By Mike Ivcic and Alex Rajaniemi
Eight teams gone, eight teams still standing – and two of the most surprising game sevens ever to cap off the first round. That’s where we sit after the first round of the NHL playoffs, with round two scheduled to start with a pair of games tonight. The league certainly has to be thrilled with six of the best hockey markets in the U.S. still alive – New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles. They’re joined by another big market-area team in San Jose and the lone representative of the Great White North, the Canadian capital of Ottawa carrying the torch for the entire country. If the first round is any indication, we’re all in for another wild two weeks, and what better way to get you ready for all the action than another dual preview. Alex and I are tied at 8 points apiece after round one. I correctly predicted wins and games for Pittsburgh, Boston, and Chicago as well as series wins for San Jose and Los Angeles, while Alex nailed both the Chicago and Los Angeles series and games and picked up series wins with the Penguins, Rangers, Bruins, and Red Wings. Eight series in the books and no blood yet, so on we go to the next four!
Note: All times and networks are courtesy of nhl.com. Additional time and network information will be released as the second round begins. The odds next to each team are Bovada’s updated odds to win the Stanley Cup.
Mike: I’ll start by saying “I told you so” with regards to Fleury, but Alex you definitely called the importance of Vokoun. He was the reason the Penguins managed to avoid what could have been the biggest first round upset in NHL history, calming everything down in game five and earning the OT win the decisive game six against the Islanders. That said, this is a much different Ottawa team that Pittsburgh will be facing, save for one critical element – physicality. The Sens beat up Montreal at both ends of the ice – sometimes legally, sometimes illegally – and they fully intend to do the same thing to the talented Pens. That follows the same philosophy NY used when they were able to have success in the first round. Plus, while Nobokov was good for the Isles, Anderson is that much better for Ottawa, and it’s highly unlikely that the East’s top seed will be able to produce the same level of offensive output in this series. I’m a little surprised, Alex, that Ottawa scored as much as they did against the Canadiens, and if they can duplicate that offensive production in this round they may be able to do what New York couldn’t and pull off the upset. Still, while I’m rooting for it, I can’t actually force myself to pull the trigger and pick it. I think the goaltending of Pittsburgh – whichever one plays – will at least stabilize enough to allow the Penguins to advance in what should be a very good series.
Alex: Problem there is, I didn’t call Vokoun… I called the non-rostered rookie. Whoops. This series is another trap, Mike. Ottawa is rolling and looking like the thorn-in-your-side team that they always seem to be in the playoffs, even without Spezza. They’ve got one of the best goaltenders in terms of consistency in the playoffs in Craig Anderson, but there is one catch: Craig hasn’t beaten the Pens yet. Even though the Walrus has his boys reeling and playing in-your-face playoff hockey, this still isn’t a good matchup. The Sens are winless this lockout-shortened season against the powerhouse Penguins and the way that Sid (3rd in points), Geno (2nd in points), and the rest of Pittsburgh (1st in goals) is scoring right now may pose a big problem. I like that Vokoun gets the start here in game one, but don’t be surprised if they go back to their starter as I think that Vokoun is simply a gap-stop here until Fleury finds his footing once more. Remember, Marc-Andre has proven he can play in the playoffs and win a Cup, but if he can’t pull it together the Pens won’t go far. I wish I could give you two different predictions here dependent on goaltending situation and I know I was wrong about the Pens rolling over people earlier, but this is going five.
4 Boston Bruins (8/1) vs. 6 New York Rangers (8/1)
Alex: Told ya, Mike. Sorry that your hopes and dreams got crushed by the Blueshirts once more. This series is an enigma of sorts as both teams struggled in situations, each having to take game seven wins to move on. The fatigue won’t hurt these two teams in my mind’s eye as both rosters are full of players who have been battle tested, and that takes on a whole new meaning in Beantown and the Big Apple as the Rangers and Bruins love going the distance in playoff series. New York still doesn’t know how to score goals and has an anemic power play, but game seven was a scoring onslaught and if the Rangers can get past a really impressive Washington team without their best skater showing up to play, imagine what they can do when Rick Nash decides he wants to join the playoffs. Once Nash figures it out, the Rangers will be a powerhouse once more. As for Boston, their resilience is unmatched. That game seven performance shows that a team with this much cup experience can’t be slept on (just ask the salty-teared city of Toronto). I love David Krejci in the playoffs and the big boys Chara, Lucic, and Horton are playing hard-nosed hockey that’s reflected in some stellar plus-minus numbers. This is a tough one and I really want to pick Boston because their recent success, but I have to go with EA Sports and my heart.
Mike: Once again, the Caps are playoff failures. Seems like I’ve written that every year for the last six years – oh, that’s right, I have. Anyway, I love the fact that these two teams are squaring off for the first time since before the U.S. got involved in World War II, and so does the NHL. Two huge markets that have had some classic playoff matchups in other sports finally get one on the ice. Think of all the Patriots-Jets games and Patriots-Giants Super Bowls, or the Red Sox failures against both the Yankees and Mets and then that magical ride in 2004, and of course the Knicks and Celtics that just wrapped up a pretty good first round series in the NBA. If it sounds like I’m avoiding talking hockey here, Alex, it’s because I am – I don’t want either team to win. The edge here is Lundqvist – it’s not that Rask played poorly for Boston in their series against the Leafs, but it’s just that Henrik is better. Rask will have to raise his level of play to be a difference maker, while Lundqvist is a difference maker just by showing up. I, too, was tremendously impressed with Boston’s resiliency on home ice in game seven, and I agree that Nash simply has to be better, but the Rangers can get offense from their defensemen like Girardi and Del Zotto, and that makes them extremely dangerous. If this series goes the distance I’m not sold that the Rangers can win another winner-take-all on the road in a hostile environment, so I’ll say it’s a return trip for New York to the Eastern Conference finals in six.
Mike: Talk about a classic rivalry – this series could be a bloodbath. You pegged Detroit as a skilled, veteran team, Alex, and that’s exactly how they beat Anaheim – won three huge overtime games to avoid falling two games behind the Ducks, then took control of game seven early and hung on late for the win. But what fans in the Motor City will soon learn, if they weren’t paying attention to the regular season, is that Chicago is on a totally different level this year than the rest of the NHL. After looking a little sluggish in game one, the Blackhawks absolutely dominated the Wild for the next four games, including the game they lost in Minnesota. We both brought up the backline of Chicago in our first preview, but it’s worth mentioning again just how dominant that group really is. Duncan Keith gets most of the recognition, but Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya, Nick Leddy, and Nicklas Hjalmarsson comprise a ridiculously talented, physical blueline corps that effectively shut down Parise and Koivu for Minnesota and should be more than up to the task of shutting down the familiar foes with names like Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Cleary, Filppula, and Abdelkader. Goaltenders Jimmy Howard and Corey Crawford are a wash for me – both played well in round one but neither are elite – so the more talented roster will advance here.
Alex: The West is real tough to pick now, Mike, and thanks for the recognition. You’re 100% right about the Blackhawks; nobody scores like Chicago, nobody is as fast as Chicago, nobody has a more solid blue line than Chicago, and nobody wins more than Chicago. My skepticism over Corey Crawford was numbed a little in the 4-1 series victory, but the Wings are a far better team than the 8-seed Wild. Henrik Zetterberg is the captain everyone needed in that locker room with the absence of Nick Lidstrom and it is coming through in his overtime heroics. It’s a classic, Original Six matchup with the legs to go seven games, but I think I need to lock you up here. Joel Quenneville has his guys going, scoring, and playing like it’s the first 24 games of the season and they won’t be stopped unless Stevie Y shows up like it’s the 90s.
5 Los Angeles Kings (7/1) vs. 6 San Jose Sharks (15/2)
Alex: Another even matchup yields the reigning Stanley Cup champs and a team that silenced every single one of its critics (including me) in terms of playoff… malfunctions we’ll call them. San Jose just seems like a really balanced roster with some really ring-hungry vets in Joe Thornton and Patty Marleau. I like Joe Pavelski’s scoring touch even though I have to wonder how on Earth he can skate with that terrible stride recovery. But that’s as far as I’ll go with the Sharkies, as the Kings are just playing far too well to be beat in a seven game series. This Los Angeles team looks like the team that ran away with the Cup last year with balanced scoring, a rock-solid Jonathan Quick, and a matchup they like. During the season, L.A. picked up 5 of a possible 8 points against their division rivals, losing one game in a shootout. I can’t pick against them, and somehow I just think that San Jose’s past is going to catch up with them.
Mike: It would appear that we finally have a disagreement, which means this series could really wind up determining who wins our little competition. Your points are all well-made on the Kings, Alex, and after allowing two terrible game winners in St. Louis, Quick recovered and reverted back to his 2012 form, leading the Kings to four straight wins. But like we both said in the first round, the Blues offense was lacking. We knew it, Darryl Sutter knew it, Ken Hitchcock knew it, everyone in the Gateway City and the City of Angels knew it – heck, people that don’t even follow hockey knew the Blues couldn’t score. Bryan Elliot did all he could, but it just wasn’t enough. As you astutely pointed out, though, the Sharks offense is clicking. Their third period outburst on Corey Crawford and the Canucks in game four was stunning. Marleau, Couture, and Pavelski have all been phenomenal, and let’s not forget one thing – the only Cup the Blackhawks have won in my lifetime came with the guy in the Sharks net playing goalie. At the risk of tipping my hand, Alex, not only do the Sharks win this series, but with the way they handily dispatched of Vancouver, I think there’s going to be at least a Western Conference championship banner to hang in the rafters of HP Pavilion by the time this season wraps up.