By John Matisz – Postmedia Network
Washington (1st Metropolitan) vs. Toronto (2nd wild card)
Key number: 60.5
The most lopsided matchup of the opening round has the potential to entertain the masses. Toronto has no issue generating shot attempts (60.5 per 60 5-on-5 minutes, good for third in the NHL), yet they’re awful at suppressing attempts (28th). Combine this high-event brand of hockey — surely, a byproduct of the Maple Leafs icing so many rookies every night — with the Capitals’ enviable firepower and it’s not difficult to envision the amusement. Otherwise, Washington trumps Toronto in almost every category, namely goaltending, depth and playoff experience, and should have no problem advancing. Prediction: Capitals in 5.
Pittsburgh (2nd Metropolitan) vs. Columbus (3rd Metropolitan)
Key number: 3.9
Pittsburgh is shorthanded as stud blueliner Kris Letang nurses a neck injury that will keep him out of the lineup for the entire post-season. The club has been okay in his absence, winning 13 of 23 games to close out the regular season, but playoff hockey is another beast. Letang’s impact on how the Penguins’ ‘D’ operates is immense, from both a workload (25-30 minutes a night) and puck-possession perspective. When Letang’s usual first-pairing partner, Brian Dumoulin, is apart from Letang, for instance, the Penguins’ 5-on-5 shot attempts differential swings the other way, dropping 3.9 per cent to below the 50-50 mark. While the odds are stacked against Columbus, in general — winning four of seven games over the Sidney Crosby-led defending Stanley Cup champs is no easy task — the Letang injury certainly thickens the plot. Prediction: Penguins in 6.
Montreal (1st Atlantic) vs. New York Rangers (1st wild card)
Key number: 20
New York, with its rapid, off-the-rush attacking offence, has come at teams in waves all year. Head coach Alain Vigneault has nine forwards at his disposal who in the regular season combined for 179 goals for an average of 20 goals apiece — Chris Kreider (28 goals), Michael Grabner (27), Rick Nash (23), J.T. Miller (22), Kevin Hayes (17), Derek Stepan (17), Jimmy Vesey (16), Mats Zuccarello (15) and Mika Zibanejad (14). No world-beaters in that group, not even a 30-goal scorer, just heaps of opportunistic scorers. Montreal swept the season series, 3-0, but might have trouble containing the up-tempo Rangers in a high-energy environment like the NHL playoffs. All-world goalie Carey Price is the series’ X-factor. Prediction: Rangers in 6.
Ottawa (2nd Atlantic) vs. Boston (3rd Atlantic)
Key number: 42
The Bruins boast the NHL’s best line (Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-David Pastrnak) and an elite goalie (Tuukka Rask), but enter the post-season dangerously low on capable bodies on the back end. Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo, Boston’s No. 2 and No. 3 defencemen, are inactive for Game 1 vs. Ottawa. Together, they eat up more than 42 minutes a night. This is a huge development for the Senators, who finished 22nd in the league in regular-season goal scoring. Conversely, Ottawa is in the midst of a lineup revival, as several players prepare to return from injury, including its entire first pairing of Erik Karlsson and Marc Methot. Prediction: Senators in 7.
Chicago (1st in Central) vs. Nashville (2nd wild card)
Key number: .783
Thanks to strong play at the end of an underwhelming regular season and a drool-worthy defence corps, the Predators seem to be the first round’s trendy sleeper pick. Yet, to beat Chicago, a legitimate Stanley Cup favourite, Nashville must play a perfect game, every game. And that includes steady performances from Pekka Rinne, who is not the goalie he used to be. Rinne finished 16th in quality starts percentage among goalies with 30 or more appearances and his .783 save percentage on 5-on-5 shots in and around the slot (often referred to as the “high danger” area) ranked 36th among regular goalies. Simply put, the 34-year-old Finn is an average NHL goalie with a consistency problem. Prediction: Blackhawks in 7.
Anaheim (1st in Pacific) vs. Calgary (1st wild card)
Key number: 7.6
Calgary and Anaheim finished the regular season with the worst even-strength shooting percentages among the West’s eight playoff teams. What does this mean? The Flames (7.6 SH%) or the Ducks (7.8%) — both? — are due for an offensive explosion. It may come in this series, it may not; either way, it’s something to keep an eye on. Particularly unlucky players include Calgary’s Sam Bennett, TJ Brodie and Alex Chiasson, as well as Anaheim’s Andrew Cogliano, Ryan Garbutt and Nick Ritchie. Someone who has been both lucky and extremely good? Undercover Anaheim superstar Rickard Rakell (33 goals on 177 shots in 71 games). Prediction: Ducks in 6.
Edmonton (2nd in Pacific) vs. San Jose (3rd in Pacific)
Key number: 29
The Sharks are vulnerable down the middle, with Joe Thornton and Logan Couture tending to injuries ahead of Game 1. The Oilers, on the other hand, boast a healthy one-two punch in Art Ross winner Connor McDavid and soldier Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The tide changer, if he plays at his highest level, is Brent Burns. Lost in the tremendous second-half performances of fellow Norris Trophy candidates Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman is Burns’ wire-to-wire production in the puck-possessing and point-getting departments (53.6% at 5-on-5; 29 goals and 76 points in all situations). Clearly, a perfect storm is brewing for Edmonton, but San Jose’s core, which is on its last legs, will not go down without a fight. Prediction: Oilers in 6.
Minnesota (2nd in Central) vs. St. Louis (3rd in Central)
Key number: 82.9
Probably the least sexy first-round series, the most intriguing storylines may be behind the bench. The Wild’s Bruce Boudreau, whose 10-season NHL coaching career now includes nine playoff appearances, is desperate to advance to the Stanley Cup final for the first time. The Blues’ Mike Yeo, who took over as head honcho mid-season after Ken Hitchcock joined the unemployment line, is desperate to show Minnesota, the team that fired him last winter, what they’re missing. Both clubs, no doubt boosted by new instruction, have improved or stayed the course on special teams this season. The most impressive progression: the Wild’s penalty kill rocketing up the league ranks, from 27th (77.9%) to eighth (82.9%) over a season. Prediction: Wild in 6.