The NHL’s frantic first round ended on Wednesday with the Lightning’s 2-0 Game 7 win over the Red Wings, so now would be a good time for everyone to stop, take a breath, and enjoy some much-needed time off from playoff hockey. Decompress a little. Maybe reconnect with family and friends.
Done? Good. Round 2 already started last night. We’d better hurry up and get to the preview.
Pacific Division: No. 1 Anaheim Ducks vs. No. 3 Calgary Flames
Series started: Last night in Anaheim, where the Ducks crushed the Flames 6-1
Season series: The Ducks won three of five. Each of the last three games ended in a 6-3 final. That means something. I do not know what.
Playoff history: They’ve met once, in the first round back in 2006; the Ducks came back from a 3-2 series deficit to win in seven.1
Also, while it was technically from a few months before that particular series, this whole thing was fun.
Dominant narrative: The well-rested favorite takes on the scrappy underdog.
In this corner: Calgary Flames (45-30-7, 97 points, plus-24 goal differential)
How they got here: They beat the Vancouver Canucks in six in a minor upset, winning all three games at home.
Unexpected first-round hero: Micheal Ferland.2 A 23-year-old rookie, Ferland (or “Ferkland,” as he’ll be forever known to Vancouver fans) drove the Canucks crazy with his physical play early in the series. Then he scored the goal that started the Flames’ comeback in the series-clinching Game 6, and finished the game with three points. His mom wouldn’t let him hit the Sedins, but we can assume she has no issue with him going after Corey Perry, because even moms hate Corey Perry.
Yes, “Micheal.” Apparently we’d all been spelling his name wrong until Monday and nobody told us.
Wakey-wakey: Mikael Backlund3 is relied on for secondary scoring from the middle six, but had just one assist in the opening round.
Or maybe it’s “Mikeal,” who even knows anymore.
The big question: Can they handle the Ducks physically? The Flames-Canucks series was ugly at times, and Calgary never backed down. But the Canucks aspire to be a dominant physical team; the Ducks actually are one. A massive Jets team went out and hit every Duck that moved in Round 1 and barely made a dent in them. The Flames are a team built on a philosophy of truculence, but they’re not going to intimidate anyone this round.
Health watch: Ferland and Jiri Hudler both left last night’s game and are listed as day-to-day. Captain Mark Giordano remains out after surgery on a torn biceps. That surgery was considered absolutely, positively, 100 percent season-ending, so yeah, he’ll probably be back eventually.
Key number: 329 — Career starts for current Flames goalie Jonas Hiller during his seven years with the Ducks, including 22 in the playoffs. He was pulled early in the second last night.
Bandwagon status: With the Jets, Senators, and Islanders all out, the Flames are pretty much the last team left with any solid underdog cred.
They win this series if: They can handle the physical battle without getting into penalty trouble, the young forwards can keep producing, and Hiller rebounds from Game 1 to write a nice little revenge tale against the team that dumped him. If all of that happens, and about a dozen more things go their way, they’ll make it to Game 5. From there, they’ll probably need a miracle. So, business as usual for these guys.
And in this corner: Anaheim Ducks (51-24-7, 109 points, plus-7 goal differential)
How they got here: They swept the Jets in the first round and had been off since that series ended last Wednesday.
Unexpected first-round hero: Jakob Silfverberg. Guys like Perry and Ryan Getzlaf get most of the attention, but the Ducks can boast some impressive secondary scoring. The 24-year-old Silfverberg, who came over in the Bobby Ryan trade with Ottawa, had six points, including the late winner in Game 2.
Wakey-wakey: Not too many guys can be said to have a bad series when you win in four, but 22-goal man Matt Beleskey was held off the score sheet against Winnipeg.
The big question: Can they sweep again? After last night’s lopsided opener, it sure looks that way.
Health watch: Everyone’s at least a little hurt these days, but the Ducks should be as healthy as possible after all their time off.
Key number: 3 — Number of games in the first round in which the Ducks trailed heading into the third period but came back to win, tying an NHL playoff series record. They also had 18 third-period comebacks during the regular season, another record.
Bandwagon status: Come on. They already beat the Jets and made all their cool fans cry. If they do the same to the underdog Flames, they’ll advance to the third round, where they’ll just kick a boxful of puppies down a flight of stairs.
They win this series if: They look anything like they did in the first round, not to mention in Game 1. On paper, this should be close to a bye for the Ducks.
Prediction: The Flames once again find a way to defy the odds and make this a lot closer than it has any right to be, but the Ducks eventually advance in six hard-fought games.
Atlantic Division: No. 1 Montreal Canadiens vs. No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning
Series starts: Friday in Montreal
Season series: The Lightning won all five games.
Playoff history: They met in the first round last year, when Montreal swept the Ben Bishop–less Lightning in four straight.
Dominant narrative: Hey, Montreal, remember that team you kicked sand in the face of last year? It wants a rematch …
In this corner: Tampa Bay Lightning (50-24-8, 108 points, plus-53 goal differential)
How they got here: By closing out the Red Wings in seven to just barely escape with a series most expected them to win easily
Unexpected first-round hero: Tyler Johnson. We already knew he was good — Johnson ranked 14th in league scoring this season. But his series against the Wings, featuring three multigoal games and an overtime winner, was the kind of breakout performance that can elevate a guy from being seen as part of an excellent Steven Stamkos supporting cast to being considered a superstar in his own right.
Wakey-wakey: Steven Stamkos. The fact that the Lightning were able to win a seven-game series without getting a single goal from Stamkos is just more evidence of how well balanced this team really is.
The big question: Ben Bishop is good, right? In the first playoff action of his career, Bishop posted a save percentage of just .904 through six starts before earning the shutout in Wednesday’s deciding game. And he often looked shaky while doing it, fighting rebounds and occasionally making snow angels in his crease like a guy who didn’t have any sense for where the puck was. All of that was still good enough to win the series, and he was perfect when they most needed him to be, but heading into a matchup against Carey Price, the Lightning sure seem to be facing a disadvantage in the goaltending battle.
Health watch: Everyone is available.
Key number: 5 — The number of times the Lightning beat the Canadiens this year, out of five games. We already mentioned that up above, but just wanted to make sure you saw it again. If we’re going on the regular season alone, this is the easiest series to call of any we’ve seen. (We are not going by regular season alone.)
Bandwagon status: They’re young, they’re talented, and they’re all sorts of fun to watch. None of that is news, so you should have been on board long ago. But we can probably squeeze on a few more.
They win this series if: Stamkos wakes up and Bishop can hold his own. They don’t need him to outplay Price, mind you — he just can’t be the weak link in the series.
And in this corner: Montreal Canadiens (50-22-10, 110 points, plus-30 goal differential)
How they got here: By jumping out to a 3-0 lead on the Senators, then letting them hang around until winning the series in six
Unexpected first-round hero: Torrey Mitchell. It’s slim pickings for first-round heroes of any kind who aren’t named Carey Price; only P.K. Subban managed more than three points, and only Dale Weise had more than one goal. But Mitchell will do. After coming over from the Sabres at the trade deadline, he managed just one point in 14 regular-season games, but had two in six games against the Senators while also handling a good share of the team’s defensive faceoff duties.
Wakey-wakey: Max Pacioretty. He had just two points in the Ottawa series, both goals, and one of those was a (literally) last-second empty-netter from his own zone in Game 6. That’s not terrible, given that he’s probably playing hurt, but it’s not a great start for a guy without much a playoff track record.
The big question: What’s the deal with the power play? The Canadiens were just 1-for-20 against the Senators, a pathetic showing that nearly cost Montreal the series. And it’s not just the raw number — they often looked absolutely lost, putting up the kind of performance where you hear the goaltender banging his stick and think, Oh, right, I forgot there was a power play going on.
Health watch: Nathan Beaulieu suffered an upper-body injury on this hit from Erik Karlsson, but luckily he was never sent for the league-mandated visit to the quiet room, so we can rule out a concussion.
Key number: 37.3 — Shots per game in the first round, second-most among the 16 playoff teams. Small sample size and all, that’s a reminder that this team has the speed and skill to generate some offense; it’s not just Carey Price and a bunch of plugs.
Bandwagon status: Habs fans are notoriously friendly folks and would love to welcome you aboard their bandwagon. The secret password for admission is “S’il vous plaît me poignarder.”
I linked to that clip for two reasons: to make Habs fans sad, and to give you a lifetime of nightmares of slow-mo Pierre McGuire voice.
Prediction: I picked the Lightning over the Habs two weeks ago; I guess I have to stick with it now, as tempting as it is to do the old sportswriter “make different picks in different places so you’re always right somewhere” trick. Tampa Bay in six.
Central Division: No. 3 Chicago Blackhawks vs. No. 4 Minnesota Wild
Series starts: Friday in Chicago
Season series: The Blackhawks won the first three meetings; the Wild took the last two.
Playoff history: This is the third straight year these teams have met. The Blackhawks won in five in 2013, and in six last year.
Dominant narrative: The two teams left standing from the league’s toughest division meet to determine who’ll head to the conference final and (maybe more important) whether that team will have anything left when it gets there.
In this corner: Minnesota Wild (46-28-8, 100 points, plus-29 goal differential)
How they got here: The Wild are the only 4-seed to make it to Round 2, finishing off the top-seeded Blues in six games.
Unexpected first-round hero: Nino Niederreiter. The inconsistent winger, still just three years removed from an impressively awful 1-0-1 stat line in 55 games with the Islanders in 2011-12, scored three goals against the Blues, including the winner in Game 4. OK, yes, two of those were empty-netters, but let’s not get picky.
Wakey-wakey: Thomas Vanek managed just two assists in the opening round.
The big question: Did they actually just beat a good team? You hate to make any series about the losing team, but nobody seems to be quite sure what exactly the Blues really were. We think that beating them is impressive. The standings say it was impressive. But how much of that was the Wild beating them, and how much was the Blues beating themselves?
Health watch: No major injuries from Round 1.
Key number: .913 — Devan Dubnyk’s save percentage in Round 1, which is only barely average for a playoff goaltender. For some teams, that would be a concern. But for the Wild, who turned their season around by acquiring Dubnyk in January, it was a nice reminder that this isn’t a one-man team. They know their goalie is capable of stealing a game or two every series, but they’re good enough to win even when he doesn’t.
Bandwagon status: If you’ve ever wanted to try to ride a 4-seed all the way to a Cup win, this is the team to do it with.
They win this series if: Dubnyk wins the goaltending battle, they can find a way to shut down Chicago’s stars, and they get the majority of the bounces in a series that’s so close that it will probably be decided largely by puck luck.
And in this corner: Chicago Blackhawks (48-28-6, 102 points, plus-34 goal differential)
How they got here: The Blackhawks knocked out the Predators in six games in what, out of respect for Nashville fans, we all have to pretend was an upset.
Unexpected first-round hero: There kind of wasn’t one, in the sense that Chicago’s big guns led the way. You could give the nod to Scott Darling, who came in and won three games, but … well, we’ll get to that.
Wakey-wakey: Corey Crawford played poorly and lost his starting job, but … well, we’ll get to that.
The big question: Is the goaltending good enough? Crawford started the series, played badly, was yanked after one period in Game 1 and got shelled in Game 2. Darling comes in and looks great for three games, struggles a bit in Game 5, and then get yanked for Crawford in the deciding Game 6. We’re told that Crawford will get the start in Game 1, and that makes sense — he’s the veteran with the Cup ring. But you typically don’t want to be going into Round 2 with questions hanging over your goaltending, and the Blackhawks have plenty of them right now.
Health watch: They’re pretty much completely healthy.
Key number: 1 — Number of times the Blackhawks have lost in the second round of the playoffs since 1980. They’re 11-1 in Round 2 since then, with the only loss coming in 1996.
Bandwagon status: They were the only Cup winner from the last five years to make the playoffs. Find someone else.
They win this series if: They can settle on a goalie who can outplay Dubnyk, the stars keep producing, and nobody irreplaceable gets hurt. If all of that happens, flip a coin.
Prediction: Heads! The coin came up heads. Make it Hawks in seven.
Metro Division: No. 1 New York Rangers vs. No. 2 Washington Capitals
Series started: Last night in New York, where the Caps escaped with a 2-1 win on Joel Ward’s last-second winner
Season series: The Rangers took three of four in the season series. Three of those games came in the last month of the season, so hopefully they’re already sick of each other.
Playoff history: They’ve played each other in the first or second round every single year since 1985.5
OK, not quite, but it feels that way; this will be their ninth meeting, and fifth in the last seven years. The Rangers won the last two in seven.
Dominant narrative: The Eastern favorite runs into a tough test against a familiar foe.
In this corner: Washington Capitals (45-26-11, 101 points, plus-38 goal differential)
How they got here: By knocking off the Islanders in an agonizing Game 7 on Monday
Unexpected first-round hero: Evgeny Kuznetsov, the talented young sniper who scored three goals, including a sweet effort on the Game 7 winner
Wakey-wakey: Mike Green. He isn’t the same guy who scored 30 goals all those years ago, but you’d still like to get more than two points in eight games from him.
The big question: Is this the series in which Braden Holtby stakes his claim on elite status? Holtby has been very good since entering the league, in both the regular season and the playoffs. But he’s still not a guy who tends to come up in discussions about the league’s very best. Outplaying Henrik Lundqvist with a conference final berth on the line would probably change that.
Health watch: Eric Fehr is still day-to-day.
Key number: 0 — Power-play goals allowed by the Capitals in Round 1. Granted, they were shorthanded just 14 times — if anyone knows how to remove a whistle from a referee’s throat, please contact the NHL — but it’s still a confidence booster for a unit that was only average during the season.
Bandwagon status: Sneaky good. They’re underdogs, the franchise has never won a Cup, and they’re a fun team to watch these days. Sure, they made the Islanders cry, but let’s face it, we always knew that somebody was going to do that eventually.
They win this series if: The goals start going in for Alexander Ovechkin (who had just two against the Islanders, but opened the scoring last night), Holtby continues to shine, and they can exploit what should be an edge in the physical department.
And in this corner: New York Rangers (53-22-7, 113 points, plus-61 goal differential)
How they got here: They beat the stumbling Penguins in a deceivingly close five-game series.
Unexpected first-round hero: Derick Brassard. OK, maybe that’s not all that unexpected — the skilled setup man was second on the team in points this year — but three goals in a five-game series is a nice bonus from a guy who’s never hit the 20-goal mark in a season.
Wakey-wakey: Martin St. Louis had just one assist in the first round.
The big question: When does the big breakout come for Rick Nash? Asking what’s wrong with Nash has become an annual playoff tradition, and that’s not completely unfair. His lone goal against the Penguins gave him just six in 47 career playoff games, which seems like it should be next to impossible for a talented sniper who scored 42 in the regular season. It’s not that he’s playing badly — a good defense of his series against the Penguins can be found here — but he’s a goal scorer who can’t seem to score in the postseason, and he’s going to hear about until he does.
Health watch: Mats Zuccarello, who led the team in scoring last season, is out indefinitely with what’s widely assumed to be a concussion. Kevin Klein is back, though.
Key number: 1.60 — Goals per game allowed by the Rangers in the first round, the only team in the league to come in under 2.00. That probably says as much about the Penguins as it does the Rangers, but it’s a good sign in a defense-first league that gets even more defensive at playoff time.
Bandwagon status: They’ve won only one Stanley Cup in 75 years. Of course, that one came over 20 years ago and the NHL still hasn’t shut up about it, so … no.
They win this series if: Nash wakes up, they can keep Ovechkin in check, and Holtby doesn’t steal it from them. None of which seem especially likely, come to think of it.
Prediction: From the brilliant hockey mind that brought you previous upset specials like “Jets over Ducks,” let’s roll the dice and say Caps in seven.6
And for the record, this prediction was made before the Caps took Game 1.