With the opening round of the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs now history, here’s my take on the match-ups in the second round.
Anaheim Ducks vs Calgary Flames: The Anaheim Ducks swept the Winnipeg Jets in their opening-round series, while the Calgary Flames downed the Vancouver Canucks in six games.
The Flames defied the odds and the experts all season, first by reaching the playoffs and then advancing to the second round. Led by veterans like Jiri Hudler and Dennis Wideman as well as young stars like Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, T.J. Brodie and Michael Ferland, the Flames have an excellent mix of speed and scoring punch. However, they now face their biggest challenge of the season in the Ducks, who haven’t lost a home game to the Flames since 2004. There’s also concern over Calgary’s defensive depth heading into this series.
While the Flames this season were a better offensive team, the Ducks had the better defensive numbers. They’re also led by established NHL superstars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, who will be difficult to contain. The Ducks, who topped the Western Conference this season, also play a more physical style, possess more postseason experience and have a young and swift defense core. They could have the edge over the Flames in this series.
Montreal Canadiens vs Tampa Bay Lightning. The Montreal Canadiens downed the Ottawa Senators in six games, while the Tampa Bay Lightning advanced by beating the in seven games.
The Lightning struggled to eliminate the underdog Red Wings, who did a good job containing the regular season’s highest-scoring team. Of the Bolts’ top scorers, only Tyler Johnson (7 points in as many games) was a consistent threat. Captain Steven Stamkos was held goalless while netminder Ben Bishop at times gave up some weak goals. Still, the Lightning enter this series facing an opponent they dominated during the regular season.
The Canadiens possess the NHL’s best goalie in Carey Price, Norris Trophy nominee (and 2013 winner) P.K. Subban, one of the top two-way forwards in Max Pacioretty and good young forwards in Alex Galchenyuk and pesky Brendan Gallagher. However, they had no answer for the Lightning’s speed during the regular season. The Habs also enter this series 15th in goals-scored and in power-play percentage, 12th in penalty-killing whilst giving up the fifth-most shots-against in the opening round. If those numbers don’t improve, it’ll take a stellar performance by Price for the Habs to win this series.
Chicago Blackhawks vs Minnesota Wild: The Chicago Blackhawks eliminated the Nashville Predators in six games, while the Minnesota Wild defeated the St. Louis Blues in six games.
On paper, the Blackhawks appear to hold the advantage. They have several all-stars in their lineup, led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Since 2009, they’ve advanced to four Western Conference Finals and won two Stanley Cups. But the ‘Hawks struggled at times against the Predators, especially between the pipes. In the opening round, their power-play was ninth overall, their penalty-killing 13th, their goals-against was second-worst while giving up the most shots-against
The Wild, meanwhile, gave up the fifth-fewest shots-against and were eighth in goals-against, plus they were fifth in goals-for and possessed the best power-play of the opening round. Backstopped by season-saving goalie Devan Dubnyk, led by veterans Zach Parise, Jason Pominville and Ryan Suter and possessing proven performers in youngsters Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter, the Wild could pull off an upset against the Blackhawks.
New York Rangers vs Washington Capitals: The New York Rangers defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games, while the Washington Capitals downed the New York Islanders in a hard-fought seven games.
This series could be the most physical of the second round. In recent years the two clubs have built up quite a playoff rivalry. The Rangers and Capitals possess considerable offensive punch, experienced blueline depth and skilled goaltending, setting the stage for possibly the most evenly-matched series of the second round. There’s not much difference in their opening round stats, and while the Rangers lead with the best goals-against average, the Capitals possess the top penalty kill.
The deciding factors in this series could be the goaltending matchup between the Rangers Henrik Lundqvist and the Capitals Braden Holtby, as well as which clubs’ offensive superstars (Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, the Rangers Rick Nash and the aging Martin St. Louis) best rise to the occasion.