just one point. In that his last three games he’s had faceoff percentages over 50% just once, with the other two being 25.32% and 30%. There isn’t much more to say about Stepan, he proved he can be their best player for almost 50 games in the regular season, and in the last five he’s been invisible.

Stop Sucking.

Henrik Lundqvist has been shaky at best and Marc-Andre Fleury like the rest. Yes some of the goals he’s let in there were screens, but at least four of the eight goals he’s allowed this series have been soft. Even when he’s making saves, he’s bobbling pucks. This isn’t the King Henrik that Rangers fans, and NHL observers are used to seeing. He doesn’t look confident. He may not be healthy in the post season (again), if he isn’t that’s partly his fault, and partly the Torts for playing him too much in the regular season (again). What ever it is right now he needs to help his team find a way to win four of the next five games.

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

 

Teams:

  • on April 17th the New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets would have a better chance of making the playoffs than last years eastern conference champions the New Jersey Devils.
  • the Los Angeles Kings would have a better offense than the Boston Bruins, Vancouver Canucks, or Philadelphia Flyers.
  • only three of the top five powerplays would belong to playoff teams while five of five penalty kills would belong to playoff teams.
  • the Montreal Canadiens, and the Ottawa Senators would have more penalties per game than the Anaheim Ducks.
  • only two of the bottom five faceoff teams would be in playoff position, while all of the top five faceoff teams would be in.
  • zero of last years eastern conference division winners, The Panthers, The Rangers, and the Bruins would be in that position today.
  • zero of last years bottom five years teams would be there right now.

Players:

  • despite missing games with a concussion, Brad Marchand would still be tied for a top 20 position in goal scoring.
  • Alex Ovechkin would not only be the only player in double digits in powerplay goals, but also have a six goal cushion on those tied for second.
  • half of Adam Henrique’s ten goals would come on special teams, two short handed, and three on the powerplay.
  • the league leader in short handed assists would have three, and be Lee Stempniak.
  • the only defenseman in the NHL with more than one short handed assist would be, Jay Bouwmeester.
  • heading into the last handful of games of the season, Daniel Alfredsson would have almost twice the PIMS of Raffi Torres.
  • seven of the top ten defensemen in assists would be left handed shots, Mark Streit, Duncan Keith, Niklas Kronwall, Alex Goligoski, Sergei Gonchar, Kimmo Timonen, Ryan Suter, but two of the top three would be right handed, Kris Letang and P.K. Subban.
  • Sergei Bobrovsky would be the only goaltender in the top five for sv% and the top five for shootout wins.
  • the top ten goalies by save percentage would combine for a cap hit o $23,875,000 with over a quarter of it belonging to Henrik Lundqvist, who’s team has the lowest point total.

Back half an eon ago, at least in terms of news cycles I previewed the series.  Depth and health were the two keywords, and whiled they did play a pivotal part, the component I don’t think anyone looked at was something that seems obvious.

The New York Rangers did not have any killer instinct. They were good at evening games up, or popping in goals here and there. They had solid defense for the most part. But getting ahead and standing on their opponents throat? Nope, didn’t happen.

By The Numbers:

  • 4 : The number of games in the series Lundqvist had a sub .900Sv%.
  • 10 : The number of years Brodeur is older than Lundqvist.
  • 3 : The number of Rangers who finished the post season with more points than Artem Anisimov.
  • 0 : The number of shutouts in this series by Brodeur
  • 19:29 : How many minutes Adam Larsson played in this series.
  • 1 : The number of points Gaborik had in the series.
  • 3: Chris Kreider’s points total for the series.

After killer instinct, the Rangers biggest failure was simply not playing sixty minutes of hockey. Bad first periods, mixed second and third periods are no way to win against talented teams. The Devils biggest corporate asset was the ability to withstand the frankly scary Ranger surges and still maintain composure. First to last this was a series that the New Jersey Devils were more willing to sweat blood for. The Devils got contributions from more players, and were consistent game in and game out.

The great injustice of the post season is that there are only two awards that count. The Stanley Cup for a team, and the Conn-Smyth for one individual. In most post seasons there are at least two people who could be given the latter. This season there are more. Given the dynamics of the post season, at least one of them will get to lift the Cup and the day I hear a NHL star say they’d rather have an individual award than a Stanley Cup, I’ll finally have seen a player I don’t even want to watch play any more.

Dan Girardi is a revelation this post season. He leads the post season scoring race among defensemen by two points. And he has done it with remarkably similar fashion to the quiet defense first style he plays with all season. Even more than Lundqvist the regular season and post season star of this team is Girardi.

Arguments for Ilya Kovalchuk to be on the Hart shortlist were met with scorn all season. This despite his leading the league in ice time for forwards by miles, having more short handed goals than anyone else in the top twenty point scorers, playing a lot of minutes on a top penalty killing unit, the post season hasn’t looked much less different. This despite his missing a game with an injury.

Dustin Brown has simply dominated the post season like no other forward. Skating, hitting, scoring drawing penalties and keeping coolly composed and not taking stupid penalties himself. He’s every bit the engine to his team that Toews is to the Blackhawks, Doan is to the Coyotes. You can make arguments that the Kings would be in the same position as they are now without him, but you’ll excuse me if I laugh in your face while you do so.

Mike Smith, hands down the most skilled individual on his team. You could swap out the other three goalies left for any other above average goaltender and that team would be in about the same place. Agent Smith has faced more shots than any goalie this post season. Despite having played one less game than Brodeur he’s made 129 more saves, Quick who has played two less games has had to make 158 fewer saves.