For the second straight spring, Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals will go down at the hands of Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Why will Crosby & Co. emerge once more?
We delve into that and much more in our second round playoff picks:
WASHINGTON VS. PITTSBURGH
Pick: Penguins in seven.
Why: The Capitals tortured playoff history against the Pens should continue. Washington only barely squeaked by the youthful Leafs in the first round while Pittsburgh walked all over Columbus â€” winning in five games even as No. 1 starter Matt Murray sat with injury.
Toronto’s speed and skill caused problems for Washington in an evenly-matched first round series and the Pens do their damage in much the same way, quick from top to bottom. The Caps, who’ve been without top pairing defenceman Karl Alzner because of injury, might be able to slow one of the Penguins top lines with the Matt Niskanen-Dmitry Orlov pair, but how do they contain the other?
Match your best with Sidney Crosby (seven points in the first round) and not only can he beat you, but so can playoff leading scorer Evgeni Malkin (11 points) and Phil Kessel (eight). Washington has two pretty potent lines itself and the threat of those units ticks up a notch if Evgeny Kuznetsov plays for a series as he did late against the Leafs. But can Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom outplay Crosby and Malkin? Perhaps, but likely not. Pittsburgh vanquished Washington in six games last year and seven games in 2009 and the guess here is they prevail once more.
OTTAWA VS. NEW YORK
Pick: Senators in six.
Why: The Sens have fully embraced the defensive identity of first-year head coach Guy Boucher. That was evident again in the first round when Ottawa held Boston â€” the top possession team in hockey during the regular season â€” to only 27.5 shots per-game and a mere 13 goals. The magic will run out at some point with this group, just not here against an aging New York squad.
The Rangers needed Henrik Lundqvist to rediscover his star form of the past for survival against Montreal. The 35-year-old finished with a .947 save percentage in a six-game series which saw New York outshot 34-30 on average. It’s hard to imagine the future hall of famer keeping that up for another series.
He’ll battle another 35-year-old in Craig Anderson, who wasn’t always sharp against the Bruins, but played more than 800 fewer minutes during the regular season and is just as capable of rising to excellence.
Both teams find scoring from a number of different lines, but the Sens’ defence looks a little less creaky at this point than the Rangers, even with Erik Karlsson hurting. Karlsson, it’s worth noting, was a star against the Bruins â€” averaging 30 minutes with six points and 57 per cent puck possession. The betting here is the Sens slow down the Rangers, who came back to earth in the second half offensively after a torrid start to the season.
ANAHEIM VS. EDMONTON
Pick: Ducks in six.
Why: The young Oilers were too much for an aging Sharks squad in the first round, but the Ducks are a much bigger challenge â€” too big at this stage for Edmonton.
The quality of Anaheim’s depth will be the difference here. Ryan Kesler will try to pester Connor McDavid early and often. While the Oilers captain and running mate Leon Draisaitl are likely to win that battle, what’s next for the Oilers? Can Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who went pointless against the Sharks, top Ryan Getzlaf if the two go head-to-head? It seems unlikely.
The Ducks also have multiple threats elsewhere in their lineup for the Oilers to contend with, including the always feisty Corey Perry and emerging Rickard Rakell. Anaheim should get Cam Fowler and Sami Vatanen back from injury against the Oilers, which further stabilizes a sturdy defence. Add in John Gibson in goal and the Ducks look well-positioned to not only slip past Edmonton, but head back eventually to their first Stanley Cup final since 2007.
NASHVILLE VS. ST. LOUIS
Pick: Blues in six.
Why: This has to stop eventually with the Blues doesn’t it? Can Jake Allen really continue this Martin Brodeur impersonation for another round? It’s hard to imagine, but maybe so.
Allen has just been a different goalie since Ken Hitchcock was replaced in February. The 26-year-old, helped by Brodeur as a goalie coach, has posted a sizzling .942 save percentage since Feb. 1, which includes a .956 showing the first round against Minnesota.
St. Louis has become entirely reliant on their goaltender under Mike Yeo. The Wild, astoundingly, had 100 more five-on-five shot attempts than the Blues (282-182) but still lost the series easily in five games because of Allen.
Nashville blew past Chicago, yielding a mere three goals in a four-game sweep. The Predators have a terrific top-four on defence and scary first line, but the only way they win this series is if Pekka Rinne (.976 save percentage against the Blackhawks) somehow stays hot another round â€” and hotter than Allen.
The bet here though lies with the Blues and, more specifically, their red-hot goaltender from Fredericton.
First round record: 5-3
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press