I’m not sure how to feel. I correctly picked six out of eight matchups in the first round, but I was very wrong about my former team, the Minnesota Wild. After my first post went live, I got a text message from one of my buddies on the team:
“Hey, I see you’re picking the Blues. Thanks bud!”
“Oh, man. You weren’t supposed to see that. Now you’re gonna have to stick it to me.”
And stick it to me they did. Minnesota made St. Louis, a team I thought had a chance at winning the Cup, look not so great in the first round. That’s the beauty of the NHL playoffs. For all the chatter on Twitter about the “return” of clutch-and-grab hockey, you look at teams like Minnesota, Calgary and New York and realize that speed is king right now.
Let’s see if we can go perfect this round.
New York Rangers vs. Washington Capitals
Before the playoffs started, I thought there was only one team in the East with a chance to take out the Rangers: the Washington Capitals. So I expect this series to be extremely tight. What you have is a matchup of contrasting styles. The Rangers and Penguins were very similar teams — they’re not overly physical. They want to beat you with skill and finesse. The Capitals are a whole different beast. For all the talk about Ovechkin and Backstrom, what makes Washington really dangerous in a seven-game series is that they have a ton of guys throughout the lineup who can create havoc. After you play the Capitals, you’re going to feel it the next day.
With that said, what impressed me about the Rangers in Round 1 was their adaptability. Pittsburgh actually did an awesome job of taking away the Rangers’ elite speed, and yet the Rangers were still able to win in 5 by playing lock-down defense. All four of their victories were 2-1. That’s a tough way to win. If you didn’t believe me before, believe it now: The Rangers simply have the best defense in the NHL top-to-bottom.
What to watch for:
There’s a lot of talk in the media about teams being “worn down” by the previous series, but I never bought that as a player. This is the playoffs. You’re flying on adrenaline. If anything, I think the 7-game series will help the Capitals early.
For the Capitals, the guy you need to watch is Joel Ward. I’ve seen him first-hand in the playoffs, and he’s one of those guys who elevates his game this time of year. I like that Barry Trotz is using him on the top line with Backstrom and Ovechkin at times. He brings an element of unpredictability and sandpaper to that duo’s skill. He’s going to score a big goal. (Editor’s note: We swear Rupper submitted this copy to us yesterday, mere hours before Ward score the game-winning goal with two seconds left).
For the Rangers, you have to watch for their world-class speedsters Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider. These guys are game-breakers. I played on shifts here and there with Hagelin when I was in New York. I’d just throw a high flipper into the neutral zone and the next thing I knew — boom — he’s got the puck and he’s behind the defense. As a defenseman, going against Hagelin is a nightmare. It’s like in the NFL when you’re a cornerback going one-on-one with an elite wide receiver. You’re on the island.
Then to have another speeder like Kreider on the ice, too? Jeez. I remember watching him against Washington about a month ago. John Carlson had the puck at the Rangers’ blue line and he tried to go D-to-D. It was like Kreider shot out of a cannon to intercept the pass. I happened to be at the game, and seeing it with the naked eye, I was like “What the heck did I just see?” When I got home, I rewinded it on TV and timed him. It took Kreider four seconds to go end-to-end and dish it for the goal.
Who wins it:
Rangers in 7. This could go either way, especially if the Capitals’ power play gets hot.
Montreal Canadiens vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
Steven Stamkos did not score a single goal in 7 games against Detroit. If I am a Montreal Canadiens fan, this fact makes me very nervous. That’s like a ticking time bomb right there. I like that Tampa was able to win with secondary scoring against a pretty structured Detroit team. But let’s face it — that series was pretty tame. Detroit’s strategy is to kind of lull you to sleep. Going into Montreal for Game 1, the energy is going to be much different. So if I’m a player on Tampa, I’m looking at that Montreal roster and deciding on a few guys I’m going to convince myself to genuinely hate for two weeks.
Coaches at every single level of hockey will tell you the same thing: That first shift of Game 1, you either need to dish out a hit, or take a hit. It sounds kind of counter-productive, but I’ve had games where I’ve been run over on my first shift and it actually fired me up. It let’s you know you’re there. I think Tampa needs to create that animosity against Montreal.
What to look for:
You never want to put too much emphasis on one guy, but in Montreal’s case I think it’s all on the shoulders of Carey Price. He has to be great, not just good, for them to take a run. Coaches say it all the time, but it’s so true: it’s all about handling surges in the playoffs. There are going to be times that the other team has all the momentum, and it’s about how you respond. There were times in that Ottawa series when Montreal was getting surged on. But I looked at Carey Price’s body language in the net and he was so incredibly calm in such a hostile situation.
If you’re on that Montreal bench and you’re seeing this guy being so nonchalant when you’re under attack, it gives you a ton of confidence. He makes very difficult saves look routine, even in intense situations. I’ve played with goalies who did that — Marty Brodeur and Henrik Lundqvist. It really allows you to stick your chest out a little more when you have that kind of goalie.
I think it’s all on Price — and I’d never say that about any other player in the NHL.
On the Tampa side, I’m interested to see if their defense can bully the Canadiens’ forwards. That’s a sneaky-good defensive corps. Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman have been excellent all season. And I know I already said it in the Round 1 preview, but center Tyler Johnson is an awesome player. Montreal will have a hard time dealing with Tampa’s second line.
Tampa in 7.
Chicago Blackhawks vs. Minnesota Wild
The best team in the NHL since January 1 is the Minnesota Wild. They were just awesome against St. Louis. Their team speed is second only to the Rangers and they play with such confidence in their system that it’s almost impossible to rattle them. St. Louis tried to get silly in a few of the games and it didn’t phase Minnesota at all. They were so focused that I think it ended up making St. Louis look a bit desperate.
It would be pretty naive to say third time’s a charm, but there’s a progression involved in this Chicago-Minnesota playoff matchup. John Tortorella used to say the same thing every freaking day when I was in New York: “It’s a process.” Guys used to laugh, but I think he’s totally right. In the NHL, you have to learn from your failures against teams to take the leap. I was with Minny in 2013 when we played Chicago and our mentality was a bit like, “Well, let’s just feel this series out and see how it goes.” I think we were a young team who was a bit in awe of Chicago. In 2014, we faced them again and it was a little more like, “No, screw that. I’m tired of seeing Brian Bickell score against us. I hate these guys.”
This year, I think it’s going to be a war. The Wild aren’t going to be overthinking it and worrying, “How do we stop Toews and Kane? What about Hossa? We can’t take penalties because their power play will kill us.” They’re not going to freak out. They’re going to trust their game. They’re a dangerous team right now.
What to watch for:
I’m pumping up Minnesota here, but obviously Chicago has a ton of firepower. Brandon Saad is going to be a superstar in this league. You look at Chicago are it’s like, where do they constantly find these guys? He’s awesome. When Hossa eventually moves on, it’s going to be like Peyton Manning leaving and Andrew Luck stepping in.
Minnesota is going to use Ryan Suter to try to eat up minutes and neutralize Kane and Toews (as much as humanly possible). So watch out for Chicago’s third line of Antoine Vermette, Patrick Sharpe and Teuvo Teravainen. They could be difference makers.
Obviously this almost goes without saying, but Bickell has been a Wild assassin for the last couple years. He’s scored like 14 goals in 25 games against Minnesota or something. I would Google that stat to make sure but it’s too painful.
On the Minnesota side, a guy I really like is winger Jason Zucker. He’s a young player who is lightning fast and powerful. There were times when I thought that the organization was a little too hard on him. He’d have a bad game and be back on his way to Iowa in AHL. But the coaching staff had a plan for him. They wanted him to watch Zach Parise and learn to play that way. He has taken a huge leap this season. Watch for No. 16 out there.
Minnesota in 6. Would I be surprised if Chicago won? No. But I have a feeling about this one. Chicago’s goaltending is in flux while Minnesota’s has been solid.
Anaheim Ducks vs. Calgary Flames
Oof. I love Calgary, but I do not love this matchup for them. I was super impressed that Calgary’s young guys weren’t phased at all against Vancouver, but Bob Hartley is going to have to prepare them for a different kind of series. Vancouver plays a passive game, similar to the Detroit style. Now Calgary is going to see a much more physical and complete team in Anaheim. This series will be brutal.
Of all the series left, this is the series to tune into if you’re a fan of old-time hockey. They’re going to bring in. I’m probably going to find myself up at 2 a.m. East Coast time watching some overtime games.
What to watch for:
You’ve got Jonas Hiller playing against his old team. I’m not a goalie, but as a player it’s weird and exciting all in one to do that. I had to shake New Jersey Devils hands when I was with the Rangers and it’s not a good feeling. They’re your friends, but I think it makes it worse. You’re telling me Corey Perry doesn’t have a scouting report on Hiller? He shot at him every day in practice for years. If you see the Ducks coming down the wing and and going high glove every time, or going five hole every time, the scouting report is out. You’re going to learn a lot about Hiller’s mental makeup in this series.
For the Ducks, take a look at Cam Fowler. He’s a guy that I haven’t seen a lot in my career, but every time I’ve seen him, he seems very consistent. He’s not flashy, but he puts himself in good stations. I think the biggest compliment for a defenseman is poise. If Anaheim makes a run, you’re going to be hearing Fowler’s name in that second-tier of defensemen.
Calgary plays the game the right way. I love what they’re doing there, but this is gonna be a Tortorella “Process” moment for them. They’re gonna get in this series and realize what it takes to get over the next hurdle.
Anaheim in 5.