1 nightmarish game for 5 NHL playoff contenders | Launderer’s report
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We are in the middle of the 2021-22 NHL regular season. Cellar teams battle it out in meaningless games as each conference’s top teams jostle for Stanley Cup playoff positioning.
The Eastern Conference playoff grouping has been set for months, with the final bracket still to be determined. In the Western Conference, the wild card has yet to be determined. The Vegas Golden Knights could potentially miss the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. The Vancouver Canucks still have an outside chance to pass Vegas and Dallas for that final wildcard spot.
And, of course, there’s always a chance the mighty Golden Knights will claw back some of their firepower and manage to edge past the Los Angeles Kings to salvage their season.
Many scenarios are still in play.
Games are everything in the playoffs. Unlike the regular season, where weaknesses can be minimized in a single game, a seven-game series allows some teams to exploit another’s weakness or neutralize an opponent’s strength. That’s enough time to understand how to distinguish a power play and how a goalie moves.Br
Sometimes two teams play each other well, but other times it’s a disastrous draw.
Here are five matchups that fall into the latter category and why.
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New York Rangers: Pittsburgh Penguins
The New York Rangers will successfully take the next step in their rebuilding when they return to the playoffs (technically they only reached the 2020 bubble tournament playoff and not the playoff, failing to make it out of the qualifying round) for the first time since 2017.
They have a roster full of elite talent at the top and young emerging stars throughout, as well as a goaltender who should be a Vezina Trophy finalist in Igor Shesterkin.
The roster has also done a good job of limiting chances past Shesterkin, and their power play is exceptionally good, with the Blueshirts’ 26.6% conversion being the second best in the NHL.
The best unit with the man advantage could be one of the best, with Chris Kreider (the league’s third leading scorer), Artemi Panarin, Ryan Strome, Mika Zibanejad and defending Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox . The addition of Andrew Copp to the second unit has given them a tougher presence on the net, but this second unit doesn’t see much time since the first takes care of business.
However, the Rangers generate surprisingly little offense at 5v5, ranking towards the bottom of the league at Corsi, scoring chances and goals expected for. New York typically wins by winning the special teams battle and keeping goal, making its Metropolitan Division opponents Pittsburgh Penguins, the NHL’s least penalized team this season, its most potentially daunting challenge.
The Penguins also have the second best penalty in the league and a ton of playoff experience. The Rangers leaders aren’t completely devoid of playoff experience, but it’s hard to match that of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Jeff Carter and even former Ranger Brian Boyle.
This may be where we see the changing of the guard, with the Rangers overcoming their even strength issues and their young players toppling the legendary veterans, especially as the Rangers are 3-1-0 against Pittsburgh. this season and have outscored the Penguins. 11-4.
But on paper, it’s not a good game.
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Colorado Avalanche: Vegas Golden Knights
The Colorado Avalanche played with a chip on their shoulder after losing in the second round to the Vegas Golden Knights last season. Meeting again in the early rounds would be a nightmare for reasons other than mere statistical play, as the Avs have been the better team all season.
Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty could be healthy enough for the playoffs when the salary cap doesn’t matter, and the club would be out of the woods with the cap constraints. That would give Vegas an even more complete roster than last spring when they knocked out Colorado in six games since Jack Eichel joined the club.
The Avs have been Western Conference favorites all season but have dealt with their own injury issues, with captain Gabriel Landeskog currently on the injured reserve as he recovers from surgery. Knee. Nazem Kadri, second on the team with 83 points, is should come back through the playoffs.
However, if Colorado continues to struggle with injuries and meets a healthy Golden Knights team, it could struggle to avenge its playoff disappointment from a season ago.
Questions will be asked about last year’s series, but Vegas has been in contention for four years. It’s time for the Avs to show they’re a top team when it counts, and to do that, they may have to face Vegas again.
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Toronto Maple Leafs: Tampa Bay Lightning
If you look at playoff history, as we just did above, you might think the Toronto Maple Leafs’ worst opponent would be the Boston Bruins. The Leafs have lost their last six playoffs to Boston since 1969.
The 2019 first-round loss still stings, but this is a better, deeper Leafs team that has a different coach, different goaltender, and plays much better defense.
Instead, the nightmare game for Toronto would be the Tampa Bay Lightning. To be fair, the Lightning are a nightmarish team anyone can deal with. They haven’t lost a postseason series since 2019, and they’re still the champions until someone knocks them out.
They are two elite teams that would make for a great series.
Tampa Bay has probably the best goalie in the world in Andrei Vasilevskiy, a proven coach in Jon Cooper, and deep training.
The team lost its entire third line of Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde and Barclay Goodrow, plus other players from those two Stanley Cup teams like Tyler Johnson, and didn’t miss a beat.
In Toronto, Auston Matthews has quickly become one of the most prolific scorers of this generation and is the type of game-changing player who can make a difference in the playoffs. He scored his 55th goal of the season Thursday night to set the Leafs single-season record and most for an American-born NHL player.
Meanwhile, Mitch Marner has surpassed the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career.
Still, Matthews and Marner went missing during their seven-game series with the Montreal Canadiens last season. The Lightning have the defensemen to neutralize even the top scorers, including Ryan McDonagh, who should to return to from this weekend.
The first-round encounter is a realistic scenario given the current Atlantic Division standings. There’s immense pressure on Toronto to get out of the first round, and they’re an opponent who can put the pressure on and off the ice.
Much like the Colorado-Vegas game, this one is less about the stats and more about the storyline and narratives surrounding the Leafs and Lighting.
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Los Angeles Kings: Calgary Flames
The Los Angeles Kings will return to the playoffs for the first time since 2018. A decade ago it looked like they had an emerging dynasty, but the culture crumbled, key veterans left and the former manager General Dean Lombardi attempted to guard the window. opened a little too long, failing to recognize that it was already closed.
Finally, Lombardi’s successor Rob Blake decided to blow it up and rebuild it in 2019. Blake retained some of that championship core, and Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick remain.
He accumulated talent and quickly built up one of the most impressive pools of prospects in hockey. He hired coach Todd McLellan to guide the team through the lean years and prepare them for a return to competition.
Los Angeles is ahead of schedule and currently sits third in the Pacific Division with 86 points, a near-lockdown to qualify for the playoffs. And there’s a chance they’ll face a familiar face: Darryl Sutter, the coach who guided them to two Stanley Cups and current coach of the Calgary Flames.
Sutter hockey has proven to work over the years, and the Flames are proof that it still works. It may be an under-contested style of play, but Calgary scores 3.48 goals per game, good for sixth place in the league, and those are the third 5-on-5 shooting volume team in the NHL.
The Kings don’t have the defense to resist an offensive attack from Calgary. If Alexander Edler returns, as he is expected to do soon, it will add another proven defender to the blue line. However, the club is uncertain when Doughty can return from an upper-body injury, and without him, Los Angeles may not have enough to stop Calgary’s offense.
Los Angeles’ power play is also the least effective among playoff contending teams, as its 16.6% mark is 28th in the league. The Flames, meanwhile, happen to be one of the best shorthanded teams, killing 83.4% opponent’s power play opportunities.
Nobody knows Sutter’s hockey like the Kings, but now that Kopitar, Doughty, Brown and Quick are on the other side, it might not be as fun.
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Boston Bruins: Carolina Hurricanes
The Carolina Hurricanes have beaten the Boston Bruins 16-1 in three games this year. Granted, one of those games was one of Tuukka Rask’s last NHL games, and it was a disaster. However, Linus Ullmark didn’t fare much better against the Canes in February, allowing all six goals in a 6-0 loss.
This game could be similar to a Kings-Flames series in that Carolina is a high-volume shooting team and Boston may not have the defense to contain its offense.
The Bruins added Hampus Lindholm at the trade deadline to deepen the blue line, and that team has been good at limiting scoring chances all season long.
They’ll have to decide which goaltender to go with during the playoffs, as a tandem is never really an effective plan after the regular season. They do, however, have two very good options in Jeremy Swayman and Ullmark, the latter of whom has played much better lately, going 6-0-0 with a .938 save percentage in his last seven games.
However, it’s hard to argue how many guns Carolina has up front. They’re an exceptionally deep team, especially up front where they can roll all four lines and overwhelm teams with the volume and quality of shots. They have defensemen with stopping abilities like Brett Pesce and two who can jump into offensive plays in Jaccob Slavin and Tony DeAngelo.
It’s a tough game for the Bruins, who have similar high-end talent but not as much as Carolina, especially on the blue line.