The second round of the NHL playoffs begins tonight with two games. Here are previews and predictions for those two matchups. Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at the other two series.
Eastern Conference Semifinal - #1 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #7 Ottawa Senators:
If the Penguins hope to reach the Stanley Cup Finals this year – or even advance past the Senators – they’re going to have to play much better than they did in their first round triumph over the New York Islanders.
After decisively winning Game One versus New York, the Penguins had their hands full in the remaining five contests. They needed two overtime wins in New York – in Game Three, they were saved by their power play, which scored three goals, and in Game Six, they got a late goal in regulation from Paul Martin to force OT. Even in their 4-0 Game Five win at home, the Penguins were thoroughly outplayed in the first period, but escaped that frame with the game still scoreless. (They then broke the game open in the second period.) Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury had such a shaky time in Games Two, Three and Four that head coach Dan Bylsma replaced him with Tomas Vokoun for Games Five and Six.
Much credit for Pittsburgh’s struggles goes to the Islanders. Those of you who read my preview of the series know how impressed I was with the Isles this year. They are a hard opponent and their future is very bright. Also, as Penguins fans might eagerly point out, the Pens did win the series, after all. Does it matter how they won it? Well, yes, it does. Because repeatedly turning the puck over, surrendering puck possession to the opposition and enduring spotty goaltending is not a good formula for a team eying a deep postseason run.
The Senators played very well for parts of their first round series win over the Montreal Canadiens. In the other parts of the series, Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson was outstanding. In Game One, the Sens yielded 50 shots, but rallied for a 4-3 win. In Game Four, one in which the Sens didn’t have their ‘A’ game until the second half of the third period, Anderson held the Habs to only two goals, setting the stage for an Ottawa comeback. And even in their blowout win in Game Five, the Sens relied heavily on Anderson in the first period as the Canadiens surged right from the opening faceoff.
So, if Anderson can continue to play that way in the second round, the Penguins could be in trouble. But I believe that the Penguins will play better than they did versus the Islanders. And if that’s the case, Pittsburgh will be too much for Ottawa to handle. Prediction: Pittsburgh in Six.
Western Conference Semifinal - #5 Los Angeles Kings vs. #6 San Jose Sharks:
Last year, I picked against the Kings in each of the first two rounds. I wised up by the Western Finals and picked the Kings in the final two rounds. But I suppose last year’s lesson was forgotten, because I thought the St. Louis Blues would beat LA in the first round this year. Wrong again. It was a series that easily could have swung the other way – every one of the six games was decided by one goal. One of the key turning points of the series was Game Four. The Blues couldn’t hold a 2-0 first period lead (it was the only two-goal lead for either team in the entire series) and they also surrendered a 3-2 third period advantage. Had the Blues won that game, they would have grabbed a 3-1 series lead.
So give the Kings a lot of credit. Much was made of their incredible run last year, when they eked into the playoffs as the eighth seed and proceeded to run the table. But in some ways, they’ve already faced more adversity in these playoffs than they did all of last postseason. Last year, they led every series the entire way (and took 3-0 leads in all four series). This year, they’ve already had to rally from a 2-0 series hole and from the aforementioned deficits in Game Four. They did it much the same way they beat teams last year – they pounded the Blues physically, took away time and space and received stellar goaltending from Jonathan Quick.
The Sharks were the only team to record a sweep in the first round, besting the Vancouver Canucks. Their power play scored seven goals in the four games. Not only did veterans Joe Thornton (1-5-6) and Patrick Marleau (4-1-5) produce big offensive numbers, so did younger stars Logan Couture (3-5-8) and Joe Pavelski (4-4-8). Goaltender Antti Niemi, who is a Vezina Trophy Finalist this year, yielded only eight goals over the four games and is continuing his excellent regular season form.
Still, I like the Kings. I don’t believe the Sharks will score goals as prolifically as they did versus the Canucks. Los Angeles will give San Jose much more of a physical test, too. And while both teams are capable of winning on the road, the Kings have home ice. Incredibly, it’s the first time Los Angeles has had home ice in a series since 1992, a span of 16 consecutive “road” series. Prediction: Los Angeles in Six.