The first round is finally over. It ended in record fashion. With the Maple Leafs pushing the top seeded Capitals to a record 18th overtime in Round One. For the fifth game in six, Toronto and Washington needed sudden death to decide a winner.
Like Game 4 when Mr. Game 7 Justin Williams turned the series around with an overtime winner, the Caps prevailed thanks to Marcus Johansson, who scored on a Williams rebound past heroic Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen at 6:51 of OT. Johansson had also tied the game with 7:09 remaining when his seeing eye shot went off Andersen and over the goal line. A big response following Auston Matthews’ fourth straight game with a goal on a great bounce off a Morgan Rielly dump in which he went top shelf on Braden Holtby.
There was no doubt the Caps were winning. They dominated the extra session and finally broke the Leafs’ will. Toronto put up a great fight. But ultimately, Washington’s relentless pressure finally got to them. Between the top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie and the second unit of Williams, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Johansson, it was just a matter of time before they finally put the Leafs away.
Regardless, they have a very bright future. You better believe Toronto will be a viable threat soon. By that, I mean they could be the first Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup since the ’93 Canadiens. Unless the Oilers or Senators figure out a way.
So, the NHL gets the desired Pens/Caps rematch. Crosby vs Ovechkin for a second straight Spring in the second round. It’s disappointing that they have to play in the Conference Semifinals instead of the Conference Final. But that’s the current divisional playoff format they agreed to. So, it’s Holtby vs Marc-Andre Fleury until Matt Murray is healthy. Fleury did well in the Pens’ five-game first round series win over the Blue Jackets. Maybe he has it together in what might be his last time as a member of the Pens.
Pittsburgh has no Kris Letang for this run and still no Carl Hagelin. They have other players hurt on the back end. But somehow, they look like the favorites again. Crosby is playing lights out and Evgeni Malkin came back with a vengeance leading all scorers with 11 points in the first round. Plus Phil Kessel. They have help from speedy and gritty young forwards Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary. Plus Patric Hornqvist and future star Jake Guentzel. The forwards are very strong featuring versatile two-way veterans Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen. Plus gritty Tom Kuhnackl and Scott Wilson.
The Caps are four lines deep as well. They got three goals from ornery Tom Wilson in their win over Toronto. Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky support it. The fourth line isn’t utilized as much with checking center Jay Beagle, veteran Daniel Winnik and 12th forward Brett Connolly. Even with the Caps possessing that lethal top line featuring Ovechkin, Backstrom and Oshie along with Williams, Kuznetsov and Johansson, it’s advantage Pens.
It’ll be up to the Washington blue line featuring righties Matt Niskanen, John Carlson and rental Kevin Shattenkirk to expose the Pens. The problem is Brooks Orpik and Shattenkirk had some issues with the Leafs’ speed. So did Carlson. Dmitry Orlov and Niskanen are their most reliable pair who can handle the big minutes and tough assignments.
The Pens rely on Justin Schultz to lead the offense while veteran Trevor Daley eats minutes along with Ian Cole and a now healthy Olli Maatta. But Maatta isn’t strong defensively. They also count on Brian Dumoulin and vet Ron Hainsey.
It may very well come down to the goalie match-up which should favor Holtby. He came on strong after struggling early against the Leafs. He has a Vezina and is up for it again against favorite Sergei Bobrovsky and surprising finalist Carey Price, who in my view wasn’t better than Cam Talbot. Holtby has all the pressure. Especially if it’s Fleury, who posted a .933 save percentage against Columbus while facing a lot of pressure.
Pens vs Caps is a scintillating match-up due to the stars. Sid vs Ovi. Geno and Backstrom. Is this the year Ovechkin gets out of the second round? I’m not sold. They have to prove themselves.
For the Rangers, they’ll start on the road against the Senators, who prevailed over a gritty Bruins despite being down players. Clarke MacArthur was the overtime hero converting in front from Bobby Ryan and Derick Brassard for a power play goal to lift the Sens over the Bruins 3-2 in Game 6 in Beantown to eliminate Boston. They won all three road games at TD Garden. Four of the six games were decided in sudden death with Ottawa winning the two in Boston while losing a pair at home.
They won with star defenseman Erik Karlsson logging the usual big minutes despite revealing that he played with two hairline fractures in his foot. That might explain why he was struggling in double overtime of Game 5. Astonishingly, the Sens captain is so good, he still played over 29 minutes and recorded his sixth point (all assists) of the series. He’s amazing. The Rangers will be facing the best defenseman in hockey in the Atlantic Division Final. It will not be easy.
There’s also the storyline of Brassard facing his former teammates. He was brilliant in Round One putting up eight points (2-6-8) to lead the Sens. Ryan, a Cherry Hill native- erupted for four goals and three assists after having a forgettable regular season. Brassard struggled during the season too. But as we know, Big Game Brass always rises to the occasion.
So, it’s Brassard’s experience versus his ex-team against Mika Zibanejad’s youth as he continues to learn what it takes to win in the NHL playoffs. Zibanejad came on strong the final three games- all Ranger wins. His clutch overtime winner in Game 5 along with two assists including one in Game 6 helped lead the Rangers with four points in a meat and potatoes ferocious six-game series victory over the Canadiens. The physicality and pace was frenetic. The hate was palpable. It was the best series of the first round. With great goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist, who outdueled Price to get a satisfying win.
Now, he’ll face another veteran in Craig Anderson. A likable player whose wife has been fighting cancer. Somehow, Anderson hasn’t let it affect his play. He was brilliant in the first round to best Tuukka Rask by posting a 1.94 goals-against-average with a .921 save percentage and a shutout. The Rangers should be familiar with him. It was in a hard fought first round back in 2012 that they needed to rally from a 3-2 series deficit to beat the Sens. Of course, there were many different players on both sides. But the goalies remain the same with Anderson vs Lundqvist a good match-up.
Karlsson remains too for the Sens as one of the game’s best players. The Rangers still have more core pieces left with Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider.
Had Mats Zuccarello been healthy for that postseason under former coach John Tortorella, maybe they get past the Devils and face the Kings two years earlier before Alain Vigneault took over behind the bench. Zuccarello blocked a shot in a regular season game and was lost for that run. Ever since, Zucc has been amazing. His three goals led the Blueshirts against the Habs with the game-tying and series clinching in the second period on Saturday.
Veteran journalist Rick Carpiniello had this tweet response. A valid point too:
It makes you wonder. Kreider was big part of that run to the Conference Final. As a player who hadn’t played an NHL regular season game, he jumped right in from winning a national championship at Boston College and scored five goals and two assists in 18 games. You never know.
Interestingly enough, Ottawa actually has just as many players left over. Anderson. Karlsson. Turris. Neil. Smith. Mike Hoffman was a 21-year old rookie who didn’t play. Neither did hard hitting blue liner Mark Borowiecki. Neil probably won’t play this time due to the Sens’ depth. Borowiecki is hurt. So, his status is questionable. Hoffman is one of their most dangerous skaters. He and Mark Stone are two players to keep an eye on.
Former Blueshirt Viktor Stalberg also will go up against the Rangers. The Sens have Dion Phaneuf paired with Karlsson. The same Phaneuf who ended Mike Sauer’s career with a clean but mean hit during that ’11-12 season. He’s been effective for them. Cody Ceci and Marc Methot do the grunt work. Ottawa’s third pair could be exploited. They were forced to play Chris Wideman in five games in the first round. Unproven Ben Harpur and Fredrik Claesson played tonight.
There’s also the annoying Alex Burrows from Vigneault’s past with the Canucks. He was very good after the Sens acquired him. But only had one assist in Round One. You know he’ll raise his game and be a royal pain in this series. Btw…that guy has three career overtime winners. Three more than Messier. Just saying. Burrows and Smith will finish checks and be physical factors.
The Sens play a tough defensive system under smart tactician Guy Boucher. They can fluster you with their discipline and patience. The Rangers had to contest with this against Claude Julien and Montreal. It might not be as physical. But they’ll have to manage the puck well through the neutral zone and get behind Ottawa’s D and recover pucks to feed their cycle game.
They need better series from Stepan and Kreider. Both of who weren’t factors against the Habs. That can’t happen again. Stepan was miserable in the face-off circle winning just 37.2 percent. He better not be that bad against the Sens, who have old buddy Brassard and Turris. Smith is pretty good in the dot too and Jean-Gabriel Pageau is a pesky player who must be watched shorthanded along with Smith.
As for Kreider, he better step up. He only had one assist and took two ill advised penalties on the forecheck. He can’t be persona non grata. Maybe staying with Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich will wake him up. He showed a pulse in Game 5. Game 6 he was just out there. Buchnevich should score a goal or two in this series. He’s good.
Kevin Hayes showed up the last two games. Zuccarello rubs off on teammates. Hayes’ pass to Zuccarello on the series clincher was remarkable. Hayes can do that when he’s right as well as protect the puck and control possession. He can be even better. J.T. Miller also must come alive. One assist won’t get it done. Neither will those silly back passes or selfish penalties. In other words, the Rangers’ best must become their best to advance.
The fourth line of Michael Grabner, Oscar Lindberg and Mr. Charlie Hustle, Jesper Fast is very reliable. They are good in all three zones. They forecheck and win puck battles. They back check. They can win draws thanks to Lindberg. They defend well. They do what it takes. Grabner gives them that dangerous countering speed. Lindberg came close to scoring against Montreal. Maybe he pops one.
McDonagh and Girardi were magnificent in Round One. That must continue. Brendan Smith was a warrior in the Jeff Beukeboom mold. Beuke must really appreciate the rugged style Smith’s added to the back end. It’s rubbed off on polished first-year defenseman Brady Skjei, whose two goals and tenacious D along with skating make him a future stud. Marc Staal battled hard. He will face some tough match-ups speed wise with vulnerable partner Nick Holden. Vigneault must manage well in this area.
Obviously, Lundqvist was awesome against Price. The huge saves he made on Shea Weber and Tomas Plekanec got them through. He allowed 11 goals on 206 shots for a .947 save percentage, 1.70 GAA and a shutout. He’ll face even more pressure because the Sens possess more high end skill. It should be interesting watching him face Brassard.
If there’s one difference maker, it could be Rick Nash. He really was in beast mode. Even though he only wound up with two goals and a helper, he was taking the puck to the net and getting the jersey dirty. He crashed into Price which wiped out a goal for goalie interference. If he continues to play the same way, then he really could do some damage. Ditto for gritty rookie Jimmy Vesey, who had two assists and his first playoff scrap against an angry Max Pacioretty, who was shutdown.
This should be a very good series. It’s all about strategy and tactics. The Rangers can’t play into Boucher’s neutral zone trap which will include standing up at the blue line and taking away transition and the stretch pass. They can still counter it with their speed and intelligence by chipping and charging like they did the final two periods against the Habs.
Both match-ups have the potential to go seven. We’ll see. Predictions for Round 2 tomorrow including the Western match-ups of Preds vs Blues and Oilers vs Ducks.