The Conference Quarterfinals are now history and the field of playoff teams has been reduced to eight. Here’s my preview and predictions for the NHL Conference Semis.
St. Louis Blues vs Los Angeles Kings.
How they got here: The Blues eliminated the San Jose Sharks in five games, while the Kings bounced the Canucks in five.
Season series: the Kings defeated the Blues in three games out of four.
Playoff stats after one round: Blues were fourth in goals-per-game (G/G) with 2.80 while the Kings were seventh with 2.40. They’re tied for first in goals-against per game (GA/G) at 1.60. The Blues were second overall on the power-play (PP) at 33.3%, while the Kings were 13th at 11.5 percent. On the penalty-kill (PK), the Blues were fifth at 88.2 percent while the Kings were 6th at 85.7 percent.
Lots of similarities between these two clubs, who relied on strong goaltending and defense during the regular season, and will continue to fall back on those strengths in the post-season. The Kings have a Vezina-nominated goaltender in Jonathan Quick, while the Blues counter with their tandem of Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak. Elliott took over for an injured Halak midway through their series against the Sharks without skipping a beat. It’s likely to be a low-scoring, evenly matched series. The Blues to a man have bought into head coach Ken Hitchcock’s system, and appear to have an edge in youth and speed on the Kings. It should be a close series, which should tilt in favor of St. Louis.
Prediction: Blues in Seven.
Phoenix Coyotes vs Nashville Predators.
How they got here: The Coyotes downed the Chicago Blackhawks in six games, while the Predators defeated the Detroit Red Wings in five games.
Season series: The Coyotes led the season series 2-1-1.
Playoff stats after one round: Coyotes were third in G/G (2.83), Predators were fifth at 2.60. The Preds have the third best GA/G (1.80), while the Coyotes are tied for fifth at 2.00. The Coyotes also had the fifth-best PP (21.0 percent), while the Predators were 14th overall at a woeful 9.1 percent. Phoenix also had the best PK at 94.7 percent, while the Predators were tenth at 82.6 percent.
This series shapes up as a goaltending duel between Nashville’s Pekka Rinne and Phoenix’s Mike Smith, two of the league’s best this season, who enter this series with nearly identical stats. They have similar GAA (1.81), while Smith’s .950 SP is slightly higher than Rinne’s .944. The Coyotes advanced to the second round for the first time since moving to Phoenix from Winnipeg in 1996, while the Predators enter this series among the favorites to advance to the Cup Final. Though there’s not much difference in their post-season scoring stats (the Coyotes, however, have been considerably better with the man advantage), the Predators have more depth in experience offensive talent, plus a blueline anchored by the dynamic duo of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. They also have an edge in terms of playoff experience as a team. It’s possible Smith could steal another series, and the long layoff leading up to this series could affect the Predators, the latter’s experience and depth should be enough to overcome the Coyotes.
Prediction: Predators in Six.
New York Rangers vs Washington Capitals.
How they got here: The Rangers needed seven games to eliminate the stubborn Ottawa Senators, while the Capitals upset the defending Cup champion Boston Bruins in seven games.
Season series: Capitals won two in regulation, one in overtime and lost their last tilt of the regular season.
Playoff stats after round one: The Capitals were ninth overall in G/G (2.29), the Rangers twelfth (2.00), but the Blueshirts were fourth in GA/G (1.86) over the Capitals seventh (2.14). There was no difference in PP percentage (Capitals were 15.8 percent, the Rangers 15.6) but the Capitals had the second-best PK (91.3 percent) while the Rangers were seventh at 84.6%
This sets up an interesting goaltending matchup between Rangers Vezina-nominated veteran Henrik Lundqvist and Capitals rookie Braden Holtby, who was the main reason his club upset the Bruins. Indeed, after being considered Cup contenders the past three season, the Capitals enter this one as the underdog against the Rangers, who were the dominant team in the East in the regular season. Still, the Capitals may have gained considerable confidence from upsetting the heavily favored Bruins, and can take heart in the struggles the Rangers had with an upstart Senators team in the previous round. The offensive stars of both teams have left their fans wanting more in the first round, so this series could come down to which team’s best scorers break out. Ultimately, the experience of Lundqvist combined with the Rangers blueline depth should give them the advantage over the Capitals.
Prediction: Rangers in Six.
Philadelphia Flyers vs New Jersey Devils.
How they got here: The Flyers eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins in a wild, high-scoring six games, while the Devils needed seven hard-fought games to down the Florida Panthers.
Season series: Both teams won three from each, though the Devils did win one in a shootout.
Playoff stats after one round: The Flyers lead all teams in G/G (5.00) and PP percentage (52.2%), while the Devils were a distant sixth in both categories at 2.57 and 20 percent respectively. The Devils, meanwhile, were tenth in GA/G (2.43), while the Flyers were second-worst of the sixteen quarterfinalists at 4.33. The Flyers offensive and defensive numbers, however, are skewed as a result of the ususually high number of goals scored in their series against the Penguins. Interestingly, both teams fared poorly on the PK, the Flyers 13th at 69%, and the Devils right behind at 14th with 66.7 percent.
Though the Flyers shouldn’t expect to run up the same kind of scores against the Devils as they did against the Penguins, they still have a distinct advantage in offensive depth, able to roll four lines effectively, while most of the Devils scoring punch comes mainly from their top two lines. The Flyers also have the advantage in youth and speed up front, which could make life difficult for the Devils defense. That being said, the Devils will counterpunch with a tight-checking game, and in Martin Brodeur possess a goalie with considerably more playoff experience – and success – than Ilya Bryzgalov. If Bryzgalov and the Flyers defense play as poorly as they did against Pittsburgh, when they were only marginally better than the Penguins, the Devils could steal this series. That being said, the Flyers offense, led by Daniel Briere, Scott Hartnell, Jaromir Jagr and superstar (and de factor captain) Claude Giroux, should be enough to counter the Devils defense.
Prediction: Flyers in Six.