The Peerless is not just paying attention to the I-95 first-round playoff series between the Washington Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers (about which we will have some things to say in a later piece). We are concerned with teams that the Caps might play down the road. And with that, we take a peek at the other Eastern Conference series that start this week. On to the prognostos…
Pittsburgh Penguins (48-26-8) vs. New York Rangers (46-27-9)
Penguins: The Penguins are the “it” team of these playoffs, the choice of the hockey punditocracy to emerge from the Eastern Conference for the Stanley Cup final. They might have a point. The Pens finished the regular season with a 14-2-0 record, outscoring their opponents by a 43-26 margin at 5-on-5 and posting a Corsi-for at fives of 55.3 percent. The only thing that would seem to be an obstacle is their goaltending situation, made uncertain with a concussion suffered by Marc-Andre Fleury that kept him out of the last five regular season games and a suspected concussion sustained by Matt Murray in a collision with Philadelphia’s Brayden Schenn in the first period of the regular season finale last Saturday. The Pens would like to get forward Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Olli Maatta back from injuries, but frankly, their absences have not been keenly felt, and that should put an extra layer of concern on potential rivals when they do return.
Wild Card Player: Patric Hornqvist
Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang have been playing at a high level for weeks now, and it would be reasonable to expect they will continue their high level of play. And it would be tempting to think of Phil Kessel as that next level of player to watch. But we will go down another level and think of Patric Hornqvist. The eight-year veteran is one of the most reliable producers most folks don’t think of. He finished the season with 22 goals, making him six-for-six in full NHL seasons with 20 or more goals (not counting his 28-game rookie season in Nashville or the abbreviated 2012-2013 season). He was streaky over the latter stages of the season, though, recording one goal in 13 games before a four-game goal streak and ending without a goal in his last two games. If he is a more reliable, more consistent contributor that he was closing the season, the Pens will be a load for any opponent.
Rangers: The Blueshirts limped to the finish, going 9-7-3 since the beginning of March. That they did as well as that is something of a surprise given the state of their possession numbers – awful. Not an especially efficient team in the shot attempt statistics over the course of the season, they were in a bad place over those last 19 games, posting a Corsi-for at 5-on-5 of 46.3 percent (numbers from war-on-ice.com). That their goal differential at fives was not worse (minus-2) is more a testament to their goaltending than their ability to drive play. That means that once more, this is a team that is going to go only so far as goalie Henrik Lundqvist can carry them. And whatever Lundqvist’s numbers are in the regular season – 21st in GAA (2.48), 13th in save percentage (.920) among goalies with 2,000 or more minutes played – he is a big time postseason goalie. Over the last five postseasons he is one of only two goaltenders to appear in at least 20 games, post a goals against average under 2.25 (2.06), a save percentage of at least .925 (.929), and record more than five shutouts (6). Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick is the other.
Wild Card Player: Kevin Hayes
Kevin Hayes was something of a revelation in his 2014-2015 rookie season. He finished sixth among NHL rookies in goals (17) and fifth in points (45). But he fell victim to the dreaded “sophomore slump” in 2015-2016. He fell to 14 goals and 36 points, and his effort was questioned by his head coach, leading to a benching during the season. He closed the season fairly well with a pair of goals and a pair of assists in his last six games. However, if the Rangers are to be more than simply Henrik Lundqvist, Hayes is going to have to play his role as a secondary scorer.
In the end…
Both teams come into this series banged up. The Pens have Evgeni Malkin, Olli Maatta, and two goaltenders nursing injuries. They could start the series with Jeff Zatkoff in goal and Tristan Jarry on the bench. The Rangers have Eric Staal, Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, and Mats Zuccarello dinged up. New York will not win a track meet with the Penguins. They lack the possession discipline and the depth of skill to do that over seven games. Unless Henrik Lundqvist plays the series of his life, it is hard to reason a way through to a Ranger win, unless Fleury and Murray are unable to tend goal for four or more games of this series. Lundqvist might steal one, but more than that is a lot to ask for.
Pittsburgh in 5
Florida Panthers (47-26-9) vs. New York Islanders (45-27-10)
Panthers: The Panthers came into the 2015-2016 season as the oldest team in the league. Small wonder, considering that of all the players lacing up their skates for the postseason, Jaromir Jagr will be the oldest skater, at 44 years of age, by more than four years (the Rangers’ Dan Boyle is next in line). And there is 37-year old Roberto Luongo, who will be the oldest starting goalie in the postseason, almost three years older than Henrik Lundqvist. Don’t leave out defenseman Willie Mitchell, either, who will be the fourth-oldest defenseman to take the ice in the postseason (he will turn 39 before the end of this month). Not that it seemed to slow down the Panthers in the home stretch. They went 7-2-0 in their last nine games, but that might not be quite as impressive as it looks. Both losses came to teams out of the playoff mix (Toronto and Ottawa, both by multi-goal margins), and their last five wins came against also-rans.
Wild Card Player: Nick Bjugstad
Nick Bjugstad missed 15 games at mid-season to an upper-body injury. He still managed 15 goals (seventh on the club) and 34 points (eighth), although on a per-game basis, his goal scoring was below his performance in 2014-2015 (24 goals in 72 games). Since March 7th, Bjugstad is 5-7-12 in 17 games, a respectable level of scoring for a player getting about 15 minutes a game. But where his presence might be felt most is on the Panther power play, on which he finished the season second in goals (6) and points (15). He will have to raise his game at evens to give the Panthers a good chance to advance.
Islanders: For a while there, it looked as if the Islanders were going to play themselves out of the postseason. From March 9th through the 25th they lost seven of nine games (2-6-1), and they were just two points ahead of Philadelphia for the last playoff spot. They turned things around by going 6-2-1 in their last nine games to secure the first wild card spot. But this is a team that has major health issues at the most important position in the postseason. Goalies Jaroslav Halak and Jean-Francois Berube both are listed as day-to-day with lower body injuries, Halak having been out of the lineup since March 8th. It might come down to which Thomas Greiss shows up in goal. Will it be the one who was 7-0-1, 2.24, .925 over ten appearances over a two-months stretch from early January to early March? Or perhaps the one who went 1-5-1, 3.17, .902 just after that. Could it be the one who won his last four starts and went 4-0-0, 2.04, .931 in his last five appearances of the regular season? Halak was reported skating last Thursday, but he still appears weeks away from a return.
Wild Card Player: Josh Bailey
With Anders Lee out with a fractured leg, defenseman Travis Hamonic iffy for the first round, and the goaltender situation in uncertain condition, the Islanders have to get support from skaters other than John Tavares and Kyle Okposo. The light shines on Josh Bailey, who just has not seemed to put together the sort of season one might have expected from a ninth-overall draft pick in 2008. He is the sort who can provide a reliable 35-point pace per 82 games, but he has not had that breakout year, and he is not an especially impressive possession player. He will have to raise his game in this series for the Islanders to have hopes of advancing.
In the end…
This is the “possession challenged” series, the only one of the eight that will feature both teams under 50 percent for the season in score-adjusted Corsi-for at 5-on-5. This series is the aged (Florida) versus the infirm (the banged-up Islanders). It could turn on whether Jaromir Jagr has the legs to get through a seven-game series or John Tavares’ shoulders are strong enough to bear the weight of what the team needs with so many key players injured. We think it will come down to the Panthers having better goaltending than the Islanders can cobble together.
Panthers in 6
Tampa Bay Lightning (46-31-5) vs. Detroit Red Wings (41-30-11)
Lightning: There is no player’s absence that will be more keenly felt in this postseason than that of Steven Stamkos’ absence from the Lightning due to a blood clot in his arm that required surgery that will keep him out from one to three months. Stamkos had a hand in almost 30 percent of the Lightning’s 224 goals scored this season (36 goals, 28 assists). They still have Nikita Kucherov as a 30-goal scorer, but the goal scoring drops of quite a bit from there (to Ondrej Palat with 16). That is going to put a lot of the load on goalie Ben Bishop. He seems entirely capable of carrying that load. In his last 18 appearances in the regular season he was 13-4-1, 1.87, .937, with four shutouts. It might be the sort of finishing kick that will put him squarely in the conversation over the Vezina Trophy. But for now, he might have to be at least that good with the Lightning’s most effective offensive weapon on the bench.
Wild Card Player: Vladislav Namestnikov
Tyler Johnson was given a rough ride into the end boards by Montreal defenseman Greg Pateryn in the Lightning’s season finale on Saturday. Listed as day-to-day with an upper body injury, if he is absent for any length of time to start the first round series, the scoring burden that is already heavier on other players will fall further down the roster. A player like Vladislav Namestnikov will have to step up in a way he did not in last year’s postseason when he recorded one point (an assist) in 12 playoff games. His seven minutes and change in average ice time probably had something to do with his meager production, but he averaged more than 14 minutes of ice time in 80 games this season. He tied for fourth in goals (14) and was seventh in points (35). He was an efficient shooter this season (13.2 percent), but it came on just 106 shots (1.33 per game). The holes in the lineup might mean he has to pull the trigger more often against the Red Wings.
Red Wings: Sun is bright, water is wet, Red Wings make the playoffs. These are what amount to physical constants, the Red Wings having reached the postseason for the 25th consecutive season. The last time they finished a regular season without qualifying for the playoffs, a song titled “Black Velvet” topped the Billboard singles charts (we had to look that up). This Red Wings team is unlike most of their predecessors. They don’t score a lot (23rd in scoring offense), they are a middle-of-the-road team defensively (17th in scoring defense), but they are a decent puck possession team (ninth in score-adjusted Corsi-for at 5-on-5). It is a squad that lacks top-end production. Detroit has no player with more than 50 points (Henrik Zetterberg has 50); they do not have a player with as many as 25 goals (rookie Dylan Larkin has 23). And, they are not exactly storming into the postseason, wrapping up the regular season with a 9-10-0 record over their last 19 games.
Wild Card Player: Tomas Tatar
Tomas Tatar is an odd sort of player, not for his performance, but for the fact that it does not seem to get much attention. Over the past three seasons he scored goals at a 20-plus pace per 82 games, he averaged more than half a point per game, he was a solid plus-22, and his power play production was very good (18 goals, 22 assists). Of his 69 goals scored over those three seasons, 13 were game-winners. He has been just a solid player that is almost the definition of one who “flies under the radar.” His production did tail off at the end of the regular season, though, going 1-2-3, plus-1 over his last 11 games with just two power play points (both assists). If Detroit is to advance, they will need Tatar to return to his quiet, but solid level of performance.
In the end…
Maybe the Red Wings think of this as a “Win It for Pavel” sort of postseason, what with Pavel Datsyuk indicating that he will return to Russia after the playoffs. But frankly, that is not enough for a team that just doesn’t have same sort of depth and skill that Red Wing fans are used to. But for the fact that the Lightning come into this series lacking their best offensive player and are banged up at a number of other positions, this series would not be close. It will be, just not close enough for Detroit to advance.
Lightning in 7