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The NHL saved its best matchups for Friday with the Lightning-Canadiens and Wild-Blackhawks series each expected to go at least six games. That's my guess, anyway.
As brilliant as Carey Price has been this season, he's struggled against the Lightning, arguably the fastest team in the league, especially when they're in transition. It's true that what's happened in the regular season doesn't quite translate into the playoffs, and the Lightning were swept by the Habs in four games last year, but if the Detroit series showed anything, it's that trends can be very real. Just look at how Petr Mrazek's play got into the heads of the Lightning players; at one point, Steven Stamkos double-clutched on a potential one-timer just a few feet from the goal mouth, usually an automatic top cheddar goal for such a talented shooter.
The series may end sooner than expected if the Lightning can get their offense rolling on all cylinders, meaning that Stamkos needs to find his scoring touch soon. Tyler Johnson is one of the league's most underrated centers, but he can only do so much and one-line teams never win the Cup. On defense, though the Habs feature the best player in P.K. Subban, the Lightning are deeper one through six, and also have the necessary puck movers and crease clearers to play a truly versatile game.
It'll be interesting to see how Michel Therrien uses home ice to his advantage, who will likely put his top shutdown center Tomas Plekanec on Stamkos first, and see which of the smaller centers (Johnson and David Desharnais) will skate circles around each other. There's no question Andrei Markov and Subban will draw Stamkos' line, pitting the two childhood friends against each other. Like in the Ottawa series, the difference maker in this series may be bottom six depth, with both teams featuring a nice mix of veterans and young players. Former teammates Brandon Prust and Brian Boyle will face each other while each team's kids – Vladislav Namestnikov and Jonathan Drouin for the Bolts, and Jacob De La Rose and Devante Smith-Pelly for the Habs – will try to be bigger contributors down the stretch.
The Wild are actually a lot better than most people think, among the league leaders in shots for and shots allowed even prior to acquiring Devan Dubnyk. Goaltending should be the difference maker in the series since the Blackhawks can't afford another goalie switch against such a good team. Corey Crawford has always managed to bounce back from poor outings and it'll be an unfortunate surprise if he falters again. The Blues showed that Dubnyk can be beaten and is still prone to the occasional poor game, and Darcy Kuemper doesn't quite match up to Scott Darling, so as a tandem the Blackhawks should hold the edge and should be looking to chase Dubnyk early, if they can.
Both teams match up well on offense and defense, with Mikko Koivu and Jonathan Toews shaping up into a must-see battle between two of the league's best two-way forwards. The Wild don't have a slick scorer to match Patrick Kane, but Zach Parise is playing some outstanding hockey while Jason Pominville has certainly found his scoring touch. The Wild have a slight edge with a deeper offense, but the Blackhawks are rumored to be close to signing KHL standout Artemi Panarin to a two-year contract, which can be made official as soon as today with Panarin free to sign any time after April 30. If Panarin plays, he becomes another dangerous offensive element for the Hawks, but Joel Quenneville faces the challenge of working him into the lineup without disrupting the existing chemistry.
Ryan Suter and Duncan Keith will be the big minutes eater on each team and may end up cancelling each other out. There's just no way that either player doesn't average close to 30 minutes per game, given how well they're playing and how vital they are to their respective teams.
Don't shoot the messenger, but I'm thinking Lightning and Blackhawks with each series going the distance.
Projected Goalie Starters (all times Eastern)
For updates on the projected goalies later in the day, check our Projected Goalies Grid
Injury News For Teams Playing Friday
Tampa Bay Lightning
Michael Blunden, RW (knee surgery) – out for the season.
Jarred Tinordi, D (wrist surgery) – out 2-3 months.
Michael Bournival, C (concussion) – skated Thursday; questionable.
Nathan Beaulieu, D (upper body) – will not play first four games.
Ryan Getzlaf, C, and Corey Perry, RW, Ducks – It shouldn't be all too surprising that the Flames were blown out; the Ducks are in a completely different tier than the Canucks, after all. The Ducks' top duo combined for eight points in a 6-1 trouncing of the Flames in Game 1 in what should be yet another short series. The Ducks are big benefactors from a generally poor performance from the rest of its division opponents, and as motivated as Jonas Hiller may be facing his former team, it's unlikely the Flames have a chance. Expect Getzlaf and Perry to continue to tear through this series, which should end in five games or less.
Braden Holtby, G, Capitals – After allowing five goals in two games to start the playoffs and sitting out briefly with illness, Holtby has been the league's hottest goaltender, winning four of his past five starts and allowing just six goals in that span. In games where Holtby has faced more than 30 shots, he's made 142 saves and allowed six goals for a .958 save percentage. Keep in mind that even though the Rangers are the favorites, Holtby only has to be slightly better than Henrik Lundqvist to give the Caps a chance, and if Alex Ovechkin can continue scoring they have a really good chance to complete the upset.
Rick Nash, LW, Rangers – After finishing third in the season with 42 goals, Nash is having trouble scoring in the playoffs yet again, going goalless in his past four games and scoring just once in total. This isn't exactly new for Nash, who has a tendency become a very inefficient scorer in the playoffs. Despite a career 12.5 shooting percentage in the regular season, Nash scores on just 3.8 percent of his shots in the playoffs. He's been used on the second power play unit in the playoffs, trailing Derek Stepan, Derrick Brassard, Chris Kreider, Martin St. Louis and Mats Zuccarello in ice time, despite finishing the regular season with the third-most power play ice time per game. With Zuccarello's injury, Nash was featured much more on the power play in Game 1, but his struggles continued.
Marcus Johansson, LW, Capitals – The speedy winger has been held without a point in his past three games and played a playoff-low 11:12, though to be fair, he did disappear into the dressing room for mysterious reasons after Ovechkin's goal before returning to the bench. Barry Trotz said he wanted more "grit and spit" from Johansson, who finished the season with a career-high 20 goals. He took some big hits against the Rangers and it hasn't been determined exactly how Johansson was hurt and why he needed to be evaluated in the dressing room, but the Caps need scoring from its depth forwards to win the series.
Recommended Value Play
Alex Killorn, LW, Lightning – The Harvard grad is tied for second on the team with four points and is currently one of the cheapest plays out there for daily leagues. He provides great value because he plays a big role on Tampa's offense, averaging over 20 minutes in three of his past four games and heads into Game 1 with points in his past two games. Sure, the Lightning are facing Carey Price, but Price has struggled against the Lightning, a team that is capable of playing at even higher pace than the Habs. Steven Stamkos is struggling, but a player as talented as him will break out sooner than later, and once he does Killorn will starting reaping the benefits.