Round one wasn’t great on the predictions front: I predicted only three of the eight matchups correctly. Although, in fairness, did anyone see the Predators sweeping the Blackhawks, for instance? Yet to make matters worse, my Bruins lost all three of their home games and were defeated by the Senators. There’s always next year.
But here’s the good news. First, playoff betting is on fire. Notice how many games have been decided by one goal? Well, that explains why underdogs with the puck-line are 34-8 (.810) this postseason. A small fortune could be made simply by betting on every underdog to keep games within one goal. And second, as far as predicting the second round is concerned, I have an opportunity to make amends for my poor first round picks.
Let’s start out West, because no one ever seems to start with the West.
St. Louis Blues vs Nashville Predators
Regular Season Goal Differential: STL (+17) > NSH (+16)
Postseason Goal Differential: STL (+3) < NSH (+10)
Both sides are coming off impressive first round upsets, and what makes this series even tougher to call is that they measure up evenly with each other in many of the most important metrics. For instance, Nashville finished 10th in goals scored per 60 minutes in 5 v 5 situations (GF60). St. Louis was 12th. The Blues were 8th in GA60 in 5 v 5. The Predators were 10th.
A crucial element in this series will be the power play. St. Louis projects to have the advantage because they finished higher in both power play percentage (a.k.a goals scored per power play) and penalty kill percentage. However, one of the keys to Nashville’s four-game sweep over Chicago was that they stayed out of the penalty box, as the Blackhawks were only on the power play nine times in four games. That’s essentially how the Blackhawks engineered all the offense, too. Only one of the Predators’ three goals allowed in the series came in even-strength situations.
Nashville’s strong defense, anchored by the terrific defensive combo of P.K. Subban and Roman Josi in front of Pekka Rinne (.976 save percentage in the first round), is ultimately the main concern for the Blues. St. Louis averaged just over 2 goals per game against Minnesota and were only 1-15 on the power play. They’ll likely need another Herculean effort from goalie Jake Allen to advance. Only problem is that Rinne has been even better in net for the Preds.
Nashville in Six
Anaheim Ducks vs Edmonton Oilers
Regular Season Goal Differential: ANA (+23) < EDM (+35)
Postseason Goal Differential: ANA (+5) > EDM (-2)
Like seemingly every series, special teams figures to play a crucial role. Anaheim had the second best penalty killing unit in the regular season. Edmonton had the fourth best power play scoring. Advantage…I’m not sure. Another interesting factor: These teams are both sizzling hot. The Oilers are 20-4 in their past 24 games, while the Ducks have won eight in a row and 13 out of 15.
Nonetheless, I’m going with Edmonton, partly because I picked them before the playoffs started to win the West. Same things I said then still hold. The Oilers are solid in every respect: They’re 8th in GF60, 9th in GA60, and 7th in even-strength save percentage. Plus, the Ducks aren’t trustworthy on home ice. Over the past five postseasons, Anaheim is 16-10 at home in the playoffs. That’s not a bad record, but it’s deceptive: They’re 0-4 at the Honda Center in Game 7’s and on two occasions, they’ve dropped both Game’s 1 and 2 at home to lower-seeded opponents. I like Connor McDavid and the Oilers to take at least one of the first two in Anaheim before seizing control of the series on their way to the Western Conference Finals.
Edmonton in Six
Ottawa Senators vs New York Rangers
Regular Season Goal Differential: OTT (-2) < NYR (+36)
Postseason Goal Differential: OTT (+2) < NYR (+3)
I underestimated both of these teams last round, particularly the Senators, who dispatched my Bruins. But the Rangers are still the sizable favorites in this series. After shutting down a relatively impotent offensive team in Montreal (the Canadiens ranked 15th in goals during the regular season), the Rangers draw an Ottawa side (22nd in goal scoring) that also doesn’t tend to provide many fireworks. It helps that Henrik Lundqvist and the New York defense has been stingy of late as well. They rank 3rd in both goals against and save percentage thus far in the postseason.
It will be vital for Ottawa to remain out of the penalty box, as they allowed a power play goal in three of their six games against the Bruins and ranked just 22nd in that category in the regular season. But even that might not be enough to slow down a formidable Rangers attack that recently managed to advance past Carey Price. Rangers coach Alain Vigneault will need to find ways to keep guys like Erik Karlsson (who has a hairline fracture in his heel, by the way) and Bobby Ryan in check, but this is still the easiest of the four series’ to call.
New York in Six
Washington Capitals vs Pittsburgh Penguins
Regular Season Goal Differential: WSH (+81) > PIT (+48)
Postseason Goal Differential: WSH (+2) < PIT (+8)
And now to the series that everyone wants to see the most. The Capitals once again enter as the slightly better team on paper. After all, in the regular season, Washington had a higher goal differential, better goals against, and the much better penalty kill than Pittsburgh. All the Penguins had was a little bit of a better offense. But the exact same thing could have been said last year before Pittsburgh upset Washington on their way to the title. Moreover, the Penguins looked far more impressive in their five-game win over Columbus (they averaged over 4 goals per game against the likely Vezina winner, Sergei Bobrovsky) than Washington did against the eighth-seeded Maple Leafs.
With that said, I’m still taking the Capitals. First, I picked them before the playoffs began to win the Cup. I didn’t see quite enough to abandon that prediction during their albeit difficult first round against Toronto. Moreover, I think the absence of Kris Letang, Pittsburgh’s best defenseman, will eventually be the Penguins’ downfall. And the most likely time for this downfall to take place is now, considering that Washington, as mentioned, leads the NHL in many of the most important categories.
Great teams in recent memory, like Peyton Manning’s Colts and Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavericks, who became famous for cracking under pressure, usually find a way to break through eventually. Given how sensational they have been in the regular season over the past decade, I think that time is now for Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals. I like them to finally slip past Sidney Crosby and the Penguins.
Washington in Seven