Key matchups that could swing Game 7s

NHL

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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. We are changing it up during the Stanley Cup playoffs, with some thoughts on each series.

The first round of the NHL playoffs always has a little madness and this year is no different, with three Game 7s on tap and potentially more to come.

Can the Hurricanes contain Marchand, Bergeron in Game 7?

This always stood out as a series that could go seven games, and it has not disappointed. The way we have gotten here has not particularly followed a straight path, though. There hasn’t been a single one-goal game in this series. In five of the six, it’s been the first to five goals wins. The other game was 4-2, with Carolina scoring late to make the score look better. There has been no drama down the stretch involving actual hockey; the only drama has been between Brad Marchand and Tony DeAngelo.

Goaltending is rightfully receiving a ton of attention, but the biggest factor in the series is how the Hurricanes are matching up against the Marchand-Patrice Bergeron line. In Game 5, which Carolina won comfortably, the Nino Neiderreiter-Jordan Staal-Jesper Fast line played more than 10 minutes each against them and they didn’t score as the Hurricanes enjoyed last change. In Boston, these two lines played less than four minutes against each other and the Marchand-Bergeron duo did score. Will they be able to break through in Game 7 on the road, will the Staal line shut them down again, or will Bruce Cassidy consider moving David Pastrnak back up to present more of a problem? Goaltending aside, this series could quite literally come down to how that matchup plays out.

Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand have been a nightmare matchup for the Hurricanes on home ice during the NHL playoffs. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand have been a nightmare matchup for the Hurricanes on home ice during the NHL playoffs. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Lafreniere stepping up for Rangers

Can’t really talk about this series without starting with Sidney Crosby. First and foremost, let’s hope that he’s OK and has a speedy recovery. What a dominant series he was having, with nine points in not even five full games. With Crosby on the ice at 5v5, scoring chances favored Pittsburgh 58-18 and slot shots were 39-10. His line with Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust was simply dominant and more than made up for the goaltending carousel Pittsburgh has been running. The series looked all but over, and now it’s anyone’s guess.

Regardless of what happens for the Rangers, one positive has been Alexis Lafreniere. He has two goals and four points in five games, his ice time is up nearly a minute and a half from the regular season and he has asserted himself physically in this series. His line with Kaapo Kakko and Filip Chytil is doing a good job of controlling play and scoring some big goals. When Lafreniere was drafted he had the “NHL ready” tag attached to him, but he hasn’t exactly hit the ground running since entering the league. But considering his first year in the league was the bubble year, you could argue no first overall pick has ever had a stranger first two seasons in the league than Lafreniere. I’m going to stop short of calling this a breakout because young players have sparked up in the playoffs before and not really carried it over the following year (see Sam Bennett with Calgary). But Lafreniere is still just 20 years old. This has been a really promising playoff series for him.

Home ice a true advantage in dead even Leafs-Lightning matchup

You can’t say the stars haven’t shown up in this one. In Game 5, the Leafs core earned full marks, with goals by John Tavares, Morgan Rielly, William Nylander and Auston Matthews. Mitch Marner set up the game-winner, too. In Game 6, it was the Lightning core that responded, with goals from Nikita Kucherov, Anthony Cirelli and an overtime winner by Brayden Point. Victor Hedman led all skaters in ice time and Andrei Vasilevskiy shut the door with the game on the line.

Through six games, goals are 23-21 in favor of the Leafs while the Lightning hold a slight advantage in shots per game at 31.7 to 30.8. Special teams have been in Tampa’s favor so far with a 22.6 percent success rate on the power play compared to just 16 percent for the Leafs. In Tampa Bay, Jon Cooper has devoutly pitted Anthony Cirelli, Brayden Point and Alex Killorn against the Michael Bunting-Auston Matthews-Mitch Marner line, and he has had great success in that matchup. In Toronto, Sheldon Keefe has used last change to move away from that matchup and the Leafs have looked much better at home as a result.

For as much as people talk about the regular season being meaningless – which is largely true, to be fair – in a series this tight between two great teams, the difference might genuinely come down to who has home ice and last change.

Capitals need more from top pairing

Florida has made a season out of crazy comebacks and wild games, so why stop now? They led the league in come from behind victories in the regular season with a win percentage over .600 when trailing after the first period. At some point you would think that is going to catch up to them, but so far they have been able to bring enough of that magic to be up in the series, led by… Carter Verhaeghe. After putting up five points in Game 5, Verhaeghe’s 10 points now double that of the next highest scorer on the Panthers, Aleksander Barkov.

The strange thing is, going down suits Florida’s style because it allows them to just open it up offensively and attack, which is the strength of their team. Once they get rolling, they are hard to stop. Washington has no problem getting or building leads, it’s keeping them that is stumping them.

One thing they have been trying to solve for years is finding a consistent partner for John Carlson. When they won the Stanley Cup, Michal Kempny was huge alongside Carlson. But he has struggled to stay healthy the past few seasons, and now Carlson is playing alongside Martin Fehervary. They are below water in shot attempts, scoring chances and expected goals. On the series, they have been outscored by four at 5v5. Carlson has five points in five games and has played more than any other Capital, but it’s hard to win a series when that’s the bottom line from your top pairing.

Flames-Stars has been better than advertised

It’s not for everyone, but I have a real appreciation for how the Stars have bought in to their system. They are a veteran team that knows how they need to win and they play within that framework. They don’t cheat the game, they don’t make anything easy and you have to earn it when you beat them.

Jake Oettinger has been great in his first playoff appearance. The unsung hero for them might be Michael Raffl, who has just one goal but is driving Calgary nuts. He has 17 penalty minutes, but he has also drawn penalties and won a number of big battles or made little plays to get pucks out or keep pucks in. There’s a reason he’s playing 14:31 per game. The role players have contributed and nobody is really scoring in this series, but Jamie Benn and Alex Radulov have zero goals, while Tyler Seguin, Roope Hintz and Jason Robertson have one each. It is going to be hard for Dallas to win if that doesn’t change.

For Calgary, they finally had a third period in Game 5 that suggested enough is enough. Jacob Markstrom has also been excellent. Andrew Mangiapane finally broke out a little while Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm have driven about as much offense as possible given the flow of this series so far. While so many other series are going far with a bunch of lopsided games, this series has been tight throughout. It has been physical. There have been antics. There have been big goals. It has quietly turned into one of my favorite first round series, even though the tight, low scoring games are not what fans traditionally enjoy.

Draisaitl decision pays off for Oilers

There has been a lot of talk about Leon Draisaitl getting bumped up to play with Connor McDavid, but I think this decision has as much to do with loading up offensively as it does with Draisaitl’s defensive play. The only two teammates he is above 50 percent in shot share with (in at least eight minutes played 5v5) are McDavid and Kailer Yamamoto. At some point, you just can’t keep rolling him out to keep getting outplayed and hoping he scores enough to make up for it, especially coming off back-to-back games where he was outscored by a total of four at 5v5. So it didn’t seem like a move out of desperation to me, it seemed like a better way to highlight his offense and negate his defensive shortcomings.

The shot attempts for Draisaitl-McDavid-Yamamoto were 16-7 in Game 6. Edmonton’s following two lines combined to be a dead even 13-13 (one was out-attempted by one and the other out-attempted by one). If you get that from your second and third lines while relying on your top line of Draisaitl and McDavid to outscore the opposition, well, you feel pretty good about those odds.

For L.A., it’s hard to not be encouraged by a number of Rob Blake’s moves coming together. He moved Jack Campbell and Jake Muzzin in exchange for Sean Durzi (second on team in time on ice per game), Trevor Moore (tied for second on team in scoring), Carl Grundstrom (tied for team lead in scoring) and Tobias Bjornfot, who played 70 games this season. Cheap trade deadline acquisition Troy Stetcher, who we’ve talked about before, has come up with some huge goals. Marquee free agent signing Phillip Danault has been excellent. You have to be really encouraged by the moves this front office has been making and how they have been panning out.

Where do Predators go from here?

Not really sure what you can take away from this if you’re Nashville. Colorado played like the class of the league and swept the Predators in a piece of tidy business for them. It’s a shame Juuse Saros was unable to play in the playoffs, but even with him, maybe they steal a game? It’s good playoff experience for a few of their young guys, but Filip Forsberg is a pending UFA while Roman Josi and Matt Duchene had career seasons. Nashville is going to have to discuss where they can reasonably go from here.

Colorado, on the other hand, took full advantage of their opportunities, scoring seven times on 16 power-play chances. They just have a collection of shooters. For the series, they averaged 44 shots on net per game! Only Pittsburgh is technically averaging more so far, and that’s because they had a game go to triple overtime. The way the Avs come at you in waves and just dominate shift after shift is impressive. But Colorado has been here for a few years now – a dominant first round followed by a second-round exit. This has to be the year for them because if you look at their cap situation, Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Valerie Nichushkin, Josh Manson, Ryan Murray and Darcy Kuemper are all pending UFAs, among others. The following season is Nathan MacKinnon’s final year of his now sweetheart $6.3 million cap hit deal. It’s not a now or never situation but this team could look drastically different next season.

Wild have a lot of questions to answer

On paper, I thought this was going to be the best series in the West in the first round. In the end, the Wild went up 2-1 before the Blues won three straight. Some of the games were closer than the scores suggested, but there wasn’t a single one-goal game in the series.

It’s a disappointing result for the Wild, who pretty well went for it this year. They had the big buyouts which are going to have major cap implications moving forward and they bought at the trade deadline by adding Marc-Andre Fleury, Jacob Middleton, Nicolas Deslauriers and Tyson Jost. They are going to have a lot of questions to answer, including why their special teams were so bad. Dean Evason was blunt when talking about it after his team’s first-round exit.

“They have to be better, simple as that. I’d love to tell you why and all that. They’re going to get better. They have to get better. They literally sucked all year,” he said.

Kevin Fiala followed up a 33-goal, 85-point season with no goals, three assists and 16 penalty minutes in the playoffs. He is a pending RFA.

For the Blues, David Perron and Ryan O’Reilly had monster series (nine and eight points, respectively), and their decision to run seven defensemen paid off. You just don’t see many teams do that, but the Blues are legitimately 11 forwards deep. Even with that, Justin Faulk played more than 26 minutes per game and Colton Parayko was just under the 26-minute mark, which puts them both in the top 10 on a list full of Rangers and Penguins. Even more promising for them is that Jordan Binnington started to round into form, and we know what can happen if he gets hot.

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