NHL playoffs: One factor that can decide each series in Round 2
Who will prevail between McDavid and Eichel? Can the Maple Leafs match the Panthers' speed?
The stressful games of the first round of the NHL playoffs have come and gone. There were once 16, and now only eight remain to fight for the right to lift the Stanley Cup next month.
In the first round, we were treated to some jaw-dropping collapses that rival the most viral of building demolition videos, as well as some other teams playing their butts off to earn a best-of-seven win. Those teams are now off to the second round and have another series to play against some difficult opponents.
For each of the four second-round series, there is one unique factor that will play into determining which team remains standing after the dust has cleared.
Here they are.
Maple Leafs vs. Panthers - Speed
The shocking matchup that is the Toronto Maple Leafs facing the Florida Panthers in the second round of the playoffs will be all about speed. Not even necessarily how fast skaters can skate individually, but how quickly plays can be made and the tempo of the game established.
For the last couple seasons, the Panthers have found success in scoring off the rush. Even in the series against the Boston Bruins – where they surprisingly cast off the historic Presidents’ Trophy winners – they were able to get quick counter attacks that led to some timely goals.
Matthew Tkachuk restores Florida's lead with a rebound tally on the rush, 2-1 Panthers!#TimeToHunt pic.twitter.com/rp47QHMydN
— Hockey Daily 365 l NHL Highlights (@HockeyDaily365) April 29, 2023
This is what they're able to do, and the Toronto blue line should be looking out for this. Aside from the agile Morgan Rielly, there is not a whole lot of speed and quick reactions to go around on the Leafs blue line. Luke Schenn, Mark Giordano, Jake McCabe and even T.J. Brodie; do we think that they could quickly enough if they suddenly see Carter Verhaeghe or Anthony Duclair bursting by traffic down the wing after Toronto loses possession? Probably not.
On the other hand, if the likes of Ryan O’Reilly and John Tavares can clog the neutral zone and slow the Panthers' transition play, Toronto may have a clear upper hand.
It feels rude to mention this series without naming Matthew Tkachuk, who is probably the best player in this matchup. He’ll surely have a huge part to play.
Hurricanes vs. Devils - Momentum
Sometimes, a playoff series can simply come down to how well each team has been playing heading into the matchup.
On one side, we have the Carolina Hurricanes – a team suffering from numerous injuries to key players like Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen that squeaked by a difficult Islanders team to claim the first-round triumph.
On the other side of the ice, the New Jersey Devils have caught fire at the right time. They just took down the rival Rangers and played an absolutely dominant Game 7 to close it out. In all situations, New Jersey had more than triple the expected goals than New York, per MoneyPuck. That's pure domination, and they're riding high on that win.
Carolina has been staying at home without a game to play since Friday and their opponents are hungry to get some real playoff success in their first venture past the opening round in over a decade. The Devils are young and spry enough to keep going, while the Hurricanes need veterans like Brent Burns and Jordan Staal to quickly ice their bruises and push back.
Golden Knights vs. Oilers - McDavid vs. Eichel showdown
It's too fitting that the second-round series involving the Vegas Golden Knights has the star-studded narrative that should be glimmering on the strip like an old-time big boxing match.
Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel have been battling head-to-head since before they were drafted with the top-two picks in the 2015 NHL Draft. These two have been connected not by their interactions with one another, but because of what they have done away from each other.
McDavid has gone on to establish a Hall-of-Fame career before he even turned 25 years old. Now captain of the Oilers and with his name already in the record books several times, he is focused solely on team success.
Eichel felt scorned by the Buffalo Sabres, who essentially viewed him as "Not Connor McDavid" since they tanked to get the other centre. He was traded to the Golden Knights in November 2021 and is finding himself again after hardly stepping on the ice for the last two seasons.
Now these two bridged goliaths will clash for the first time ever in high-stakes action, eight years after they were drafted.
Stars vs. Kraken - Goaltending
Sometimes all you need to do to determine who has the upper hand in a playoff series is to look between the posts.
Stars netminder Jake Oettinger does not know personal failure in the playoffs. In the 15 appearances he has had for Dallas, he has earned a bonkers .945 save percentage and a minuscule 1.83 goals against average. Those are some Conn Smythe-deserving numbers and he has been doing almost as well during the regular season. He might just be unstoppable.
On the other side of the ice, the Kraken are still struggling with getting consistency from their goaltending. Philipp Grubauer stands in net right now after averaging a .891 save percentage in 94 regular-season games for Seattle over the last two seasons.
In this inaugural postseason for the Kraken, however, he's been much better. With a .924 save percentage and allowing 2.44 goals per game, Grubauer might have found the success he had in Colorado and Washington. But seven postseason games do not outweigh the substantial sample size of being a bad goaltender for the Kraken and the Stars have the better guy in net no matter when the games took place.
Both teams have deep forward groups and blue lines, so it might just get down to the nasty part of a goalie allowing a bad goal or two to decide who gets to move on.