The Real NHLer’s Guide to the Stanley Cup Playoffs: Eastern Conference

After 11 NHL seasons and 600-plus games, this is going to be my first Stanley Cup Playoffs watching from the couch as a pure civilian. You know what I’m going to miss most about it? Hearing all the crazy stuff guys are saying to one another on the ice.

During the regular season, you get some mild chirping, but during the playoffs, guys will say anything to try to get an edge. Before a playoff series, teams sit in their scouting meetings and look at the other team’s roster and literally brainstorm anything and everything they can think of to mess with specific players. “Hey, this guy is self-conscious about his teeth. I heard this guy is gets chirped by his teammates about his huge contract.”

Is it true? Who cares? Anything to get an edge.

I’ll give you a G-rated example.

When I was with New Jersey, we were up against the Rangers in the first round and they were working us over pretty good. So guys start looking to rattle the cage of the opponent.

We went after Brandon Dubinsky first: “Hey, Dubi, I hear your teammates think you’re a tool.”

(In hockey, the guys you hate the most, you love the best when you get to play with them).

Then onto the big man, Jaromir Jagr: “Hey Jags, they’re not giving you much respect having Sean Avery as a linemate.”

Jagr laughed and made a little gesture — too much of a vet to really react.

Then we went to the firecracker, Sean Avery: “Hey Aves, your boy Jagr can’t wait for the season to end so he doesn’t have to play another freaking shift with you!”

Avery responds with, “Yeah, like I give a shit what that guy thinks.”

Well, I think you can guess where we went with that. Right back to Jagr on the next faceoff.

“Hey Jags, guess what Aves said…”

Does that stuff make a difference? Who knows. But in a playoff series, you use any means of mental sabotage you can to get your opponent off their game. The little mind games are just one of the X-factors that’s hard to understand when you’re not at ice-level. So with that in mind, here’s my guide to the Stanley Cup Playoffs from a player’s perspective. Let’s start with the Eastern Conference.


New York Rangers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

Gut reaction:
This isn’t a great matchup for the Penguins. I’m very familiar with these teams, having played on them both in the last five years. The Rangers have the best group of six defensemen from top-to-bottom in the NHL, and they can beat you in a multitude of ways. It sounds boring to say, but what makes them good is that they’re good at everything. The problem that I see with the Penguins is that they only want to beat you their way. They seem to get flustered if they can’t get into their system. You’ve seen it the last couple of seasons — if you get in the Penguins’ faces and take a few late shots after the whistle, they don’t seem to respond well.

Clearing the crease will be a problem for Pittsburgh. Kris Letang is out and Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo were traded at the deadline, so the Penguins don’t have any physical, net-clearing defensemen. You’re going to see a lot of shifts where the Rangers’ third and fourth lines are dominating the possession and getting bodies in front of Marc-Andre Fleury. In a seven game series, depth usually trumps star power.

What to look for:
Tactically, the problem I see for the Penguins is that they don’t have enough guys who will attack the puck carrier and create turnovers to open up space for Crosby and Malkin. They used to have Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz creating that chaos, but Dupuis is out and Kunitz has slowed down a bit. The only guy that does it for them consistently is Patrick Hornqvist. Obviously, anything can happen with 87 and 71 out there, but Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi will be blanketing those stars. Fleury has been outstanding for stretches this year, but he’ll need to pull off the performance of his career for the Penguins to overcome their injuries and lack of depth.

Who wins:
Rangers in 5.


Washington Capitals vs. New York Islanders

Gut reaction:
I love this series. In my opinion, it’s the most even matchup in the first round. These teams are identical mirrors of each other: They have star power with Alex Ovechkin and John Tavares, they have depth on defense, but they also have a ton of gritty role players who give them an identity.

For the Islanders, I loved their move to acquire Johnny Boychuk. I’ve seen a lot of him in my career, and the guy is just a solid hockey player. He’s one of those guys who you hate playing against, which is the highest compliment I can give someone. They also acquired Nick Leddy from Chicago, who’s a really underrated defenseman. I was impressed with him every time we played the Blackhawks. He’s a lot faster than you expect and can carry the puck well through the neutral zone. Boychuk and Leddy have 120 playoff games and two Stanley Cups between them. Yes, that’s a huge deal.

But the Capitals brought in two defensemen from Pittsburgh who have also given them an identity: Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen. This has taken the pressure off of Mike Green to be a No. 1 guy and instead focus on what he does best (creating offensively). What I love about their defense in the playoffs is that they have two guys in Orpik and John Carlson who are in the top 5 in the NHL in blocked shots. When things get tight, you need guys who will throw themselves in front of shots with desperation. With Orpik, this is the kind of mentality you’re getting in the playoffs. I give you … “The Shift.”

What to look for:
This is going to be fun. Look for it to be an extremely physical and long series. I could see both teams holding serve at home and it going the distance. What will swing the series is whether or not the Islanders can control their emotions and play physical without taking penalties (this is why it’s huge to have Boychuk and Leddy in that room). The Islanders’ kryptonite is their penalty kill, and obviously Washington’s power play is outstanding.

Who wins:
Capitals in 7. These two were my sleeper teams going into the playoffs. I think Washington’s power play swings it.


Montreal Canadiens vs. Ottawa Senators

Gut reaction:
This one is a tricky series, because running into a hot goalie can change everything in the playoffs. On one side you have Carey Price, who is the best in the business. On the other side, you have Andrew Hammond, who is on fire at the moment. I remember playing Montreal in the 2010 playoffs with Pittsburgh, and before Game 7 Dan Bylsma came into the locker room and held up the scoring chance stats for the series. It was something ridiculous like 80 to 18. We dominated, but we simply could not beat Jaroslav Halak. By Game 7, I think we were already too mentally frustrated to win.

The playoffs are a mental war like that, so either goalie could swing the series. For me, I look at the vets on the Montreal roster and then I look at all those young kids on Ottawa and I see a problem. I’ve been there before. I’ve been in veteran locker rooms where someone stands up and says, “These kids are not beating us. We’re going to pull out every trick in the book to throw them off their game.” Guys like Brandon Prust, Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban will be in those kids’ faces after every whistle.

What to look for:
When will Max Pacioretty be healthy enough to go? He’s probably the most underrated player in the NHL. Just a phenomenal two-way player who makes that team tick. The Canadiens are so disciplined in their system that they’ll suffocate Ottawa, but without Pacioretty, can they create enough to score against Hammond? If Price isn’t sharp, things are going to get interesting.

On the defensive end, I’m curious to see the competition between P.K. Subban and Erik Karlsson, two of the most dynamic defensemen in the NHL, who are both entering their prime. One of those guys could take a leap in this series and swing the whole thing. I’ll never forget playing against Subban when he was just 18 years old in that Montreal series in 2010. I’m thinking, “I can’t wait to get out there and rattle this kid.” He ended up scoring the tying goal in Game 1 with 1 second left in the period. I couldn’t believe how confident he was. He has the ability to carry them to the Cup.

Who wins:
Montreal in 6. A lot of those kids in Ottawa and going to take their first playoff shift and thinking, “Holy shit, where did all the space go?”


Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Detroit Red Wings

Gut reaction:

If you polled NHL players about which guy they would pick to captain their team in a playoff series with their life on the line, Ryan Callahan would be near the top of the list. He’s an all-around warrior on both ends of the ice who simply never quits. Callahan brings a much-needed element of mental toughness to a team that has unbelievable skill players in Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson. This team could make a serious run.

To win the Stanley Cup, you need check all the boxes.

Do you have a superstar? Stamkos. Check.

Do you have a playmaker who can create when things get tight? Ondrej Palat. Check.

Do you have a great No. 1 defensive pairing? Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman. Check

Do you have character guys who will sacrifice their bodies? Callahan and Brian Boyle. Check.

The only unchecked box for Tampa Bay might be goaltending, because Ben Bishop doesn’t have any postseason experience. I’m expecting Mike Babcock to have the Red Wings doing everything they can to get in his head early. I’m not saying they’re going to take runs at him, but there’s little things that experienced teams do to mess with their opponent. Whenever Bishop freezes the puck, you’re going to see the Red Wings vets hard-stop right in front of him and then just linger there for a while. You don’t have to do much. Just stand in a goalie’s crease and stare at him for a while and it’s enough to piss him off. Detroit will force Tampa’s young defensemen to get their hands dirty and move them from the net after every scrum.

What to look for:
Tampa is a sneaky-tough place to go and play. That building rocks hard during the playoffs, and when it’s 85 degrees and you’re banged up from a tough season, it can be very tempting to sit out in the sun on your off day and have a couple beers, then a couple more. If you see the Red Wings showing up for Game 2 with red foreheads, you’ll know what happened.

This series is all about skill. Neither team is very physical. Callahan is the only guy on either team to crack the Top 50 for hits. Detroit is possibly the most under-the-radar 100 point team in recent memory, but I think they’re going to run into a serious matchup problem because of Tampa Bay’s second line. Tyler Johnson centering Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov is the most underrated second line in the NHL, if not the best.

The NHL playoffs are really about moving around your chess pieces to negate what the other team does best. Detroit is going to have to use their best pieces (Datsyuk, Zetterberg) to shut down Stamkos, which means that second line could be freed up to swing the series. All four of Tampa’s lines can contribute, and that’s going to create a ton of problems for Babcock, especially when Tampa gets the last change at home.

Who wins:
Tampa in 6. Most underrated home ice advantage in hockey.