We’re midway through the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and although the Vegas Golden Knights have already punched their ticket to the second round, there are still other spots that are up for grabs.
The Anaheim Ducks and Minnesota Wild are on the brink of elimination. That’s not to say that they can’t overcome their current deficits, but they have a steep hill to climb. So let’s look at the teams that are down 2-1 in their respective series.
The Devils, Maple Leafs, Flyers, Capitals and Avalanche are all in that predicament. Every one of those teams, except Philadelphia, came away with a huge Game 3 victory, so there’s a sense of optimism surrounding those clubs. They aren’t in an ideal spot, but they aren’t dead either.
Who has the best chance of coming back to win the series? Let’s rank them from least likely to most likely.
• New Jersey Devils
Taylor Hall was sensational in New Jersey’s Game 3 victory, as he recorded a goal and two primary assists. Hall has played at least 20 minutes in each of the first three games of the series. He’s a matchup problem for any of Tampa’s skaters, but getting Brayden Point on the ice against him is clearly the preference for head coach Jon Cooper. But will Devils bench boss John Hynes be able to get the desired matchups when the series shifts back to Tampa? Hall will produce no matter what, but there’s no denying that winning on the road and winning at home are two different things, especially for a team with quite a few youngsters.
The wild card in all of this is Cory Schneider, who picked up his first win of 2018 in Game 3. Schneider looked as confident as he’s looked in quite some time, so stealing a game or two would go a long way in helping New Jersey come back. Again, that might be a lot to ask from a guy that lost his starting job to Keith Kinkaid for a few weeks.
“Still a lot of work to go. One win is a starting points, so we have to make sure we come back with the same intensity (Wednesday) night,” Schneider said, per NJ.com. “But yeah, 2-1 and 3-0 are a big difference. It was an important game for us to win just to get into the series and make it a series. Hopefully we can continue to make it more difficult as it goes on here.”
It’ll also be interesting to see how the bad blood at the end of Game 3 affects this series. Can the Devils use Mikhail Sergachev‘s hit on Blake Coleman as motivation? Does the rough stuff help Tampa Bay focus on getting back to business? There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered heading into Game 4.
• Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers have been overwhelmed by the Penguins in two of the first three games, but here they are trailing to just one game heading into Game 4. Discipline has been a big problem for them through three contests. Even in the game that they won, they still took silly penalties, but managed to kill them off. If that doesn’t change, this series will be over faster than you can say “Philly cheese steak with no onions and extra cheese whiz”.
As if the 2-1 deficit to the Penguins wasn’t enough, it now looks like they might be without Sean Couturier, who was injured during a collision in practice with Radko Gudas. Missing him for any amount of time would be a huge loss for the Flyers.
“There’s a lot of guys in here that can pick up slack, guys that are itching to get more time too,” Flyers goalie Brian Elliott said, per NHL.com. “If he’s not available, if he is available, I think our guys are ready for that.”
The Flyers proved that they could beat the Penguins, now they just have to show that they can do it three more times.
• Colorado Avalanche
The Avs have surprisingly dominated the opening period of each of these first three games. Unfortunately for them, they only have one win to show for it, but they can pull positives from the fact that they weren’t skated out of the building on the road against the Presidents’ Trophy winners.
Nathan MacKinnon and Hall are in similar situations, meaning that they’ll have to shoulder most of the offensive burden, but the Avs forward definitely has more help up front. Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog can also be difference-makers for Colorado.
You have to wonder how injuries have affected this series. How much do things change if Colorado has a healthy Erik Johnson, Samuel Girard and Semyon Varlamov. Missing Varlamov seems to be the biggest loss, as Jonathan Bernier has had his share of tough moments in the series. Is he capable of stealing a game in Nashville? That’s what it’s going to take for Colorado to move on to the second round.
Nothing is impossible, but it seems like the Avs are a year away from taking the next step. Overcoming this 2-1 deficit would be a huge surprise.
• Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs are an interesting case. They played a relatively strong home game in Game 3, as they managed to keep the Bruins’ top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak off the scoresheet. The thing is, they haven’t looked too good on Boston ice, where the desired matchups are a lot harder to come by. Deadline acquisition Tomas Plekanec along with Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey did what they had to do to keep that line in check in Game 3. Can they do it again? Even at home, that’s not a sure thing.
Boston’s first line had their share of opportunities, especially when the Bruins were pressing in the third period. You just get the feeling like the Leafs will have to do an impeccable job defensively and they’ll have to pray that the opposing trio doesn’t bury one, or two, or three.
Goalie Frederik Andersen is also an interesting case. He’s let in some bad goals during this series, including in Game 3, but he’s also managed to come up with some impressive saves at times. The Leafs are going to need a little more consistency from their number one netminder, or this thing could get away from them in a hurry.
And, of course, Toronto has to hope that Auston Matthews‘ game-winning goal in Game 3 will help give him the spark he needs to continue producing regularly. Monday’s goal was his first point of the playoffs.
“People find it hard to believe, but it’s easy to lose your confidence very quickly at playoff time,” head coach Mike Babcock said, per the Toronto Sun. “I think we’re in a great spot to get it back, and I really felt it helped Freddie (Monday) night, it helped Auston (Monday) night. A lot of guys are feeling better about themselves.”
This is arguably the most interesting one of the lot. Sure, they’re the most likely team to come back from a 2-1 deficit, but they could easily be down 3-0 if Lars Eller doesn’t get that lucky bounce in double overtime on Tuesday night.
The Capitals have all the firepower they need to make a deep run, they just haven’t ever been able to do it. As the Caps have found out, the Blue Jackets are no joke, so they’ll have to be at their best to advance to the second round. Bowing out in the first round would probably bring about more changes in Washington, so they’ve got to come through if they want to stick together going forward.
Braden Holtby made some big saves during Game 3, but he also let in an incredibly weak goal to Pierre-Luc Dubois to tie the game at one in the second period. Holtby has been off for most of the year, but if there was ever a time for him to emerge as a hero, it’s right now.
“It puts us right back in the series,” Holtby said, per NHL.com. “I thought we held our composure really well in the overtimes. We didn’t cheat. We stuck to our systems and got a gritty goal to win it. It’s a good sign.”
Of the five teams trailing 2-1, there’s no denying that the Capitals are the most talented team. On the flip side, they also have the most playoff baggage of all the teams, too. It’ll be interesting to see if they can overcome these mental hurdles, but that lucky bounce in OT may have saved their season.
The Nashville Predators’ record speaks for itself — they simply have everything in place to win a Stanley Cup.
They led the league with 117 points, garnering them the Presidents’ Trophy, and had the least number of regulation losses and the best away record in the NHL. They were simply dominant during the regular season and deserve the title as Stanley Cup favorites just hours before the first puck drops to start the 2017-18 postseason.
Nashville enters the playoffs with a 53-18-11 record. They were third in the NHL in terms of goal differential at +56.
While the Preds clinched weeks ago, the Avalanche needed to do so in their last game of the regular season — a thrilling 4-1 in a win-and-in against the St. Louis Blues (which featured a very close call on an offside review that ultimately stood as a goal).
Colorado finished the season with 43-30-9, good for 95 points – lowest among the 16 teams that made the dance.
In four games between both clubs, Nashville showed their might with a 4-0-0 record (three regulation wins and one win in overtime), while managing 17 goals for and just eight against.
Nashville shouldn’t have any issues in this series. They’re healthy, have the likely Vezina winner between the pipes, two candidates for the Norris on the blue line and a forward contingent that only got more dangerous as the season wore on with the additions of Kyle Turris (via trade), Mike Fisher (who came out of retirement) and Eeli Tolvanen (who Nashville signed after this KHL postseason ended last month).
The Avalanche, despite closing out the season 2-4-1 in their last seven games, still found a way to get two points when they needed to. Sure, they’ll be riding that high and will have the benefit of having to have played several playoff-style games down the stretch, but it’s a tough ask for a team to go toe-to-toe with the best team in the NHL without their starting goalie Semyon Varlamov and top-pairing defenseman Erik Johnson, both lost for the season due to separate injuries.
Nashville: The Preds have the luxury of icing four lines that can put up points. It’s not justFilip Forsberg (26 goals, 64 points) and Viktor Arvidsson (29 goals and 61 points), the team’s top two scoring leaders. Kevin Fiala and Craig Smith finished up with 20-plus goal seasons and Scott Hartnell and Nick Bonino had 10-plus. In 5-on-5 situations, the Predators sit ninth in shot share at 51.5 percent and second in goals-for percentage at 56.7 percent. Hint: that’s good.
Colorado: Colorado’s top line of Nathan MacKinnon (39 goals, 97 points), Mikko Rantanen (29 goals, 84 points) and Gabriel Landeskog (25 goals, 62 points) combined for 36 percent of the team’s goal production this season. They were simply a force and a big reason why MacKinnon is a Hart Trophy candidate and the Avalanche are in the playoffs. That line absolutely has to produce to win, but the Avalanche need their other three lines to contribute. The analytics suggest the Avs struggle in 5-on-5 situations sitting in 27th in shot share with 47.6 percent. Even with their stacked top line, their goals-for percentage sits 15th at 52.1 percent.
Advantage:Predators. If it was top line vs. top line, Colorado would have the edge. But all four Predators lines can score, and do.
Avalanche: Losing Erik Johnson for the playoffs is a massive blow, let that be known. Sure, Tyson Barrie plays a pivotal role on the backend in all three phases of the game, but Johnson isn’t a guy you can replace and his presence — 25:26 TOI per night — will be missed. Some of that extra ice time will fall to Samuel Girard. The rookie defenseman has been impressive this season and anchors the second-unit power play.
Predators:Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis are a formidable duo, and then teams have to deal with P.K. Subban and Matthias Ekholm. Nashville’s defense is as stout as there is in the NHL. They can also produce: Subban had 16 goals and 59 points this season and finished in the top-10 in d-man scoring. Josi, meanwhile, was no slouch either with his 14 goals and 53 points, putting him in the top-15.
Advantage: Predators. Only the Los Angeles Kings (202) allowed fewer goals than the Predators (204).
Avalanche: This matchup would be closer with Varlamov in net, but injuries derailed that late in the season. Bernier isn’t a bad goalie by any means, but asking him to carry the Avalanche in the same way the man 200 down ice from him can is nigh impossible. Bernier’s .913 save percentage won’t move the needle, but his 19-13-3 record helped propel this team to the playoffs, and when Varlamov missed time earlier this season, Bernier won nine straight amid a mid-season 10-game winning streak for the Avs that took them from the depths of the Central Division into a playoff fight they eventually won.
Predators:Pekka Rinne. Need we say more? He’s likely the frontrunner for the Vezina Trophy this season with 42 wins, a .927 save percentage and eight shutouts. He also has one the best — if not the best — defenses playing in front of him. Rinne is one of the league’s elite.
Advantage: This one isn’t close unless Bernier goes on a heater. It’s the team with the likely Vezina winner. It’s Nashville. Both teams give up a lot of shots (both are in the lower third in the league). Advantage to the team with the guy better at stopping them.
Predators: The Preds loved trips to the penalty box – they were the most penalized team in the NHL this season, putting themselves shorthanded a whopping 299 times, 18 more than any other team. What helped them was a solid penalty kill, ranking sixth in the league at 81.9 percent. That will be crucial going forward — the penalty kill bit — but some discipline would be a welcomed addition to an already-formidable team. On the power play, the Preds finished with a respectable 21.2 percent conversion rate with the man-advantage. Subban led with way with 25 power play points while Forsberg kicked in 21 of his own.
Avalanche: The Avs were a whole seven-tenths of a percentage point better than the Predators on the power play at 21.9 percent, scoring 65 times this season. When you’re top unit consists of the same guys who play on your top line, it’s a pretty safe bet that production will happen. Rantanen led the Avs with 35 power-play points, with MacKinnon a close second with 32. Tyson Barrie, manning the point with MacKinnon, pitched in 30. The second unit got 17 points for Alexander Kerfoot and 12 from Samuel Girard. On the penalty kill, Colorado finished fourth in the league at 83.3 percent despite finishing with the ninth most number of times shorthanded.
Advantage: The numbers don’t lie — gotta give this one to the Avalanche, although it’s very close.
Avalanche: Jonathan Bernier. With Varlamov done for the season with a lower-body injury, Bernier will be looked to for stellar goaltending against one of the top goal-scoring teams in the NHL this season. Bernier put up pedestrian numbers this season backing up Varlamov but owns a career 9-4-0 record with a .917 save percentage against the Predators.
Predators: The Avs own a good power play and the Predators like to take a lot of penalties. It’s not a winning concoction if you’re the Predators, even if your penalty kill is above average. In games that will be tight from pillar to post, toning down the number of trips to the sin bin could give the Predators another advantage in the series.
Nashville in four games. Nashville dominated the season series, sweeping the Avalanche. The Predators have only gotten stronger while the Avs are dealing with key injuries. This should go quick.
1. What team(s) need to make to make a trade or two before the deadline and why?
SEAN LEAHY: The New York Islanders sit just outside of the playoffs in the East and while we know they can score, they can’t keep the puck out of their net. They lead the NHL in goals allowed (223), so an upgrade in goal would be ideal, but that market isn’t very fruitful with three days until the deadline. If not in goal, then the blue line, surely. Ryan McDonagh is out there, but trading with the Rangers would require an overpayment. Would Peter Chiarelli pick up the phone if he sees Garth Snow calling again to maybe inquire about Oscar Klefbom or Adam Larsson?
Out West, Nashville Predators GM David Poile has never been one to shy away from strengthening his team. He added Kyle Turris in October and will get Mike Fisher back next week. Olympic stud Eeli Tolvanen may also join the team very soon. But after coming within two games of winning a Cup last year, the Predators are once again in position to challenge for a title.
“I think we’re closer to doing nothing than to do something,” Poile said recently. But he’s a general manager, and we shouldn’t believe anything they say around trade deadline. If an opportunity is there, he’s going to take it. Is Rick Nash worth adding if it means giving up someone like a Dante Fabbro after sending Samuel Girard and Vladislav Kamenev away in the Turris deal?
JAMES O’BRIEN: Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Islanders. These three teams see a remarkable forking path ahead. Each could easily miss the playoffs entirely, which would be an enormous failure for all involved (in the case of the Isles, for all we know, it may factor into John Tavares‘ future). Fascinatingly, all three teams could also be easily be seen as dangerous with the right tweaks. While they all have varied needs to fill, the general theme is getting that “extra oomph.”
(Note: Apologies for the highly technical jargon.)
With a little more balance, these teams could go from first-round fodder to terrifying dark horse. Sometimes it’s wise just to stand pat; other times GMs need to make that extra effort, even if it merely sends a message to current roster players that they’re going for it.
Missing the playoffs would be bad no matter what, but it would be far better if they went out swinging rather than flinching at strikes.
ADAM GRETZ: If I am Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford I push all of my chips to the center of the table and go all in on this trade deadline. They have a chance to make history and you do not get that opportunity very often. You only get so many years of players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang and you owe it to yourself to put them in the best possible position to win. Once those players get older or retire the team is going to stink and need to rebuild anyway, and there is no prospect or draft pick in the organization right now that is going to change. This is all especially true when you have a chance to go back-to-back-to-back. No prospect or draft pick should be off limits. Get another center. Improve the defense. Get creative with the salary cap. Whatever you have to do.
JOEY ALFIERI: Even though the Penguins have turned their season around, I still feel like they need to add another forward or two before Monday. It doesn’t have to be a major acquisition, but just another capable two-way player that can play on the third line and on the penalty kill.
The Columbus Blue Jackets and St. Louis Blues have both seen their play drop over the last few weeks, so if they want to make a push for a playoff spot, I feel like they need to give their players a jolt by adding a body. Missing the playoffs shouldn’t be an option for either team, especially after the success they had last season.
SCOTT BILLECK: New York Islanders. They need to stop the bleeding on the back end. They’ve allowed a league-high 223 goals against, which is 12 more than the Senators. Ottawa is nowhere near the playoff picture, but the Islanders right in the mix in the wildcard race thanks to their penchant for scoring goals. A good defenseman would help. Something has to change with that .901 in the team save percentage department. Get in quick before all the good players are gone.
Columbus Blue Jackets. They need some scoring. Desperately, it would seem given their recent slide. Evander Kane, anyone? The return of Rick Nash? Mike Hoffman is available. The sooner the better in this case.
2. What players who are considered trade bait are being overrated?
LEAHY: Tomas Plekanec’s production has dropped off a cliff since 2015-16 and he has 15 goals and 50 points in his last 137 games. Consider he was good for double digit goals and around 50 points a season for a long time. Teams are always looking to bolster their depth, especially down the middle, and while he can win you a face-off, (52.5 percent) there are definitely better options at center who are out there.
O’BRIEN: Mike Green – It pains me to say this, as in the past, Green’s absorbed excessive criticism for his flaws on the defensive end. Those exaggerations are now sliding closer to being the cold, hard reality for a blue liner who might need a highly specialized, sheltered role to be worth a look.
Jack Johnson – He’s really bad. Maybe there’s a scenario where a team could find the right style fit for him, but considering JJ’s cap hit, it’s tough to imagine him being worth giving up even a so-so asset.
Thomas Vanek – Yes, you can work limited players with specific skills into an advantageous situation. There’s a scenario where Vanek could be an older version of 2016-17 Sam Gagner, serving as the “trigger” on a PP that sets the table for him. Still, he can’t really do much on his own any longer, and you might as well go for a more spry “all-offense” option.
GRETZ: I think Derick Brassard is probably approaching that overrated territory. Don’t get me wrong, he is a good player. But he seems to be slowing down a bit in recent years, he carries a pretty big salary cap, and since the Senators do not have to trade him the price is probably going to be extremely high. Is it worth it? I am not sure. The other guy? Evander Kane. Again, pretty good player. But that seems to be the extent of it. Every year we hear about his talent and how he could have a breakout year and how he can be a dynamic player, and every year he is the same good but not great player. He has topped 50 points once in his career. He is a free agent after this season. He just seems a little overrated. I would also add Patrick Maroon to that list. He had a big shooting percentage driven performance a year ago and he has that “heavy hockey” pedigree hockey people love for the playoffs, but I would not give up a huge price for him.
ALFIERI: I don’t get the fuss over Patrick Maroon. He’s big, he’s scored some goals over the last couple of years, but I just don’t think he should be a priority for any team looking for a winger that can score. Obviously there are much better options on the market as of right now. Of course, it all depends on the price, but I don’t think the Oilers would be interested in giving him away, even if he is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
Tomas Plekanec is still a useful player, but his offensive game is practically non-existent. I’d take him on my team if he’s slotted correctly on the depth chart. At this point, the veteran should be seen as a fourth-line center on a very good hockey team. There will be a market for him if the Canadiens are willing to deal him.
BILLECK: Thomas Vanek – He won’t help you defensively and is questionable to show up in the playoffs.
Patrick Maroon – He did a lot of good things with Connor McDavid. But anyone can do that. Maybe he needs a change of scenery, but he’s a little too slow for today’s game.
Mike Green – This isn’t your late 2000s Mike Green. Instead, you get a defenseman who doesn’t do play much defense and doesn’t put up points like he used to.
3. What not-so-outlandish trade do you think should happen but ultimately won’t?
SEAN LEAHY: It’ll never, ever happen (OK, maybe it’s outlandish) but makes a lot of sense for all involved. Henrik Lundqvist to the New York Islanders. King Henrik gets to stay in New York, the Rangers can get some of those extra picks Garth Snow picked up from the Calgary Flames last year and the Islanders solve their goaltending issue. Lundqvist still has three more years left on his contract so future visits to MSG would be preeeeetty interesting.
JAMES O’BRIEN: Freeing Max Pacioretty. For the sake of entertainment, I hope I’m wrong.
More and more, the Montreal Canadiens feel like they’re going to handle things like the Vancouver Canucks did with Erik Gudbranson: clinging onto hope for the present when they should be setting the stage for the future. At 29 and with a deal that expires after 2018-19, “Patches” simply makes more sense on a contender, which the Habs aren’t this season and may not be next year. How refreshing would it be to see a far-too-frequent scapegoat get a new lease on life as more of a supporting cast member?
It smells a lot like Phil Kessel making a huge impact on the Penguins. It’s all so fun that, of course, it probably won’t happen.
ADAM GRETZ: Mike Green going back to Washington. Just because it seems like it would have been a lot of fun. But with the Capitals adding two defensemen to round out their third pairing over the past week it just does not seem like something that is in the cards.
JOEY ALFIERI: It’s pretty clear that Max Pacioretty needs a change of scenery. He hasn’t been noticeable on the ice over the last little while, which makes you wonder if the trade rumors are getting to him. 30-goal scorers that can kill penalties don’t grow on trees, so the Canadiens will have to get a great offer to part ways with him. He’s not a rental (he has one year left on his contract), so GM Marc Bergevin doesn’t have to deal him at the deadline to get something for him.
SCOTT BILLECK:Mats Zuccarello to the Winnipeg Jets. Jets fans are salivating at the thought of having another Mathieu Perreault on their roster. Perreault has been so good for the Jets that adding a similar player would have had a bolstering effect throughout their forward contingent. The problem here is price tag. The trend this year is that every player available seems to have a price tag with more markup than a Mercedes. Cheveldayoff isn’t into trading picks and assets. He’s barely into trading at all. It should happen. It’s a trade that has the potential to put the Jets over the top. But the asking price may be too much for Chevy to budge.
4. Erik Karlsson trade: Does it happen before the deadline or in the summer, and who should be at the front of the line for him?
SEAN LEAHY: I can’t see a GM overwhelming Pierre Dorion with an offer by Monday’s deadline. Unless Karlsson threatens to sit out, the Ottawa Senators GM should wait it out, much like Joe Sakic did with Matt Duchene. The team doesn’t need to trade Karlsson now. Wait for the draft and the summer when the other 30 teams know their salary cap situation and have an idea of what sort of enticing package they could offer.
Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman should be calling Dorion now planting seeds for a summer deal. Mikhail Sergachev is a nice start, and if you’re a buyer, maybe work out a sign-and-trade thereby ensuring an extra year of Karlsson, who’s signed through 2019.
JAMES O’BRIEN: Karlsson seems most likely to move during the summer.
To start, draft positions will crystallize. The Senators would need one heck of a haul, so why risk moving Karlsson for a package that includes a mystery first-rounder?
Honestly, any team that aggressively wants to contend should ante up. Karlsson would be a lot of fun to watch with Auston Matthews in Toronto, burning everyone alongside Connor McDavid, or even landing on a team like the Dallas Stars. (Imagine trying to protect a one-goal lead with Karlsson, Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, John Klingberg, and Alex Radulov on the ice.)
If forced to pick one team, I’d go with the Oilers, because they need to make a desperate swing to improve. Why not just go the super-obvious route? Karlsson can cure a lot of ills, even if the organization continues to blunder on the margins.
ADAM GRETZ: Think it happens at the trade deadline. It would be an almost unheard of trade given Karlsson’s talent level — players like him almost never get traded — but what choice do the Senators have? They do not seem to be in a position to re-sign him, and you can not lose him for nothing. This is when his value is highest because whatever team gets him gets two playoff runs with him. Who should be at the top of the list? I don’t know, Tampa Bay or Philadelphia.
JOEY ALFIERI: Like Pacioretty, Karlsson has another year left on his deal so the Sens don’t have to make this move right now. I think it’ll get done at the draft. It’s just too difficult for a team to pull that kind of trade off in February. The Tampa Bay Lightning should be all-in when it comes to Karlsson. Imagine having Hedman and Karlsson on the same blue line. Come playoff time, the Bolts could have those two guys play 30 minutes each. No matter when this trade happens, Steve Yzerman should try to pull it off.
SCOTT BILLECK: Before the deadline (although it shouldn’t be happening at all). If the Bruins could make it work, they could continue taking great defenseman from the Senators (see Zdeno Chara) and going to Stanley Cups with them. If the Islanders can’t keep Tavares, maybe there is something there given all the cap space that would free up. Edmonton? That’s a juicy one as well. This is a tough one because whatever team wants Karlsson has to give up so many assets to get him.