By Stu Hackel
We quickly move to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, what they call the conference semi-finals. Upsets galore, tight games, lots of overtime and fierce play marked the first round and that shouldn't change too much now. With some strong teams knocked out, every survivor must figure that it has a chance to keep its playoff run alive. All it has to do is continue playing to its strengths, shore up its weaknesses and have a good game plan against its opponent. Easy, right?
Here's how the matchups look (in order of the series starts):
NASHVILLE PREDATORS (4) vs. PHOENIX COYOTES (3)
Predators -- What they did right the first round: In perhaps the most impressive performance by any team, the Preds dominated the Red Wings in nearly every aspect of the game. They were fast, they were skillful, they forechecked with purpose, and they moved the puck out of their own zone really well. They got the big stops from Pekka Rinne. They made the Red Wings look small.
What they need to improve: Nashville's power play (2-for-22) didn't sparkle along with the rest of their, so that's an area of concern. In a couple of games, the Preds played a bit too loose and surrendered too many shots, although Rinne held the fort.
What they'll need to do to win this round: The Coyotes' layered approach to defense makes them hard to play against, so patience and grit will be required, something Nashville doesn't lack. If they can get injured defenseman Hal Gill back, he'll take some of the shutdown and penalty-killing pressure off the top pair of Ryan Sutter and Shea Weber.
Coyotes -- What they did right the first round: Goalie Mike Smith was the story of their opening round win over Chicago, holding off the highly skilled Hawks. Phoenix showed great character in not folding, despite surrendering late goals that tied games. They got opportunistic play and timely scoring. Shane Doan's leadership and physical commitment was a major plus.
What they need to improve: Phoenix gave up far too many shots and too many high quality scoring opportunities against Chicago. While their character showed in their ability to not lose focus after giving up late goals, the fact is they did give them up with regularity, and protecting late leads has to be a concern for coach Dave Tippett.
What they'll need to do to win this round: With a bunch of nicked-up players who could be less than 100 percent, the Coyotes will have to overcome some injuries. They'll need to continue cobbling their offense together from a few different sources. Most importantly, Smith has to continue his superhuman play and stick with Tippett's game plan, something the Coyotes invariably do regardless of the circumstances. That's always the key to their game.
NEW YORK RANGERS (1) vs. WASHINGTON CAPITALS (7)
Rangers - What they did right the first round: New York stuck to the script that got them the top seed in the East: They played with character, blocked shots, got very good goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist (who won his first playoff series since 2008), and maintained a good tempo and pace. They exhibited solid defensive structure and Marc Staal played his best since returning from a concussion in January. In sum, they displayed a solid all-around playoff-style game.
What they need to improve: Their power play was inconsistent, vanishing in the middle of the series against Ottawa. Their 5-on-5 scoring could be better, as well, and they made it difficult on themselves by not finishing their chances, especially from their top scorers. If they can't get production from Marian Gaborik, they'll need more from their depth forwards. It would help greatly if Brian Boyle returns to anchor their third line and give them more size against the Capitals' grinders, but no one knows what his status is following his concussion.
What they need to win this round: The Rangers must be physical against the Capitals. The matchups will be key, especially Dan Girardi against Alex Ovechkin. They'll have to be hard on Nick Backstrom and make him a nonfactor in the series as they did to Jason Spezza of the Senators in Round 1. And New York's physical players must be hard on Washington's shutdown duo of John Carlson and Karl Alzner, who play a ton of minutes. Chris Kreider could be an X-factor player. He's fresh, not banged up, and has live legs. Some observers think he's now the fastest skater on the team (even faster than Carl Hagelin), if not in the entire league.
Capitals -- What they did right the first round: Though they got terrific goaltending from rookie Braden Holtby, the Caps also did what few thought possible: They successfully made the transition into a team that is hard to play against. They showed heart and focus, played with discipline, blocked shots, forechecked hard, had a solid game plan and got smart coaching from Dale Hunter, who we've previously disparaged in this blog. But his players have obviously bought into his system. The seeds to their victory over Boston were planted last summer when GM George McPhee signed established grinders Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer (and Jeff Halpern, although he's essentially been replaced by Jay Beagle in the lineup) and re-signed Brooks Laich and Jason Chimera. Their depth forwards outplayed the Bruins' in the series.
What they need to improve: Hunter must find a way to get Ovechkin going offensively. They also struggle moving the puck out of their end, and some solid puck movement and offense from Mike Green, who is still figuring out what Hunter wants from him, would be welcomed.
What they need to do to win this round: Holtby will have to be excellent again. The top shutdown duo of Carlson and Alzner must play big minutes effectively and old warrior Roman Hamrlik needs to hang in for another tough round. The Caps sat back in their own end too much against Boston, and had the Bruins showed the same hunger they did last spring, it might have been Washington's undoing. The Caps have to move the puck from their own zone with more confidence against New York.
ST. LOUIS BLUES (1) vs. LOS ANGELES KINGS (8)
Blues -- What they did right the first round: They did almost everything right against a more experienced San Jose club that had been playing its best hockey of the year heading into the postseason. St. Louis got strong play from its best players and moved the puck well out of its own zone. The Blues attacked in waves. They got very good goaltending from Brian Elliott, who came in after Jaroslav Halak's injury, but that's indicative of their depth everywhere. They largely neutralized the Sharks' top players, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture.
What they need to improve: The Blues didn't handle playing with leads as well as they'll need to going forward. They got reckless, but some of that was a consequence of many of their younger players having minimal playoff experience.
What they'll need to do to win this round: The Blues and Kings are very similar in their heavy forechecking style of play, so St. Louis must continue to play to its strengths and up its game against a rugged opponent. The nature of this series could mean that dominating special teams play will be a deciding factor. The X-factor: Andy McDonald, a standout in Round 1.
Kings -- What they did right the first round: It all starts in net with Jonathan Quick, who battled hard for the first series victory of his professional career. The Kings dominated in front of the net at both ends of the ice against the Canucks. They did a really good job of attacking from the slot area on offense, as well as clearing the crease and moving the puck out of danger in their own zone. The more physical Kings -- Dustin Brown, Mike Richards, Anze Kopitar, Jordan Nolan, Dwight King, and Jarret Stoll -- played effectively in shutting down Vancouver's attack and pressing the play forward.
What they need to improve -- They gave up too many shots in the opening round and made it harder on Quick than they had to. They also weren't great on the power play and didn't win enough face-offs. They also didn't get much out of Jeff Carter, who could be slowed by a foot injury.
What they'll need to do to win this round: Like St. Louis, the Kings have to stick with what has worked for them, play their simple game of getting the puck out of their zone and into the Blues', pressuring it all over the ice, winning one-on-one battles and trying to work harder. It's a series that is bound to be physical. The pace could be slowed by lots of stoppages and that will mean their success in the circle will be a big factor.
PHILADELPHIA FLYERS (5) vs. NEW JERSEY DEVILS (6)
Flyers -- What they did right the first round: Playing an attacking style, Philly's star players were truly stars -- Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell, Danny Briere and the greying Jaromir Jagr were all outstanding. Elevating his game, defenseman Braden Coburn has never played better. They got strong performances from underrated guys like Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier and Wayne Simmonds, who played hard, physical, smart hockey. Their special teams were exceptional, with a power play that was otherworldly and a penalty kill that scored three shorthanded goals.
What they need to improve: From game to game, the Flyers don't know what they are going to get from goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. They also need to control their emotions better and improve their discipline to keep from taking bad penalties. Their banged-up blueline corps still could cause them problems.
What they need to do to win this round: Their biggest task will be to shut down the Devils' top line, which is dangerous every time it is on the ice. In the offensive zone, the Flyers will want to engage their cycle game to take advantage of the Devils' no-name defense, which sometimes breaks down in such situations.
Devils -- What they did right the first round: New Jersey played with a lot of passion, pride and determination, winning a round for the first time since 2007. Aging goaltender Marty Brodeur battled through his occasional shaky moments and teammates' lapses to keep his confidence high.
What they need to improve: The Devils had the worst face-off percentage of any team in the first round, and for a club that wants to play a puck possession game, that's not helpful. Their power play, especially on the road, was not very good and their penalty kill -- best in the NHL during the regular season -- struggled, a real problem because they were shorthanded quite a bit. They also need to show more structure in their own zone. Perhaps most of all, the Devs must improve their secondary scoring.
What they need to do to win this round: Continued strong play from rookie Adam Henrique, their Game 7 hero, could help their need for depth scoring, but they'll have to get better production from Patrik Elias, Petr Sykora and Dainius Zubrus. New Jersey must ramp up its physical play against the Flyers, and especially be hard on Giroux. That's more possible if Bryce Salvador, injured in Game 7, can play effectively, but their bigger forwards, such as David Clarkson, Alex Ponikarovski and Zubrus will have to step up. Staying out of the box against Philly's power play while improving their own special teams work will be key for the Devils, especially because this could be a very physical series.
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