Eastern Edge: Play-In Previews of Montreal-Pittsburgh and Carolina-N.Y. Rangers
In this week's Eastern Edge, we'll break down a couple of the Eastern Conference playoff matchups and discuss their fantasy hockey implications. Obviously, no one knows what's going to happen in the playoffs, but hopefully these thoughts can give you some perspective as you prepare for your playoff pool.
From my experience, most playoff pools allow you to draft one fantasy roster that you stick with throughout the playoffs. If that's the case and you're looking for a 'safe' strategy, you should probably avoid drafting players from matchups that seem pretty even. You see, if you're stuck with the same roster throughout the playoffs, you don't want players that can easily be eliminated in the play-in round. For example, according to the oddsmakers, Florida and New York are pretty evenly matched. Although the Islanders are slightly favoured, smart mathematicians in Vegas think that each team has roughly a 50-percent chance of winning. However, that means they also have a 50-percent chance of losing. Does it make sense to load up your roster with a bunch of Panthers if there's a 50-percent chance Florida gets eliminated in the play-in round? The same logic can also be applied to the Hurricanes-Rangers series. If you're looking for the 'safe' bet, I suggest targeting players on teams that are heavily favoured to win their matchup (i.e. Pittsburgh).
With that being said, we also know how unpredictable the NHL playoffs can be. Tampa Bay was heavily favoured to beat Columbus last year, yet the Blue Jackets brought out their brooms for a 4-0 sweep. An additional layer of unpredictability exists this year as a global pandemic has kept players out of action for months and will cause them to play in front of empty arenas. So, while I spent the previous paragraph promoting a 'safe' strategy in fantasy playoff pools, maybe the safe play isn't the right play in this situation. If you're more of a risk taker, the best strategy might be targeting players from teams that you personally believe in. If you're only playing for bragging rights, it's more fun to live and die by your own picks than to make the safe play based on what is expected to happen. No matter what strategy you choose, I think it's wise to select depth players from teams that you believe in. Everyone knows the superstars, but playoff pools can be won with the right combination of depth players.
- Carolina Hurricanes (38-25-5) vs. 11. New York Rangers (37-28-5)
Although it was only a year ago, I feel like many of us have forgotten how well the Hurricanes played in the 2019 playoffs. In the first round, they defeated the defending champion Washington Capitals in seven games. They followed that up with a sweep of the New York Islanders in Round Two. While they were eventually swept by Boston in the Eastern Conference Final, Carolina had a really strong playoff performance overall. If you think Carolina is going to make another run this year, you should definitely target the team's first line of Andrei Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen, as well as defenseman Dougie Hamilton. While those are the obvious choices, there are a few underrated players who had strong showings during the 2019 playoffs. For example, Jaccob Slavin finished second in team scoring with 11 points in 15 playoff games – only Aho had more points (12). Jordan Staal and Warren Foegele also had underappreciated performances, tallying 10 and nine points respectively.
While Carolina's regular season record looks better than New York's, it's important to recognize that the Rangers were on a roll prior to the season's suspension. New York posted a record of 18-12-1 in 2020, accumulating more points than all but four NHL teams in the calendar year. In contrast, Carolina posted a record of 14-11-3 in the same span, but we can't read too much into that because they were dealing with a number of significant injuries. While I don't want to disrespect Aho, Svechnikov and Teravainen, I must say that the most talented players in this series play for the Rangers – Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad. I don't think that's an outlandish thing to say considering both Panarin and Zibanejad were on pace for 100-plus points over 82 games. While the Hurricanes have a number of talented young players that will continue to improve over time, I don't think they currently possess the game-breaking potential that Zibanejad and Panarin do. If you're backing the Rangers to win this series, you should probably target a few more players in addition to Zibanejad and Panarin. You can start with their line mates as Chris Kreider, Pavel Buchnevich and Ryan Strome all benefit from exposure to Zibanejad or Panarin at even-strength. On defense, Tony DeAngelo is probably your best bet to put up points as a prominent piece of the team's power-play. With that being said, Adam Fox is also very capable of putting up points and giving DeAngelo some competition for power-play time. Jacob Trouba makes for an interesting option if your league counts peripheral stats like blocks.
Ultimately, I think both teams have really strong rosters, with Carolina boasting the deeper lineup – especially on defense. However, I think this series will be decided by goaltending and I think Igor Shesterkin can be the x-factor for the Rangers. He won 10 of his 12 starts this year, posting an outstanding .932 save percentage and 2.52 goals against average. Sure, that's a small sample size, but so is this best-of-five series.
My Prediction: Rangers in 5.
- Pittsburgh Penguins (40-23-6) vs. 12. Montreal Canadiens (31-31-9)
Most of the discussion about this series has revolved around Carey Price and his ability to steal this series for the Canadiens. Now, let me start off by saying that I'm a die-hard Habs fan and Price is my favourite player – but I don't think he can win this series for Montreal. Sure, the optimistic side of me has flashbacks to 2010 when Jaroslav Halak's heroics brought the underdog Canadiens to the Eastern Conference Final, but it's been a while since I've seen Price display that kind of game-breaking ability. In his prime, I had faith in Price to stop every single shot. During his MVP performance in 2014-15, it didn't seem like he could be beaten by anything other than crazy deflections – which no goaltender would have been able to stop. However, over the last few seasons he's looked a lot more human and whether you believe that's a product of Montreal's lacklustre defense or not, it's hard to envision him outduelling a star-studded Penguins roster. Am I saying that Carey Price is no longer an elite goaltender? Not necessarily, but he hasn't looked invincible in recent play, so I can't expect him to be invincible in this series. With all that being said, Montreal certainly has a chance to win this matchup, but it has to be a team effort. I'm encouraged by reports praising Jesperi Kotkaniemi's play in training camp. I'm hopeful because Nick Suzuki had an incredible rookie season. I think Montreal has a chance because so many of their players are capable of stepping up – which is what the playoffs are all about. The roster may not include any 'superstars', but Tomas Tatar, Philip Danault, Brendan Gallagher, Jonathan Drouin and Joel Armia have all shown flashes of brilliance that can translate to success in the playoffs. On defense, Shea Weber and Jeff Petry have performed well consistently. If you plan on incorporating a bunch of Canadiens into your fantasy roster, Artturi Lehkonen is an underrated option. He put up four points in six games during the 2017 playoffs.
Okay, after providing a bit of optimism for my fellow Habs fans, it's time for the wet blanket of realism. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel. The Penguins have three elite offensive options and a strong supporting cast that Montreal will be hard pressed to shut down. Pittsburgh has an abundance of playoff experience and talent which should help them win this series. As I look across the other Eastern Conference matchups, this one seems the clearest cut. I think you'd be wise to include a lot of Penguins on your fantasy playoff roster. Aside from the obvious superstars, Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, Jason Zucker, Bryan Rust and Patric Hornqvist are certainly strong options. Although Zucker doesn't exactly have an impressive playoff résumé, he never had the luxury of playing with Crosby and Malkin. Zucker managed 12 points in 15 games after joining the Penguins and should be able to carry that level of production into the playoffs. If you're looking for more under-the-radar picks, I suggest Conor Sheary, Patrick Marleau, Jared McCann, Brian Dumoulin and John Marino. Yes, I'm aware I've essentially named every player on Pittsburgh's roster, but that doesn't seem like the worst strategy for building your fantasy playoff team.
My Prediction: Penguins in 4. Habs pick first overall (please).
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