Today, from the press box:
The handicapping of the 2015 NHL playoffs in this space has resulted in a 10-2 mark thus far. We review the second round series and preview the conference finals.
Canadiens vs. Lightning
Tampa won 9-of-11 games over Montreal this season when you include regular and post-season play. That mastery boiled down to the quality and depth of skill that the Tampa squad possesses. It didnít seem to matter much that captain Steven Stamkos took a while to get untracked. Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat have surrounded Stamkos all year long and continued to be productive in the second round. Montrealís front liners, beyond Brendan Gallagher and Max Pacioretty, were the only responders in the series for the Habs. In addition, the Lightning speed trumped Montrealís similar style of play. Habs defenders were exposed time and again to the extent that all-world goalie Carey Price could not tip the scales.
Rangers vs. Capitals
This series really lived up to expectations as it went the full seven games, the lone second-round set to do so. Goalies Henrik Lundqvist and Braden Holtby staged a battle for the ages, with every game being decided by one goal. The Rangers were pushed to the wall, trailing the series three games to one, before rallying to win it in overtime of the seventh game. Maybe some pundits will take shots at Alex Ovechkin for failing to advance to the third round once again, but he played his best game of the series in that final game, scoring the Caps' lone goal. Derek Stepan will take his place in Rangers playoff lore beside Stephane Matteau as he batted in the decisive goal of the series. The Capitals' coaching staff led by Barry Trotz earned praise all year long for the ability to mesh a stingy defensive approach to their offensively gifted roster. However, in the end they fell just a bit short against a Rangers team that has grown first as responsible a defensive unit as there may be in the NHL. In the last few years the Rangers added a lot of offensive skill to that mix and that formula elevated them, too. Lundqvist wound up with his sixth-straight Game 7 win and just seemed to have that aura of invincibility as the series wore on. In the end, the margin of victory was razor thin and the Rangers need to refocus as they look ahead to the next round.
Ducks vs. Flames
The Ducks rolled over the upstart Flames, as expected. The Ducks' top line featuring Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Patrick Maroon form perhaps the biggest and most skilled forward line in hockey. The Flames had no answer for them. Throw in the consistent and similarly effective work of a second unit, which featured Ryan Kesler and Jakob Silfverberg, and the gulf of talent between these clubs grew even wider. The Flames' defensemen, Dennis Wideman, T.J. Brodie and Kris Russell, were all nullified by the hard-checking Ducks and could not generate the offensive flow that defined their attack for much of the season. Even a goalie switch from Jonas Hiller to Karri Ramo, normally a sign of desperation in the playoffs, couldn't stem the tide for Calgary. The better team was the clear winner here.
Hawks vs. Wild
The Blackhawks are who we said they are, making short work of the Wild in this series. Once again, Minnesota found no way to control or limit Chicagoís experienced playoff hands. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were able to score regularly and were joined on the scoresheet by Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp. Among Minnesotaís top weapons, Zach Parise was the only top forward to produce more than one point in the four-game sweep. They needed more from the likes of Jason Pominville, Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund, but didnít get it. Even the magic of Devan Dubnyk wore off as he was made to look ordinary in giving up 11 goals in the four starts. In sharp contrast, Corey Crawford seems to have gotten his form back, as he limited the Wild to only seven goals. He may be the first to say that the overall Chicago team structure and discipline had as much to with those solid numbers as his own efforts.
Lightning vs. Rangers
The Lightning have lived up to their team nickname, using their speed advantage to dispatch two opponents in the postseason. We are left to wonder if they can use that edge in this series or will it be neutralized. The Rangers are built as a swift team that is responsible defensively, but they have to be concerned that two veteran defensemen, Dan Boyle and Keith Yandle, were banged up by the end of the Washington series. The Lightning will not change a thing offensively, as we should expect the Stamkos and Johnson lines to come out flying. We should expect that Dominic Moore will see a lot of time against both centers in a checking role. Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis will need to step up their productivity, as they have combined for only four goals in the first two rounds. Ryan Callahan and St. Louis will be in the rare situation of being former captains of these opposing teams, to add a little more flavor to the series. I give the forwards edge to Tampa, defense (assuming no serious injuries to the aforementioned Rangers) and goaltending (Lundqvist over Bishop) to New York.
The Call: The Rangers will have home ice advantage and are back in the conference final once again, armed with that experience against a younger team that may still have some learning to do on this stage. Take the Rangers in six.
Chicago vs. Anaheim
These two teams are fairly well matched in all areas and that should make for an entertaining series. We have spoken about how both teams have quality and depth among their forwards, so scoring has not been an issue for either club. However, in the regular-season series, which the Hawks won 2-1, the Ducks only managed a total of three goals, while surrendering nine. Even more troubling was the fact that two lopsided losses came in Anaheim. The Ducks won a 1-0 squeaker in Chicago. That small sample size speaks to the strength and depth of the Hawks blueline. They may have lost Michal Rozsival for the rest of the playoffs, but they will now insert Kimmo Timonen, another experienced puck-mover to join the deepest and most talented two-way defense corps in the league. The Ducks will counter with skilled rearguards who can really lug the puck, like Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm, among others, but apart from Francois Beauchemin, there is some concern about their aptitude in their defensive zone plans for the Hawks' skilled forwards. Frederik Andersen will likely continue in goal for Anaheim, but he has not yet been tested in the postseason. The Ducks could easily flip to John Gibson to change momentum without losing quality in goal.
The Call: Even though the Ducks were the top seeded team in the Western conference, it is hard to ignore the fact that the Hawks looked so good in sweeping their second-round series. It is a strong indicator that this talented team is on a mission. Chicago in six.