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Over The Boards

Mailbag: Projecting playoff sleeper, toughest challenges for Lightning

NHL.com's Dan Rosen answers weekly questions

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

Here is the April 10 edition of Dan Rosen's weekly mailbag, which runs every Wednesday. If you have a question, tweet it to @drosennhl and use #OvertheBoards.

 

Of the teams you picked to win in the first round, which is most likely to lose? -- @tealforreal_96

None, which is why I picked them.

I'm not serious. I don't expect to go 8-0 in my predictions for the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, although the bragging rights on my colleagues would be great to have if I did.

My winners in the first round: Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, New York Islanders, Calgary Flames, Vegas Golden Knights, St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars. Of those, I hemmed and hawed the most on the Islanders, so they're the answer to your question. 

I picked the Islanders to defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference First Round because the relentless way they defend plus their strong goaltending could frustrate the Penguins and get them off their game. The Islanders do a great job of taking away the middle of the ice, especially in their defensive zone. They tie up sticks and keep traffic away from their goalie. They're strong on the walls and in the corners, routinely winning board battles. They were fourth in the League in blocked shots (1,295). Even when teams dominate possession time against the Islanders they don't end up with many Grade A scoring chances. It added up to the Islanders being the stingiest defensive team in the League this season. Their goalies, Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss, shared the William M. Jennings Trophy for having the lowest goals-against in the NHL (191, 2.33 per game). Lehner went 25-13-5 with a .930 save percentage and 2.13 goals-against average. Greiss went 23-14-2 with a .927 save percentage and 2.28 GAA. They were second and third, respectively, in save percentage and GAA among goalies with 40 or more appearances. If the Islanders stay true to their form, they will make it difficult on the Penguins. If they do, they'll score enough to win the series. 

All that said, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Jake Guentzel and, if he's healthy, Kris Letang can make a good defensive team look pedestrian. The Penguins averaged 3.30 goals per game this season and they were fifth on the power play at 24.6 percent. If they consistently score early to get the Islanders chasing, this could also be a short series in Pittsburgh's favor. The Islanders want to avoid trailing early because then they might have to open up and that could create a game of trading chances that they will not win.

Video: 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Don't Leave Empty-Handed

 

Which team starting on the road has the best chance to move on in the series or at least matches up well? Let's say one team from the east and west. -- @GoldenSaucerGuy

I picked three so-called underdogs, teams starting on the road, to win their series in the Blues, Stars and Golden Knights. Of those Western Conference teams, I'm most sold on the Blues to defeat the Winnipeg Jets. In the East, it's my answer above, the Penguins, for the reasons I laid out in the answer.

The Blues are the most dangerous team in the Western Conference because they're the most balanced and they're heavy. In most cases, the Jets are heavier and bigger than their opponent. That's not the case with the Blues, whose top line of Ryan O'Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko and Brayden Schenn is like a meat grinder for opponents. They'll hound the puck, wear you down, keep it in the offensive zone and they're all finishers. The Blues also have a fourth line featuring Alexander Steen, Zach Sanford and Ivan Barbashev that can be the difference in a game. They combined for 18 points (nine goals, nine assists) in the last nine games of the regular season. There's a lot of meat in the middle six too. The Blues have activated their defense, a reason they led the Western Conference and were second in the League in goals from defensemen (46). We're talking about sizeable defensemen too with Colton Parayko (6-foot-6), Jay Bouwmeester (6-4), Robert Bortuzzo (6-4) and Alex Pietrangelo (6-3). The wild card is goalie Jordan Binnington. He answered every question asked about him in the regular season, going 24-5-1 with a 1.89 GAA and .927 save percentage. If he can do it in the playoffs too, I think the Blues will reach the Stanley Cup Final.

The Jets also haven't faced this version of the Blues. They played them four times by Dec. 7 and went 3-1-0. The Blues' turnaround didn't start until early January. They were a League-best 30-10-5 from Jan. 2 to the end of the season. The Jets were 22-18-3 in the same timeframe, including 3-5-1 in their last nine games. Say what you want about the regular season not meaning anything once the playoffs begin, but there is something to be said for the way teams trend in the second half. The Blues were up, the Jets were not.

Video: Previewing the Blues vs. Jets First Round matchup

 

What Eastern Conference team and what Western Conference team do you think have the best chances at beating the Lightning? -- @Tellier37

The Blues are my pick among the Western Conference teams for the reasons I laid out above. If it's not them, it's the Vegas Golden Knights for similar reasons of balance, size, depth, the ability to lean on the Lightning, and goaltending. For those same reasons, it's the Bruins from the Eastern Conference. If the Lightning are vulnerable it's against teams that grind, that win board battles and hang onto the puck. The Lightning will tear apart any team they face that wants to go run and gun against them. The Blues, Bruins and Golden Knights would at least have a chance to slow down the Lightning and make them defend more than they want. They also have top forward lines (Vegas with William Karlsson, Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault; Boston with Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Krejci; St. Louis with O'Reilly, Tarasenko and Schenn) that could present problems for the Lightning. Bergeron, O'Reilly and Karlsson are three of the top defensive centers in the NHL partly because they're so good at getting the puck and keeping it. In games when they have the last-change advantage, they would likely force one of Tampa Bay's top-two lines to have to defend more than it would like. 

 

What player do you see as a sleeper in the playoffs? -- @21tbell

Anthony Cirelli is not going to get a lot of attention, but Tampa Bay's third-line center is a big part of the engine that makes the Lightning go. He's my sleeper. Cirelli plays hard, matchup minutes against top lines, which frees Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, Tampa Bay's top-two centers who scored 45 and 41 goals, respectively. Cirelli is Tampa Bay's top penalty-killing forward. He averaged 2:43 of shorthanded ice time per game, 43 seconds more than the next forward (Cedric Paquette). He had 49 blocked shots, second among the Lightning's forwards behind Paquette (61). He was third in takeaways (47). He took 951 face-offs, two fewer than Stamkos. He won 502, four fewer than Stamkos. Cirelli chipped in with 39 points (19 goals, 20 assists), including five shorthanded goals, which was tied for second in the League with Calgary Flames forward Mark Jankowski and one behind Arizona Coyotes forward Michael Grabner. Cirelli is a huge part of the Lightning and yet much of what he does gets overshadowed by the production Tampa Bay gets from its top forwards.

Video: TBL@BOS: Cirelli scores in 100th career game

 

Which team is your dark horse in the playoffs? -- @lukelyablue

Dallas is dangerous for many of the same reasons as the Islanders, namely defense and goaltending. They were second behind the Islanders in goals-against per game (2.44). They allowed 200 goals, nine more than the Islanders. The Stars can also light it up offensively, even though they didn't do that on a consistent basis this season, which is why they finished tied for 28th in scoring (2.55 goals per game). However, with forwards Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov and Mats Zuccarello, to go along with defenseman John Klingberg, the Stars should have enough firepower to win what I expect will be low-scoring games in the first round against the Nashville Predators. Zuccarello, who was limited by a broken arm and played two games with the Stars since being acquired from the Rangers on Feb. 23, is the X-factor because of his playmaking ability. He's excellent at setting up his linemates, almost to the point where you wish he would shoot more. He should be the playmaker the Stars have been lacking on their second line, which is the reason they acquired him. Zuccarello will look for Benn and set him up if they play on the same line. That should boost Benn's production. Benn has three goals in 16 games since March 5. If Zuccarello can get him going, the Stars will score enough to beat the Predators. 

 

What do you think the New York Rangers will do with Chris Kreider? -- @WillIamMoranNHL

I wouldn't rule out the Rangers trading Kreider, who has one year remaining on a four-year contract he signed July 22, 2016, but I think the better bet is him signing a contract with New York because the feeling I get now is the Rangers don't want to trade off any more core players. They're going to want to turn the corner in this rebuild as early as next season and they're going to need goal-scorers to do it. Kreider is a core player who tied his NHL career high with 28 goals this season despite being hampered by a leg injury in the second half. He had 24 goals in 52 games by Feb. 4 but scored four goals in his final 27 games. The Rangers have the salary cap to sign Kreider and still add a big-ticket unrestricted free agent forward. I think that's the route they go.

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