Yes, I’m aware the second round has already begun thanks to the very cooperative first round allowing for an accelerated schedule, but that’s not going to stop me from doing Round 2…previews? Okay, fine, we’ll call this “Round 2 analysis.”
We can’t pretend the games that have already happened haven’t, so they’ll be taken into consideration, but I’ll still list the predictions I filed before the round began. (So for example, I’m sticking with Tampa and the Avs despite uphill climbs.)
Let’s jump right in.
Philadelphia vs. NY Islanders
What’s been such a challenge in doing analysis during this return-to-play hockey is knowing just how much weight to put on each team’s showings based on when they happened. How much does the regular season matter when big chunks of it were nine months ago? How much does the round-robin tournament matter when there was no threat of elimination? How much do play-in series matter given some of the teams were 20th in the league and worse during that regular season?
At the pause in March, Philly was on one of those nice runs good teams have over the course of the season, which I think led to some misperception about them (or perhaps I just follow too many Flyers fans on Twitter). I also think their play in the round-robin was over-valued after watching a team like Boston just flip the switch when the games counted. Along the same vein, Philadelphia’s struggles against the 24th overall Montreal Canadiens don’t prove they’re suddenly not very good, or that they can’t score. There’s a ton to like in that lineup.
I think we need to go big picture on the Flyers and say this: they have some great forwards (even some of the unheralded names like Nicolas Aube-Kubel are really effective), and some great young D (hat-tip to Ivan Provorov). Carter Hart is going to be a mainstay in an NHL crease for a decade-plus to come. They have quality depth. I don’t have them in the top-tier of the remaining eight teams (that to me looks like Boston, Tampa Bay, Colorado and Vegas), but again, I like them.
It’s no secret what the Islanders do, but that doesn’t make it easy to beat. They defend the middle and keep you outside, they forecheck you, and they have some players who can score by hanging around the crease (which can be deadly effective in playoffs). In a nutshell, a battle against the Islanders is the battle for the inside and they’re well built for that at both ends. They’re pretty content to patiently wait, and if you open up because it’s getting hard, they have just enough offence to find goals.
The Islanders only let three Washington forwards score against them over a full series. So while this matchup is more or less a coin toss in my opinion, it feels like it’s going to be harder for Philly to play their preferred style, and easier for the Isles to lean into theirs. And so, I’ll give them the nod here.
Prediction: Islanders in 7
Boston vs. Tampa Bay
In hockey we don’t always get the matchups we deserve. In a sport like MMA, the UFC literally looks at their fighters and says “here’s the fight we want to see,” and they make it happen. The NHL is at the mercy of its playoff format and luck, as evidenced by the Canadiens and Maple Leafs not meeting in the post-season since the ’70s.
This time, though, we got the fight we needed to see, even if it’s not in the conference final.
You know what these two teams are. Boston is pedigree, defensive tenacity and structure and they can play it anyway you want to go. Tampa is speed and skill that’s added grit and personality (the last part is their internal feeling according to Elliotte Friedman). Both teams have great goaltending, though it remains to be seen if Jaroslav Halak can continue his great form as ‘The Guy’ every night instead of just ‘The Sometimes Guy.’ All told this is two heavyweights slugging it out.
It’s also worth noting Steven Stamkos’ absence is felt in a big way here for Tampa. When will he come back, if at all? You need every ounce of ability to topple a giant like the Bruins.
Betting against a Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston team that showed so well against a very good Carolina team, well, it’s all but foolish. Still, before Game 1 I picked Tampa Bay to win in seven, so I’ll leave that up for all to see. Were I picking now, knowing Boston is up one, I know which way I’d lean. But winning four of six isn’t impossible for a group like Tampa Bay even against the Bruins, so let’s not write them off yet.
Prediction: Tampa Bay in 7
Vegas vs. Vancouver
Lots of V’s, lotsa vvvrooom in this series. Unfortunately, more than any other series we’ll discuss, this one will be most biased by recent events given Vegas’s trouncing of the Canucks in Game 1.
Here’s the part where I’d love to come over the top with some brilliant analysis curveball like “despite the outcome of Game 1, I actually see some advantages for the Canucks here, here, and here.” Alas, I cannot write that article. This is a Vancouver team that unfortunately doesn’t match-up well with teams that have elite players and then follow them up with complete roster depth. Because if you threw every player from this series in a pile and started choosing them one by one in order of who you’d want for a game tomorrow, there’d be a pretty even split of Canucks and Golden Knights in the first 10, depending on who was picking. Picks 10-20, however, would be a landslide of Vegas players.
The way through for Vancouver is that magic combination of hot goaltending and brilliant special teams, which are both reasonably possible outcomes given they have good goaltending and the stars to shine when on the man advantage. It’s also because of those things — and really just the Canucks having an elite core in general — that I see Vancouver finding a win or two.
But this analysis is about the Golden Knights more than it is about Vancouver. They too have great goaltending and they too have top-end skaters. Mark Stone seems built for the playoffs, and he’s in his prime. Stone is actually a great example of what I see in this series. He is here now and ready, while in Vancouver I see a team that’s going to go as far as Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes will take them and I’m skeptical that’s “all the way” right now. They’ll only be more able to shoulder that load in the years to come.
Prediction: Vegas in 6
Dallas vs. Colorado
The Stars are the exact type of team you can build in hockey where — and this isn’t that unlike the St. Louis Blues of last year — they’re extremely competent all over, they can hang with anyone, and if the bounces go their way, they’ll be tough to eliminate. They’re not some loaded firewagon, they’re just solid.
When more casual hockey fans think of the Stars, they likely think of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, and maybe Alexander Radulov. What makes them so tough to put away, though, is that they defend extremely well, they have good goaltending, and their depth guys like Denis Gurianov, Radek Faksa, and Roope Hintz can actually move the needle. Their D depth isn’t a bunch of big names, but even beyond a fast-riser in the league like Miro Heiskanen, a guy like Esa Lindell is hugely underrated.
I write all that as a qualifier of sorts, though, as the Avalanche certainly seem like the protagonist in this story. They’re the group with the truly elite top line, including one of the best few players in the world today (you can argue I’m light on praise for Nathan MacKinnon there). MacKinnon is an all-caps FORCE right now. They’re the group that swung an off-season deal to add a big contributor in Nazem Kadri. They’re the group with a Calder candidate in Cale Makar who’s part of a team set to attack, attack, attack.
This series is a huge test for the Avs. Are they ready to start knocking off top-to-bottom solid teams? Nothing’s going to be given to them here, and as you know, they’re already one back in the series.
We learned little about the Avs in their matchup with Arizona, but Dallas is going to ask much harder questions. Colorado is down a game with an uphill climb, and the Stars defend well, but I still think the offensive engine MacKinnon seems to stoke every night should have enough fire to push them on through.
Prediction: Avalanche in 6