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Stanley Cup Playoffs Preview: First Round (Eastern Conference) with "Gamblin" Matt Mortensen
[With the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs on the horizon, my good friend "Gamblin" Matt Mortensen and myself set out to give you an extensive preview of the first round match ups. Naturally that blew up into a column that was over 7,000 words. As a result, a one part column featuring all the predictions and analysis will now be broke into two parts. Here is the Eastern Conference portion.]
What a nice evening! CMLL’s Tuesday show had a great main event; I just put the second half of one of the greatest comedies ever on and “Gamblin” Matt Mortensen and I are about to break down the NHL playoffs. Ain’t that right my good man?
M: Umm…. What comedy? I know I'm going to hate you with this answer. But yes, I'm about to correctly predict all playoffs series to perfection. That's how good I am.
And so it begins again, just like the second half of The Ten Commandments. Let’s get the show on the road shall we? And the lord said onto Moses “LET THERE BE HOCKEY!”
Florida Panthers vs. New York Islanders
Major Storyline: What the hell happened to the Florida Panthers?! Seriously Matt, what the hell happened to them? One minute they were a laughing stock who couldn’t draw anyone to their arena; now they’re a powerhouse led by the ageless Jarimir Jagr who still can’t draw anyone to their arena! I think it’s safe to say that this group is the best story in the NHL this year.
M: Ok, first off. Powerhouse? Don't make me laugh, Iken. They aren't there yet. And you had to say they are the best story this year didn't you? You know that's going to make me root against them just to bug you. In saying that, I had my eyes on them last year when I felt they really improved just like I did on the Predators two years ago before they made the playoffs last year. It's only the second time the Panthers have been in the playoffs since the 99/00 season so good for them!
I’m insulted Matt; do you not recall the 2011/12 team that made the playoffs led by Hartford Whalers great Kevin Dineen?! For shame!
Panther with the Most to Prove: Roberto Luango. Yes Matt, we’re skipping the secondary storyline. There’s no time for those with all these series to get through! As for this section, can it be anyone else besides Luango? I get that everyone on the Panthers (aside from Jagr) has as much playoff experience as you or I, but Luango, a dude who has failed in the postseason time and time again, has to be the guy considering the position he plays. The Panthers will go down quickly if Luango reverts to the form he had during his run in Vancouver. He must be the man he was for them in the regular season. Will he? I have my doubts.
M: Dramatic pause…. I'm picking Roberto Luongo too. I hate it when we pick the same person! I agree with you in part that the Panthers may struggle if he resorts to the form he had in Vancouver but I don't think they go down quickly. Especially against this Islanders team. The Islanders allowed more shots than they put up themselves this season. Add to the fact that they lost Anders Lee in the final week it's going to make it that much more difficult for their hit and miss offense to fire. They do still have John Tavares though. So I wouldn't be shocked to see them pick up a win. Or two. But that's stretching it I think.
Islander with the Most to Prove: Your reasoning there is exactly why I’m going with John Tavares. It’s pretty clear the Islanders are the inferior team here; what they do have however is the best player in Tavares, who in my opinion is the most underrated player in the NHL. Obviously he can’t win it by himself and I don’t believe he will, but if he can have a few out of this world games, this series immediately becomes much tighter.
M: I want to get on to the next game already. We are picking the same guy again here! But I'm sure 90% of people would be picking Tavares here. With the Panthers having the likes of Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad and add in Jaromir Jagr he's really going to have to play out of this world in this series. I don't think he’ll be getting much help from anyone. (Side note, watch for Huberdeau or Ekblad to have a breakthrough season next season.) I think that the Islanders can get one win from this series. They did win one out of the three in the regular season. All be it with a stronger squad.
Gamblin Matt and the Odds plus Winner: Panthers are $1.70 to win this series while the Islanders are $2.21. I think that's a bit of a stretch. I'd personally have the Panthers at $1.60 and the Islanders at $2.30. For the Islanders to win this I can only see this being a long drawn out series I can't see them wrapping this up 4-1. So 4-2 and 4-3 are the only options for me. $5.40 and $5.95 they are respectively. I think the Panthers will have too much fire power. They have Jagr and they have great young upcoming players in Ekblad and Huberdeau. They have Luongo in goal who I think is going to have a great series for them. This will be a good experience for them for next season. I like 4-1 personally. And would not be shocked at all to see a sweep here. Iken knows how I like those. The sweep is $11.70 and 4-1 is $6.15. I think this is one of the easier series to predict. But this is the NHL playoffs after all!
Winner: Panthers in six. I’m a bit more optimistic about the Islanders than you are Matt; they won’t win, but I think Tavares (who again I really like) will have two really good games and Jarislav Halak will have a few great performances to keep them in it. Ultimately however Luango will be steady enough in net and the Panthers offense will be too powerful for the Islanders to contain.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Detroit Red Wings
Major Storyline: Why does it feel like the Red Wings have a great shot here? Logically speaking I can’t think of why the Wings would win this series Matt; they were -11 in goal differential, all their best players are now older than Super Parka and they only got into the playoffs because the Boston Bruins were too busy doing what the Boston Bruins do best. And yet I just have a funny feeling the Wings are going to be a huge problem for the Lightning here. Am I just crazy? Is the Red Wings history factoring into my thoughts? Or is there perhaps something about the Lightning that just isn’t right?
M: I'm surprised this isn't your feel good story. How the heck did they make the bloody playoffs? I'm glad they didn't miss the playoffs for the first time in 25 years and kept that streak going but my gosh how lucky did they get? I don't know if you know but the Bruins are my most hated team. So I was cheering all the way with their total collapse. The Wings even lost their last two games and made the playoffs! It just feels like luck is on their side. Yes, something about the Lightning isn't right. The Red Wings get to face an injury ravaged Lightning. They don't have their best offensive player in Steven Stamkos and one of their best defensive players in Anton Stralman.
Lightning with the Most to Prove: I'm going first here Iken! Stop you stealing my pick again. Can it honestly be anyone other than Ben Bishop? No Stamkos. No Stralman. He's going to have to have a cracker of a series. If he lets in two goals in a game than I think that that’ll be game over for the Lightning and they should be looking toward the next game. Bishop is better than either of the Red Wings goalies but the Red Wings have a deeper rotation of good offensive players and I think that could really trouble the Lightning in the long run.
It saddens me I can’t put Stamkos here; the fact that he looked to have one foot already out the door to Toronto made him the most interest aspect of this series by a mile. Damn blood clots. I unfortunately have to agree with you then Matt. Ben Bishop has nothing to prove to me after last year, but with all the injuries on the offensive end he simply has to be brilliant here to keep Tampa afloat. It’s Bishop or bust.
Red Wing with the Most to Prove: Petr Mazarek/Jimmy Howard. I hate to go with the goalies again here but hey, it’s the most important position in hockey and it’s the best way to get ahead in the playoffs. I actually like the Wings situation here more than you do Matt; Mazarek was great last year for Detroit and Jimmy Howard, as flawed as he can be, is more than capable himself. But even with the Lightning shorthanded, one of these two will have to make a leap in order for the Wings to move on. Without question Matt, this is a series that will come down to the men in the crease.
M: Man. Are we going to have a series where we don't pick the same person? I'm not writing the Lightning off here at all. But without Stamkos I think that really hinders their goal scoring ability. But we saw last year if they score just how quickly they can put multiple goals into the back of the net. I'm feeling this is going to be quite the low scoring series but I think I said that last year in one of the Lightning series and they completely screwed me over! Bishop is the better goalie out of the three but I think the Wings have too much depth upfront and will have too much pressure night in night out to squeak out the series win.
Gamblin Matt and the Odds plus Winner: Tampa Bay are $1.63 favourites here to win this series while the Red Wings are $2.34 outsiders. During the regular season these teams met four times and split their encounters 2-2. With all the factors that Iken and I have stated above I'm not sure this is going to be a quick series. The Lightning may struggle to score but when they do it can come in quick bursts. Bishop can steal a series by himself but can he do it here is the question? I see this series going 6 or going the distance. $5.60 and $5.95 for the Red Wings to win 4-2 or 4-3 while its $5.45 and $5.15 for the Lightning. I'm of the belief you’re not going to be winning a series without two of your best players so I'm taking the Wings luck to continue on here and I'll be taking the Wings in 6.
Winner: Red Wings in seven. Even if the Lightning were at full strength I’d make this pick; there’s just something about Tampa I don’t like and I’ve learned a long time ago never to bet against Detroit. Add that to this being Pavel Datsuk’s final run (a good source for motivation) and I see the Wings pulling this out in a low scoring, fun as hell series. I already feel bad for Ben Bishop.
Washington Capitals vs. Philadelphia Flyers
Major Storyline: Is it finally Washington’s year? Matt, I think I speak for everyone when I say that the Washington Capitals are by far the best team in the NHL this year. They have the best offensive player not named Connor McDavid in Alexander Ovechkin. They have the best goaltender in Braden Holtby. Whatever question you have, the Capitals have an answer for. Except one; they’re inability to even make the Stanley Cup Finals ever since Ovechkin arrived in the Nation’s capital over a decade ago. We have no questions on their talent; so the only question that can be asked is whether that talent is enough for them to overcome their history or if this is just another year of disappointment that awaits them?
M: Is it their year? Well I can't spoil it for our dear readers so let's just say perhaps it is. They are the best team in the NHL this season, without a doubt. I'm really not liking all this agreeing we are doing. I'm not use to it and it's creeping me out. The Caps really haven't had anything to play for quite a long time. So I don't take much, or I should say anything, from their 4-3-3 record in the last 10 games. I only worry if that shows in game one. That's the only danger game I can see for them. Perhaps they have become complacent and the Flyers could steal game one.
Capital with the Most to Prove: Ovechkin, Ovechkin, Ovechkin. How can it be anyone else? The Capitals star has been the cornerstone of this franchise for eleven years now and doesn’t even have a Finals appearance to show on his resume. Yes he scores goals and yes he’ll score a ton this postseason; but it’s his leadership the Capitals need more than ever. This truly is the postseason that will make or break this man I feel. If the Capitals win, finally we can stop the questions about Ovechkin. If they fall short again with the best team Ovechkin has ever played with...let’s just say he’ll be feeling heat so hot LeBron James will have nightmares back to 2010.
M: Ovie. Nuff said. We agree again.
Flyer with the Most to Prove: Steve Mason/Michal Neuvirth. Say what you will about the Flyers but we know they can score, especially with Claude Giroux still around. The goaltending is where I have great concern. Neuvirth is okay, but there’s a reason he lost his job in Washington to Holtby and I’ve seen no reason to believe he’s gotten much better since. And my goodness, does anyone trust Steve Mason? That is like asking Tom Welling to carry a Shakespeare production. The Capitals may have question marks sure; but all the question marks in the world won’t matter unless one of the Flyers two net minders suddenly evolves into an elite player. Sadly for them, I don’t see that happening.
M: I'm not sure who to pick here, Iken. I'm tossing up between two players. Claude Giroux would probably not surprise you in the least. So he is option one. But the other might surprise you and you may say its a bit left field. It's not a goalie. It's not an offensive player, granted he can score. It's Shayne Gostisbehere. At the end of the day the Caps are going to score. You know it. I know it. The Flyers know it. They aren't going to stop them so they need to score themselves so I'm picking Giroux. Flyers were 11th on the power play but the Caps were in the top 5 in killing the penalties. I think the Flyers need to play a suicidal attacking style game plan here against the Caps. They need to score and score a lot.
Gamblin Matt and the Odds plus Winner: The Flyers aren't winning this series. That's as certain as the Oilers not making the playoffs next season much to Iken's disagreement. This is over in 4 or 5. I fully see the sweep happening here. Bring out the broom Iken!!! Caps in 4 is $8.20. Gosh. I'm putting money on that. Caps in 5 is $4.85. This is the shortest series of the first round. I fully expect it to be one sided. They have Ovie. They have Holtby. They have a super coach in Trotz. They've scored the most goals in the East and let in the fewest. Nothing the Flyers bring to the table worries me or should worry the Caps.
Winner: Really Matt? Had to take the dig at the team of the future? So typical. Anyways, the Capitals will win in five. I could see the Flyers pushing this to six and even seven if the weight of expectations begins to weigh on Washington, but at the end of the day the Capitals are just better and I don’t trust Philly’s goaltending situation at all. The one true blow out I see in all of round one.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Rangers
Major Storyline:...I’m gonna be honest Matt, is there a storyline here? All I can think of is how very little I care for this match up besides the inevitable hilarious chants Madison Square Garden will have for Sidney Crosby.
M: The return of the great Evgeni Malkin is the only storyline I see. The Pens have been playing so well without him it actually scares me to 1, actually question if they need him to beat the Rangers and 2, how much better can they be once he returns.
Penguin with the Most to Prove: Marc-Andre Fleury. Because who else could it possibly be? Much like Ovechkin I could give a care less about Fleury’s great regular season performances; the fact of the matter is that come playoff time Fleury has been as reliable as Dave Meltzer with Lucha Underground spoilers. Even with all the talent the Penguins have and have had, it hasn’t meant much once Fleury has turned into a basket case come every April. He must be more like the man that won the Penguins a Stanley Cup all those years ago. At least, he must match Lord Henrik, whose superior to Fleury in almost every way.
M: Who else? Clearly Crosby. If not Crosby than Malkin. Don't forget, Iken, that Fleury hasn't played the last couple games because of a concussion. He very well may not even start this series. If he doesn't I don't even know who their back up is! But regardless it's Crosby all the way for me here. He had quite a bad start to the season and I was contemplating writing him off and saying he was over the hill. But without a doubt to me he was the best player in the League in the second half of the season. Still no idea how he finished third in scoring after his shocking start.
Ranger with the Most to Prove: All of them except Lundqvist? Fine, let’s go with Rick Nash. Can we say there’s a more disappointing great NHL player out there than Nash Matt? I’ve watched the guy for what seems like forever now; he has all the tools you need to succeed from a size, speed and skill standpoint, yet he’s never seemed to be anything more than a really good player. The time has come for him to be the leader here. The Rangers will obviously depend greatly on Lundqvist to be his usual great self, but I get the feeling the superior New York team will go as far as Nash goes.
M: I'm liking all this disagreeing now! This seems back to normal and so much more natural. I'm picking Lundqvist here, only and I repeat only, if Ryan McDonagh does not make a return. Do I see him returning? I'd like to think so. He is their captain after all. I could be wrong but I think he has a broken right hand and he's a left handed shot isn't he? Playing through the pain and returning could really give his team a lift. And I think that's what might need to be called for here. I liked the Rangers at the start of this year to go deep in the playoffs but I've started to dislike them more and more as the season has gone on. If he doesn't return though it's clearly Lundqvist for me. And the Rangers need to win in Pittsburgh early badly. Game one early. He was 13-15-4 on the road and 22-6-3 at home.
Gamblin Matt and the Odds plus Winner: The Pens won 3 out of the 4 match ups in the regular season and as such are $1.83 favourites while the Rangers are $2.02 outsiders. Not sure I agree with those odds. I think this series is going to be a long drawn out one. Lundqvist is a different beast at home than he is on the road. If McDonagh doesn't come back but Malkin does than I could see this series ending sooner than I think. But I see it going 6 or 7 games regardless. $5.40 and $5.95 for Rangers 4-2 and 4-3 whereas it's $5.65 and $5.15 for the Pens. Not sure how they have Rangers 4-2 favourites over 4-3 and have the Pens 4-3 favourites over 4-2. Seems strange to me. Anyone I'll be tipping the Pens 4-2. I think they have too much firepower in this series and I'll expect Crosby to stand up and silence the NY crowd. If Malkin comes back than this series could be over quicker than I initially thought.
Winner: Rangers in seven. The difference in the end is the goaltenders; I like Lundqvist and I don’t like Fleury when it comes to the postseason. That's what will lead the Rangers to the second round and the Penguins back home. And yet somehow Fleury will still have his job this year. If only we got paid so much to be so mediocre Matt!
Be sure to check out Part 2 this afternoon, where Matt and I cover the Western Conference!