Stanley Cup Playoff Previews Part 1
New York Rangers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
These same two teams met in the first round of last year’s playoffs, with the Rangers taking the series 4-1. It was by no means a lopsided series, as every game was decided by one goal, and the final two games went to overtime. The Penguins are the higher seed this year, finishing with 104 points in the Metropolitan Division while the Rangers ended with 101. The Pens struggled out of the gate this year, and changed coaches early in the season. Since then, Sidney Crosby has returned to his usual form and the team has weathered injuries to enter the playoffs on a torrid stretch. The Rangers had issues defensively at points during the season, but enter the playoffs 6-3-1 over their last ten and enter the postseason looking to make another deep run.
Penguins Players to Watch
All eyes will be on who the Pens have in net for game one on Wednesday. Will it be Marc-Andre Fleury, Matt Murray, or Jeff Zatkoff? Fleury has been sidelined with yet another concussion and his backup—Murray—has an upper-body injury. While Fleury hasn’t been the best of goalies come playoff time, it would be a significant downgrade to start one of the backups against a veteran team like New York. Another Penguin to watch is Evgeni Malkin, who has been sidelined since March 11th with an arm injury. Crosby has picked up the slack in his absence, scoring 11 points over the season’s last 10 games, but the Penguins still struggle to get consistent secondary scoring. If Malkin can come back early in this series and produce for the second line, then it creates another dimension to their offense.
Rangers Players to Watch
The name most synonymous with the New York Rangers is Hank Lundqvist. Lundqvist has by no means had his best season, posting a 2.48 GAA and a .920 SA% and didn’t really close the season on the best of terms either. Lundqvist has been a stalwart throughout the New York’s deep playoff runs over the past few years and needs to step up big again. My second player to watch is Eric Staal. The Rangers acquired Staal at the trade deadline and has been a complete dud. Over 20 games, he has only three goals and three assists. He hasn’t appeared in the postseason since 2008, but Staal is still a veteran who has experience in big games. If he can contribute, even on the power play, it will take some of the stress off of the Rangers’ top line.
The Penguins simply have too many question marks heading into this series. A healthy roster and a red-hot Crosby would tempt me to lean with Pittsburgh, but with so many issues I’ll take the Rangers in 5.
– Anthony Sambrotto
Chicago Blackhawks vs. St. Louis Blues
These teams have been division rivals since 1970, so there’s a high likelihood of hostility when they hit the ice. The Blues won three matchups in the regular season, each decided by overtime or shootout. Chicago has defeated St. Louis twice, each by a two-goal margin. The ‘Hawks have won three of the last six Stanley Cups, while the Blues have never won it all, last appearing in the championship round in 1970.
Blackhawks Players to Watch
Joel Quenneville’s team is led by all-world forward Patrick Kane, who won the Art Ross Trophy for scoring the most points in the regular season (106). Kane is joined on one of the best second lines in hockey by rookie Artemi Panarin, who is a Calder Trophy candidate after a 30 goal, 47 assist debut season, and center Artem Anisimov, who chipped in 20 points and 22 assists.
The first line is formidable, as left winger Andrew Ladd, center Jonathan Toews and right winger Marian Hossa have combined for 49 goals and 54 assists despite missing a combined 63 games. Corey Crawford and Scott Darling teamed up to allow the 10th-fewest goals against in the league. Crawford is the starter, but Darling started four games last postseason, recording a 3-1 record. Quenneville will not hesitate to change goaltenders if Crawford struggles.
Blues Players to Watch
Vladimir Tarasenko is the team’s top goal-scorer with 40 and has dished out 34 assists as well. The team’s other 50-plus point-getter, Alexander Steen, had four points in four games against the Blackhawks this season. Paul Stastny had 39 assists, while captain David Backes had a balanced 21 goals and 24 assists.
St. Louis has two goaltenders capable of starting on any given night. Brian Elliott is the starter heading into the playoffs, but Jake Allen actually started five more games in the regular season. Elliott had a better goals against average (2.07 to 2.35) and save percentage (93 percent to 92 percent), which gave him the nod.
The Blackhawks are an offensive juggernaut and also have the second-best powerplay unit in hockey. They should win this series in five or six games.
– Chuckie Maggio
Detroit Red Wings vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
The Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning are quite familiar opponents, splitting a four-game slate this season after playing seven in last year’s Eastern Conference quarterfinals. There will be many eyes on this series; not only is it one of the most even matchups in this year’s postseason, but Detroit star Pavel Datsyuk is retiring from the NHL and returning to Russia when the run is over.
Also of note: Lightning captain Steven Stamkos is out for the series and possibly the playoffs after undergoing vascular surgery last week to fix a blood clot.
Red Wings Players to Watch
Datsyuk’s deft stick handling and facilitating (33 assists this season) make him a definite player to watch, while captain Henrik Zetterberg leads the team in points with 50 at left wing. In addition to the old guard, young studs like 19-year-old Dylan Larkin and 25-year-old Tomas Tatar have 45 points each. Jimmy Howard, the 32 year old veteran will get the start between the pipes. He finished the regular season with a 14-14-5 record and a 2.80 goals against average.
Lightning Players to Watch
They’re not on the same line anymore, but the trio of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov will have to bring strong production with Stamkos out. Kucherov led the team in regular-season points with 66 (30 goals, 36 assists), while Palat had 40 (16 goals, 24 assists) and Johnson had 38 (14 goals, 24 assists). Defenseman Victor Hedman is the top assist man, with 37 helpers to go along with 10 goals.
The series will go seven games, but Tampa Bay will prevail. Even without Stamkos and defenseman Anton Stralman, the Bolts have enough offensive firepower and a good enough goalie in Ben Bishop (who stands at 6-foot-7) to at least make it out of the first round.
– Chuckie Maggio