That was one of the more interesting 1st Rounds I've seen in a long time. For the first time that I can remember, we had no Game 7s, and only four Game 6s. But we also had a ridiculous amount of OTs, including three six-game series that had 5, 4 and 3 OT games. That first one, the Caps-Leafs series, again, had 5 of their 6 games go to OT!
The NHL, and more so, NBC, is probably not all too happy to lose Chicago and Boston in the first round, but they keep New York, and maybe can grow US interest in Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers - which they probably should try to do given they'll probably a fixture in these parts of the playoffs for years to come.
Even to me, this is a weird set of series. The only team I'm really disappointed to see lose is Minnesota, as they play a much more attractive brand of hockey than the Blues, and also, as Bruce Boudreau correctly surmised, vastly outplayed St. Louis in that series only to lose in 5 games because Jake Allen became Marty Brodeur (who himself quietly became Allen's goalie coach this year) for a series.
Anyway, on to the serieses:
(A2) Ottawa Senators (98 pts) vs. (A-WC) New York Rangers (102 pts)
The State of the Teams: The hockey-world (particularly Canada) would have probably wanted to renew Bruins vs. Canadiens for the umpteenth time (they've met in the playoffs in, get ready, 2002, 2004, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2014), but instead we get what could end up being a really interesting series. The Senators are, by any measure, the worst team to make the playoffs this year, with their negative goal differential. The Rangers are definitely not that, but they are also not a conventionally great team. They have ridiculous team speed, and depth at forward to roll three lines, but have regressed mightily on the blue-line (Ryan McDonagh got old quite fast). Both goalies are capable of stealing the series. Craig Anderson, already a crowd favorite given his wife's struggle with cancer, was great against Boston. Henrik Lundqvist had the worst season of his career, but turned back the clock five years against Montreal. Looking deeper at the Senators roster, they probably should have done better than they did. They have one of the league's premier players in Erik Karlsson - who was outrageously good against Boston - and a nice stable of forwards. The Rangers? Well they are right where they should be. They'll probably never admit to feeling happy to be #4 in the Metro division and moved into this part of the bracket, but it is working out perfectly.
The Matchup: One way to look at the series is which goalie remains hot. Anderson has always been very up or down. Lundqvist played at a higher level in the playoffs than he had all season. Both have a likelihood of slipping. However, I could write "which goalie plays better?" for all series. Beyond the masked men, the Senators were more impressive top to bottom in the first round. Erik Karlsson, despite his two heel fractures, was insane. Derick Brassard - former Ranger - was solid. Bobby Ryan turned back the clock as well. Even older depth guys like Dion Phaneuf and Clarke McArthur were great. They can now match the Rangers depth better than I would have thought. The Rangers were not nearly as good on paper against Montreal, but have some advantages. They are very fast - which the Senators first round opponent most certainly was not - and they have a huge edge on the power-play. The Rangers depth at forward can hurt the back-half of the Senators roster. The series will come down to, more-so than the goalies, if the Rangers 3rd/4th lines can outplay Ottawa's by a greater margin than the Sens top-two lines can outplay New York.
Random Stat/Memory/Factoid on the Series: The last time these two met in the playoffs was when the 8th seeded Senators took the top-seed Rangers to 7 games in 2012. That series was not beyond much controversy, including Carl Hagelin getting a three game suspension for elbowing Daniel Alfredsson in the head, and the Senators responding with Zenin Konopka punching Brady Boyle in the face. Fun times!
The Pick: I'm going with Ottawa for a few reasons. First, I have more faith in Anderson to retain the first round performance than Hank. Second, the Senators top guys are firing on all cylinders right now. Third, their bad special teams is less of an issue in the playoffs - and the Rangers aren't great on special teams, just merely better than Ottawa. And finally, I don't want a Metro Division team to win the Atlantic Division playoffs. It will happen eventually, and this is only 1% of the reason I am picking Ottawa, but still let's not go there yet.
Senators in 6
(M1) Washington Capitals (118 pts) vs. (M2) Pittsburgh Penguins (111 pts)
State of the Teams: It's the series everyone wants - and once again they are the two best teams in hockey. Now, people said that last year - I heard a lot of 'this is the real Stanley Cup Final' when they met. But this time they were literally by point total the two best teams in hockey. They are deep, fast, a great mix of youth and experience. The Capitals had the best overall season by a team in some time. The Penguins had the best offensive season by a team in some time. Both teams are fairly healthy, though missing key pieces. The Penguins overcame these absences more easily than I expected, but not having Kris Letang will be a bigger issue against Washington's great depth. Similarly, any continued absence of Karl Alzner for the Caps will pose the same challenges. Like always, the Penguins start with Crosby and Malkin, who are both in great form in the playoffs again. Especially Malkin, who had an insane 11 points in the 5-game win over CBJ. Crosby is turning randoms into stars again (Jake Guentzel). Kessel is performing as per usual. And now Marc-Andre Fleury is doing his best Matt Murray impression - and I imagine he stays in net until they falter, if that even happens. The Capitals actually got good performances from all their key pieces in the first round. Justin Williams remains playoff dynamite. Kuznetsov was far more engaged this year. Their issue seems to be the back-end and Holtby struggling in the playoffs for the second straight year. Key issues if you are playing the best offensive team in a half-decade.
The Matchup: I've never bought into curses or one team owning an other. That often is true until it is not. That said, how can you overlook the way these two have played in the playoffs. Of course, the 'Penguins great in the playoffs' story is just a year old, as prior to 2016, most people considered them playoff chokers ever since their Cup win in 2009. In the regular season, the Capitals were 2-0-2, winning by huge margins (7-1, 5-2) and losing twice in OT (including a class 8-7 Penguins win). The key in those games was the Capitals depth outskating the relatively slower Penguins, and also awful performances by Matt Murray, who may not factor in this series. The Capitals have on paper the deeper team, but I am starting to worry about Holtby. He was not that good in the playoffs last year and had huge issues against the Penguins. Fleury seems in a much more calm state than he used to be. The Penguins power-play was phenomenal in the first round, and the Capitals took too many penalties. This is the best Capitals team to play the Penguins in the playoffs, but let's remember this is also the same team that needed to go to OT in five games against an average Toronto team. I would think the injuries on Pittsburgh's side (Hagelin is out, Kunitz is iffy to come back) will hurt them against a deeper team. But it really is ever hard to trust the Capitals is it?
Random Stat/Memory/Factoid on the Series: I've heard a lot of complaints this year on the new playoff format, with essentially two divisional tournaments in each conference with potential for Wild Cards to shuttle between divisions. I've heard those complaints renewed when these two have to play each other. But let's remember in the preceding format (3 divisions), this would be the #1 seed vs. #4 seed as the division winners were seeded #1-3.
The Pick: That said, I have to pick Washington. Part of this is simply that I want it. I want to see Ovi win the Cup so he never has to hear that he can't again. But I also think they are just better. The Capitals are more or less as good as Pittsburgh on offense. They are far better on defense. They have, on paper, the edge in goal though they desperately need Holtby to step up his level. They have home ice. They are healthier. Now, most of these statements were equally true last year and the Pens got them in 6, but this is a better Capitals team and that series last year basically came down to Holtby getting outplayed by Murray. I don't think that happens this time.
Capitals in 7
(C3) St. Louis Blues (99 pts) vs. (C-WC) Nashville Predators (94 pts)
State of the Teams: If ever there was a poster-child series to the cliche that the teams that enter the playoffs hot wins, it is this one. Both of these two teams were among the league's largest disappointments for much of the season. The Blues almost indicated they were giving up on the season when they traded away Shattenkirk, and had a goalie in Jake Allen who was lost. The Predators were everyone's darlings in the preseason and were mired around .500 for much of the year. And now they meet in the 2nd round. The Predators are doing this mostly by just being the team everyone thought they should be. They have a great core of young forwards (Forsberg, Arvidsson, Johansen the stars in the group) and a ridiculous top-4 on defense (Subban, Josi, Ekholm, Ellis). And now they are getting vintage Pekka Rinne (3 goals allowed against Chicago). They had the potential to dominate possession with their puck moving defenseman and speed up front. The Blues made their run by basically getting Jake Allen to find himself. Their skaters aren't playing markedly better, and other than adding Vladimir Sobotka back to the mix, it's mostly the same group playing at the same level that got Ken Hitchcock fired. Turns out when you get Vezina-level goaltending from February onwards you can go on a nice run. Better yet when that run continues in the first round.
The Matchup: The Blues were massively outplayed on the ice against the Wild apart from goalie. Devin Dubnyk wasn't actually that bad for Minnesota, but Allen was heroic. And yet, I don't even know if we can give the Blues the edge in goal in this series given how good Rinne was. In many ways, the Predators are similar to the team that the Blues just beat. They have the same deep forward crew the Wild did. If anything the Predators are better on the blue-line. It is sad they sleep-walked through the regular season, but it is clear this is not the same Nashville team. The Blues will have to depend on getting a lot of non 5v5 time in the series, as they were very good on both the PP and PK, but very much average 5v5. The Predators are basically the opposite. That tends to work better in the playoffs when penalties are called at a much reduced rate. Jake Allen apparently got into a much better mental state once Brodeur became more involved, but again there is no indication he's even better than Rinne - though Rinne's brilliance only dates back to this series as he was very average throughout the regular season. Neither team has much injury concerns at this point, so we should get both teams close to their best. It just seems now that the Predators have found their best, it is as impressive as well thought it was going to be.
Random Stat/Memory/Factoid on this Series: This is the 4th year of the new playoff format, and the 3rd time the Central Division will have the #3 seed play the #4 seed. In the first two iterations, that #3 seed was Chicago, so it was more understandable (they beat St. Louis in 2014 and Nashville in 2015). In fact, in general out of the 16 matchups we've gotten so far in the 2nd round, there have been just 7 between the top two seeds in their division, and four of those have come in the Metro which has so far always been 1v2.
The Pick: It became fairly obvious, but I'm going with Nashville here. The Predators we see now are playing so much better than a 94 point team. They are playing like the team we all expected them to be, with the added bonus of having vintage Pekka Rinne. That last part is crucial because the Blues won in the first round essentially only due to Jake Allen being ridiculous. Well, there is no clear indicator they'll have the goalie matchup here. The Blues will need a lot of penalties called to keep this close, which I can't really see happening. Plus, after seeing the Blues win the division last year, would be nice for the other snake-bit Central Division team to join them this time around.
Predators in 6
(P1) Anaheim Ducks (105 pts) vs. (P2) Edmonton Oilers (103 pts)
State of the Teams: This might be my favorite second round series. The Ducks have been my pet team for a while now. The Oilers should be everyone's favorite team right now as we can enjoy them before Connor McDavid replaces Sidney Crosby as the league's best player leading to anti-Oiler sentiment becoming pervasive. The two teams play enjoyable hockey - that Ducks/Flames series was underrated in its manic nature and was fully enjoyable despite being a sweep. The Oilers were probably my favorite home atmosphere in round 1, and now their fans can legitimately have Stanley Cup Final aspirations. Both teams are healthy. The Oilers have barely anyone on the injury report. The Ducks have loads, including all their three key defenseman (Fowler, Lindholm, Vatanen) but all three are expected to play in Game 1. This should be a good one. The Ducks were derided for replacing Boudreau with old-school Randy Carlyle, but the team has done really well under him, didn't mutiny like everyone expected, and have gone 15-0-3 dating back to the regular season. The Oilers have more young talent than anyone (including Toronto), have the league's MVP who is only 20, and are just a joy to watch given their free-wheeling nature. Again, this should be a good one.
The Matchup: Much like the Blues and Oilers, the Ducks were relatively disappointing for much of the year before turning it on late. Unlike those two teams, people expected the Ducks to be slightly disappointing. However, they still have tons of talent on the team, with two premier, if entering their post-prime phase, forwards on the top-line, a great 2nd line (Kesler-Silfverberg-Cogliano) and those three talented puck-moving defensemen. John Gibson also had a really nice season in net. The Oilers on the other hand have the top-flight guys we know about, but have shown more depth and more non-Connor McDavid sourced scoring in these playoffs, even mixing and matching lines to spread out their top guys across the lines rather than concentrate on one (splitting up McDavid and Draisaitl has done wonders). Both teams are similar 5v5, as the Ducks have never been a possession-hungry team, and they have opposing specials strengths (Oilers great PP, Ducks great PK). The Ducks have the more known goalie but they were basically equally good this season. As shown by their point totals as well, not much separating these two.
Random Stat/Memory/Factoid on the Series: The last time the Oilers made the playoffs, they beat the Ducks in the Western Conference Finals on their way to that miracle Cup Final appearance in '06. While the Ducks lost the series in 5, that was the breakout for them in a post-Babcock world, with it being the first taste for Getzlaf and Perry (2nd liners back then). The Ducks would then steal the Oilers best player (Pronger) and win the Cup the next year. In the 10 years after they met in '06 (2006-07 through 2015-16), the Ducks made the playoffs eight times, including winning a Cup and making another Western Conference Finals appearance. The Oilers on the other hand won the lottery four times.
The Pick: Ultimately, I favor the Ducks. The Oilers are just not deep enough, and the Ducks 2nd line has as good a shot as any defensive-leaning line in the playoffs left to slow McDavid. If that forces Edmonton to join McDavid and Draisaitl together it will only amplify the lack of options the Oilers have. The Ducks also have a large edge on the blue-line assuming the key three are back and healthy. Whatever edge the Oilers have on PP is neutralized by both the general lack of penalties and the Ducks strong PK. The Ducks are not a great team, and the Oilers are definitely faster, but I do think it isn't time for them just yet.
Ducks in 6