The NHL playoffs have delivered. This Saturday we have three Game 7’s, featuring marquee franchises and the game’s best players. You know the action is good when you’re seesawing between despair and elation. With the drama at full tilt, I am honoured to be your guide for the thrilling final weekend of the first round.
Boston Bruins at Carolina Hurricanes
Saturday, May 14 – 4:30 PM ET
This is a series geared toward hockey purists. Instead of speed in the open ice and dazzling displays of skill, the dominant image has been several bodies huddled in a corner fishing for the puck. The Bruins and Hurricanes were two of the best teams in the underlying numbers during the regular season, and both teams achieved that through shot volume, a dogged forecheck, and conscientious checking.
Through six games, the home team has won every time, and the line-matching advantage for the Hurricanes has me thinking they will best the B’s on Saturday.
Jordan Staal, Nino Niederreiter and Jesper Fast comprise Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour’s shutdown line and, through three games at home, a single number stands above all others: one. That is the number of goals scored by Patrice Bergeron’s line when Staal and Co. are on the ice. The catastrophic effect of the Perfection Line being stymied had coach Bruce Cassidy move David Pastrnak away from Bergeron and Brad Marchand, and I expect more tinkering in Game 7 if the play of Boston’s top-six forwards stagnates.
At first glance, it looks ugly. When in Carolina, the Bruins have been outscored 8-3 at 5-on-5. But when the score is within one goal, the Bruins have a +5 high-danger chances differential. In expected goals, Boston has dominated. So, what gives? Consider: When Jeremy Swayman took over goaltending duties, the Bruins addressed their biggest issue in the goal differential statistic.
To win Game 7, the Hurricanes will need to manage the puck cleanly in their own end and in the neutral zone. The Bruins do a superb job of taking away the boards on the Hurricanes’ breakout, and the Bruins’ back pressure in the neutral zone fuels a potent counterattack. In Game 6, the Hurricanes coughed up the puck in both areas, and when Carolina slips out of its defensive posture, it can be exposed.
The primary way for the Hurricanes to repel the Bruins is through extended territorial advantage in the offensive zone, which starts with their active defensive group. The Hurricanes will try to create turnovers on the forecheck and then bring a forward high, allowing them to strike off their high rotations when the weak-side defenceman peels off.
Boston excels at taking away the slot, and with Charlie McAvoy and Hampus Lindholm active, Carolina will have a difficult time getting quality looks in the home-plate area. But the Hurricanes can soften up the Bruins’ coverage when Carolina’s defencemen are pinching and the Hurricanes attack from sharp angles. Against Boston, perfect is the enemy of the good, and Carolina is crafty at opening up the slot by utilizing motion in non-scoring areas.
I think the Hurricanes’ depth and home-ice advantage give them the edge.
Pick: Hurricanes -130
Tampa Bay Lightning at Toronto Maple Leafs
Saturday, May 14 – 7:00 PM ET
Expectations for this series were sky-high, and somehow, it has exceeded the hype. The Stanley Cup champs are on the brink of elimination; the Maple Leafs are staring down another blown series lead where they were a win away from advancing. There are two big unknowns entering this game: Can the Lightning stay out of the penalty box, and what level of forechecking will we see from Tampa Bay?
Surprise, surprise. Putting the league’s best power play on the man advantage a half-dozen times ended up being costly for the Lightning in Game 5. Tampa Bay was cruising with a 2-0 lead in the first period, but a spate of undisciplined penalties resulted in a power-play goal and the Lightning’s best players sitting on the bench for long stretches of time. Steven Stamkos played less than 17 minutes; Ondrej Palat played less than 15. Like Jenga pieces, once the collapse started, gravity took over.
The Lightning’s Game 5 displayed a passive forecheck that enabled the Maple Leafs to easily leave their end via stretch passes, or by carrying the puck out. Instead of standing up, Tampa Bay’s defencemen retreated.
A through-line in this series had been the Lightning’s truly atrocious defensive zone coverage. With the Lightning moving around their end like children on a slip-and-slide, the Leafs’ comeback was inevitable.
But Game 6 saw Tampa Bay exhibit a monkish discipline, giving Toronto one power play and allowing the Bolts to feature its best players. With the game mostly played at 5-on-5, the Lightning’s defencemen were aggressive, taking a confrontational posture at the blue lines and in center ice.
The Lightning were guilty of too many one-and-dones in Game 5. But in Game 6, they utilized the low cycle, and did a more thorough job stretching out the Maple Leafs, sometimes opening plays on the weak side.
The Lightning have identified the low slot as an area where they should force the Maple Leafs to box out and defend, and eventually, they hit paydirt on the Brayden Point overtime winner. The Maple Leafs are faster than the Lightning, and when the game opens up, Tampa Bay usually gets killed.
The underlying numbers for the Lightning aren’t great. Toronto is outplaying them at 5-on-5 and Andrei Vasilevskiy has a bad Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx), despite bailing out his team’s listless play on numerous occasions. The nucleus for the Lightning has been inconsistent, with Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Brayden Point having good stretches of play but also making poor puck management decisions and bad defensive judgments.
Mikhail Sergachev has been maybe the worst top-four defenceman of the postseason, a prolific turnover machine; in Game 6 he did shockingly little harm, but that seems like an aberration, not a trend. With Toronto at home, the Leafs will have the last change and can expose the Lightning on matchups.
I don’t love going against my series pick, but by the same token, it’s hard to ignore that the Maple Leafs have been the better team at 5-on-5. And the Lightning’s lack of discipline could be their fatal flaw.
Pick: Maple Leafs -120
Los Angeles Kings at Edmonton Oilers
Saturday, May 14 – 10:00 PM ET
One of the big changes as soon as Jay Woodcroft became the Oilers’ coach is how the wings approach breakouts. Instead of the Oilers’ forwards sinking low to help their defencemen, the wings gravitated to the neutral zone with the aim of pushing back the opposing defence.
The Oilers have thrived under Woodcroft, but his coaching philosophy to stretch the zone on breakouts has had big ramifications in this series. For better or worse.
When the puck is transported into the Kings’ end successfully, the Oilers’ forecheck and cycle have looked dangerous. The forwards and defencemen have harmonized to tie the Kings’ man-on-man defence into knots, resulting in outrageous offensive numbers in expected goals and high-danger chances at 5-on-5. But the flip side is the King’s counterattack gobbling up the Oilers’ overwhelmed defencemen as they look to make long passes to exit the zone. The Kings have shown they are capable of capitalizing off the breach between Edmonton’s forwards and defencemen when they intercept the pass.
The spotlight on the relationship between the Oilers’ forwards and defencemen
doesn’t end there. In every game, the Oilers’ worst moments have been when the Kings have seized on the gap between the Oilers’ forward and defenceman. When the Kings have caught the Oilers’ forwards beneath the puck, they have found the Oilers’ defencemen pliant in terms of surrendering the blue line on entries. When Los Angeles has forced Edmonton to defend in its own end, the Kings have found time and space and looked speedy in terms of continuing to retrieve the puck and stay on the cycle.
And yet, I want the Oilers for two reasons. First, they have Connor McDavid. McDavid has an outrageous 12 points through six games, and it seems very possible Woodcroft will play him 26 minutes or more in Game 7. He is a one-man rush who has shown he can gash the Kings’ 1-3-1 neutral zone coverage. When McDavid picks up the puck and turns up the ice, the middle of the ice opens up because Los Angeles backpedals. On the cycle, McDavid’s peerless command of the puck and vision opens up lanes for his teammates.
The Kings have shown they could stifle and shut down Leon Draisaitl; they have had no answer for McDavid. With the Oilers at home and having the last change, they will have more agency for matchups, which is critical if they continue to use a McDavid-Draisaitl super line.
The second reason to choose the Oilers is that goaltender Mike Smith has risen to the moment. Only the Stars’ Jake Oettinger, who has been incandescent, has a better GSAx. Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick has been substandard, which is concerning because the Oilers have been unloading shots, boasting a 35.89 per 60-minute clip at 5-on-5.
With No. 1 defenceman Darnell Nurse returning to the fold on Saturday, I think the Oilers’ firepower overwhelms their breakout struggles and they manufacture enough goals to advance.
Pick: Oilers -205