Previewing the NHL's First Round: Part 1

With the Qualifiers and Round Robin completed, here are the keys that stand out for each of the series that are starting on Tuesday.

Columbus vs Tampa

The story line heading into this series is obvious; can Tampa get payback for Columbus knocking them out after their excellent season last year? That was only amplified by Columbus eliminating a Toronto team with a lot of offensive talent, even though the underlying stats show that it wasn't a matter of Columbus shutting down that Maple Leafs offense. While many see the Toronto series as a sign that the Blue Jackets are prepared to follow the same game plan to success, I can't see them advancing if they give Tampa the same number of chances that they gave Toronto

Keys for Columbus

Defensemen Need to be Smart About When to Jump into the Play

As I wrote prior to Game 5 against Toronto, Columbus needs their defensemen to provide some scoring if they're going to have a chance in this series. However, they need to balance that against taking unnecessary risks that provide extra opportunities. There were far too many times against the Leafs that Columbus d-men made poor decisions like the one below that led to odd man chances the other way.

Tavares scored in that example, but for the most part Toronto failed to take advantage. I can't image that being the case again with Tampa if Columbus makes similar mistakes.

Korpisalo Must Continue to Be Dominant

Even though they were shutout in Game 5, the Maple Leafs generated tons of chances - the Tavares-Matthews-Marner line in particular generated 4 high-danger chances and had 10 shots. That wasn't out of line with the rest of the series; at 5v5 in particular, the Leafs generated far more chances. The difference was Korpisalo and his .980 save percentage at 5v5 in the series. I don't expect him to repeat that, but he'll need to be close for Columbus to have a chance.

Keys for Tampa

Get Production from Their Stars

The Lightning got almost no production from their stars in last year's loss to Columbus - Kucherov, Stamkos, and Point combined for just two goals and three assists. The Lightning have found even more depth this year, as they always seem to do, but the stars need to play like stars this season. Toronto showed in the Qualifiers that chances can be there against this Columbus team; Tampa has to depend on their stars to convert.

Dominate on the Power Play

Columbus gave up chances to Toronto at 5v5, but depended on Korpisalo to limit the goals. That formula didn't work as well when Toronto had the man advantage, with two power play goals and three with the goalie pulled. Tampa had the fifth best power play in the league this year and have great puck movement - that combined with Columbus' aggressiveness on the PK can lead to player being lost in the circles or down low. Tampa can make Columbus pay for similar gaps in the coverage.

My Prediction - Tampa in 5

Calgary vs Dallas

This is almost guaranteed to be a low-scoring series, largely due to Dallas' strong defense and goaltending combined with their struggles on offense. Both teams have the talent to be better than they've shown, and it could come down to which one breaks out.

Keys for Calgary

Continue Their Strong Power Play

Calgary had an average PP in the regular season, but put up five goals on 17 opportunities in the first round. A lot of that was done by crashing on the weak-side for either an open shot or the rebound. If Dallas leaves those opportunities open, Calgary converting could be the difference in a close series.

Have to Get Production from Gaudreau

Johnny Gaudreau is the perfect example of some of the underachieving players among these two teams. He went from being an MVP candidate last year to being outscored and outchanced at 5v5 this season. If he can find his old form, the Flames team becomes more dangerous both against Dallas and moving forward.

Keys for Dallas

Can They Turn Strong 5v5 Play Into Scoring?

Dallas had the 5th best xG% at 5v5 play this season, but only turned that into the 19th best scoring %. That wasn't an issue of goaltending - they had the best save percentage in the league. The problem was an inability to score, with the 13th best xG turning into the second least goals scored. Talbot played well against Winnipeg, but Dallas will need to find a way to convert their chances against him.

Will They Take Advantage of Their Skill?

Part of the reason for the issue above is that Dallas insists on primarily playing a dump and chase game, despite the fact that it doesn't fit most of their high-end talent. I don't see them drastically changing that all of a sudden, but any move towards opening up could be enough to propel them forward.

My Prediction: Dallas in 7

Carolina vs Boston

The best line in hockey might be in this series, and it might not be on the Bruins. Teravainen-Aho-Svechnikov were excellent all season, and continued that against the Rangers. They don't have the defensive strength of the Bruins' top line (though that's mostly Bergeron), but certainly have enough talent to take over another series.

Keys for Carolina

Stars Need to Keep Playing Like Stars

The top line of Carolina can dominate, but the issue for the Hurricanes is a lack of depth compared to the Bruins. Carolina has relatively average 2nd-4th lines, compared to strength throughout Boston's lineup. The Aho line will need to control their matchup to give Carolina the opportunity to win.

Own the Special Teams Battle

The other way Carolina can overcome the lack of depth is by owning the battle on the power play and penalty kill. This series is a battle of elite special teams, with the only two teams that are top five in both areas. Carolina finding a way to win that battle will be needed to overcome a slight deficit at 5v5.

Keys for Boston

Wake Up

It's hard to know how much to read into the performance of the Bruins in the Round Robin, and Brad Marchand referred to them as preseason games. Unfortunately, that performance led them to having to face a strong Carolina team now. Boston was the best defensive team in the league during the regular series, but allowed eight even-strength goals in the Round Robin. That included a save percentage under 90% after having the second-best percentage in the league. I'm not as worried about the offense since chanes were being created and just didn't go in, but Boston needs defense and goaltending more in line with the regular season.

Match Up the Top Lines

With Boston having the last change, I'd anticipate them aiming to match up the top lines whenever they can. Boston's top-line was dominant in chances at 5v5 in the Round Robin, even though they couldn't turn it into goals. Given their performance defensively and the corresponding defensive weakness of the Aho line, Boston will aim for the head-to-head matchup that can prevent Carolina's top-line from taking over.

My Prediction - Hurricanes in 7

Chicago vs Vegas

Vegas is the much stronger team, and should have no problem with Chicago; obviously, Edmonton would have thought the same thing. The problem for Chicago is that they were largely outplayed by Edmonton, and are now playing perhaps the best offensive team in the league.

Keys for Chicago

Find a Way to Limit Vegas Enough to Outscore Them

Chicago obviously has talent up front, and Patrick Kane and company can provide some goals. The problem is that they're also possibly the worst defensive team in the NHL. Strong goaltending covered that up during the regular season, and was good enough against Edmonton. The Blackhawks aren't good enough to really limit Vegas' offense, but need to perform at least average to give the offense a chance.

Get Some Breaks, and Take Advantage

Chicago got outchanced by the Oilers, but were great at converting their opportunities. That was a better performance than their average shooting percentage in the regular season, and must continue. Vegas won't give many opportunities, but Chicago needs to be great at converting to contend.

Keys for Vegas

Which goalie will play?

Neither goalie was great this season, but I'd expect Vegas to go with Robin Lehner in this series; he was below average against high-danger chances, but still outperformed Fleury in that area. That small difference could be enough for a choice of Lehner to prevent Chicago from converting their limited chances.

Take Advantage of the Offensive Advantage

Vegas had the most xG this season, but only converted at the 13th best rate in the league due to a shooting percentage that ranked 21st. The best chance Chicago has to stick around is if Vegas continues not to convert - even an average conversion rate against such a poor defense would be enough for Vegas to dominate.

My Prediction - Vegas in 4

All Data Referenced Is from Natural Stat Trick and/or

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