The Stanley Cup playoffs are always a special time, but even for the postseason, Wednesday is going to be a big day. Three different series will culminate in seventh games, and the final three victors of the first round will advance to the division finals.
In the East, teams from two of the NHL’s biggest markets—New York and Philadelphia—will face off for the right to meet Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the rest of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. If the Rangers are victorious, we’ll see Henrik Lundqvist go head-to-head against two of the NHL’s best offensive players in its premier market; if Philadelphia moves on, we will instead have another edition of the Battle of Pennsylvania.
Out West, the Minnesota Wild have pushed a heavily favoured Colorado Avalanche club to the limit. Fourteen points and 29 goals separated the two clubs in the regular season, but their playoff series could hinge on just a single goal.
The other series has seen the 2012 Cup-winning Kings win three straight to erase a 3-0 series lead held by the San Jose Sharks, themselves a legitimate contender; it has featured arguably the best hockey of the first round.
With quality teams on either side in all of these games, it’s impossible to know who will emerge victorious on Wednesday, but that isn’t going to stop us from guessing. The following are our picks to survive to continue playing hockey in May.
Philadelphia Flyers vs. New York Rangers
When: 7 p.m. ET
Watch: NBCSN, TSN2, MSG, CSN-PH, RDS
Key for Philadelphia: The Flyers have not won a game in this series in which they have been outscored at even strength. Given that the five-on-five goals in the first six games favour New York by a 13-8 margin, that’s really saying something.
It is imperative that Philadelphia at least match the Rangers at evens. So far, the Flyers’ potent special teams have made the difference, so the more this game is played in those situations, the more New York is playing into Philadelphia’s hands. But the Flyers really can’t afford to struggle when the clubs have the same number of men on the ice.
Key for New York: It sounds strange to say in a series that’s knotted at three, but the Rangers just have to continue as they’ve started.
At five-on-five, New York has been the far better team by any metric, dramatically outshooting the Flyers and running up a lopsided goal differential. On the power play, Philadelphia is converting shots to goals at an absurd 31.6 percent clip, the kind of rate that’s simply too good to be true.
New York has been the better team for most of this series. The Rangers should feel good about what they’ve accomplished so far and have little reason to re-evaluate it.
Prediction: New York defeats Philadelphia.
Minnesota Wild vs. Colorado Avalanche
When: 9:30 p.m. ET
Watch: CNBC, TSN2, ALT, FS-N, RDS
Key for Minnesota: Minnesota has outscored Colorado at five-on-five. It has had the more effective power play, percentage-wise. It has had the better penalty kill. Yet somehow, this series is knotted at three games each.
Somehow, the Wild need to find a way to get the job done on the road. All three games played in Minnesota have gone their way, while all three played in Denver have been decided in favour of the Avalanche.
Key for Colorado: After getting badly dominated on the shot clock early in the series, at times even when they were winning games, the Avs have shown welcome signs of progress in that department in the last couple of contests. Even in the game the Avs lost, Minnesota didn’t carry the play to the degree it had earlier in the series.
Colorado has a Vezina candidate in net, it has Matt Duchene back and it’s getting standout performances from players such as Paul Stastny and Nathan MacKinnon. If the Avalanche can stay close to even in the possession game, as they have of late, those individual scorers and that excellent stopper should make up the difference.
Stastny has some extra motivation; as a pending free agent his performance is being closely scrutinized not just by Colorado but by almost everybody. Or, as the Denver Post's Mark Kiszla puts it:
All Avalanche center Paul Stastny has riding on this game is $20 million. Or is it $30 million? And if an athlete refuses to choke on such immense pressure, doesn't he deserve to be richly rewarded? This is Stastny's time to be a money player.
Prediction: Minnesota defeats Colorado.
Los Angeles Kings vs. San Jose Sharks
When: 10 p.m. ET
Watch: NBCSN, CBC, CSN-CA, PRIME, RDS
Key for Los Angeles: All the Kings have to do is keep rolling.
On CBC Saturday night, in one of his always terse postgame press conferences, Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter was asked what his team was doing differently from what it had done early in the series against San Jose. His answer was simple: “Stave off elimination.”
Los Angeles has had its collective back to the wall in each of its last three wins. The Kings have shown as well as any team could under that kind of pressure, and they just need to do it one more time.
Key for San Jose: The Sharks have a reputation—fairly or otherwise—as a team that chokes when things really matter. This series against Los Angeles, which started so well and has spiraled so badly out of control, has fed into that narrative.
Almost everything that could go wrong has gone wrong, right down to that critical goal in Game 6 and the way the team collapsed afterward.
The Sharks have to arrest that fall and put whatever shame they feel about the control they’ve lost out of their minds. If they can, they just might rekindle the magic that gave them that commanding lead at the start of this series.
They've been in this position before (in 2011) and succeeded in winning the seventh game, but our own Dave Lozo thinks there's a crucial difference this time around:
Perhaps it was because McLellan treated this Game 6 like a Game 7, and rightfully so, and the Sharks responded in a way that revealed their high levels of frustration when they couldn't close the deal. Sometimes teams like to "send a message" at the end of lost games to "set the tone" for the next one, but the Sharks had the look and sound of a team that felt defeated, not one looking to motivate for the next game. That is what separates 2011 and 2014.
Prediction: Los Angeles defeats San Jose.