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March 24, 2019
First Round Preview: Wales Conference
by Michael Menser Dell, Editor-in-Chief
Key Matchup: Milan Lucic versus Mathieu Schneider’s shoulder. After it was reported he’d miss the rest of the season, Schneider sucked it up and decided to play through his shoulder injury. Now he has to play through Lucic.
Montreal’s only chance in the series is to cash in on the power play. They did just that this past week when they ripped the Bears for three power-play tallies in a 5-4 OT loss. The Habs are already without Andrei Markov, who could possibly return from his knee injury at some point in the series, so if Schneider gets rubbed out, it’s over.
Player to Watch: Last year at this time, Carey Price was the next Patrick Roy. Remember that? Aw, that was great, that was fun.
Well, Price imploded in the playoffs, posting an .861 save percentage or lower in five of his final seven postseason games. Those Roy comparisons ended real quick. Now the 21-year-old is simply trying to prove he’s a legit No. 1, and that could be rough against Boston. He went 1-2-2 against the Bruins this season and had a 3.46 goals-against average and an .878 save percentage.
Prediction: If you believe in laundry, this is a great series. Montreal-Boston is what hockey’s all about. The two franchises have met 31 times in the playoffs, with the Habs winning 24 of 'em. Cling to those memories, Montreal.
Despite their dominance in the regular season, the Bruins rely heavily on a lot of young guys like Lucic, Phil Kessel, David Krejci, and Blake Wheeler. That’s usually not a good recipe for postseason success. Timmy Thomas lost to Price last year. And do you really want to count on Michael Ryder and the ghost of Mark Recchi for clutch playoff goals?
The Bears are the perfect No. 1 seed for a first-round collapse. Lucky for them, the Canadiens are awful. They’re so bad, they’re terrible.
The line of Alexei Kovalev, Saku Koivu, and Alex Tanguay has been carrying the scoring load for Montreal, producing 16 goals and 38 points in the 10 games since March 24. But against the Bruins this year, Kovalev had two goals in six games, Koivu managed two goals and an assist in five tries, and Tanguay had a lone assist in four contests. Zdeno Chara has that effect on people.
I’ll say the Habs steal one in Montreal. Boston in five.
Key Matchup: Could it be anything but Alexander Semin and Marc Staal? They’ve gotta go again, right? How could they possibly deny fight fans such joy? Don’t make Semin angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. Unless, you know, you like to laugh, then it’s awesome.
Assuming Semin doesn’t snap and kill everyone, the true matchup here will be Washington’s vaunted power play against New York’s top-ranked penalty kill. The Caps had the best power play in the league on home ice, scoring 50 times with the man-advantage and converting at a 28.2-percent clip. They weren’t too shabby on the road either, ranking fifth at 21.9 percent.
New York’s kill was tops at home (89.1%) and second on the road (86.8%). While the Caps went 4-for-15 (26.7%) in winning the season series 3-1, the teams haven’t met since February 11. In the 24 games since, the Blueshirts have killed 83 of 91 (91.2%).
When a great power play meets a strong kill, I usually give the edge to the penalty killers. Power plays, even spectacular ones like Washington’s, tend to run hot and cold. A few timely kills can demoralize even the most confident scorers.
Player to Watch: It has to be Sean Avery. Torts needs to turn him loose. Avery’s gotta make it fun. Tell those anger management classes to hit the bricks. New York’s only chance is for Avery to get in Ovechkin’s kitchen and torment Jose Theodore. Let’s make it happen.
Prediction: Smart money is on Ovechkin and the Caps to overwhelm the Rangers. Let’s not kid ourselves; the Blueshirts are terrible. But they’ve got a huge advantage in net with Henrik Lundqvist. Their penalty kill should at least contain the Caps’ power play. Chris Drury is still clutch. And the last I checked, Tom f’ing Poti averages 21:08 a night for the Caps. That’s shameful.
When the Caps win, they’ll win big. But the Rangers will win more.
New York in six.
Key Matchup: This is the only series featuring two Stanley Cup-winning netminders. We know what we’ll get from Martin Brodeur, but which Cam Ward will show up? If it’s the same Ward who’s been in net the past month or so, the Devils got worry.
Since March 1, Ward is 13-2-2 with a .934 save percentage. Over that same span, Brodeur is 11-7-1 with a .914 save percentage. Ward is going to have to be at least that much better if the Canes want to shock the world.
Player to Watch: Eric Staal tends to score in bunches. That’s not going to cut it against New Jersey. If Staal doesn’t provide the offense night in and night out, no one else will. Ray Whitney isn’t going to beat the Devils. Tuomo Ruutu isn’t going to beat the Devils. It’s up to Staal and Ward.
Prediction: Even when the Canes were rattling off nine straight wins to secure their playoff spot, they really weren’t playing that great. That streak was a one-man show. It was all Ward. He had a .943 save percentage or better in eight of the nine games.
New Jersey simply has too much depth. The Devils will roll four lines and wear down the Canes. El Diablo has Parise-Zajac-Langenbrunner, Rolston-Zubrus-Gionta, Madden-Shanahan-Pandolfo, and Holik-Rupp-Clarkson. The Canes have Staal-Ruutu-Cole and a whole lot of nothing.
Chad Larose? Who cancelled?
New Jersey in five.
Key Matchup: Forget Ovechkin. Sidney Crosby’s true rival is Mike Richards. They go head-to-head every shift, and no Semins allowed. This is big boy stuff. It’s easily the best individual matchup of the opening round.
And not that I’m keeping score or anything, but in 28 career games against the Penguins, Richards has four goals and 22 points. In 26 career games against the Flyers, Crosby has 20 goals and 46 points. Advantage Crosby.
Player to Watch: Scott Hartnell usually saves his best douchery for the Pens. Hartnell’s like Eddie Haskell only gayer. Hey, maybe if we’re lucky he’ll throw one of his gloves. Because he sure as hell won’t drop them.
Prediction: The Flyers have two swell lines with Richards-Knuble-Gagne and Carter-Lupul-Hartnell. They can at least keep up with Crosby and Malkin. But Pittsburgh’s depth could prove the difference. Jordan Staal, Tyler Kennedy, and Matt Cooke should eat Danny Briere for lunch. And even the fourth line of Talbot-Dupuis-Godard/Adams could be a difference-maker.
A lot is made of Philly’s 3-1 win in Pittsburgh March 22, but the Pens thoroughly outplayed the Flyers and only lost due to a miraculous performance from Martin Biron. Do you really think Biron can beat Crosby and Malkin four times in seven games? Me neither. And Marc-Andre Fleury is 17-4 in his last 21 games against Philly.
This is another weird series. I could see the Penguins sweeping it, or I could see it going the distance. But I can’t see the Flyers winning.
And how the hell do the Flyers lose their season finale with the Rangers when home ice is on the line? That's not good. I’m not sure why exactly, but I’ll give Philly two games.
Pittsburgh in six.
So to review, I’ve got Boston, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, and the Rangers in the Wales, and San Jose, Detroit, Vancouver, and Chicago in the Campbell.
And here’s how I’d rank the series in terms of upset potential, No. 1 being the most probable upset and counting down to the absolute locks.
1. New York-Washington