Insights and observations from the NHL playoffs: Rangers have some cleaning up to do

·10-min read

Welcome to 10 Insights and Observations. Every week, I’ll use this space to highlight teams, players, storylines, and general musings around the NHL, and perhaps at times, the greater hockey world. This week we are changing it up, with some thoughts on each series of the NHL playoffs through two games apiece.

Bruins deserve better vs. Hurricanes

In terms of final results, this has to be the most surprising playoff series through two games so far. It’s one thing to lose, but the combined score through two games is 10-3. That, of course, does not really tell the story.

At 5v5, the Bruins have more shot attempts, scoring chances and expected goals than the Hurricanes in each of the two games. In Game 1 they outshot Carolina 9-1 to start the game. It was 8-2 in Game 2, and then Carolina scored shortly after to take the lead. The Bruins have been able to do a number of things that are key to their success: gain speed through the neutral zone, carry pucks, being able to move the puck east-west and generating good looks. They probably deserve a better fate so far but fighting through the bad bounces is part of getting through the playoffs.

With Boston returning home, all eyes are on the goaltending, but the matchup game will be fascinating to keep an eye on. At home, Carolina matched up the Jordan Staal line, that also features Jesper Fast and Nino Neiderreiter, with the Patrice Bergeron line. That checking line has been unheralded and fantastic all season, and Carolina has paired it with Brady Skjei and Brett Pesce, who just quietly goes about his business and is really good. That has allowed Carolina to play Jaccob Slavin, along with Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov, against David Pastrnak. With the series shifting to Boston now, will those matchups remain?

Rangers playing with fire vs. Penguins

The Rangers are, on average, three years younger than the Penguins and you always wonder how, if at all, something like that might come into play in a series. For the Rangers, you’re seeing it in the puck management.

In Game 1, they were credited with 71 giveaways. The game had multiple overtimes and players were understandably tired, but the Penguins had just 44 by comparison. The next highest team when it comes to giveaways through two games is the Carolina Hurricanes with just 31. And then you look at the type of goals they are giving up. On the first one, K’Andre Miller pinches without forward support despite having a 2-0 lead. Igor Shesterkin makes the save and instead of getting the whistle, Jacob Trouba digs it out and keeps the puck in play, immediately turns it over, and the Penguins score.

The second goal is a clear 2v2 that turns into a mini breakaway. Sure, Guentzel and Sidney Crosby made a great play, but it’s a 2v2. The eventual overtime winner came off a dump-in where the Penguins had minimal pressure because they were making a line change. They got the puck anyways and scored.

In Game 2, the Rangers scored first yet again, but this time it was an Artemi Panarin giveaway right in the middle of the ice that led to the equalizing goal. It’s always a little more frustrating when it feels like you are beating yourself. To their credit, they took care of business the rest of the way in large part due to goaltending, but they will need to clean up the giveaways heading to Pittsburgh.

Artemi Panarin and the New York Rangers bounced back in Game 2 against Sidney Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins to pull even in their first-round series of the NHL playoffs. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Artemi Panarin and the New York Rangers bounced back in Game 2 against Sidney Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins to pull even in their first-round series of the NHL playoffs. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Leafs have a Vasilevskiy problem

Any series with Andrei Vasilevskiy is going to create a goaltending discussion. In Game 2 we saw a flash as to why that is.

At the end of the first period, Victor Hedman found himself all alone in front as a result of a broken play. Jack Campbell, who is a good goalie, essentially takes a guess and jumps one way, while Hedman calmly shoots the puck on the other side. To start the second period, a broken play on the other side led to a glorious opportunity for Timothy Liljegren, who was robbed blind by Vasilevskiy. A minute later, Tampa takes a 2-0 lead. That’s how tight the margin is between these two really good teams.

The other story is special teams. In Game 1, the Leafs penalty kill was dominant and their power play scored on a 5v3. In Game 2, the Lightning’s power play clicked for three and their penalty kill gave up nothing. Even at the end of the game, the Leafs made a last-second push and closed it to 5-3, got a power play and got absolutely nothing on it. Their power play didn’t produce in April, either. When you're playing a top team with a high-end goalie, you need to get something out of the power play or the gap is going to be too difficult to make up.

Capitals need to adjust matchups at home

Florida became the first team to average more than four goals per game since the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins, while leading the NHL in almost every shot creation and possession metric. As with any team that is scoring at extremely high rates, fans will always ask whether that offense will carry over come playoff time.

In Game 1, the Panthers only scored twice. In Game 2, they scored five times in the first two periods before riding things out in the third. Florida averaged more than 37 shots per game this season — and just less than 31 against — but through two playoff games so far that gap has been closed quite a bit, as they are averaging 34 and ceding 32.5. It was encouraging for Washington in Game 1 – they were essentially drawing even in possession and ended up rallying late in the third to pull out the victory.

In Game 2, that was not the case. Florida tilted the ice at 5v5, outscoring Washington 5-0 and owning 60-plus percent in possession and scoring chances. In Game 1, the matchup for the Aleksander Barkov line was a mixed bag, but in Game 2 they got out a bit more against the Conor Sheary-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Alex Ovechkin line and scored against them. The Jonathan Huberdeau line played primarily against the Dmitry Orlov and Nick Jensen pairing in Game 1, scoring once, but got the John Carlson pairing in Game 2, scoring twice.

The status of Tom Wilson is significant – he can do a bit of everything on the ice and their top nine settles nicely into place with him in the lineup. Without him, Garnett Hathaway is just a little out of place on the third line. Washington needs to set its matchups at home and Wilson is a key cog in that.

Flames need secondary scorers to step up

The Dallas Stars are a veteran team that makes no bones about who they are: they will trap you and slow the game right down. They know their identity and they stick to it. Through two games, Calgary has one goal and we’re going to see a lot about Dallas trapping, which is largely true, but Calgary also needs someone outside of the top line to step up.

If we look at the Flames' 15 games in April, their top three players combined for 27 goals. Dillon Dube also had a good month with nine goals in 15 games, while Andrew Mangiapane chipped in with five. And then it dropped right off after that. Mikael Backlund, Milan Lucic and Calle Jarnkrok didn't score at all, Tyler Toffoli had two goals and Blake Coleman had three. Calgary's lone goal in the series was, of course, scored by the top line. They need someone, and ideally more than one, outside of their top line to get going .

Silver linings for the Kings

Even though Los Angeles got run over in Game 2, they have to be happy with some of the signs they are seeing so far. In particular, the Oilers have yet to score 5v5 against Phillip Danault. It will be fascinating to see if he gets a heavy dose of the Connor McDavid matchup now that they get last change.

Through two games, he has primarily played against the Leon Draisaitl line. McDavid, on the other hand, has been playing primarily against the Anze Kopitar line, Alex Edler and Matt Roy. The Kings are also missing Viktor Arvidsson, who has been a staple on the Danault line throughout the season.

Are the Kings going to try to swing that the other way?

Considering they are missing an important piece and have received no points from Kopitar and Dustin Brown and no goals from Adrian Kempe, they could be sitting much worse. Meanwhile, the Oilers probably feel good finally getting the monkey off their back and winning a playoff game. The blowout also allowed them to play Darnell Nurse under 19 minutes (he averaged over 25 minutes this season). Every little bit helps when you can save some mileage on a player. This series has all the makings of a seven-gamer. It’s truly a shame Drew Doughty is hurt for it.

Nothing but regret for Nashville

I can’t really talk about this series without mentioning that Nashville had a 4-0 lead on Arizona in the final game of the season. If the Predators won that game, they would have played the Flames in Round 1. Instead, they ended up losing 5-4 and earned a date with the Colorado Avalanche. They got absolutely steamrolled in Game 1, but did show some gumption in Game 2. They got outplayed and deserved to lose despite having a hot goalie, but their commitment to shot blocking was commendable. If there’s one thing they will kick themselves for, it’ll be the wasted 5-on-3 power play in the third period of a one goal game. It was almost two full minutes. Filip Forsberg did hit the post once, but they didn’t generate nearly enough given how much time they had.

Blues need to find more ice time for Tarasenko

What was supposed to be one of the closest series of the playoffs has turned in two of the most lopsided games.

The Blues won Game 1 4-0 despite the Wild controlling over 72 percent of shot attempts at 5v5. In Game 2, the Wild won 6-2 despite the Blues controlling over 63 percent of shot attempts at 5v5. Things just have a funny way of evening out.

The Wild probably deserved at least a bit of a better fate in Game 1. How does Game 2 start? The Blues get the first three shots on net, they hit the post on another, and on a routine D-to-D transition on the breakout, Robert Bortuzzo’s stick breaks, the Wild pounce and score on their first shot of the night.

This was an easy series to earmark to go seven games and through two so far, that still seems to be the case. It’ll be particularly interesting to see how Vladimir Tarasenko’s ice time plays out this series – everyone remembers the incident between him and Ken Hitchcock. Well, through two games he’s playing just 15:27, which is eighth among Blues forwards. In the regular season, he averaged 16:55, which was sixth among Blues forwards. The Blues are deep but he led their team in scoring (goals and points). How much, or should I say little, are they going to play him moving forward?

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