Sixteen teams began the quest for the Stanley Cup two weeks ago, but only eight remain. Wednesday night, the second-round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is set to begin with two Western Conference matchups: Nashville will face St. Louis and Anaheim will take on the Oilers.
Nashville vs. St. Louis
The Nashville Predators shocked the hockey world with a first-round sweep of the mighty Chicago Blackhawks. And it wasn’t just some puck-luck, lucky-bounce, OT-thriller-type hockey either. The Blackhawks were held scoreless for the first 141:05 of the opening round, giving Preds’ goalie Pekka Rinne seven full consecutive shutout periods. But for round two, 178 feet directly up ice will be St. Louis Blues’ backstop Jake Allen staring him down, ready for a goaltenders’ duel. Both netminders were lights-out in the first round. Rinne posted a 0.70 goals-against average and a .976 save percentage while Allen had a 1.47 goals-against average and a .956 save percentage. The Blues, who defeated Minnesota in five games, held the Wild to only one goal in three of the gamed in the series. There might not be much scoring in this matchup, but the overall defensive game will make the rare goals that much sweeter to witness. But attackers will have to make it past Roman Josi for the Preds and Alex Pietrangelo for the Blues. Pietrangelo was second in average time on ice among all players in rounds one, behind only Erik Karlsson of the Senators. Josi was third, adding two goals, and assist, and a plus-five rating.
Key players: for the Preds, aside from Rinne and Josi, P.K. Subban will have to assert his offensive presence some more and Viktor Arvidsson, after a terrific breakout season, has to continue to perform well for some added offensive prowess to test Allen. For the Blues, Allen must continue to play his absolutely best hockey; Pietrangelo must continue to play his shut-down, defensively sound game; and Vladimir Tarasenko must utilize his speed and puck-handling abilities to generate more offense as his teammates crash the net and try to wreak havoc for Pekka Rinne (emphasis ok “try”). Overall, both teams have had plenty of time to rest up for what should be a hard battle in round two.
My prediction: Blues over Preds, six hard-fought games
Anaheim vs. Edmonton
Less shocking than the Preds’ sweep was the Ducks’ 4-0 series victory over the Flames. Anaheim, however, almost opened the door to Calgary in game three when John Gibson surrendered four goals, three on the penalty kill. Jonathan Bernier stepped in to save the game the game while the Ducks ended up defeating the Flames 5-4 in overtime. Game four, Gibson was right back into the crease, allowing only one goal on seven penalty kill situations en route to the series win.
The Edmonton Oilers had to go through some tough growing pains before defeating the San Jose Sharks in six games. In games three, the Oilers were shutout by the Sharks 7-0. Game three was a tough lesson – that no lead is ever safe in this league, whether it be in-game or series. Edmonton would not make the same mistake and ended up winning the next two to clinch the series.
Edmonton may have had a youthful advantage over the several veterans of San Jose, but after a quick first-round series for Anaheim, the Oilers may not be so lucky. And no matter how youthful the Oilers may be, the fact remains that 29-year old netminder, Cameron Talbot, has appeared in 73 regular season games for the Oilers as well as all six postseason tilts. One might worry whether fatigue will strike Talbot at any moment.
Nevertheless, captain Connor McDavid must lead his squad through battle, summoning fearless maniac Zach Kassian, and Oscar Klefbom as his henchmen. Kassian played through the first round with a very noticeable physical presence. Klefbom leads Oilers defensemen with three points (two goals, one assist). Only four players who appeared in all six games failed to register a point last series. One of those players, however, is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. RNH must find a way to start producing for his team. Ducks’ Coach Randy Carlyle, while already having difficulty matching his players up against the Oilers, will be all but strangled if RNH starts producing as well.
For the Ducks, captain Ryan Getzlaf was terrific against the Flames registering three goals and two assists. Additionally, young defenseman Shea Theodore scored two goals and to go along with three helpers. Theodore has stepped in – and stepped up big – in the absence of Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, and Sami Vatanen. Fowler and Lindholm appear to be ready to return to the lineup for game one, while Vatanen likely remains out, but appears close to return.
Anaheim has a clear advantage over the Oilers in terms of faceoff win percentage. Particularly, Antoine Vermette enters round two leading all centers still in the postseason in the category. Edmonton has a better power play than Anaheim, but the Ducks’ penalty kill is far superior. Special teams will likely play a huge role in the outcome of this series. Expect a bigger presence felt by Ducks’ Corey Perry, Ryan Kesler, and Rickard Rackell who has just as many points as Getzlaf and Theodore.
My prediction: a youthful yet inexperienced Oilers squad will bow out to the more experienced vets of Anaheim in five games.
Nashville and St. Louis battle at 8pm EST and Anaheim and Edmonton go at it at 10:30pm EST, both on NSBCN. Buckle up for the ride!