Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Round two preview

Welcome to Round 2 of the NHL playoffs. It arrived a bit early, since the hockey gods cruelly deprived us of so much as a single Game 7 in the opening round, but we're happy to have it anyway.

The action gets underway tonight with the Western Conference, and tomorrow night with the Eastern Conference. And the previewing gets underway right now.

Western Conference

For years, the Western Conference has been the NHL's better half. That wasn't the case this year, and with the conference's two best teams in terms of regular season points already done, the path to the final is wide open.

Pacific Division: #1 Anaheim Ducks vs. #2 Edmonton Oilers

In this corner: The Ducks (46-23-13, 105 points, +23 goals differential not counting shootouts), who should be well-rested after sweeping aside the Flames in four games.

And in this corner: The Oilers (47-26-9, 103 points, +36), making their first postseason appearance since 2006. They went all the way to the final that year, in case you were wondering.

Head-to-head: The Oilers won three of five.

Dominant narrative: The up-and-coming Oilers face a veteran team whose window may be closing. If that sounds familiar, it was pretty much the same story line we had in the San Jose series. The Ducks' situation isn't quite as urgent as the Sharks', but it's not far off, thanks to an aging core that's locked into some long-term deals. It's not quite "now or never" in Anaheim, but in theory they should have a sense of urgency that the young Oilers may not be able to match.

Injury report: The Oilers are relatively healthy. The Ducks have been missing two key defensemen in Cam Fowler and Sami Vatanen, but it sounds like both men might be back for Game 1, which would be huge.

The big question: Does momentum matter in the playoffs? If so, the Oilers could be in trouble, because the Ducks have been just about unstoppable lately. They've won eight straight going back to the regular season, and haven't lost in regulation since March 10.

One player to watch: Ryan Kesler. The Ducks went out and traded for Kesler three years ago (and gave him a big extension that lots of us questioned) for exactly this sort of scenario. He'll be tasked with shutting down Connor McDavid, or at least with preventing him from single-handedly winning the series. It's no easy task, but Kesler earned a Selke nomination for his defensive work this year, and he's been around long enough to know how to target the other team's star. McDavid had four points in the first round, which would be fine for most players but was a disappointment for him. If Kesler can limit him early, frustration could set in.

Key number: 79. That's how many games Edmonton's Cam Talbot has started so far this season, including a league-leading 73 during the regular season. That's well above his previous career high of 53, and this is his first playoff run as a starter. Does he wear down eventually? He was very good against the Sharks with the exception of a Game 4 meltdown in which he gave up five goals on the way to a 7-0 loss.

Prediction: Oilers in six.

Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: At some point, Kesler does something to McDavid that leads to Milan Lucic making a show of wanting to fight him.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

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