Yesterday, I previewed the Boston-Montreal series. Today, it’s a look at the three other second round matchups.
Metropolitan #1 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Metropolitan #2 New York Rangers: Putting objective analysis aside, I’m pulling for the Rangers to win this series. So should every Lightning fan. If the Rangers beat the Pens, the Lightning, as part of the Marty St. Louis trade, will receive New York’s first round pick. That selection will be between the 26th and 29th in the first round, depending on where the Rangers ultimately finish. (Normally, it would be between 27th and 30th, but the New Jersey Devils forfeited their first round spot and will pick 30th). If the Penguins take the series, the Lightning get the Rangers’ second round pick, which would be middle/late second round selection, somewhere in the 50s.
Rooting interest aside, which team do I think is going to win? The Penguins were not especially impressive in their first round series against Columbus. Give full credit to the Columbus Blue Jackets, who play a hard, physical, tenacious game. But still, the Penguins were not at their best. Questions about the play of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury continue to persist, especially after he allowed some soft goals during the series. It’s true that the Pens had a couple of victories after falling behind 3-1 in Games One and Three. But they also squandered leads in their Game Two and Four losses. And they almost blew a 4-0 third period advantage in the Game Six clincher. Given what transpired in the first round, then, it’s reasonable to conclude that the Pens must raise their level as the playoffs progress.
The Rangers needed seven games to dispose of the Flyers. At points in the series, the Rangers dominated Philadelphia. At other times, New York struggled and the Flyers had the run of play. I’m curious to see if the Rangers continue to produce uneven performances or if they can right the ship.
I think if the Rangers can reach a level of consistency, they’ve got a good chance to capture the series. Scoring goals has been an issue for this team this year, but Pittsburgh’s defensive play in the first round, as I mentioned earlier, did not inspire confidence. The Rangers, given their skill set, should score enough to win.
The Pens, of course, have plenty of offensive weapons themselves. And while their overall performance against Columbus was inconsistent, they did play well in five of the final six periods of the series. But Henrik Lundqvist is one of the world’s best goalies and is capable of stealing a series himself. I don’t think he’ll need to here, though. I believe his club will sharpen their game enough to reach the Conference Final. And give the Bolts that first round pick. Prediction: New York in Six.
Central #3 Chicago Blackhawks vs. WC #1 Minnesota Wild: In my preview of the Colorado-Minnesota series, I wrote that the Wild, who had more playoff experience than the Avs, would give Colorado a tough series. A tougher series than Minnesota gave to Chicago in their 2013 first round defeat. I believe that’s also true in this series. The Wild are in a much better position to beat the ‘Hawks this year than they were last season. They’re healthier than they were last year and they enter this series brimming with confidence. The Wild showed great resiliency in their victory over the Avs. They never led the series until they won it. They trailed by a goal on four different occasions in Game Seven. And they fought off a couple of gut-wrenching defeats, games in which they blew a late lead and lost in overtime.
But, the ‘Hawks are not the Avalanche. Unlike Colorado, they have a wealth of playoff experience – and two Stanley Cups in the past four years. Winning so many playoff games has given Chicago an intangible quality of fortitude. It was on display in their hard-fought series victory over the Blues. They dropped the first two games in overtime and, similar to the Wild, blew late leads in both of them. But they rebounded to win the next four in a row.
The Chicago-St. Louis series was similar to the Los Angeles-San Jose series. All four of those teams are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, yet two were destined to lose in the first round. My point is that, for Chicago, beating St. Louis was no small feat.
So, for what it’s worth, I believe the Blues posed a more formidable challenge to the Blackhawks than the Wild will. It’s true that the Wild are better than they were last year. I just don’t see them winning four games from the defending champs. Prediction: Chicago in Six.
Pacific #1 Anaheim Ducks vs. Pacific #3 Los Angeles Kings: At long last, these two teams will meet in a postseason series. Despite the fact that they’ve both won Stanley Cups in the last decade and have been regular postseason participants, they’ve never before played in a playoff series. An already fierce rivalry should become even more intense.
Even though they won their first round series in six games, the Ducks had their hands full with the Dallas Stars. In a couple of their wins, they nearly squandered leads. In their Game Six clincher, they needed two late goals to force overtime. Give them credit for winning the series, but the Stars exposed some potential holes. Dallas was extremely physical with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, which seemed to get those dynamic players off their games. If the Ducks thought the treatment they got from the Stars was rough, just wait until they square off against the physical, bruising Kings. In this series, Getzlaf and Perry will have to avoid getting involved in post-whistle scrums and must stay out of the penalty box. Also, goaltending questions popped up in the Dallas series. Rookie Frederik Andersen was pulled from two games; he posted a pedestrian 3.40 GAA and .892 save percentage against the Stars.
Sometimes when a team rallies from the brink of elimination to win a series, it leaves them flat for the beginning of the next series. But the Kings, who became the fourth club in NHL history to rally from a 3-0 series deficit to win a series, don’t appear to be spent. They look energized. After allowing 17 goals in their first three games – all losses – against the Sharks, the Kings and goalie Jonathan Quick yielded only five goals in the next four games. And only two goals in the final three. That’s their identity – a structured, physical team that defends as well as any club in the league. When the Kings have had issues over the past few years, it’s been at the offensive end. But against the Sharks, they scored at least three goals in six of the seven games. Anze Kopitar posted points in all seven games (4-6-10), but seven other players also netted at least two goals. Offensive proficiency and defensive stinginess make Los Angeles a very dangerous opponent, as the Sharks discovered. The Kings look like a machine right now – and the Ducks don’t. Prediction: Los Angeles in Six.
That was some kind of first round, wasn’t it? There were 10 comeback wins in which the victor rallied from at least a two-goal deficit. Two teams – Chicago and Minnesota - won series in which it dropped the first two games and the Kings became the fourth club in NHL history to erase a 3-0 series deficit. Six times a team netted the game-tying goal in the final two minutes of regulation. With such a topsy-turvy opening round, it was hard to figure how each series might unfold – and so accurate predictions included more than a little bit of luck. So many of this series could have turned out differently than how they did.
Personally, I went 5-2 in the seven series I previewed (I abstained from the Lightning-Canadiens series). I whiffed on my upset special of the Ducks-Stars (though the Stars gave Anaheim a heck of a series) and picked the Avalanche in seven over the Wild. On the flip side, lady luck helped me in the others. I correctly predicted not only the victor but the number of games in the following: Kings in Seven (though I never imagined they’d win the series they way they did), Rangers in Seven, Blackhawks in Six and Penguins in Six. I also chose the Bruins over the Red Wings, but I thought it would take Boston six games, not five.
Now it’s onto the Second Round. Today, I’ll look at the Boston-Montreal series. Tomorrow, I’ll have a preview of the other three matchups.
Atlantic Division #1 Boston Bruins vs. Atlantic Division #3 Montreal Canadiens: There are reasons to pick the Habs in this series.
First, as the Lightning found out in their first round matchup with Montreal, the Canadiens are playing their best hockey of the year right now. Versus the Lightning, they were solid defensively and played with air-tight structure. They forced lots of turnovers, which helped them use their speed on counterattack rushes. They presented a balanced attack, getting goals from a variety of different players. (The four game-winning goal scorers – Dale Weise, Rene Bourque, Tomas Plekanec and Max Pacioretty – each play on a different one of the four forward lines). In short, they look poised to make a deep run.
Second, the Bruins, when they faced the Habs during the regular season, dropped three of four games. During the Lightning’s first round series against the Canadiens, I asked the Montreal press and broadcasters about the success over Boston. The response was universally consistent – the Bruins seemed to become unhinged when they played the Habs. The emotion of facing their fierce rival got the Bruins off their game. Usually, the Bruins handle the opposition with a crisp, surgeon-like efficiency (if a surgeon’s repertoire includes physically pounding the opposition). Every player is in the right place at the right time. They roll four effective forward lines. They have bruising defensemen like Zdeno Chara and Johnny Boychuk, but also mobile blueliners like Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton. They don’t make many mistakes and, when they do, their goalie Tuukka Rask usually prevents any damage from being done. But unlike the rest of the NHL, the Canadiens, apparently, did not see that Boston team. Instead, they faced a slightly less structured, less surgeon-like club.
And third, the Habs don’t play the same Rask. When the Bolts saw the Bruins this year, for example, Rask was virtually unbeatable, as is usually is. He shut out the Lightning twice and yielded only one goal in a third game. While the Lightning did put three pucks past him in the final regular season matchup, he still stopped all seven Lightning shootout attempts. According to the Montreal press, however, Rask is shaky when he faces the Canadiens. (Which prompted an expected response from many in the Lightning media party – a shaky Tuukka Rask? How come the Lightning don’t see THAT guy?)
So, as I wrote above, there are reasons to pick Montreal. But I’m not going to do it. There’s a reason why the Bruins are the Eastern Conference’s elite club. They’ve reached the Stanley Cup Final in two of the last three years. They are playoff-tested and know how to win. If they become unhinged in this playoff series, shame on them. My hunch is that Boston will play the way it needs to in order to advance.
Then there’s the Montreal side of the ledger. The Habs looked great against the Lightning. But they’ve now had a long layoff. Can they pick up right where they left off against the Bolts? Also, head coach Michel Therrien kept big defensemen Douglas Murray and Jarrod Tinordi in the press box against the Lightning, but he may insert them in this round. What effect will those lineup changes have on the team’s chemistry? If Montreal does not play as well as it did in the first round, the task of upsetting the Bruins will be even more difficult.
Ultimately, though, I don’t think it’ll matter how the Canadiens will play. They can be at their absolute best, the Bruins will still win the series.
Prediction: Boston in Six.
Back in the spring of 2010, during his opening press conference as General Manager, Steve Yzerman talked about his vision for the Lightning. Like owner Jeff Vinik, Yzerman used the phrase “World Class Organization”. He stated that the best way to construct a World Class Organization on the ice, one that consistently qualifies for the playoffs and is in the running for the Stanley Cup every year, is to build through the draft.
The Lightning’s plan was to draft and develop home-grown talent, so that a continuous pipeline of good, young players would be regularly refilling the Lightning’s cupboard. The need for this pipeline is obvious – as current roster players eventually graduate to Unrestricted Free Agency status, it becomes impossible to keep them all. By replacing those departing players with homegrown talent, it removes the need to chase (and potentially overpay for) high-priced free agents.
It sounds like a great approach, so why don’t all teams follow that model? First of all, you have to draft well. Not all teams do. Also, clubs need to allow those draft picks to develop at their own pace and not rush them to the NHL before they’re ready. That takes organizational discipline, which can be an elusive characteristic. Many clubs are inclined to put their talented youngsters right on the NHL squad, especially if that team is struggling to win games. As well, organizations must resist the urge to trade away draft picks and prospects for short-term “rentals” at the trade deadline. Sometimes those late-season acquisitions help a team win the Stanley Cup, but dealing away young talent (and not receiving prospects in return) is not the best way to keep the proverbial cupboard filled.
Since he took over as General Manager four years ago, Yzerman has been steadfast in adhering to these principles. The vast majority of trades have involved adding either picks or prospects. When he has traded a pick or prospect, he’s often gotten a pick or prospect in return, as in the Cory Conacher-Ben Bishop deal.
During that initial press conference, however, Yzerman was upfront about the draft/develop philosophy. There can be a short-term cost, especially when an organization doesn’t have many viable prospects to begin with. It takes time to see results and the big club might endure some tough seasons in the interim. Most future NHL players are drafted at age 18. Perhaps with the exception of a first overall pick like Steven Stamkos, most of those draftees will remain amateurs until at least age 20 (or longer if they’re attending a U.S. University). Then they’ll spend some time in the minors, often another season or two, before matriculating to the NHL.
It’s true that during the first year of the Yzerman regime, the Lightning made the playoffs and reached the Eastern Conference Final. But that team wasn’t really homegrown. Instead, Yzerman made some savvy free agent signings and trades, moves that helped the Bolts get to within a game of the Stanley Cup Final. But, as if a reminder that such an approach doesn’t guarantee long-term success, the Lightning couldn’t follow it up in subsequent years. After the 2011 run, the Bolts lost a few players to free agency and others couldn’t replicate their 2010-11 performances. Tampa Bay missed the playoffs in 2011-12 and again in the shortened 2013 season.
But while the NHL team was experiencing the high of the 2011 playoffs and the lows of the next two seasons, something special was happening at the minor league level. Lightning draft picks were turning pro and helping the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals improve. In 2010-11, for the first time in several seasons, the Admirals qualified for the playoffs. The next year, other prospects joined Norfolk, including 2011 seventh round pick Ondrej Palat and undrafted free agent Tyler Johnson. The 2011-12 Admirals finished up the regular season with 27 consecutive victories and added one more in Game One of their first round playoff series. The 28 straight wins set a record in professional sports. That team also won its final 10 playoff games to capture the Calder Cup.
What’s interesting about the 2011-12 season was the Lightning’s approach regarding call-ups. For most of the year, the Bolts were in a dogfight to make the playoffs. But at no point did Yzerman summon any of the youngsters as reinforcements. Instead, when the Lightning needed a player from the minors, they recalled AHL veterans like Trevor Smith or J.T. Wyman. Johnson, Palat, Radko Gudas, Mark Barberio, Richard Panik, Conacher (who won the AHL’s MVP award that year) and Alex Killorn, who arrived after finishing his senior season at Harvard, stayed put in Norfolk. There they played lots of minutes, continued to develop and won lots of games.
It wasn’t until the 2013 campaign that those aforementioned prospects got to the NHL. Even so, it was just a cup of coffee for most of them, although Gudas and Killorn, once called up, stayed up. (And, of course, Jon Cooper, the head coach of the Lightning’s minor league affiliate since 2010, also was promoted to the big club.)
Finally, this year, the organization felt the kids were ready. That conviction was reflected in how quiet the Bolts were in the 2013 offseason. After buying out Vinny Lecavalier’s contract, they signed Valtteri Filppula. But, in terms of adding other established NHL players, the Bolts did nothing. It was time to put the plan to work and let their prospects play.
The results this year speak for themselves. The Lightning went from 28th in the NHL to 101 points, the third-most points in the Eastern Conference. Bishop is a Vezina Trophy Finalist. Johnson and Palat are Calder Trophy Finalists. Other contributors this year were Gudas, Killorn, Barberio, Andrej Sustr, J.T. Brown, Nikita Kucherov and Panik. There is no more short-term pain. Those strong organizational roots, growing in the AHL over the past few seasons, have sprouted out of the ground.
As I wrote in my “Extra Shift” column after the Lightning’s Game Four loss to Montreal last week, even the playoff defeat will be beneficial to the club. Twelve Lightning players made their NHL postseason debut in the series – and they’ll be better for having gone through that experience, short as it was.
Perhaps the best – and most exciting – part of the Lightning’s approach is that, now that the water is running out of the spigot, it’ll keep flowing. More good prospects are already in the organization – such as Cedric Paquette, whose play at the end of the year earned him more postseason appearances (four) than regular season contests (two). Others, mostly from the draft class of 2012, will be turning pro next year.
But a note of caution, too. On more than one occasion, I’ve heard Yzerman talk about his time in Detroit – and that the Wings’ organizational goal at the start of every year was to make the playoffs. Not win the Stanley Cup. Just make the playoffs. Why? Because, as Yzerman notes, it’s hard to make the playoffs. Even the Red Wings, who have now qualified for the postseason in 23 consecutive years, view making the playoffs as a challenge.
Still, many of the league’s elite teams do make the playoffs every year. Boston since 2007-08. Chicago since 2008-09. San Jose since 2003-04. Los Angeles since 2009-10. Pittsburgh since 2006-07. And the Red Wings since 1990-91. But one only has to look to Toronto and Ottawa as a sobering reminder – teams that qualify one year may not make it the next. Which is why Yzerman took a cautiously optimistic tone during his end-of-season media session. He was asked if this season jived with his vision of where he wants the team to be. He smiled and stated that, if five years from now he can look back and see that the Bolts made the playoffs every year, then yes. But it’s clear that he’s encouraged by what transpired this year. And given the organization’s patient, solid, long-view approach, there’s no reason to believe that the Lightning won’t be able to keep moving forward in 2014-15.