With the first round of the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs in the books, we’ve assembled a quartet of SI.com staffers for a discussion of the hockey world’s hot-button issues. Sam Page, Sarah Kwak and Allan Muir are joined by Michael Blinn to talk playoff predictions, surprises, disappointments and the inevitable officiating controversy.
How is everyone feeling about their Crystal Ball predictions after one round?
SARAH KWAK: I feel OK about my prediction that Minnesota will play its final game with someone other than Devan Dubnyk in net. So far during this postseason, we’ve already seen nine teams use two goaltenders, and four went on to win their series. Dubnyk was one of those keepers who was pulled, but I think I may have underestimated Mike Yeo’s confidence in him a bit. The Wild went right back to Dubnyk in the following game. I don’t feel great about my prediction, but hey, it is at least in the realm of possibility.
SAM PAGE: I felt great the minute that empty net goal went in for Tampa Bay on Wednesday night. I whiffed on my upset pick of the Jets over the Ducks, but I thought then—and still do—that the Western Conference champ will come out of the Chicago-Minnesota matchup. I’m just now realizing that I picked Tampa over Chicago in the preseason and Tampa over Minnesota before the playoffs, so I’ve kind of hedged my bets.
MIKE BLINN: I can’t say I’m having too many regrets, other than maybe overestimating the Blues, though maybe I shouldn’t have picked against the Wild, the team I selected as my dark horse. At the end of the first round, I do have a pretty whopping seven of eight teams still standing, and that includes all four of my conference finalists. As far as Conn Smythe winners go, Derek Stepan hasn’t stood out more than anyone else’s choice (except maybe Rick Nash), but there are still three rounds of playoffs before all is said and done.
AL MUIR: You may be aces at editing, Blinn, but you need some help with your math. Looks to me like you got six right, which at least is better than our fancystats experts. I can’t be too hard on you or the numbers nerds, though. I’ve whiffed on my share in the past. This year though, I’m golden. Seven of eight in the first round, missing only on my Ottawa upset pick. And it’s only a matter of time before Ondrej Palat starts lighting it up for the Bolts and delivers on my shock value leading scorer call, right? Right?
KWAK: Johnny Gaudreau of Calgary. I was fully prepared to see the age-old tale of a rookie getting to the playoffs and having a reality check. But Gaudreau hasn’t missed a beat, scoring six points in the Flames’ six-game series against Vancouver. He’ll have his hands full with the Ducks, and I’m again doubting him, but less than I would be if it weren’t for his strong playoff debut.
PAGE: Patrick Kane came back looking rusty in Game 1 against Nashville, but he still had two points. In Game 2 he scored a goal. And by Game 5 he was doing stuff like this. I honestly thought there would be a recovery period after such a lengthy absence, during which Kane would play fewer minutes and stay off the scoresheet, but soon enough he was being double-shifted by Joel Quenneville.
BLINN: I keep expecting a team to find a weakness in Devan Dubnyk and exploit it, and he’s making me eat my words. His numbers (2.32 GAA and .913 save percentage) are a bit more human than his regular season stats, but other than a team-wide Game 4 implosion against the Blues, he’s provided rock solid goaltending that’s given the Wild a chance to win every night. A goalie doesn’t need to be superman in the postseason, he just needed to be consistently good enough. Dubnyk’s done that.
MUIR: I really like what Jakob Silfverberg added to Anaheim’s attack against the Jets. He has a terrific chemistry with Ryan Kesler that gave the Ducks the secondary scoring that has eluded them in the past. His speed, his playmaking and his defensive commitment really stood out.
Who is the one player who most needs to step it up in the second round?
KWAK: Rick Nash. After the first round, he may be playing a little into his reputation as a small-time scorer only. With only one goal in the Rangers’ five-game series against Pittsburgh—that one was scored in the dying seconds of a loss—Nash has to carry a bigger scoring burden if New York is to beat Washington, especially now that Mats Zuccarello is out indefinitely with an upper body injury. Nash was able to generate 18 shots in the Penguins series, but his finish is what will matter in the end. The entire team’s scoring ability needs an upgrade after playing all of those one-goal games against Pittsburgh. New York hasn’t scored at will (11 goals in five games) the way it did throughout the season, and that is key for playoff success. That starts with Nash.
PAGE: I’ll stay with the Blackhawks and say Corey Crawford needs to step it up. The Blackhawks clearly want him to be the man for this team and I don’t think that’s just deference to an established player they’ve won with before. They know they can only comfortably turn to Scott Darling so many times. If Chicago’s goaltending situation totally goes to pot and costs them their last best shot at the Cup with this core, no one will blame Darling. The fans will hold that against Crawford forever.
MUIR: I’ll take a goalie as well. Gimme Ben Bishop. His numbers were great—1.87 GAA, .923 save percentage and a five-on-five save percentage of .946—but he failed the eye test. You saw how shaky he looked, especially as Tampa Bay’s series against Detroit progressed. The only reason he survived was because the Red Wings couldn’t get sticks on the rebounds he was passing out like Halloween candy. He can’t afford to be as generous against Montreal with Carey Price playing at the other end of the ice.
BLINN: The easy answers here are Steven Stamkos and Nash, but the Canadiens needs Max Pacioretty to pull it together more if they’re going to survive. The Habs averaged just two goals per game and got through the first round because Price is on another level. Pacioretty is Montreal’s most legitimate scoring threat, and if the Habs hope to keep pace with sleeping offensive giant Tampa Bay, he’ll have to kickstart his motor in Game 1.
What are your thoughts on the state of officiating so far? Something the NHL needs to get a grip on or pretty much business as usual?
MUIR: I’ve already written plenty on the topic, so you know I’m unimpressed. There have been some huge oversights on dangerous plays, like Alex Ovechkin's cross-check of Islanders defenseman Thomas Hickey and Nik Kronwall's hit on Nikita Kucherov of the Lightning. Oh, and there was that blatant off-side on Wednesday night where one Bolts forward was maybe 10 feet inside the zone when another carried the puck in. I mean, that stuff can’t happen, especially not at this time of year.
KWAK: I’m not sure what I expected out of the officiating, but it certainly has been rather uneven this spring. A quick whistle negated a Senators goal against Carey Price that could have been monumental in the series closer. The refs didn’t call the Kronwall hit. They’re not perfect, and that’s to be expected. But if there’s one thing I would like to see it’s referees calling the hooking, holding and interference penalties that inherently slow the game. Players take their cues from the refs and test their boundaries in every game. Setting one early tone will go a long way to open up the action and put some excitement back. If not, then we’ll all be watching repeats of the New York-Pittsburgh series, a run of 2–1 games that at times moves like molasses.
MUIR: Right? I don’t even mind the occasional hook or hold as long as the offender is keeping his feet moving. Let ’em play, right? But when the lazy or tired or out-of-position obstruction fouls are being overlooked, that’s where the game really bogs down. They’re devaluing the product by letting that stuff go.
PAGE: The officiating is fine. There seem to be more complaints about the referees missing dirty hits than calling phantom penalties, which—assuming a certain amount of human error—is the side to which I prefer they err. Let them play—the violence adds to the stakes of the playoffs. Where would the drama be in the great Oilers-Islanders rivalry if every Billy Smith slash on Wayne Gretzky's ankles had lead to a power play?
BLINN: It’s become par for the course at this point. Given the playoff atmosphere in the league during at least the last few weeks of the regular season, officials have been content to “let 'em play,” and it’s time to tighten up. A recent glimpse into a pregame strategy meeting showed that they’re focused on the post-whistle festivities and retribution, but instead of trying to get a handle on things after the fact, a better plan might be to manage the game more effectively—even if that makes tossing a name-brand player like Ovechkin after a blatant hit from behind on a guy like Hickey.