PITTSBURGH — Despite the Pittsburgh Penguins‘ undefeated start to Round 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs, coach Mike Sullivan sees areas for improvement in his team. Most notably, he wants to see his players spend more time in the offensive zone and depend less on the counterattack as their main source of offense.
“We’ve always said to our players, we have to be a team that generates offense in different ways,” Sullivan said on Sunday. “Moving forward, our hope is that we do a better job controlling territory so we don’t have to rely on [the counterattack] as much.”
The Penguins may have jumped out to a 2-0 series lead against the Washington Capitals — and maintained their perch as Stanley Cup favorites in our weekly rankings — but that standing is precarious if Pittsburgh doesn’t round out its offensive game.
Here’s a look at where all eight playoff teams stand midway through the second round:
Two games into the second round, the Penguins have emerged as the Stanley Cup favorites in large part because of opportunistic scoring by their stars and the goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury. The question is whether they can keep it up. Giving up a ton of shot attempts and then burying a high percentage your own few chances is a dangerous way to survive. The Penguins have a postseason-high 11.2 shooting percentage at even strength (per naturalstattrick.com), and are the only playoff team in double digits. That’s going to be tough to maintain, although the San Jose Sharks finished the postseason last year at 10.8 percent.
This is the best defense of any team left in the playoffs, and Ryan Ellis‘ offensive production highlights that Nashville’s D goes beyond just P.K. Subban and Roman Josi. Ellis had goals in back-to-back games against the Blues and now has points in six consecutive playoff games. The Predators now have gotten seven goals in the playoffs from their defensemen. Factor in the potent top line and Nashville is shaping up to be a real Stanley Cup threat.
The Oilers came out flat after building a 2-0 series lead at home, something you might expect from a young team. But you can’t ignore everything the Oilers have done so far against the Anaheim Ducks, including the way they rallied after an early Game 3 deficit. Connor McDavid has been productive — and his goal in Game 3 was ridiculous — but he still hasn’t had his major breakout playoff game. You know it’s coming at some point. Meanwhile, guys like Cam Talbot, Leon Draisaitl and Adam Larsson are proving this team is much more than the McDavid show.
The Ducks turned in a statement game in beating the Oilers 6-3 on Sunday to get themselves back in the series. That, along with their steady pressure on Talbot in the previous games, keeps the Ducks right near the top of these rankings as a Stanley Cup contender. The veterans aren’t going to get rattled by anything the playoffs throw at them, and Anaheim’s fantastic defense is getting healthy.
Granted, there are teams below the Capitals in these rankings that have actually won games in the second round, which Washington has not done heading into Game 3 on Monday night in Pittsburgh. But the Capitals have played so well at times during stretches against the Penguins that you can’t rule them out of the series, especially if goalie Braden Holtby gets going.
Plus, I admire Barry Trotz’s confidence. “We’re going to go there and win two games there,” Trotz said after losing two at home to open the series.
And if they somehow rally to beat the Penguins, this team becomes the Cup favorite. So the Caps don’t make a major drop here yet.
There’s something special going on with this team. Coach Guy Boucher has helped build a belief system among his players that has helped the Senators overcome every obstacle thrown their way all season. And they’ve dealt with their share. We knew Erik Karlsson was great, but the postseason has put a spotlight on a player like Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who deserves it. Not only is the Senators center second in playoff scoring with five goals, he’s also a guy who should be on a lot of Selke Trophy ballots.
After they ousted the Montreal Canadiens in the first round, everything seemed to line up perfectly for the Rangers. They had the path carved out for them, so dropping the first two games in Ottawa ranks up there with Washington’s stumble as the biggest early disappointments of the second round. Henrik Lundqvist was great against the Canadiens, but then allowed six goals in Game 2 versus the Senators — a team not necessarily known for lighting things up offensively.
Here’s the deal: I still like the Blues. But if we’re ranking these teams in terms of who is most likely to win the Stanley Cup at this point, which we are, their path is too tough after dropping two of three against the Predators. Even if they pull off a series comeback against Nashville, there will be a great team waiting in the Western Conference finals. Goalie Jake Allen had to be perfect again in Round 2, and he hasn’t been, registering a .900 save percentage against the Predators in three games.