NHL Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: Round 2

The second round has a lot of work to do if it wats to live up to the opening round of the 2012 NHL Playoffs.

In the West, it was a changing of the guard, with perrenial contenders Vancouver, Chicago, Detroit and San Jose all going up in smoke in less than seven games. It’s all about defense on that side of the ledger and goalies will be at the center of attention throughout.

In the East it was also about defense, but offense played a role as well. The Flyers woudn’t be in the second round if their goal-scorers didn’t make up for Ilya Bryzgalov’s shoddy play and the Devils had to score timely goals against Florida’s comeback attempts. Still, goalies again will be the story, especially in the Rangers-Capitals series where rookie Braden Holtby takes his hot streak up against veteran Vezina finalist, Henrik Lundqvist.

How will it all play out? Check back to to follow along.

New York Rangers #1 RANGERS vs. Washington Capitals #7 CAPITALS
How the Rangers got here: By depending on superstar goalie Henrik Lundqvist and a team defense concept that atones for the Blueshirts’ inability to produce offense in large amounts. In their seven-game series win over Ottawa, the Rangers had just the 12th-best offense (averaging 2.00 goals a game) and the fourth-best defense (allowing an average of 1.86 goals per game). That’s precisely the mix that helped them finish first in the Eastern Conference in the regular season and it will be the only way they move on to the conference final.

How the Capitals got here: By completing their transformation from a once-fearsome offensive juggernaut to a shot-blocking, defense-first squad. In eliminating the defending champion Bruins in seven games the Caps showed they no longer won based on the offensive feats of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Semin. Instead, rookie goalie sensation Braden Holtby put the team on his 22-year-old back and turned aside wave after wave of Boston attackers. The team’s evolution hasn’t quite turned out as many have expected, but owner Ted Leonsis and GM George McPhee will move on to another post-season round any way they can.

OFFENSE: Neither the Caps nor the Rangers had a player averaging a point-per-game in the first round. That should continue in this series, given how prominent the two goaltenders will have to be to give their teams a chance to win. Ovechkin was Washington’s top point producer (two goals and five points in seven games), yet his influence was barely noticeable on many nights; in four games, his time on ice average was less than 17-and-a-half minutes and in two of those four games, he played less than 16-and-a-half. As for the Rangers, they’ll need more out of regular-season leading goal-scorer Marian Gaborik, who had just one goal against Ottawa and was outscored by teammate Anton Stralman (two goals). Even with the number of big-name stars on both sides, it’s impossible to give one team the edge given how they struggled to find the net in the first round. EDGE: Even

No team blocked more shots than the Rangers (155) in the first round. More than one-third of that total came from elite defensive defenseman Dan Girardi (who had 30) and fellow blueliner Ryan McDonagh (24), both of whom averaged more ice time than any other teammate. That said, the Caps blocked the second-most shots (139) and have needed the buy-in of all their defensemen and forwards to play risk-minimized hockey. That their two best plus-minus players are defensemen Roman Hamrlik and Mike Green (both plus-five), neither of whom are regarded as big-time shutdown men, demonstrates that head coach Dale Hunter’s demands for sacrifice and careful play has sunk in. Still, the Blueshirts have been playing this style from the first puck-drop of the regular-season. For that experience alone, they get a slight edge here. EDGE: Rangers

GOALTENDING: As noted earlier, both Lundqvist (.945 save percentage) and Holtby (.940) were spectacular in Round 1. Interestingly, Lundqvist’s even-strength save percentage was even better (.953), but he struggled when the Rangers were on the penalty kill, allowing four goals on 35 shots for an .886 mark. Holtby, on the other hand, was more consistent (a .940 even-strength save percentage and .931 mark on the penalty kill), yet obviously has much less NHL experience than the 30-year-old Lundqvist. The star Swede may have only played 42 career post-season games to this stage, but his overall experience is likely to be the difference that puts the Blueshirts over the top. EDGE: Rangers

SPECIAL TEAMS: The Rangers got more first-round power plays (32) than any other team, yet scored just five goals for an eighth-overall 15.8 percent success rate. The Caps had the third-fewest number of man advantages (19), but were percentage points behind the Blueshirts (15.6) in their effectiveness. However, the difference between the teams on the penalty kill was far more pronounced: Washington allowed just two goals in 23 shorthanded opportunities for a 91.3 rate (second only to Phoenix in the first round), while the Rangers posted an 84.6 mark after allowing four goals in 26 opportunities. The Rangers likely will tighten up their special teams, but for now, Washington is looking more proficient. EDGE: Capitals

PREDICTION: This is the third time these two teams have faced off in the past four post-seasons, but this year, it’s the Caps who will be underdogs in the minds of most people. As they showed against the heavily-favored Bruins, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But unless Ovechkin and his fellow offense-minded teammates suddenly surge in point production, this series will be about defense, defense and more defense. The Caps have become good at that in the past few months, but the Rangers have been one of the best at it all season. It won’t be easy, but they should prevail. Rangers in 6.

Who do you think will win this series?

Philadelphia Flyers #5 FLYERS vs. New Jersey Devils #6 DEVILS
How the Flyers got here: With an explosive offensive attack and outstanding play from its top players. The Flyers got themselves into several early deficits against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round and remained undaunted. The Flyers got contributions from every player outside their goaltender and offensive stars Claude Giroux and Dany Briere were what players of their ilk should be – offensive catalysts who are comfortable carrying the burden of their team’s hopes and expectations.

How the Devils got here: By being far more resilient than they’ve been in recent years in the post-season. Like the Flyers, the Devils got huge performances from some of their best players at crucial times. But most importantly, the Devils also got enormous contributions from their fourth line of Stephen Gionta between Steve Bernier and Ryan Carter, who chipped in with key goals late in the series.

OFFENSE: The Flyers tore the Penguins apart offensively in the first round and outscored the Devils by almost 40 goals during the regular season. Even with New Jersey’s fourth line contributing, the Flyers have far more offensive talent through their lineup and are more dangerous around the net. Let’s face it, they made battle-tested Marc-Andre Fleury look terrible. There is no player who is better in tight and in traffic than Briere. Edge: Philadelphia

DEFENSE: Neither team is going to give the Devils circa 1995 a run for its money. You might be surprised to learn that the Devils gave up more shots per game during the first round, but it was better defensively than the Flyers were during the regular season. The Devils defense corps is far shakier than it was during the glory years, but it still manages to adequately get the job done with a lot of help from the forwards. It would help immensely, however, if the Devils could do a better job of locking down a lead. In Game 7 of the first round, the Devils limited the Florida Panthers to just two shots in the second period. Edge: New Jersey

There is no way in good conscience we can pick the Flyers in this category after the way Ilya Bryzgalov played in the first round. He is simply far too erratic and like the little boy with the curl, when he’s good he’s really good. But when he’s bad…watch out. Martin Brodeur is clearly in the decline portion of his Hall of Fame career and seems remarkably porous on shots that are in his feet, but he has the ability to lock things down when he has to and has the best playoff pedigree of any goaltender in the NHL. Neither team currently has goaltending that would lead to long-term playoff success and that will have to change.
Edge: New Jersey

SPECIAL TEAMS: The Flyers were as brilliant on the power play as they were inept on the penalty kill in the first round against the Penguins. The Devils were only slightly better on the penalty kill, which is a little mystifying. A big part of that is goaltending, since your goaltender has to be your best penalty killer and both Bryzgalov and Brodeur were not at their best. But you’d have to think both teams will level things out in the second round and get to the standards they set during the regular season. Edge: Philadelphia

PREDICTION: The Flyers should have enough firepower to win this series, keeping in mind their goaltending can’t possibly be as bad in the second round. Can it? Like the Flyers did last summer when they tore their roster apart to sign Bryzgalov, we have enough faith in Bryzgalov that he won’t throw the series away. He likely won’t steal it, but he won’t be as porous against the Devils as he was against Pittsburgh. Flyers in six

Who do you think will win this series?

St. Louis Blues #2 BLUES vs. Los Angeles Kings #8 KINGS
How the Blues got here: By continuing the nearly unparalleled two-way play that’s been their hallmark since Ken Hitchcock became coach in November. St. Louis shut down the Sharks in five games by allowing just eight goals and holding key players Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski pointless in the series. They grind down teams once they have a lead and rarely take their foot off the opposition’s throat.

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How the Kings got here: By demonstrating the desperate post-season-caliber intensity they had to for the last two months of the regular season just to make the playoffs. As they did with teams across the league from February on, the Kings beat the Canucks in the first round not with offense, but rather with suffocating pressure on the defensive end and continued outstanding play from goalie Jonathan Quick. They’ll have to do the same to outlast the stingy Blues. 

OFFENSE: It’s very likely there will be fewer goals scored in this entire series than one game of the Philadelphia/Pittsburgh first-round tilt. The Blues got 15 points out of their top two scorers (Andy McDonald and Patrik Berglund) against San Jose, but just 15 out of their next five best point producers. Similarly, L.A.’s top three scorers (Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams) had 13 points against Vancouver, but their next five most-dangerous offensive threats had just 11 points between them. It was no coincidence both teams had the fewest regular-season goals of any Western Conference playoff team and it won’t be a surprise to see a bunch of 2-1 and 1-0 games between these teams. Both will need contributions from more than just their top players if they wish to play in the conference final. EDGE: Even

DEFENSE: The Blues surrendered a league-low 155 goals in the regular season, but the Kings only allowed 15 more, showing just how much of their game plan is based on smothering the opposition’s best players. In the first round, Los Angeles gave the bulk of their defensive assignments to young star Drew Doughty (who averaged a team-best 26:32) and veteran Willie Mitchell (25:27) and depended less on the second-pairing of Rob Scuderi (20:19) and Slava Voynov (18:22). St. Louis, on the other hand, has a deeper blueline – and, as such, the ice time for their defensemen is more evenly distributed: five of the seven they’ve used in the post-season average at least 20 minutes a night and their least-utilized D-man (Kris Russell, at 18:17) has played nearly as much as Voynov. As the games get tougher and bodies begin to break down, that depth will serve the Blues well. EDGE: Blues

GOALTENDING: This area is probably the toughest to judge a winner in, given that both Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott were spectacular in a virtual platoon for the Blues, while Jonathan Quick has played so spectacularly, he’s put himself in the debate for both the Vezina Trophy and the Hart Trophy. Sure, the Kings have another above-average netminder (Jonathan Bernier) to lean on in the unlikely event Quick falters, but the relatively light workload both Halak and Elliott have had to handle (Halak played 46 regular season games, Elliott 38) gives St. Louis a miniscule edge over the much more utilized Quick (69 games) and the Kings. EDGE: Blues

SPECIAL TEAMS: The Blues had the second-best post-season power play (six goals on 18 opportunities for a 33.3 percent rating) after the first round, as well as the fifth-best penalty kill (two goals allowed on 17 chances for an 88.2 percent rating). The Kings were close to them in penalty killing success (successfully killing off 18 of 21 chances for 85.7), but their power play was abysmal (three goals on 26 opportunities for an 11.5 percent average). As it is with most areas, there isn’t a large separation in quality between these two teams, but the Blues have been more consistent. EDGE: Blues

PREDICTION: After the way the first round ended with so many upsets, it wouldn’t shock us in the least to see the Kings find a way to out-Blue the Blues in terms of being better defensively. But L.A. won’t find it nearly as easy to pick away at cracks in St. Louis’ armor as it did with the Canucks. And with Selke Trophy candidate David Backes focused on shutting down Kopitar and the Kings’ other offensive threats, they’ll have an even more difficult time creating offense. This series won’t be a blowout for either side, but the deeper Blues have more weapons on which to lean. Blues in 6.

Who do you think will win this series?

Phoenix Coyotes #3 COYOTES vs. Nashville Predators #4 PREDATORS
How the Coyotes got here: By having Mike Smith stand on his head and play like an all-world goaltender. Make no mistake, the Blackhawks took it to the Coyotes in Round 1. On average, Phoenix was being outshot by nearly 14 a night and allowed the most average shots against in the first round at an astronomical 40.2.

How the Predators got here: For basically the same reason the Coyotes are in Round 2. Outshot by an average of nearly nine per game, Nashville had the play dictated to it throughout most of its first round series with Detroit, but were bailed out by their incredible netminder.

OFFENSE: Though Phoenix holds the edge in the number of 30 goal scorers (1-0) and 60-point-getters (2-0), the Predators had the better overall offense and sat with the league’s best power play. As defensive as each team is purported to be, they do sit third and fifth in playoff scoring (with the Penguins and Flyers as anomalous outliers). Each squad relied on unlikely heroes to pull through at big moments in their first round series and will continue to do so as both teams score by committee. Nashville was better offensively in the regular season, Phoenix holds the edge in the playoffs so far, but we’ll side with the larger sample. EDGE: NASHVILLE

DEFENSE: As someone might write in the comments section: Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, ‘nuff said. (Man I hate that.) Phoenix is more a disciplined team than a stalwart defensive club as they allowed the third most shots against in the regular season. The Predators were also not overly impressive in this area, sitting eight slots behind the Coyotes in the stat, but they possess two of the more dominant defenders in the game, one of which is a Norris finalist again. This is another close call because of the tightly knit systems both teams subscribe to, but you have to go with Weber and Suter. EDGE: NASHVILLE

GOALTENDING: Talk about another close call. Mike Smith was the better of the two in the first round, but not by much. Smith had a better save percentage by seven points (.930 vs. .923) and better GAA by .18 (2.21 vs. 2.39) and three more shutouts than Rinne (eight vs. five) in the regular season. But Rinne has been among the top goalies in the game for a couple of years now, so the chances he’ll flame out now are slim. Not that we expect Smith to flame out. On the contrary, this series will be all about the goaltending. Another close call: Smith holds the advantage this season, but Rinne has done it for longer. It’s a coin flip. EDGE: EVEN

SPECIAL TEAMS: Though Phoenix’s power play was the better of the two in Round 1, the man-advantage is still a strength Nashville needs to draw from as they ranked first in that category in the regular season. If they don’t improve on their awful opening-round showing in this regard, Nashville is in trouble. The Coyotes were slightly better killing penalties than the Predators in the regular season and shutdown Chicago’s dreadful PP with ease in Round 1, so if that trend continues it’s a huge advantage. This is another toss up. Whoever gets into the groove, wins. EDGE: EVEN

PREDICTION: Which goalie will be able to steal four wins first? That’s what you have to ask yourself when picking a winner. Each side is equally capable of making you look awful for not picking them. Both teams were fantastic in knocking off powerhouses in Round 1. This is about as even a series as you can get, but since Nashville has gone into an all-in mode this season, we’ll side with them. Predators in 7.

Who do you think will win this series?