Eastern Edge: Observations on the early play-in games
In this week's Eastern Edge, I thought I'd share a few of my thoughts from the play-in round. Admittedly, I've spent more time watching certain matchups, which is reflected in the level of detail you see for each series below. Going forward, I'll try to get a more well-rounded perspective for you!
Montreal Canadiens vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Before this series began, I was convinced that Pittsburgh would beat Montreal. I told myself that Carey Price was no longer capable of winning a series by himself – especially against the elite offensive talents of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel.
Two games in and I've changed my mind.
Through the first two games of this series, Carey Price has been the best player from either team. He's displayed the calmness and confidence that we've come to expect from him when he's on top of his game. Price turned aside 39 of the 41 shots he faced in Game 1 and put on a show again in Game 2, stopping 35 of Pittsburgh's 37 shots. Although Price gave his team a chance to win both games, Montreal's offense only showed up for the first meeting, and so we find the series tied up at one. It's likely that Pittsburgh still wins this matchup, but Price's current form gives Montreal more than just a fighting chance. Guys like Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault, Brendan Gallagher, Max Domi and Jonathan Drouin have been underperforming so far, but if they can elevate their game just a little bit, I think the Habs can upset the Penguins.
Aside from Price, there are a few other Canadiens that deserve recognition for their strong play.
From my perspective, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Nick Suzuki and Brett Kulak have had standout performances for Montreal over these two games.
Only two players in this series have managed to score a goal in both games – Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Sidney Crosby. While Kotkaniemi's goals weren't exactly pretty, they came as a result of strong positioning and willingness to drive the net. It's encouraging to see him develop those qualities now, because he'll be able to fall back on them when other aspects of his scoring game aren't working. In addition, his skating has improved significantly over the past few months. He appeared almost clumsy while skating during the regular season but looks much more comfortable on the ice now.
The 20-year-old Suzuki has been incredible so far – thriving in every role that's been assigned to him. He's shown a perfect balance of offensive creativity and defensive responsibility. In Game 1, he was trusted as the lone forward to kill a 5-on-3 power-play. Suzuki exhibited veteran-like instincts and confidence while shutting down Pittsburgh's star-studded PP unit. Speaking of Pittsburgh's power-play, it's appeared pretty powerless through two games. The Penguins have had 12 power-play opportunities so far and they've only scored one goal with the man advantage. While Montreal's penalty kill deserves some praise, Pittsburgh's power-play is way too talented to be performing this poorly.
In a perfect world, the Canadiens would have a stronger option than Brett Kulak to play beside Jeff Petry on the second pairing. However, Kulak hasn't looked out of place during these two games against Pittsburgh. He's shown some offensive flair that wasn't frequently evident during the regular season. I'm curious to see how he performs during the rest of this series.
From a Penguins perspective, the top line of Guentzel, Crosby and Conor Sheary has been solid. However, Pittsburgh's other forwards have been pretty underwhelming so far. In particular, Evgeni Malkin hasn't really been on top of his game – the team needs more from him if they're going to make a run at the cup this year. From the blueline, 23-year-old John Marino has carried a strong rookie performance into the playoffs. He's not a household name just yet, but I think that'll change over the next few years.
Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs and playoff disappointment – name a more iconic duo. Okay, maybe that's uncalled for considering we're just one game into this matchup, but it's hard to have confidence in Toronto given their recent playoff history. Going into this series, we knew it was going to be a battle of Toronto's high-powered offense against Columbus' suffocating defense. However, it didn't seem like much of a battle in Game 1 as the Blue Jackets completely stifled Toronto's attack – making a team full of offensive threats seem harmless. The Blue Jackets may not have the same superstar power in their lineup that Toronto does, but they don't need high-scoring superstars to execute their game plan. If Columbus can maintain their strong defensive system, they have a number of players who can score timely goals to secure wins. On Sunday, the team kept Toronto at bay until Cam Atkinson eventually broke through with the game-winning goal. It was a great showing from Atkinson who put up two points in Game 1, leaving his struggles from this past regular season in the rear-view mirror. Although Joonas Korpisalo gets credit for a shutout, I think his success is a product of the team's stellar defensive play. Korpisalo did made a couple of big saves to secure the win, but I don't expect him to single-handedly steal games. Rather, I think Columbus wins or loses this series based on their team defense. Expect a much stronger showing from the Leafs in Game 2.
New York Rangers vs. Carolina Hurricanes
Although I picked the Rangers to win this series, I made my selection before we knew that Igor Shesterkin was unfit to play. Without Shesterkin as the x-factor, I think the Hurricanes have the edge in this series – but that's pretty easy to say now that they're up 2-0. While Henrik Lundqvist gave the Rangers a chance to win in Game 1, he wasn't as strong in Game 2. Ultimately, it's tough to blame goaltending when New York's high-powered offense scored just three goals through the first two games of this matchup. It's not like Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin have been invisible either, as both players have two points through two games. Despite that, they'll need to be even better if the Rangers are going to come back in this series. Carolina's top forwards have outproduced Panarin and Zibanejad as Sebastian Aho already has five points and Andrei Svechnikov recorded a hat trick during Monday's victory. Sami Vatanen has been a pleasant surprise with three points from the blueline. He struggled so much with injuries during the regular season, I forgot how productive he can be when healthy.
Florida Panthers vs. New York Islanders
Going into this series, I thought that Florida could beat New York as long as Sergei Bobrovsky put together a strong performance. Through two games, Bob has actually played really well. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about Florida's defense. The Panthers have given up so many power plays and quality chances in Game 2, that they've let the Islanders score four goals. New York's offense ranked 22nd in the league during the regular season, averaging 2.78 goals per game. In fairness, New York deserves a lot of credit for exploiting Florida's weak defense as so many players throughout the roster have contributed to the scoresheet. The Islanders have displayed a deep attack as 11 different players registered a point through two games. In contrast, Florida's high-powered offense is missing some of its bite due to a lack of depth scoring. The usual suspects – Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Mike Hoffman – have been productive, but guys like Noel Acciari, Brett Connolly and Frank Vatrano need to make more of an impact for Florida to have any shot at a comeback.
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