In the first round of these Stanley Cup Playoffs, things actually held relatively true to form. None of the biggest teams were upset, though there was the unfortunate unravelling of a trendy sleeper pick in the Columbus Blue Jackets and two surprisingly abrupt exits in Southern California. Putting a bow on it all was the exhilarating Game 7 in Boston.
But all of that is ultimately an appetizer for what promises to be a delectable slate of second round matchups. Since the moment the brackets were locked in, the hockey world was eyeing the second round collision between the first and second seeds in each conference — and though this will lead to qualms about the playoff structure, once the puck drops that will be replaced by excitement and awe at the skill level.
We’ve also got the [insert comically large number] consecutive installment of Penguins versus Capitals, and a sneaky fun matchup in the Pacific that’ll surely reward those willing to stay up late to tune in.
Let’s set the table for it all by highlighting a notable matchup or two in each series that warrants extra attention.
1. Will the Golden Knights’ speed play as well against a more evenly matched opponent?
While doing colour commentary for Vegas’ first series, Ray Ferraro had a great line about how we typically tend to only think about team speed for offensive purposes, but how there’s also a component of defensive utility to it.
We saw that idea in action when Vegas skated Los Angeles into submission. If there were any lingering doubts about how a stylistic matchup of speed versus size would play out in the post-season, we quickly got our answer with how decisively Vegas moved on.
Any time Los Angeles attempted to move the puck there was a Golden Knight ready to intercept and get moving the opposite direction. The speed they possess throughout their lineup was suffocating and disrupted any Los Angeles attack.
The final score lines in each game indicate it was a tight series, but that’s a bit misleading. The Knights thoroughly outplayed and outskated the Kings throughout, and if not for Jonathan Quick’s heroics in net things very easily could’ve escalated towards more lopsided totals.
The lopsidedness of the series really shows in the neutral zone. The Kings had a nightmarish time stringing together any series of passes exiting their own zone and were often forced to settle for meek dump outs off the glass, or bad passes up the middle that led to turnovers. When that happened, the Knights were quick to pounce and transitioned the puck back into the Kings’ defensive zone to create chances off the rush.
There are so many examples to choose from, but here are two randomly selected ones. Both come off clean faceoff wins by the Kings in their own zone and led to similar results. The Kings defenceman goes back and aimlessly fires the puck out, only to have it relayed back into the zone immediately.
Those struggles were only augmented when Drew Doughty missed a game, Jake Muzzin missed two, and the Kings had to cobble together a patchwork defence group for a game that went on for nearly 100 minutes. The final totals weren’t pretty:
|Team||Exit Attempts||Possession Exit %||Failed Exit %|
These numbers were compiled during five-on-five action and only account for transition attempts generated by the team’s group of defencemen.
What that means is the Kings were only able to exit their zone with full possession of the puck 38.1 per cent of the time when one of their rearguards was leading the charge, while getting hemmed in 17.5 per cent of the time (whether it was due to an icing or a turnover).
Coming back the other way, here’s how the two teams did when it came to protecting their own blue line against zone entries:
|Team||Targets||Carry-In %||Dump-In %||Failed Entry %|
This is where things get especially interesting looking ahead to Round 2. While Vegas was able to take full advantage of their speed and skill advantage against the Kings, they’re going to have a much tougher go of replicating that success against the Sharks.
San Jose laid waste to the Ducks in the opening round and similarly feasted on a team that couldn’t get out of its own way in the neutral zone.
|Team||Exit Attempts||Possession Exit %||Failed Exit %|
|Team||Targets||Carry-In %||Dump-In %||Failed Entry %|
The Sharks showed themselves to be particularly lethal on the rush, quickly counterattacking before the opponent could recover and get back into position. They benefit from the chaos that ensues in transition following a change in possession:
While they’re certainly armed with an array of defencemen who can all move the puck effectively, there’s no question Brent Burns is San Jose’s most dangerous weapon. He has an uncanny ability to sit back and throw passes on target from his own blue line that pick apart an opposing defence before it can get set:
It looked like the Sharks and Golden Knights were playing an entirely different sport than their opponents in Round 1. While the opposition was trying to rough it up, these two neutralized them rather easily by moving the puck and leaving before the checkers were ever able to get there.
Neither team will have that luxury this time, as the Sharks and Golden Knights match up far more closely with each other. Both teams want to play the same way, and both do a lot of the same things well. If everything goes according to plan, it could make for one hell of a fast-paced, back-and-forth track meet.
2. Will the Jets be able to take advantage of the Predators’ lack of discipline?
In projecting this series, it’s awfully difficult to find any real areas of separation where the Jets or Predators could separate themselves from one another. In the regular season they were the number one and two teams in the league for a reason.
• They were both a league-high plus-57 in goal differential (when eliminating shootouts).
•If you slice the campaign down into just the final 25 games and look at shot share metrics as an indicator for playoff success they’re both hovering around the elite 54 per cent mark.
•Both teams turned what was once considered to be an unavoidable weakness in net into a massive net positive, with Connor Hellebuyck and Pekka Rinne having been recently recognized as Vezina Trophy finalists.
•Both teams have bottom-six forward groups that can play and neither saddled with any anchors who need to be meticulously sheltered.
•The Jets have a slight advantage up front in terms of offensive weaponry, but if there’s a team capable of combating their devastating 1-2 punch up front it’s the Predators with their unmatched top two defence pairings.
In a series this tight, the outcome could really come down to on little thing here or there.
That could possibly come on special teams, where the Jets’ lethal power play may be afforded a couple of extra opportunities to strike unless the Predators can fix one of the few areas they’ve struggled in all year. Throughout the regular season Nashville was whistled for a league-high 4.48 penalties per hour of play in all situations, and 4.61 at five-on-five. The Jets power play, meanwhile, generated goals per hour at the fourth-highest rate in the league this year (behind just the Penguins, Leafs, and Lightning), and with all of the options it’s blessed with it’s easy to see why.
Just look at the bind they put Minnesota’s penalty kill in during their first-round series. At first blush it seems like blown coverage to leave a player of Mark Scheifele’s caliber this open from such a prime scoring location, but that’s largely the byproduct of a Jets power play that makes you pick your poison.
The Predators walked a fine line throughout the regular season and in their first round matchup against the Avalanche when it came to discipline and taking penalties. They were able to get away with it largely because, on most nights, they were the superior and more skilled team than their opponents, which helped cover these flaws.
That wiggle room disappears in this series, though. If they’re not able to tighten the screws and stay out of the box, that could provide Winnipeg with the slightest of openings, which is all it might take between two teams so tightly bunched together.
3. Will Braden Holtby’s redemption story continue?
We’re certainly not short on storylines to choose from in the Washington-Pittsburgh series. Evgeni Malkin’s injury casts an ominous shadow as he’s set to miss the opener; Crosby versus Ovechkin will always generate buzz; and the fact both teams were devastatingly effective on the power play in Round 1, converting on north of 30 per cent of their opportunities, all warrant extra attention.
Let’s instead look at the battle in net. For the Capitals, Braden Holtby reclaimed his crease midway through the Blue Jackets series after Philipp Grubauer fumbled away his opportunity in the first two games. While Holtby was uncharacteristically pedestrian throughout the regular season – dropping below .920 in save percentage and starting fewer than 60 games for the first time since 2013-14 – the time off looks to have done him good.
He was tremendous in the third period and overtime of Game 5 and held the fort until they scored the winner. He was rock solid in Game 6 and shut the door on Columbus for good, helping withstand a late desperate flurry from a team that was on the ropes.
That’s nothing new for Holtby in the playoffs. Despite the fact he’s somehow only won two more games than he’s lost in his playoff career, Holtby’s been stupendously good at stopping pucks throughout. Here’s every series he’s appeared in since coming into the league, and how he’s fared in each individual one:
The one wart on the resume is last year’s second round tilt against the Penguins, in which Marc-Andre Fleury outdueled him.
Which brings us to the other end of the ice, where Matt Murray is far from a guarantee heading into this series. After an injury-filled regular season, he showed flashes of being back to his old dominant ways in the opening round matchup against the Flyers. His two shutouts will get the most attention, but his best work came at the start of Game 3 when Philadelphia had nothing to show for blitzing Pittsburgh early on, allowing the Penguins’ offence to take control of the game.
While it’s true that the goaltending will decide almost any playoff series, it feels like there’s an added layer of intrigue in this particular matchup. Considering the type of firepower both teams possess up front, it might ultimately come down to which one of the two can just hold up better than the other.
4. Will Jon Cooper be able to continue to free up his big guns offensively?
I thought one of the more interesting takeaways from a tactical Xs and Os perspective in the first round was how Jon Cooper went about attacking the New Jersey Devils. Or more specifically, how he went about attempting to corral their only real means of generating offence at five-on-five (which was through Taylor Hall’s line).
In Games 1, 2, and 5, which were played in Tampa Bay when the Lightning had last change, rather than going power versus power Cooper instead opted to almost exclusively blanket Hall’s line with the five-man combination of Brayden Point, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Ryan McDonagh, and Anton Stralman.
|Player||5v5 Ice Time vs. Taylor Hall|
Tasked with important shutdown defensive duties, the Triplets Version 2.0 Line held up just fine. In the 30-plus minutes the two went head-to-head, Point and his group essentially played Hall to a draw in all shot metrics, while outscoring the Devils 4-1. It didn’t wind up mattering because Stamkos and Kucherov did a lot of their damage offensively on the power play (and in Game 4 on the road), but having the luxury of freeing the two of them up to run wild offensively could be a useful card for Cooper to play against the Bruins.
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean he will in Round 2. Boston is an entirely different animal than the Devils, and present a variety of different problems. First and foremost, with how well Bergeron, Pastrnak and Marchand are playing right now, it may not matter who you throw at them. Beyond that, with Jake DeBrusk’s outburst against the Leafs and the other weapons the Bruins have up front, there’s more to contend with than just the one line, as was the case with the Devils.
Regardless, with the first two games set to be played in Tampa Bay, it bears watching how Cooper and the Lightning move their chess pieces to squeeze the most juice out of their forward lines.