DETROIT vs TAMPA BAY
The Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning may think they are experiencing some déjà vu when they take the ice against one another yet again in the Eastern Conference Playoff’s first round in a rematch from last year’s postseason. The Red Wings will make their 25th consecutive appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and have one goal in mind against the injury-riddled defending Eastern Conference Champion Lightning; payback. The bitter taste of blowing a 3-2 series lead to the eventual conference champions will likely be a main motivating factor for a Detroit club that has struggled with consistency all season while barely making it back to the playoffs. However, now that they have made it in, they get a Tampa club hobbling from a litany of injuries; setting the Red Wings in a perfect place to exact their revenge. Detroit will look to find some consistent play from their goalie pairing of Petr Mrazek and Jimmy Howard, both of whom have shown flashes of brilliance but have equally struggled this season. The Red Wings have announced Jimmy Howard will be their Game 1 starter, but with both goalies struggling at times this season, the starting nod likely comes with a short leash. If Howard struggles, Petr Mrazek could start Game 2. If Detroit can get any consistency from their goalies, they’ll rely on the playoff experience of Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Tatar, Pavel Datsyuk, and Niklas Kronwall as well as the youth and skill of Dylan Larkin to provide the offensive pop needed to solve Tampa’s Ben Bishop and avenge their Round 1 defeat of a year ago. The Lightning enter their series against the Red Wings knowing they have the better goalie in Bishop, a Vezina Trophy contender, but they will have to deal with the huge holes left by injuries to one of their top defenseman, Anton Stralman, and their captain and best overall player, Steven Stamkos. Both players will be out at least through the Detroit series and very likely until the Eastern Conference Finals at the earliest, if the Lightning can survive and advance that far. Thus, the bulk of Tampa’s pressure to advance will be firmly on Bishop and the famed “Triplets” line consisting of Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov, and Tyler Johnson, who exploded during last year’s NHL playoffs, propelling the Lightning to an Eastern Conference title. While the teams split the regular season series, the Lightning outscored the Red Wings 11-7 over those four games; but there is a high probability the games will be vastly different from any of the regular season match-ups due to the Lightning’s injuries forcing several line shake-ups that both teams will need a few games to adjust to as the series progresses. Both teams have struggled to score with the man advantage, so the ability to score goals at full strength will be critical in who will advance to the next round. The wild card for this series will be the play of Jonathan Drouin, Tampa Bay’s talented prodigal son whose contentious relationship with the franchise is well-documented. However, the rash of Bolts injuries has ushered in his unlikely return for the playoffs. Drouin’s play has been great in his two appearances prior to the postseason, but two games in the regular season is a small sample size, making his presence and impact one to watch in this series. Detroit will certainly try to exploit Drouin’s inexperience and defensive liabilities when he is on the ice, but if Tampa Bay can find a consistent offensive punch from the young 20-year-old, the Lightning’s hope of returning to the Stanley Cup Final remains a possibility.
Series Prediction: Lightning in 7
NY ISLANDERS vs FLORIDA
The Panthers have been one of the most surprising and best stories in hockey this year. Florida has a fun group of talented youngsters rallying around their ancient, yet extremely effective legend, Jaromir Jagr. Jagr leads the club in points and has put them in the conversation as a serious Stanley Cup contender for the first time in almost twenty years, which is also the last time they won a playoff series. Young forward Aleksander Barkov has exploded for 28 goals this regular season, which not only leads the team but also makes the Panthers top line extremely formidable when paired with linemates with Jagr and Jonathan Huberdeau. Roberto Luongo will be the most talented goalie in this series, even if the Islanders’ starting goalie, Jaroslav Halak, was healthy. Luongo’s presence in net will provide a big security blanket to an inexperienced playoff team, knowing their veteran goalie could easily carry them through some tough games if needed. The only question surrounding Luongo is will he be able to shrug off his label of a ‘playoff choker’ and avert a playoff meltdown that has plagued him at times in his career. The Panthers main weakness, besides their lack of a definitive superstar, is their sub-par special teams play. The Panthers special teams units are not just average, they are bad, and will likely be the weak spot the Islanders attempt to attack as the series progresses. The Islanders are looking to end their playoff series drought as well, besting the Panthers streak by an extra three years; meaning Isles fans born in 1994 have never seen their club advance to the next round of the playoffs. If New York is going to advance, it will be in large part because of their dynamically talented young center John Tavares, who has been to the playoffs three times in the last four years but has yet to have a career-defining playoff series. The Islanders will rely on their young core of Tavares, Kyle Okposo, and Brock Nelson to try to outscore the Panthers due to Halak still being unable to play in the first round because to injury. New York will rely on Halak’s backup, Thomas Greiss, to provide enough of a defense in net to allow the Islanders to outscore the Panthers. If Greiss can play Luongo to anything close to a ‘push’ in their performances, the Islanders will have a tremendous chance of pulling off the first round upset. The series will inevitably come down to who can impose their style of play on the other. The Islanders will look to play up-tempo, high-scoring games, while the Panthers will gladly prefer to turn it into a grinding goalie duel, knowing they have the better netminder on their side.
Series Prediction: Islanders in 6
‘Fun but Useless’ Predictions:
Eastern Conference Champion: Pittsburgh Penguins – The Penguins are hitting their stride at the perfect time as they enter the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the league. A scoring juggernaut puts the Penguins in position to return to the Stanley Cup final as long as Marc-Andre Fleury doesn’t melt down.
Western Conference Champion: Los Angeles Kings – (see below)
Bust: Florida Panthers – While a fun story, the Panthers problem is they are not particularly overwhelming from an advanced analytics perspective, nor do they have a dynamic superstar who can get a goal anytime they need one. The superstar or a red-hot goalie is necessary to survive in the toughest playoffs in professional sports and while Luongo could get hot, his playoff track record shows that is unlikely. The Panthers are a great story, but they are not a particularly great hockey team. I expect them to go out in the 1st round or a very quick 2nd round exit.
Sleeper: Los Angeles Kings – It’s tough to make a case for a team that has 102 points as a ‘sleeper’, but with a Capitals team running away with the East and the Kings being stuck in a loaded West, the Kings have almost become afterthoughts. They are perfectly positioned with a deep veteran team with good analytics, great goaltending, and the experience of having won two Cups in recent years, making them the perfect sleeper.
Conn Smythe: Anze Kopitar – If Jonathan Quick can provide the goaltending, Kopitar should provide the juice to get the Kings hoisting the Cup again.
Stanley Cup Winner: Los Angeles Kings – They beat the Penguins in six games and hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup.
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