David Pastrnak can’t be tamed

Through the first two games of this series, the Leafs have struggled to stop the Bruins offense, giving up 12 goals so far. Specifically, the Leafs have not been able to find a way to slow down David Pastrnak, who now has 9 points this series after his 6 point explosion on Saturday night. To say that the 21-year old Czech has been on fire is an understatement.

Read more

Toronto Raptors Round 1 Playoff Preview

The Toronto Raptors 2017/18 regular season has just come to a close and it has been a historic one at that. With a franchise best 59-23 record, the Raptors clinched the number one seed in the Eastern Conference and the best home record in the NBA. It’s clear a lot has gone right for the Raps this season and much of that can be attributed to the great work of Dwane Casey, the advancement of DeMar DeRozan’s game, the continued high-end stability of Kyle Lowry and the unmatched production from the bench. Because the NBA season as a whole came to an end on Wednesday night, the finishing touches have been placed on all of the matchups for the NBA playoffs that tip off on Saturday.

As the number one seed, the Raptors drew the number eight seeded Washington Wizards. The teams split the season series 2-2 while going back and forth between results in fairly tightly contested games each time (WSH 107-96, TOR 100-91, WSH 122-119 and TOR 102-95). Let’s preview the matchup ahead:

Tale of the Tape

Toronto Raptors

(#1 East)

Team

Washington Wizards

(#8 East)

59-23

Record

43-39

113.8 (2nd)

Offensive Rating

(Per 100 Possessions)

109.3 (14th)

105.9 (5th)

Defensive Rating

(Per 100 Possessions)

108.7 (15th)

+7.78 (2nd)

Margin of Victory

+0.59 (15th)

57.5% (4th)

True Shooting Percentage

56% (12th)

Offense:

The Raptors offensive efficiency has been very impressive this season as it has consistently been at the top of the league. While the Wizards managed to finish in the middle of the pack despite the absence of their starting PG for half of the season. The reality of this offensive matchup is actually a lot closer than I would’ve expected as the Wizards actually have an advantage in three point percentage (37.5% to 35.8%), assists per 100 (25.8 to 24.8) and offensive rebounding per 100 (10.3 to 9.9). But the fact remains that the Raptors simply are the better at putting the ball in the basket. Their two point attempts are converted at a better clip, they attempt more three pointers in their winning formula and are 4th in the NBA in free throw percentage. While there are a few things that are encouraging from a Wizards perspective, we’re talking about a Raptors offense that scored more than the Warriors per 100 possessions this season, which simply can’t be ignored.

Edge: Raptors

Defense:

This is fairly similar to the breakdown on offense, the Raptors find themselves in the top five and have for the course of the regular season and the Wizards are somewhere in the middle. Simply from a personnel standpoint I see the Raptors combination of bigs (Valanciunas, Ibaka, Poeltl, Siakam) causing the Wizards some issues. The Wiz are one of the few teams that consistently lean on a classic style centre in Marcin Gortat, but Valanciunas is quite capable in that matchup, as is Poeltl. But looking deeper, the Wizards lack the size and defensive presence to really scare me away, unless they’re planning on sending out a heavy dosage of Ian Mahinmi and Jason Smith. In that case, be my guest.

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Jason Smith averaged 3.4 points per game in 8.6 minutes per game this season…this is hilarious.

Anyways, in a small lineup the Wizards do possess some defensive length and athleticism in the form of Otto Porter, but the Raptors boast a very long and capable defensive lineup that has allowed them to average the 12th highest defensive rebounding percentage and second highest blocks per game while holding opponents to the third lowest effective field goal percentage. The Wizards aren’t in the top 15 in any of those categories.

Edge: Raptors

Projected Starting Lineups

Kyle Lowry

Point Guard

John Wall
DeMar DeRozan

Shooting Guard

Bradley Beal
O.G. Anunoby

Small Forward

Otto Porter
Serge Ibaka

Power Forward

Markieff Morris
Jonas Valanciunas

Centre

Marcin Gortat

Bench:

ESPN’s “FiveThirtyEight” put out a short clip fairly recently that focused in on the Raptors second unit’s dominance, it’s kind of crazy how much of an impact they’ve managed to have on both ends of them floor when the majority of the players are sophomores that have been developed within the Raptors organization. They have now formed themselves into the feared #BenchMob and have even campaigned for a shared 6th man of the year award. While that won’t happen, I’ll still take this group over Tomas Satoransky, Kelly Oubre and company .

Edge: Raptors

Star Power:

These two teams have fairly similar foundations in that they’re both built upon the leadership of All-Star guards. The matchups of Lowry/Wall and DeRozan/Beal will determine much of how this series plays out. John Wall has been injured for much of this season as he’s only appeared in 41 games in the regular season due to injury, but when healthy he’s a player that has the ability to be the best player on the floor in this series.

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The main (and maybe only) critique of the Raptors is their All-Stars not providing All-Star production in the playoffs and based on the past couple years of playoff appearances, those comments can certainly hold some weight. While the Raptors are quite reliant on their top two players to provide offense, the Wizards lean on Beal and Wall even more so and with that comes a great deal of pressure as well. The reality is that these are probably the two best backcourts in the East and a high quality matchup at that.

Edge: Toss Up

Conclusion:

Looking at this matchup from a numbers standpoint it’s pretty clear that the Raptors should be the favourites. I mean to be honest, it’s a 1 v. 8 matchup, you shouldn’t even have to look at the numbers to come to that conclusion. But for years the narrative of the Toronto Raptors playoff mishaps and let downs have been built up to the point that us Raptors fans can never shake the seed of doubt in the back of our minds…even as the team with the second best record in the NBA.

On the other hand, this season’s edition of the Raps second unit has the ability to spell the starters to a certain degree more than they have ever been able to in the past, so I feel that if Lowry is to struggle with his shot they will still be able to roll. And with that, these Raptors are the better TEAM and possess more depth and defense than the Wizards, which I think will eventually wear the opposition out. Wall and Beal certainly have the ability to win games if/when they take over, which I think they might for game or two, but I’m confident that the Raptors will come through and advance past the Wizards.

Prediction: Raptors in 6

Schedule: 

Saturday April 14th @ 5:30pm in Toronto

Tuesday April 17th @ 7pm in Toronto

Friday April 20th @ 8pm in Washington

Sunday April 22nd @ 6pm in Washington

Wednesday April 25th TBD in Toronto

Friday April 27th TBD in Washington

Sunday April 29th TBD in Toronto

 

I know we shouldn’t really look ahead, but this isn’t an encouraging trend:

Leafs versus Bruins: 2018 First Round Series Primer

Before I get started, let’s just get this out of the way:

In 2012-13, Toronto’s top ten in ice-time were: Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak, James Van Riemsdyk, Cody Franson, Nikolai Kulemin, Carl Gunnarson, Mike Kostka, Nazem Kadri and Mark Fraser. Of that list only Bozak, JVR and Kadri remain and in completely different roles. It’s been five years. I’m over it. Apparently the trolls aren’t over it.

Regardless of the “4-0 sweeps” brackets filled out by homers from either side, this will be a tough series that will hopefully go seven games and be as entertaining as possible. For anyone trying to make sense of first round battle between the NHL’s 4th and 7th seeds (just how dumb is this playoff bracket format?) I’ll break down the matchup bit-by-bit and try to piece this thing together. Read more

Bench Talk Episode 9: Playoffs?!

 

(1:40) Toronto Blue Jays are hot
(7:50) Roberto Osuna’s 100th career save
(10:50) Shohei Otani aka The Japanese Babe Ruth
(14:31) Bartolo Colon International Man of Mystery
(16:50) Timberwolves vs. Nuggets
(24:10) Toronto Raptors Playoffs Outlook
(34:30) NHL Playoff Bracket Breakdown
(1:05:00) Cam calls in

For more NHL playoff coverage check out the Eastern Conference First Rund Preview from Cameron and the Western Preview from Ray:

EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF PREVIEW: FIRST ROUND BREAKDOWN AND PREDICTIONS

 

WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF PREVIEW: FIRST ROUND BREAKDOWN AND PREDICTIONS

Eastern Conference Playoff Preview: First Round Breakdown and Predictions

The most wonderful time of the year is finally back. NHL Playoffs begin on Wednesday night and the boys at Bench Life are pretty excited about it. If you haven’t already, join our NHL Playoff Bracket Challenge quickly for a chance to win some cash and a Bench Life Sports t-shirt. Now, without wasting anymore time let’s get into it.

Matchups

Tampa Bay Lightning – 113 points (A1) vs. New Jersey Devils – 97 points (WC2)

Season Series: New Jersey 3-0-0; Tampa Bay 0-2-1

Breakdown

Tampa Bay has been at the top of the conference all season long, but the Devils have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL as of late. More specifically, Taylor Hall has made the Devils one of the hottest teams in the NHL lately. The former 1st overall draft pick in 2010 put together the best season of his career, finishing with 93 points and almost singlehandedly carrying the Devils to the playoffs for the first time since 2012.The issue is that after Hall, the scoring stops, and the combination of Schneider and Kinkaid aren’t exactly a guarantee to be solid in net. It looks like Kinkaid will be the starting, and it’s safe to say he deserves it. Read more

Western Conference Playoff Preview: First Round Breakdown and Predictions

Strap yourself in, fill up that beer fridge, and welcome to the most wonderful time of the year.

Yes, my fellow hockey nutjobs, the NHL playoffs have finally arrived and this season has been the normal, totally predictable NHL. We have a first-year expansion team as the top seed in their division, a team that finished dead last a season ago in a wildcard spot, and a team that I affectionately refer to as “Taylor Hall and a bunch of other guys” back in the playoffs for the first time since 2011-12. The Penguins are looking for the threepeat, the Predators are looking for sweet revenge, the Maple Leafs are looking to exorcise some demons, and the (new) Jets are looking for their first playoff victory.

I’ll be breaking down every series, matchups to watch, who I think will advance to round two, and other interesting storylines/tidbits for the Western Conference in the first round. Fellow Bench-Lifer Cameron Burgess is covering the East so be sure to watch out for his article as well. Let’s go!

nhl2018bracket_4918.png

(C1) Nashville Predators [53-18-11] v. (WC2) Colorado Avalanche [43-30-9]

Season series: NSH 4-0-0; COL 0-3-1.

Breakdown: Last season the Predators found themselves in a position quite similar to where Colorado is right now. They were a heavy underdog against Chicago, yet promptly swept them and made a run all the way to the Cup Final. While I’m not suggesting the same events will transpire here, I will say that seeding is somewhat meaningless once the playoff puck drops. Regardless, the Preds are unquestionably one of the favourites to win it all and for good reason. Their roster is almost identical to a season ago plus Kyle Turris, Nick Bonino, Ryan Hartman, and perhaps Eeli Tolvanen. They are deep up front (13 players with 10 or more goals), loaded on the blueline, fully healthy aside from Calle Jarnkrok, and Pekka Rinne is in the midst of the best season of his NHL career. Oh, and they have arguably the biggest home-ice advantage in the NHL. Have fun beating that team.

The Avalanche even being in this position is truly remarkable. Just last year they had the worst season by any team since 1999-00 as they posted a miserable 22-56-4 record. Now, they find themselves as heavy underdogs in the first round but in the playoffs nonetheless. A large portion of this success can be attributed to Hart Trophy candidate Nathan Mackinnon. He was sensational this season with 39 goals and 58 assists and finally harnessed the game-breaking ability that made him the first overall pick in 2013. Super sophomore Mikko Rantanen (29G/55A) and team captain Gabriel Landeskog (25G/37A) round out a potent top line that carried the Avs’ offense on most nights. Unfortunately for Colorado’s upset hopes, starting goalie Semyon Varlamov and top defenseman Erik Johnson were both injured just before the playoffs and neither will play in the first round. Jonathan Bernier will have to be huge in the crease for the Avs to keep up with the Preds.

X-factors:

Predators – While Ryan Johansen’s injury in the Western Conference Final was the biggest blow to the Preds cup run last season, they also lost a guy in the first round who looked like he was enjoying a playoff breakout. Kevin Fiala recovered from the fractured femur and carried his momentum into the regular season. Playing primarily in a top-six role, he set career highs with 23 goals and 25 assists. While Forsberg, Johansen, Subban, and Josi could be considered stars, the Preds are still a team that gets it done by committee. Fiala, who’s slated to play alongside Turris and Craig Smith, will be a massive part of the Preds’ secondary scoring. His playoff run was stolen from him last season but now he has another opportunity to impress.

Avalanche – Nathan Mackinnon will be the biggest reason why the Avs win any games but I am going to go a different route. The injury to Erik Johnson leaves a gaping hole on the blueline and Samuel Girard is the guy to fill it. The rookie was acquired from the Predators in the Turris/Duchene three-way deal and he has impressed Avs fans with his poise and smooth skating. He will have extra motivation playing against his former team and is in line to play upwards of 23+ minutes a night. He already stepped up in a big way in Colorado’s must win game against St. Louis to end the season as he was the best player on the ice. Again, the Avs are the biggest underdog in the first round but the playoffs are a different beast. Girard’s play will go a long way for the Avs if they want to make this a close series.

 

Prediction: Predators in 5.

Nashville just simply outmatches Colorado in every single aspect of the game. The forward core is deeper and more experienced, the blueline is an embarrassment of riches, and Pekka Rinne is a wall in net. If Varlamov and Johnson were healthy I could maybe stretch it to 6 games but I cannot envision a scenario where the Preds bow out this early. I do think Nathan Mackinnon is going to single-handedly will the Avs to a victory on home ice but that is about it. Preds roll.

(C2) Winnipeg Jets [52-20-10] v. (C3) Minnesota Wild [45-26-11]

Season series: WPG 3-1-0; MIN 1-3-0.

Breakdown: Both of these teams have been great since the calendar flipped to 2018. The Jets have ridden a balanced roster to one of the better records in the league. They have one of the strongest forward cores in the playoffs with stalwarts Schiefele (23G/37A), Wheeler (23G/68A), Laine (44G/26A), and Ehlers (29G/31A) leading the way. The trade deadline acquisition of Paul Stastny also worked out admirably as he recorded 13 points in his 19 games with the Jets. They have a stout defense which is evidenced by Jacob Trouba, Dustin Byfuglien, and Tyler Myers all being on separate pairings. If that isn’t enough, perhaps the biggest key to the Jets success was in net. Connor Hellebuyck, who was projected to be Steve Mason’s backup at the start of the season, has turned in a Vezina-caliber campaign with a sparkling 44-11-9 record, a .924 SV%, and a 2.36 GAA.

The Wild were their typical consistent self as they made the playoffs for the sixth straight year. Eric Staal, who has enjoyed a career renaissance in the Twin Cities, was a force centering the top line as his 42 goals and 76 points paced the team. Jason Zucker benefitted greatly from Staal’s presence as he chipped in a surprising 33 goals. Mikael Granlund also enjoyed a solid year with 46 assists and 67 points. Defensively, Ryan Suter was the stamina superstar again averaging 26:46 TOI per game but he fractured his ankle right before the start of the playoffs leaving a massive hole on the blueline. Luckily for the Wild, Matt Dumba broke out in a big way this season averaging 23:46 TOI per game while chipping in 50 points. Between the pipes, Devan Dubnyk’s underlying numbers were not as good as years past but he still managed an impressive 35-16-7 record.

X-factors:

Jets – I purposely left rookie Kyle Connor out of the initial blurb because I think his performance is critical for the Jets in this series. He had 31 goals and 26 assists in his first full season of NHL action. He benefits from the opposition zeroing in on his linemates Schiefele and Wheeler when the unit is out on the ice. He is a battler and finds ways to get to open areas while the all-star duo commands all the attention. In what should be a tight-checking series, his opportunistic style of play will be massive for Winnipeg. Connor also has a knack for scoring big goals as he tallied 7 game winners (3 in OT) this season.

 

Wild – Although he battled injury for a quarter of the season Nino Niederreiter will need to improve on the disappointing year he has had thus far. 18 goals and 14 assists are simply not enough from a top-six winger for a team that can struggle to score at times. Luckily, the playoffs are a clean slate and El Nino will be playing on the top line with Zucker and Staal. That trio is key for the Wild in this series as their solid puck possession numbers will wear down the Winnipeg D and lead to offensive opportunities. The big Swiss winger has a necessary net-front presence and a heavy shot. He was the best 5-on-5 Corsi player (52.94%) for the Wild by a wide margin which suggests he is playing good hockey, just not converting his chances.

Prediction: Jets in 6.

If Ryan Suter was healthy this series would be a complete toss-up in my book but losing a guy that plays almost half the game each night is too big of a hole. I love Matt Dumba but I am not very confident in a Nick Seeler/Nate Prosser pairing against one of the best offensive teams in the league. Winnipeg was second in goals for league-wide while also being fifth stingiest in goals against. The Jets power play is also one of the biggest advantages in the series as they scored on 23.4% of their opportunities (5th in the league) while the Wild scored on just 20.4% (18th in the league). Not only will the new Winnipeg Jets get their first ever playoff win, they’ll also be getting their first ever series win.

(P1) Las Vegas Golden Knights [51-24-7] v. (WC1) Los Angeles Kings [45-29-8]

Season series: VGK 2-1-1; LAK 2-1-1.

Breakdown: Well, I have to say I definitely did not imagine we would see the Golden Knights playoff debut in their inaugural season but here we are. The Knights rode a fairytale roster to the top seed in the Pacific and looked like one of the best squads in the league for most of the year. Vegas was led by Columbus castoff William Karlsson (43G/35A), Panther pariah’s Marchessault (27G/48A) and Smith (22G/38A), and parted Penguin Marc-Andre Fleury (29-13-4/.927SV%/2.24GAA). Even when there were injuries to three of their starting goalies the Knights did not slow down. They seemed to get contributions from a different part of their lineup every single game as they had six players with 20+ goals. Head coach Gerard Gallant deserves a boatload of credit for what he has done with this team. They can skate, they can score, and they can come at you in waves.

The Kings style of play is contrarian to that of the Knights. While Vegas has a speed and offense approach, the Kings are playing that old-fashioned barricading defense. They were the stingiest team in the league only allowing 2.46 goals per game and they also had the best penalty kill at 85% effectiveness. Jonathan Quick has been here before and knows what it takes to win in the postseason. He did not have a great year which is evident by his 33-28-3 record but that can quickly be forgotten during a sublime playoff run. Offensively, Anze Kopitar had a herculean season setting career highs in goals (35), assists (57), and points (92). The Slovenian will be in the running for league MVP as well the Selke for best defensive forward. Furthermore, Dustin Brown (28G/33A/61P) enjoyed a bounce-back year with his highest totals since 2010-11 and Jeff Carter, who only managed 27 games this season, is back and healthy for the playoffs.

X-factors:

Golden Knights – Tomas Tatar was George McPhee’s big splash at the trade deadline and the review is not good so far. The Knights paid a hefty price for the Slovakian winger who has only managed 6 points in 20 games wearing the gold, black and white. Tatar is deft and creative with the puck which should fit in perfectly with the high-octane offense but he cannot seem to find his footing. The Kings do not make it easy on opposing teams and goals will be hard to come by. The Knights need the veteran Tatar to show up and help lead the attack.

Kings – Adrian Kempe (16G/21A/37P) was one of the hottest Kings at the start of the season but has bottomed out as the year dragged on. Perhaps the grueling grind of an NHL season has taken a toll on the young Swede as he has not scored a goal in 28 games. With Carter back in the fold, Kempe has moved down to the third line which should offer more favourable matchups. If the Kings are going to keep up with the scoring prowess of the Knights they need Kempe to find the offensive fire that saw him snag 9 points in his first 10 games of the year.

Prediction: Kings in 7.

It is the classic battle of offense meets defense and although I think T-Mobile Arena will be a formidable place to play I have to take the defense in what looks to be a very close series. I think that over the course of seven games L.A head coach John Stevens will be able to effectively deploy his defense in a way that mitigates the Vegas attack. Kopitar and Drew Doughty are big game players and although the Knights have enjoyed productivity all season long the playoffs are a different beast. The series may just come down to the battle between Fleury and Quick. Strap yourselves in for a mean, hardfought war.

(P2) Anaheim Ducks [44-25-13] v. (P3) San Jose Sharks [45-27-10]

Season series: ANA 1-1-2; SJS 3-0-1.

Breakdown: California cities and Pacific Division rivals collide in this evenly matched tilt. The Ducks are scorching hot right now ending the season on a 10-1-1 run. They lost 317 man games due to injury throughout the year including extended stints on the shelf for key contributors Kesler, Getzlaf, Perry, and Lindholm. They are relatively healthy now aside from Cam Fowler (who is expected to miss the first round) but the top two D pairings of Lindholm-Manson, and Beauchemin-Montour are set. The biggest advantage for Anaheim in this series is John Gibson, who vaulted into the best goalie in the league discussion with his phenomenal play this season. Gibson made 37 of 39 saves in a 3-2 win against the Blues in November with THIS TEAM playing in front of him:

DZkXU9rVwAAsUmG.jpg

If that isn’t enough to convince you about Gibson, nothing is. Regardless, since the all-star break Gibson leads the league in SV% (.937) and GAA (1.95). Offensively the Ducks should be fine with Getzlaf (11G/50A/56GP) and Kesler now back and healthy. Adam Henrique was acquired earlier in the season from the Devils and scored 20 of his 24 goals with the Ducks.

Moving onto NorCal, the Sharks are on the hunt for another playoff run after last year’s early exit against Edmonton. The usual suspects were the top producers for San Jose as Burns (12G/55A), Pavelski (22G/44A), and Couture (34G/27A) were 1-2-3 in team scoring. The Sharks are also dealing with an injury issue themselves as Joe Thornton is likely to miss Game 1 of the series due to the knee ailment that has cost him 35 games this season. Evander Kane was a big addition for the Sharks at the deadline and he has been solid so far with 9 goals and 14 points in 17 games. The team depth was exposed last season but they’ve received important contributions from players like Timo Meier, Joonas Donskoi, Kevin Labanc, and Tomas Hertl this year. The top two pairings of Burns-Martin, Braun-Vlasic are dependable and log heavy minutes. Martin Jones won 30 games for the third straight season but he struggled for stretches this campaign.

X-factors:

Ducks – While some of the Ducks biggest point producers were mentioned in the opening paragraph it is the unheralded 22-year-old out of the Czech Republic who will be key in this opening series. Ondrej Kase recorded the first 20 goal season of his young career and will be a key source of secondary scoring on the third line for Anaheim. He has disgusting hands and quick feet which makes him more than capable of scoring a highlight reel goal at a crucial juncture of the game.

Sharks – The most criminally underrated defensive defenseman in the league is my x-factor for the Sharks. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is a rock in his own zone and will be key to stymying the Anaheim offense. He logs heavy minutes on the penalty kill and against the top performers of the opposition. Both of these teams have talented forwards and are capable of scoring in bunches so defensive capability will be everything.

Prediction: Ducks in 6.

It is all John Gibson for me. I think he is one of the most talented goalies in the world and he looks on track to play in Game 1. Cam Fowler is a third pairing d-man on the Ducks and although they would like to have him on the power play I do not think his absence is as big of a loss as some people are saying. I like the Ducks offensive options a little bit more than San Jose. Realistically though, this is a very even series and one of the biggest differences could be what penalty kill performs best. The Sharks had the second most effective unit in the league (84.8%) while Anaheim had the fifth (83.2%). Special teams play a huge role in a playoff series and that could be a determing factor.

Contest Alert: 2018 NHL Playoff Bracket Bonanza

After a successful March Madness campaign where we had 17 people battle for $170 and a free Bench Life t-shirt (which is currently in production) we’re coming back with another playoff bracket challenge.

T Shirt Design

To join our pool click the following link:

https://bracketchallenge.nhl.com/leagues/bench-life-sports

Get the password from Brendan, Ray, Cam or myself over Facebook or DM us on twitter:

@benchlifesports
@twaind4
@BrendanBall96
@CameronBurgess
@MondoHarrison

Entry fee is $10 which you can pay to any of us at the Bench. Winner takes all of the money and gets a t-shirt. After that just fill out your bracket and have fun!

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