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Eastern Conference Second Round Playoff Preview

One series features long-time rivals. The other series showcases two teams without much postseason history against each other. Both second round match-ups figure to be close, drawn-out affairs.

The Eastern Conference’s second round bracket begins Thursday night with the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins renewing acquaintances. While those old rivals butt heads, the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators pair up in what figures to be a low-scoring, close, physical series.

I’ll break down each series, concluding with my prediction on who I believe advances to the Eastern Conference Finals.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS VS. PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

 

Regular Season Record

Washington: 55-19-8, 118 points, Presidents’ Trophy Winner

Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh: 50-21-11, 111 points, second place in the Metro Division

Season Series

Washington: 2-0-2

Pittsburgh: 2-2-0

Team Stats (Regular Season)

Washington: 261 GF (3rd), 177 GA (1st), 23.1 PP% (T-3rd), 83.8 PK% (7th)

Pittsburgh: 278 GF (1st), 229 GA (14th), 23.1 PP% (T-3rd), 79.8 PK% (T-19th)

Advanced Stats (Regular Season)

Washington: Shot Attempt% 51.81 (4th), 5-on-5 Sh% 9.2 (T-1st), 5-on-5 Sv% .937 (1st), Sh + Sv% 102.9 (1st)

Pittsburgh: Shot Attempt% 50.14 (16th), 5-on-5 Sh% 8.6 (5th), 5-on-5 Sv% .927 (T-7th), Sh + Sv% 101.2 (5th)

Playoff Team Leaders (Goals-Assists-Points)

Washington: T.J. Oshie (3-4-7), Justin Williams (3-3-6), Nick Backstrom (2-4-6)

Pittsburgh: Evgeni Malkin (2-9-11), Phil Kessel (2-6-8), Sidney Crosby (2-5-7)

How They Got Here

Washington: The Capitals needed six hard-fought games to stave off the upstart Toronto Maple Leafs. All six games ended with a one-goal margin, five of them in overtime, tying a league record.

Pittsburgh: Dusted off the Columbus Blue Jackets in five games of what was a very physical series. Game 1 of this series marks exactly one week since the Penguins last played.

Keys to the Series

Power Play – Both the Capitals and Penguins ended the regular season tied for third in power play efficiency at 23.1%. They’ve each stepped that up in the playoffs. Washington connected on 29.4% of their power plays against Toronto (5-for-17). Pittsburgh was even better, scoring on 33.3% (5-for-15) of their man-advantage opportunities against Columbus. Whoever can make the opposition pay for taking penalties has a tremendous chance at emerging victorious in this series.

Goaltending – Matt Murray suffered an injury during pregame warmups of the opening game of Round 1 and never saw the ice. Marc-Andre Fleury stepped in and saved the day for the Penguins, making multiple big saves and allowing Pittsburgh to get their footing under them throughout the series. Murray hasn’t resumed skating yet, so it’ll be up to Fleury to maintain his play from the opening round. On the other side, reigning Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby, who’s once again a Vezina finalist, needs to continue his stellar play from Games 5 and 6 against the Maple Leafs. He stopped 61 of 63 shots over those two games after looking ordinary during Games 1-4. Whichever Holtby shows up for this series will go a long way in determining the winner.

The Caps’ Forecheck vs. The Pens’ Speed – Washington is a deep, skilled team, but they’re a also a group that forechecks tremendously well and is capable of keeping the opposition backed up in their own zone for long stretches. On the other side, Pittsburgh is a team that plays with speed, and their defensive corps makes sure to get the puck to their forward group as quickly as possible. The Pens dealt with a Blue Jackets team in the opening round that also forechecked aggressively, but didn’t finish their chances. The Caps have the skill to finish scoring opportunities. Meanwhile, Washington had trouble with Toronto’s speed in the first round, which might not bode well for the Caps. Pittsburgh’s speed gave Washington fits during the team’s last playoff meeting a season ago, and they’re a better, more experienced version of the Leafs.

X-Factor For Each Team

Washington: Evgeny Kuznetsov

The team’s young center, who would be a number-one guy on pretty much any other team, had just three points during the first round. He also struggled in last season’s playoffs. In a series in which both star power and depth are going to come into play, the Capitals need more from Kuznetsov going forward.

Pittsburgh: Evgeni Malkin

It feels strange calling Malkin, one of the top players in the world, an x-factor. However, with everyone focusing on the Alex Ovechkin-Sidney Crosby angle (again), having Malkin as the second line center could easily be the difference in this series. He led the league in scoring during the opening round with 11 points, and he’s a proven playoff performer. If he stays hot, Pittsburgh could easily end up knocking off Washington again.

Final Summary

This is the most highly-anticipated series of the playoffs up to this point. There’s an excellent chance that whoever wins this series will end up representing the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final and even bringing home the Cup. Both teams have deep forward groups loaded with star power, while the Caps have the edge on the blue line partially due to the absence of Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang. In net, Washington also has the edge on paper.

However, if Fleury keeps up his stellar play, that could end up being a wash. For years, the Capitals have been a contender and have failed to get over the hump. The Penguins are their postseason dragon. If the Caps are ever going to conquer that beast, this is the year to do it. They survived a tough series against the Leafs and came out on top, whereas past Washington teams might have panicked. I believe Washington finally gets it done this year.

PREDICTION: Capitals in seven games

 

OTTAWA SENATORS VS. NEW YORK RANGERS

 

Regular Season Record

Ottawa: 44-28-10, 98 points, second place in the Atlantic Division

N.Y. Rangers: 48-28-6, 102 points, fourth in the Metro Division, first wild card spot

Season Series

Ottawa: 2-1-0

N.Y. Rangers: 1-2-0

Team Stats (Regular Season)

Ottawa: 206 GF (22nd), 210 GA (10th), 17.0 PP% (23rd), 79.7 PK % (22nd)

N.Y. Rangers: 253 GF (4th), 216 GA (T-12th), 20.2 PP% (T-10th), 79.8 PK % (T-19th)

Advanced Stats (Regular Season)

Ottawa: Shot Attempt% 48.57 (22nd), 5-on-5 Sh% 7.0 (T-22nd), 5-on-5 Sv% .926 (T-9th), Sh + Sv% 99.7 (18th)

N.Y. Rangers: Shot Attempt% 47.94 (25th), 5-on-5 Sh% 8.8 (4th), 5-on-5 Sv% .923 (T-17th), Sh + Sv% 101.1 (6th)

Playoff Team Leaders (Goals-Assists-Points)

Ottawa: Derick Brassard (2-6-8), Bobby Ryan (4-3-7), Erik Karlsson (0-6-6), Mike Hoffman (2-1-3), Dion Phaneuf (1-2-3)

NY Rangers: Mika Zibanejad (1-3-4), Mats Zuccarello (3-0-3), Rick Nash/Jesper Fast (2-1-3)

How They Got Here

Ottawa: Fended off the Boston Bruins in a grueling six-game series in which every game was decided by one goal, four of them in overtime.

N.Y. Rangers: Rallied from a 2-1 series deficit to oust the Montreal Canadiens in six games, as goalie Henrik Lundqvist outlasted Carey Price and got the goal support he needed in a very close series.

Keys to the Series

Special Teams – The Senators’ power play operated at an impressive rate of 21.7% in the first round while the Rangers’ penalty killers were successful 85% of the time. On the other hand, the Rangers’ power play was a mess against Montreal, going 1-for-15 in that series. In fact, their only goal with the man-advantage occurred in their series-clinching victory in Game 6. The special teams units will play a huge factor in this series.

The Health of Erik Karlsson – Ottawa’s star defenseman, a Norris Trophy finalist, admitted that he’s been playing with hairline fractures in his left heel, receiving injections before games to keep playing. Despite this, he was the best player on the ice during the Ottawa-Boston series, playing more than 30 minutes a night in three of the six games in the opening round while also tallying six assists. As Karlsson goes, so go the Sens.

Forward Depth – New York is a team that rolls four lines and can score goals despite not having a lot of star power. All but two Rangers players recorded at least one point in Round 1 and they’ll need that depth to shine through again, particularly against a team like Ottawa that deploys head coach Guy Boucher’s 1-3-1 system. On the other side, the Senators got tremendous contributions up front from Derick Brassard and Bobby Ryan, the latter scoring three game-winning goals in the opening round.

Lundqvist vs. Anderson – Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist showed that he’s still a big-time performer between the pipes, allowing just 11 goals in six games, finishing with a 1.47 GAA and .947 save percentage. Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson was impressive against Boston, finishing with a 1.94 GAA and .921 save percentage. His stats pale in comparison to Lundqvist, but that’s more of a nod to how great Lundqvist has been so far in the postseason. In what is likely to be a low-scoring series, it’ll come down to which one of these two netminders comes up with the timely saves at key times.

X-Factor For Each Team

Ottawa: Bobby Ryan

Ryan struggled mightily during the regular season with just 25 points in 62 games, but he’s come alive in the postseason, notching four goals against Boston, three of them game-winners, while also assisting on the series-clinching goal in OT in Game 6. Ottawa will need him to keep up that torrid pace or come close to it in order to combat New York’s depth up front.

N.Y. Rangers: Chris Kreider

Kreider, along with J.T. Miller and Kevin Hays, did not score a single goal in the first round, but New York’s depth shone through. They’ll need something from Kreider in this round, as he’s the kind of fast, physical, crease-crashing player that could wreak havoc on Ottawa’s structured defensive style. Too often, he was invisible against Montreal. The Rangers need more from him in this series.

Final Summary

This has all the makings of a grind-it-out, physical, draining series where goals will be hard to come by and the goaltenders will play a huge role in the final outcome. Ottawa loves to play a structured defensive game. New York thrives off of creating offense off the rush and in transition. While the goaltending will be crucial, it’ll come down to which team makes the fewest mistakes in what should be a very close, tightly-played series. In the end, the Sens find a way and continue their march to the next round.

PREDICTION: Senators in six games

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