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NHL Playoffs: Second Round Eastern Conference Preview

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Michael Grabner, No. 40 (NHLI/Getty Images)

Michael Grabner, No. 40 (NHLI/Getty Images)

On Wednesday night, the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs opened up with two Western Conference games. On Thursday evening, the Eastern Conference will resume its quest for the Cup with the New York Rangers visiting the Ottawa Senators and the Pittsburgh Penguins heading to Washington to face the Capitals.

Washington vs. Pittsburgh

Alexander Ovechkin and the Caps defeated Auston Matthews and the Toronto Maple Leafs in six games in the first round. But now, instead of battling hockey’s future, this year’s President Trophy winners will face the NHL’s best resident veteran, Sidney Crosby, and his group of 2016 Stanley Cup Champion Penguins. The match up is exactly what Conference finals are made for – except it’s not the ECF quite yet.

Nevertheless, Ovi faces a familiar foe in Sid the Kid in what is perhaps the most anticipated series in the second round. Both teams find themselves at the top of the ranks on the powerplay coming out of the first round, the Pens with 33.3% and the Caps with 29.4%. Both squads have identical penalty kill percentages with 83.3%. The Penguins have the clear advantage on the draw over the Caps, who ranked second-to-last, ahead of only the St. Louis Blues. Both teams piled on the shots with an average of 35.2 per game for the Capitals and 34.2 for the Penguins.

Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pens has Braden Holtby beat in save percentage (.933 versus .925). But, Holtby has a better goals against average  (2.36 versus 2.52). It goes without saying that both netminders cannot leave any room for error when facing each others’ high-powered offenses.

Caps have been fortunate to be mostly healthy, missing only defenseman Karl Alzner for game one. The Pens, on the other hand, have not been so lucky. Pittsburgh is missing high-impact players in Chris Kunitz (veteran forward), Kris Letang (offense generated from the blue line), Carl Hagelin (invaluable speed), and netminder Matt Murray (though Fleury has been solid in his absence). Such injuries will likely play a key role in the postseason as the need for depth becomes so very important.

Key players for the Pens: Evgeni Malkin led all skaters in points in the first round with 11. His teammates Phil Kessel was right behind him with eight. While the postseason is genes a time for unsung heroes to shine, the Pens’ stars have been shining quite brightly. Captain Sidney Crosby has seven points for himself. All three superstars must remain impactful in the absence of aforementioned key players.

Key players for the Caps: T.J. Oshie led all Capitals in points in the first round. While the Penguins will be keeping a close eye on Ovechkin, Oshie must continue to create problems for the Pens. Justin Williams has all but secured a title of “Mr. Playoff Clutch.” The three-time Stanley Cup Champion and 2014 Conn Smythe Trophy recipient has proven his worth yet again with six points in the first round. Finally, Braden Holtby will need to elevate his game to shut down one of the most lethal offenses in the NHL.

My prediction: while the Penguins are super deep and have been fortunate to have contributions from the young guns as well as superstars, Ovechkin and the Capitals have a lot to prove especially after acquiring defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline. While the pressure may have caused the Caps to fold in the past, I think this could be the year that they have learned from past mistakes. Caps in six.

New York Rangers vs. Ottawa

The New York Rangers last met the Ottawa Senators in the postseason in 2012 where the Rangers advanced after a grueling seven-game series. But five years in the hockey world could seem like an eternity because a lot has changed since then. So let’s get to it.

What happens when you pin an American franchise against a Canadian team? You get a Battle of the Swedes, of course! Focus has swirled around the matchup between fellow countrymen Erik Karlsson and Henrik Lundqvist. Karlsson put up 71 points in 77 games this season. In the first round against the Boston Bruins, he had six assists in as many games. Couple his offensive prowess with his outstanding defending abilities and you get perhaps the closest thing to Bobby Orr that we have in today’s NHL.

Henrik Lundqvist was lights-out against the Habs in round one, posting a 1.70 goals-against average and a save percentage of. 947 along with one shutout. Craig Anderson of the Sens should not be overlooked, however. He was phenomenal all season despite his ailing wife and has continued his solid play into the postseason. Against the Bruins, Anderson had a 1.94 goals-against average and a save percentage of. 921. Lundqvist was forced to endure 206 shots on goal compared to Anderson who saw 165 through six games.

Senators’ Head Coach Guy Boucher would agree that what makes the Rangers such a dangerous team to play against is the presence of not just a couple threatening forward battalions. It is in Alain Vigneault’s pleasure in rolling four deep lines. This will make it extremely difficult for Boucher in figuring out how to defend against the Broadway Blueshirts.

The playoffs are a time for some unsung heroes to shine. Such is the case for Jesper Fast who had goals in consecutive games against the Habs, including a shorthanded tally. In general, the fourth line has been perhaps the Rangers most complete line so far. That being in terms of generating offensive chances, defending superbly, winning faceoffs, and forechecking effectively. As a result, the Rangers surprised scouts and video staff league-wide when they led all playoff teams in hits against the Montréal Canadiens in round one with 285. Whereas the Rangers were lauded as a finesse and speedy team in the regular season. Although the Rangers have found a way to find the right balance between skill and grit.

Another story line for this series has been the major off season trade that saw the Sens and Rangers swap pivots Mika Zibanejad and Derrick Brassard. Zibanejad had the game of his life in game five against the Habs. He notched an assist on Jesper Fast’s shorty and scoring the game-winning OT goal. He finished the series with team-high four points. Brassard, while relatively subpar in the regular season, doubles Zibanejad in points with eight through six playoff games.

Bobby Ryan has been superb for the Senators as well. Ryan had seven points in the first round. His overall skill and awareness will no doubt create problems for an otherwise solid Rangers defensive corps. But the Rangers are not without their own fair share of star power in Rick Nash. Nash, a terrific two-way power forward, is most effective in using his bid body to drive to the net.

Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes will also need to do the same as Nash for the Rangers. Karlsson admitted to enduring the first round with two hairline fractures in his heel, though one would not have suspected such in ignorance to that fact. The Rangers will need to send pucks in deep and continue the heavy forecheck that led to their escaping round one in perhaps the toughest building to play in, the Bell Centre.

As is usually the case in hockey, special teams could be the major difference maker in the series. The Senators’ powerplay has been about average throughout the playoffs while the Rangers had an abysmal efficiency rate of 6.7% against Montréal. On the flipside, the Rangers’ penalty kill was better (85%) than that of the Senators’ (81.2%).

In sum, the key players for the Senators will be – in addition to the aforementioned – Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone, who will need to elevate their games to see success against the Rangers.

Aside from those listed above, the key players for the Rangers will be Mats Zuccarello, Brady Skjei, Michael Grabner, and Captain Ryan McDonagh. Zuccarello had a two-goal game in the series clincher in the first round. Which included the Blue shirts’ only tally on the man-advantage all series long. Skjei, along with his defensive partner Brendan Smith, has hidden his playoff inexperience well while keeping a youthful energy. Grabner was a main reason for the Rangers success all season by utilizing his tremendous speed.

The Rangers will need Grabner to simply play his game. That being beating Sens’ defenders to pucks and cashing in on some breakaway opportunities. McDonagh played very well through the first round. He was a hard-nosed defender as well as a confident puck handler, maneuvering the neutral zone and getting pucks deep into the offensive zone. He has never been better and the Rangers will need him to stay that way.

My prediction: after upsetting the Canadians, the Rangers have shown they are capable of adapting and thriving by dictating the play, combining styles, and maintaining puck possession and sustained attacks, rather than a run-and-gun style of sporadic attacks. The Rangers were also the best road team in the NHL this season. While Erik Karlsson is a major force to be reckoned with, as long as The King continues to play the way he has and he gets the support from the defenders in front for him – who have been terrific thus far – the Rangers will have a great chance at getting back to the Eastern Conference Finals again. Rangers in six.

Evan Schleifer

Evan Schleifer

Evan is the Hockey Editor for DoubleGSports.com. He provides coverage of the New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, and Philadelphia Flyers, as well as some league-wide content.
Evan Schleifer

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