Stanley Cup Playoffs: 2nd round predictions

Alright, so I went 6-2 with my first round predictions this year. Not bad, but not great. I should have known better than to actually think the Blues would get out of the first round. Their annual disappearing act in round one is something everyone should witness. My other hiccup came via the Calgary-Vancouver series. I had Vancouver in seven. Give credit to the Flames for playing as well as they did in what was the first career playoff series for a lot of their players.

The second round features some really intruiging matchups. Hopefully they live up to expectations. Due to time constraints on my end between now and the first games Thursday night, this is going to be a quick post.

144 vs. 161

New York is coming off a fairly easy first round win over Pittsburgh while the Caps needed seven games to oust the Islanders. For me, the forward depth of these two teams is comparable with New York probably having the slight edge. It’s the defensive depth that separates one team from the other here.

-New York wins series, 4-2.

si34dm1f9jex9eoexq9l1svqk vs. TampaBayLightning_LOGO

Montreal began playing with fire against the Senators in round one after going up 3-0 in the series. It took a home loss in Game 5 to wake them back up and shut out the Sens in Game 6 to advance. As for Tampa Bay, they’ll be coming into this series fresh off of a Game 7 win at home over Detroit. They possess major speed and a guy named Steven Stamkos. The Habs have Carey Price, though. Expect a back and fourth series here with home ice ultimately being the deciding factor.

-Montreal wins series, 4-3.

ANAHEIM_DUCKS_LOGO vs. jesus-clip-art-2

Not many people saw a sweep coming from the Ducks against Winnipeg. If it wasn’t for their ability to mount multiple third period comebacks, that series would have gone the distance. While Anaheim did play well, their habit of trailing heading into the third is not a good one. Calgary, on the other hand, played a hell of a series against Vancouver. Despite their season-long poor possession numbers, they found a way into the playoffs as well as into the second round. They’ll need all four lines and Jonas Hiller to be great in this one.

-Anaheim wins series, 4-2.

56 vs. Minnesota-Wild-Wallpaper-

I already posted my preview of this series, so here’s a recap. This is the third straight year these two have met in the playoffs, with the Blackhawks winning the first two series. The Hawks didn’t play great in their victory over Nashville, but got clutch performances from their star players. Corey Crawford, as well as the same star players on this team, will need to play great this series. For Minnesota, they’re feeling pretty good about themselves right now after knocking out the Blues. Devan Dubnyk has to perform at a Vezina-type level, and the bottom two lines for Minnesota need to contribute for them to advance. In the end, Chicago just has too many weapons.

-Chicago wins series, 4-2.

Blackhawks – Wild preview

10-171460575-smallIt took both of these teams six games to advance to the second round of the playoffs, with the Blackhawks eliminating the Predators, and the Wild doing the same to the Blues (who seem to be everyone’s favorite to win the Cup on a yearly basis, but have now been sent packing in the first round three straight postseasons). Back in January, it wasn’t looking good for the Wild who sat about eight points out of a playoff spot at the time. That was before trading for Devan Dubnyk, however, who basically single-handedly got Minnesota into the playoffs. As for the Blackhawks, we all knew they’d be playing in April. The only question with them was which seed they’d receive.

This will be the third consecutive year in which the Blackhawks and Wild have met in the playoffs, with the Hawks winning both of the first two series. While the Blackhawks remain mostly the same team that eliminated the Wild the last two seasons, Minnesota has changed quite a bit without actually changing their personnel.

Two years ago when these two met in the first round of the playoffs, Minnesota was in its first season with this “new group.” By that, I mean it was their first year with Parise and Suter. They also had a bunch of young guys on that team like Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, and Charlie Coyle to name a few. Those guys were still learning the NHL game and weren’t much of a factor. Fast forward two years to now, and those same three guys, as well as others, are huge pieces to this Wild team. My point being that while you’ll see mostly the same names wearing Wild sweaters in this series, those guys have greatly improved over the last couple of seasons. They are more experienced and more confident than before, which is why the Wild are a better team than either one that lost to the Hawks the last two years.

For the first half of this season, Minnesota was really bad. Their offense wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t good enough, and their goaltending was horrendous. This prompted them to trade for Devan Dubnyk, who was having a solid year in Arizona with the Coyotes. After joining the Wild, Dubnyk started 39 games for Minnesota while going 27-9-2 with a 1.78 GAA and .936 save percentage. Those numbers are ridiculously good and are why he is a Vezina Trophy finalist. Once getting Dubnyk, Minnesota seemed to take their game to a new level and started playing like the team we expected them to be, and maybe even better. Defensively, they were strong, and offensively they became better than we’ve seen them in years past.

To compare, this year’s Wild team ranked 12th in the league in goals per game with a 2.72 average. Last season, they ranked 24th and averaged 2.43 a game. Defensively, they finished last season and this season with the same goals against average of 2.42 per game. When your offense jumps from 24th in the NHL to 12th and you stay in the top ten in fewest goals against per game, you know you’re doing something right. Their defense and shot suppression are a big reason why the eliminated the Blues in round one.

In summary, this is a much better team than the one the Blackhawks eliminated the past two years.

As for the Blackhawks, they looked just okay against Nashville in all honesty. They were outplayed in games 1, 2, and 5 for sure, as well as for decent stretches in another game or two. Yet they still won the series 4-2. That goes to show you just how good the Blackhawks are and can be. They tend to make the opponent pay for their mistakes, and they are somehow able to walk that fine line of playing dangerous without losing the series. It’s something we’ve seen from them in early rounds of past postseasons as well.

Surprisingly, goal scoring was a problem for the Hawks this season as they ranked 17th in that category. Their defense and goaltending made up for it, however. The Hawks finished only behind Montreal for fewest goals against per game, and Corey Crawford won his second career Jennings Trophy.

In the first round against Nashville, the script was somewhat flipped.

Corey Crawford was pulled from the net after the first period of Game 1 and struggled again in Game 2, leading to Scott Darling starting the next four games. He too ended up getting pulled after allowing three goals in the first period of Game 6, allowing Crawford to jump back in. The Hawks ended the first round with the second worst goals against average of the sixteen teams in the playoffs.

Offensively, the Blackhawks rank third in the league after the first round by scoring an average of a little over three goals per game. They got Patrick Kane back for the whole first round, and that paid off big time as he was a key reason for their offensive success. His presence not only in five on five play, but the powerplay as well is huge.

In terms of overall team defense, the Blackhawks looked both really good (the 40 minutes of Game 5 and the last 40 minutes of Game 6) and really bad. They had a tendency to give up a goal right after scoring, as well as give up goals in bunches. Look no further than the first period of Game 1 and the third period of games 2 and 5. I’m not sure if they lost focus during those times or what, but it wasn’t pretty to watch. Their team defense was just as much, if not more to blame for Crawford and Darling getting pulled as the two goalies were themselves.

So moving forward to the actual series between the Hawks and Wild, here are my five keys to a Blackhawks series victory:

  1. Goaltending. This goes for both teams. Corey Crawford, who will be the Game 1 starter for the Hawks, has to find his late season form again. He was arguably the team’s MVP for the regular season, and quite frankly, they need him to be just that if they want another parade in June. On the other hand, Devan Dubnyk is going to have his hands full against the Hawks’ offense. If he’s not great, the Wild will be in trouble.
  2. Defense. I know it sounds obvious, but it’s real concern of mine at the moment. Joel Quenneville basically used four and a half defensemen against the Predators due to Michal Rozsival being slow and a major liability and Kimmo Timonen playing the way you would expect a 40 year old to play. This resulted in the Hawks’ top four logging a ton of minutes in regulation, as well as the additional minutes from the five overtime periods that were played. Against Minnesota, Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, and Oduya need to be at their best. Rozsival and Timonen simply have to not make costly mistakes like they each did against Nashville.
  3. Special Teams. The Hawks’ penalty kill has been awful for the past month. They have got to start coming up with more kills if they want to advance. Their powerplay hasn’t been much better. They recorded two powerplay goals in Game 1 against Nashville, as well as another one in Game 6. That means their PP was scoreless for four straight games of that series. They need to start scoring with the man advantage. If they can’t do that, then at least generate shots on goal and momentum.
  4. Depth. Both of these teams have four solid forward lines, although I’d give the edge to the Blackhawks. Their fourth line caused some major problems for the Predators in round one, and they’ll need to keep it up against the Wild. The Hawks’ third line of Bickell, Vermette, and Sharp was alright, but not good enough. It looks like Teuvo Teravainen will be back in the lineup for Game 1 in place of Kris Versteeg, and he’ll be taking Bickell’s place on the third line with Bickell moving up with Kane and Richards. The trio of Teravainen, Vermette, and Sharp looks dangerous on paper, and they’ll have to be on the ice.
  5. Home Ice. The Blackhawks have home ice advantage this round, and have to make use of it. They went 3-0 at home against Nashville, which was huge after winning Game 1 on the road. Minnesota finished the season with 24 road wins this year, and went 2-1 in St. Louis in the first round. Needless to say, they don’t seem to mind playing in hostile environments. They are also a solid home team and play in one of the league’s loudest buildings. While the Blackhawks always seem to get a big road victory or two per round in the playoffs, they’ll need to win at home against this Wild team.

This is going to be a real tough test for both teams, but with Minnesota playing the better hockey at the moment, it may be a bigger test for the Hawks. They’ll be going up against another Vezina finalist after beating Rinne in the first round, and will have to somehow find a way to beat Dubnyk.

We’ve talked all year long about the Blackhawks needing to “flip their switch,” but now they really need to. However, if there is one team in the league who can seemingly take their game to the next level at a moment’s notice, it’s the Blackhawks. I’d expect them to do so starting Friday night at the UC.

Hawks in six.

Blackhawks can’t let up now

15-_DSC2491-toresizeWith Sunday’s 4-2 win over the Predators, the Blackhawks find themselves up 2-1 in this best of seven series with Nashville heading into tonight’s Game 4. As was the case on Sunday, Scott Darling will be starting in goal for the Blackhawks as he looks to improve to 3-0 this postseason. Aside from his effort in Game 3, the Blackhawks as a team put forth their best effort in Game 3 as well. That can’t change tonight.

In Game 1 down in “Smashville” as they like to call themselves, the Hawks got badly outplayed the entire first period and trailed on the scoreboard 3-0 heading into the first intermission. Joel Quenneville replaced Corey Crawford with Scott Darling, the rest of the bunch decided to start playing hockey, the second period began, and the rest is history.

Game 2 saw a better first period from the Hawks, and an okay second. They trailed 3-2 heading into the third before the wheels eventually fell off as they lost the game 6-2.

Then came Game 3 at home on Sunday. You could tell right from the get go that the Blackhawks were playing with more energy than we had seen in either of the first two games. They ended up getting the game’s first goal, which is always big, built two one goal leads before surrendering both, and then finally put away the Preds with goals from Saad and Seabrook to make it 4-2. That was the final.

All around, the Blackhawks played with more energy and desperation than they had in Games 1 or 2. They tightened up on defense and didn’t allow many great scoring chances for Nashville, and they were successful with their zone entries for most of the game. Granted, Shea Weber wasn’t waiting for them at the blue line like usual.

Pretty much everything that the Hawks did in Game 3 needs to happen again tonight. They have the Predators’ backs against the wall right now, and a win tonight would all but put the nail in the coffin for this series.

We know Nashville is going to come out playing like it’s Game 7, and unless the Blackhawks match that same level of compete, this series will be tied heading back to Tennessee.

Here are my keys to a Hawks’ victory in Game 4:

  • Puck possession. The Blackhawks were one of the top teams in the NHL this year in terms of puck possession, and it’s going to be crucial tonight. Keeping the puck in Nashville’s zone will only lead to shots on goal and scoring chances. Not to mention the fact that the more the Hawks have the puck, the more defense the Predators will have to play, ultimately wearing Nashville down.
  • Scott Darling will need to keep his hot streak alive. Nashville is going to get their handful of scoring chances, and Darling is going to have to keep making the big saves. Like I already said, the Predators should theoretically come out flying tonight in an effort to tie the series, so Darling will need to come up big.
  • The Hawks’ team defense was much better in Game 3 than in either of the first two. That has to continue.
  • Depth. The Blackhawks have an overload of forwards capable of playing right now. Their fourth line recorded the game’s first goal on Sunday and produced a number of real good shifts. If the Hawks can get more scoring and production from their bottom two lines tonight, I like their chances. As I always say: you can’t win without having good depth.
  • Lastly, score first. It is so much easier (for lack of a better term) to play with the lead than it is to always play catch-up. Scoring the first goal tonight will not only give the Hawks momentum, but will maybe plant a seed of doubt into Nashville’s minds.

I repeat, the Blackhawks cannot take their foot off the gas peddle in tonight’s Game 4. They have the Predators in a very vulnerable position and need to take advantage of that. Sending this series back to Nashville up 3-1 rather than tied 2-2 would be huge.

It’s here: Cubs’ future is now

10-171460575-smallAs is the case every so often, I’ll take a quick break from writing about hockey on here and shift the focus to baseball. Particularly, Cubs baseball. After promoting baseball’s top prospect, Kris Bryant, to the big league’s last Thursday, the Cubs made another big announcement late Monday night by recalling the game’s number four prospect: Addison Russell. It was widely known or assumed that Bryant would be on the Cubs’ roster by May, but things didn’t seem to be as sure for Russell.

With Mike Olt getting injured just a few games into the season, the Cubs were all of a sudden left with a gaping hole at the third base position. They got by for a handful of games with what they already had on the big league roster until enough games had passed where they could bring up Bryant without losing a year off his contract. So that problem was quickly and not surprisingly solved.

The other glaring problem with the Cubs’ lineup has been second base. Arismendy Alcantara was supposed to be the guy to hold down that position for the time being, but his early season struggles have led the Cubs to their next big call-up. Addison Russell, who figures to be a shortstop in the long run, had started putting some work in at second base recently, which raised some eyebrows and some questions regarding his immediate future with the organization. Are the Cubs just trying to get him used to another position, or do they want him coming up to Chicago sometime soon to play second base? As it turns out, the front office wants him starting tonight at second base for the big league club.

I think most people, myself included, expected Russell to see his first big league action somewhere between June and July. However, most people weren’t really expecting the Cubs to have such a dire need at second base either.

Everyone knew Kris Bryant would be making his first start for the Cubs somewhere around the 10-12 game mark of the season. As I already hinted at, not many expected Russell to be doing the same. What his promotion tells me is two things:

  1. The Cubs feel he is ready to make the leap from Triple A to the big leagues. In eleven games with Iowa this year, he hit .318 with 1 home run, 9 runs batted in, and an .803 OPS. His fielding has never been a concern.
  2. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are going for it and feel that this team and its young players are ready to compete for a playoff spot. If they didn’t believe that the playoffs were a real possibility, my guess is Russell would still be in Iowa.

The Cubs have gotten off to a 7-5 start to the season, which is by far their best start in many years. Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro have proven that they are good MLB players, with Rizzo looking like a perennial All Star and a cornerstone piece of the franchise, and Castro continuing to hit while improving defensively. Jorge Soler, who debuted with the Cubs last summer, has adjusted extremely well to the big league game and is off to a great start to the year. Many “experts” have him pegged as this year’s NL 10-171460575-smallRookie of the Year. Then you have recent addition Kris Bryant, labeled by many as the savior of the Cubs franchise. He has played in four games with the Cubs while hitting .429 with 2 doubles and 4 runs batted in. Oh, and his early OPS is 1.150.

Now that you add Addison Russell into the equation and take into account his potential, the Cubs’ lineup is suddenly loaded, and all with young talent. The average age of their infield is just 23 years old.

And don’t forget about the Cubs’ pitching staff. Jon Lester, while off to a forgettable start to the season, is a true ace and figures to turn his game around sooner than later. Jake Arrieta is coming off his best season a a pro in 2014, and is already 2-1 with a 1.74 ERA this year. Then you have Jason Hammel, Travis Wood, and Kyle Hendricks who have all pitched well and provided reason for optimism. Also, the Cubs’ bullpen is no pushover. Prior to Neil Ramirez getting hurt, they had the best bullpen ERA in the National League. I see no reason for their ‘pen to become a weakness.

Most people would say that this team’s weakness is their inexperience and starting rotation. Well I have a response to each.

The Cubs may be young, but they don’t play like it, and they don’t think like it. Epstein, Hoyer, and Jason McLeod draft players who not only possess great talent, but possess great maturity for their age. It doesn’t take a fool to see that while watching the likes of Rizzo, Soler, and Bryant, just to name a few. Secondly, the starting pitching of the Cubs wasn’t bad last year, and only got better this year. If the team continues winning games and is in a competitive position in the standings at the trade deadline, I would expect Epstein to deal for another top of the line starter in exchange for any combination of current (available) Cubs prospects. Starlin Castro and Javier Baez could be potential pieces to any such trade.

Obviously there is still A LOT of season left, but there is more reason for optimism with this team than we’ve seen in a long, long time. If the first twelve games are any indication as to how the rest of the season will play out, it’s going to be one hell of a fun summer on Chicago’s north side.

Keys to a Blackhawks’ series victory over Nashville

15-_DSC2491-toresizeTwo months ago this matchup didn’t quite seem possible, as the Predators appeared to be running away with the Central Division crown. Then came their downfall that landed them as the second seed in the Central, leading us to a rematch of the 2010 Western Conference Quarterfinals. The Blackhawks haven’t necessarily been playing well either, and have lost four straight games heading into the playoffs. Putting all of that behind us, there are many factors that come into play when trying to determine a winner in this series.

I said it in my “predictions” post that I think the Hawks will win this series in six games. Obviously it could go four, five, or seven games, but regardless I still think the Blackhawks will advance. The questions is, how will they advance?

-First of all, Patrick Kane is back and will be playing in Game One. That right there is a huge advantage in favor of the Hawks, who badly need to get their offense and powerplay back on the right track. I think we all know just how valuable a player Kane is, so I won’t elaborate anymore on him.

-Secondly, the Hawks’ defense has to be playing at the top of their game. Kimmo Timonen will be back to start the series after missing the last handful of games to close out the regular season, and his presence on the team’s blue line gives them more depth and reliability. That means nothing, however, if his partner (likely Rundblad or Rozsival) continues to be a liability. In the top four, we pretty much know what we’re going to get for the most part. Seabrook always seems to have the ability to stink, as does Oduya, but hopefully those two play the way they have lately and like they did in 2013. If it were up to me, I’d have the d-pairings look like 2-7, 4-27, 44-32. Keith and Seabrook, and Oduya and Hjalmarsson all seem to play better when they are paired that way.

The Blackhawks finished the year as the second best team in hockey in goals against per game, which says a lot about their team defense (and goaltending, which we’ll get to). The problem that the blue liners of the Hawks have had is their giveaways in their own zone and the neutral zone. More often this year than in years past we’ve seen Blackhawks defensemen pass the puck right to the opposition at the Hawks’ own blue line or in the neutral zone, leading to incredible scoring chances for the other team. This cannot continue to happen. Mistakes like these are usually mental ones and can be eliminated or at least cut back on.

While the Predators don’t present the best group of forwards in the league by any means, they’re still good and can take advantage of mistakes. I’m not too worried about the actual defensive play of the Hawks’ top five d-men, but they cannot afford to turn the puck over.

-Corey Crawford is coming off of arguably his best regular season since becoming the team’s number one goalie, earning his second career Jennings Trophy, and he’ll need to keep it up for the next couple months. He and his backups are a HUGE reason why the Blackhawks ended with over 100 points this year, so hopefully he can keep that up as well as get some more goal scoring from his teammates in front of him.

-Line combinations always are, and will continue to be a huge part of the playoffs. Right now, unfortunately, Joel Quenneville has his lines messed up. In the team’s last two practices, including today, the line combos were Saad-Toews-Hossa, Versteeg-Richards-Kane, Bickell-Shaw-Sharp, Nordstrom-Kruger-Teravainen. As you may have noticed, Antoine Vermette is missing from those line combos. Yes, that’s the same guy that the Hawks traded away a first round pick and arguably their top defensive prospect for at the trade deadline. And yes, he’s still one of the league’s best players at winning faceoffs. Yet he appears to be a healthy scratch for Game One.

The first question that pops into my head is why did they trade for him if he’s going to sit for Game One of the playoffs? I’m guessing that’s a common question among fans right now, but it’s not really a good one. A better question is what makes Joakim Nordstrom and Kris Versteeg more valuable than Vermette? Nordstrom is a fourth line player who is smart and reliable on the penalty kill. Guess what? So is Antoine Vermette, who’s also a better all-around player. As for Versteeg, he has been the worst Hawk over the last month and a half and has provided next to zero production for the team over that span. What makes him so irreplaceable? What Quenneville is probably thinking is that with Kane now back, he can reunite that trio of him, Versteeg, and Richards that was so successful back in December. If it works, great. If not, Versteeg should either be in the bottom six or scratched.

Another negative to Vermette apparently being benched is that you now have to play Andrew Shaw at center. Granted, even with Vermette in the lineup this has still recently been the case because Quenneville inexplicably decided to put him at wing. By having Vermette in the lineup and at center, the correct position, Andrew Shaw is moved to the wing where he has been his most effective throughout his career with the Blackhawks. As a wing, Shaw is able to be more involved on the forecheck and doesn’t need to take faceoffs. After acquiring Vermette back in March, the Hawks had Shaw on the wing and he instantly started playing his best hockey of the year. Go figure!

I am extremely hopeful that Quenneville will come to his senses and put the playoff experienced, veteran center Antoine Vermette back in the lineup for Game Two. Better yet, maybe he’ll still play him tomorrow and hope that these last two practices served as a “wake-up call” for Vermette who really does need to step up his game. Best case scenario, the lines for Game One would be Sharp-Toews-Hossa, Saad-Vermette-Kane, Versteeg-Richards-Bickell, Shaw-Kruger-Teravainen.

I’m not saying that the Blackhawks can’t win with the current line combinations, but I also think they’d be a lot better off with Vermette in the lineup on a nightly basis.

This series has the potential to be a really good one. In the end though, I think the Blackhawks are simply too deep and have too much offense (provided they start clicking) for Nashville to handle in a seven game series. I also think that the Blackhawks’ defense and goaltending will triumph over the Nashville forwards.

I hope I’m right…

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Quarterfinals predictions

Incredibly, it’s already playoff time again in the NHL. Each season seems to pass by quicker than the one before it. This year, the amount of parity in the league appears to be as great as it’s ever been. Twelve teams finished with over 100 points on the season, and none of them appears to be an absolute clear-cut favorite to win the Cup. Or maybe in better terms, they all seem capable of winning it.

With that, here are my first round predictions.

144 vs. 174

This year’s President’s Trophy winners and the defending Eastern Conference champions, the Rangers, are about as talented of a team as you’ll find from top to bottom in the NHL. They may not have the extreme offensive firepower that other teams have throughout the league, but each of their lines is more than capable of finding the back of the net. Add in the fact that their blue line, now with Keith Yandle, is arguably the best in hockey, and that they have one of the world’s best goalies, there’s really no reason to bet against these guys.

The Penguins ended the season with one of the worst second half records in hockey. To put that into context, they were right there with Arizona in terms of record since the All Star break. That is not good. Still, they are a team with names such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and cannot be taken lightly. Despite just making it into the postseason as the second Wild Card team in the East, the Penguins will not be an easy out. This is a team that has a lot of playoff experience and seems to have the ability to take their game to the next level when it matters. As usual, however, the Penguins will only go as far as Fleury lets them.

All in all, this really should be a good series. These two teams do not like each other and will no doubt let that be known on the ice. In the end though, I just don’t see the Rangers being ousted in the first round. They’ll knock out Pittsburgh for the second year in a row.

-New York wins series, 4-2.

ANAHEIM_DUCKS_LOGO vs. WinnipegJets

The Ducks ended the season tied with the second most points in hockey at 109, but won the tie-breaker with the Blues and therefore got the number one seed in the West. The addition of Ryan Kesler to their lineup this year was a big one and added a lot of depth to their already deep group of centers. Defensively, the Ducks are not as strong as their record as a team may indicate. They ranked 20th in the league in goals against per game, which is not good. Their defensemen are not necessarily below average, but I don’t think they are good enough to win the Cup by any means. Aside from that, they have some big questions marks in goal for the second straight postseason.

As for the Jets, they are making their first playoff appearance since returning to Winnipeg just a few years ago. That city will be electric for Game 3 and should propel the team to at least one home victory between games 3 and 4. As for as the team itself, they will be a tough out. They’re one of only a couple teams in the league that can effectively combine great size, skill, and speed. They are a big team and will wear you down physically in a short amount of time. While their goaltending has been above average this season, to me it could go either way for them in the playoffs. Ondrej Pavolec tends to be an up and down type player, but has played really well most of this year. If he can keep up his current level of play, I think the Jets have a legitimate chance of pulling off the upset.

I am anticipating this series going the distance. The winner will be decided by goaltending, and at this point, I couldn’t tell you who has a definitive advantage in that category.

-Anaheim wins series, 4-3.

si34dm1f9jex9eoexq9l1svqk vs. 6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h

The Canadiens were at or near the top of the NHL standings from start to finish this year and ended the season with the league’s best goals against average. Offensively, however, they rank 20th in goals per game. While they might not be the strongest team in that regard, their defense should make up for it. Their depth on the blue line, coupled with Carey Price in net, makes them arguably the toughest team in the league to score on as evidenced by their GA/G.

In Ottawa, they just witnessed a semi-miracle. The Sens finished out the regular season going 23-4-4 in their last 31 games, thanks to rookie goalie sensation Andrew Hammond. The guy went 20-1-5 over the past couple months and helped sneak the Senators into a Wild Card spot with a win in the last game of the regular season. Not many people had Ottawa pegged as a playoff team back in October, but here they are. Aside from Hammond, rookie Mark Stone has done everything in his power to earn this year’s Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie. He ended the year with 26 goals and 38 assists, basically carrying the Sens in goal scoring over the last couple weeks.

It wasn’t long ago that the Senators pulled off a big upset over the Habs in the first round of the playoffs, and this year’s team seems to have the makeup to do that again. While I won’t specifically predict that to happen, I wouldn’t be shocked if it did.

-Montreal wins series, 4-2.

st-louis-blues-logo vs. Minnesota-Wild-Wallpaper-

St. Louis yet again enters the playoffs as a “favorite” to win the Cup by a lot of people. Unfortunately for them though, they haven’t lived up to those expectations in recent years, or ever for that matter. All that aside, this year’s team does look to have the makeup of a true contender. Along with the Rangers, the Blues have one of the league’s elite group of d-men. Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk might just be the best one-two punch of right handed defensemen on any team in the NHL. Add in the fact that they have Bouwmeester and now Michalek, and the Blues are without a doubt one of the hardest teams to score on. Offensively, St. Louis got a lot better this year. Vladmir Tarasenko is coming off an injury, but when healthy is lethal. The emergence of Jaden Schwartz as a top six forward has been a welcomed one for the Blues, and has made them a much better goal scoring team. Their only real question mark is in goal, where it looks like Jake Allen will be their starter for Game 1.

Was there a better team in the NHL since January 1st than the Minnesota Wild? Devan Dubnyk almost single handedly brought this team back from the dead to earn the top Wild Card spot in the West, and he should be considered an MVP candidate. He has started practically every game for the Wild since signing there and went 27-9-7 on the year. On offense, the Wild are better this year than in year’s past as they ranked 12th in goals per game. Zach Parise is constantly a major threat with the puck on his stick, and now that they have Thomas Vanek on the roster, their top two lines have become much tougher to handle. On the blue line they have Superman himself in Ryan Suter, who averaged more ice time per game than any other player in the league (29:03). After him, the Wild are good, but not great.

My question is this: will Devan Dubnyk become worn out at any point in this series after playing almost every game since January? Maybe, maybe not. Even if he remains at the top of his game, however, I’m not sure that’ll be enough for the Wild to pull off the upset.

-St. Louis wins series, 4-2.

161 vs. 6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h

 

Here we have the seemingly annual underachieving Washington Capitals, although this season was a little different. They didn’t quite start the year at a playoff pace, but over the course of the second half of the season, they have turned it on. Alex Ovechkin topped the 50 goal plateau again and finished the year with more than anyone else in the league. As a team, the Caps ended the regular season ranked 6th in the NHL in goals per game. Braden Holtby closed out his regular season 41 wins, good for third among all goaltenders, and will need to be great for his team to have success in the playoffs. Defensively, the Capitals also rank in the top 10, as they ended with the 7th best goals against average in the league.

The Islanders have now made the playoffs in two of the last three seasons after not seeing postseason action in quite some time. They began this season as possibly the hottest team in hockey and held the number one spot in the East for a decent amount of time. John Tavares has become one of the game’s elite players and fell just one point shy of Jamie Benn for the league lead in points this year. Him and Kyle Okposo lead the forward group on this team in terms of offensive production, and blue liners Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuck make up one of the NHL’s most lethal defensive pairings. In net, Jaroslav Halak seems to have found a home with the Islanders. He’s had good postseason success in the past, and he’ll need it again.

This is one series that I really don’t have a good feel for. In my mind, it could go either way. However, with the way these two teams finished out their regular seasons, I have to lean towards Washington.

-Washington wins series, 4-2.

6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h vs. jesus-clip-art-2

First of all, how many people had either of these teams making the playoffs back in the preseason? Couldn’t be many. Regardless of that, here they are as first round opponents. After doing what many people perceived as a mini rebuild late last season and over the summer, the Canucks put together a 101 point season. Start to finish this year, the Canucks were one of the best teams in a very competitive Western Conference. Despite losing Ryan Miller a little past the halfway point of the season, the Canucks never missed a beat and kept on winning with Eddie Lack in net. He will be the team’s starter for Game One. On offense, the Sedin twins still lead this team, but Radim Vrbata proved to be a great offseason acquisition as he ended up with 31 goals and 32 assists. As far as defense goes, the Canucks are slightly below average and have a lot of inexperience on their back end.

Now to this year’s Cinderella story, the Calgary Flames. This team was sitting near or at the bottom of the league standings for the past handful of years, and now in just one year are a Wild Card team. A huge reason for that is their incredible, young talent. Another reason is their work ethic. This team works harder than possibly any other team in the NHL, thanks in large part to their coach who demands that style of play. Jiri Hudler, rookie sensation Johnny Gaudreau, and Sean Monahan are the offensive leaders of this team and make up the team’s first line. They have been a handful for anyone they’ve played against this year and figure to do the same against Vancouver. Calgary’s defensemen might be the most active offensively of any team’s d-men. After the previously mentioned trio of forwards, the next four players in points on the Flames are all defensemen. In goal they have Jonas Hiller, who has had a very solid season and will need to keep that up against the Canucks.

Despite these two teams combining for the fewest point total of any first round matchup, this has all the makings of being one of the best first round series this year. It’s been a while since we’ve had a series between two western Canadian teams, so hopefully this one lives up to the hype. In the end, it will come down to which team has more depth.

-Vancouver wins series, 4-3.

TampaBayLightning_LOGO vs. DRW Logo

The Lightning had been hovering around the top spot in the Eastern Conference all season, but came up five points shy of the Rangers. Led by Steven Stamkos, the Lightning own one of the league’s most threatening offenses as they finished first in the league in goals per game with a 3.16 average. Aside from Stamkos, Tampa has maybe the league’s most underrated player in Tyler Johnson, who in five fewer games finished with as many points (72) as Stamkos. On defense, the Lightning are good and have three d-pairings that are all effective and reliable. Unlike last year, they should have Ben Bishop in goal for the first round barring an unexpected injury. One could argue that his absence from the lineup last postseason was a huge reason why the Lightning got swept by Montreal in the opening round. When healthy, Bishop is one of the game’s best between the pipes.

On the other side sits the Red Wings. Detroit is making their 24th consecutive playoff appearance this year, which is flat out incredible. One of their biggest strengths is their team speed, but it’s also something that their opponent is good at as well. Whenever you have Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg on your team though, you can always be optimistic. The Wings finished as a top 10 team in goals per game this year, and they’ll need their offense to keep clicking in order to beat Bishop. On the blue line, Detroit is above average, but not elite. Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson are a very talented first pairing and will no doubt have their hands full against the top lines of Tampa Bay. Jimmy Howard, who has proven he can be a clutch playoff performer, is going to need to bring his A game in goal this series. Without goaltending, you have no shot in the playoffs.

While I feel inclined to take Tampa Bay right away, Detroit is quietly one of the toughest teams to beat in the NHL. Add in that they have two superstars in Datsyuk and Zetterberg, a great head coach in Babcock, and a goalie who has the potential to steal a series, and you just can’t count these guys out. This one’s going the distance.

-Tampa Bay wins series, 4-3.

NHL-Nashville-Predators-Logo-Wallpaper vs. 56

The Predators had been leading the Central Division for almost the whole season until the past few weeks or so. After trading for Cody Franson before the trade deadline, the Nashville kind of went into a free fall. Their once big lead in the division quickly evaporated as both the Blues and Blackhawks made up a lot of ground on the Preds. They enter the playoffs as losers of three straight. Having said that, this is still one of the best teams in hockey. While their group of forwards is not that eye popping by any means, they do have some quality depth and can roll four lines. Their defensemen, on the other hand, can be as good as any in hockey. The top pairing of Josi and Weber may be the best duo in the league, and they are followed up by Ekholm and Jones, and Ellis and Franson. In net, I think we are all aware of who Pekka Rinne is. The guy could easily be considered the best goaltender in the NHL and without a doubt can win a series on his own.

For the Blackhawks, news broke today that Patrick Kane has been cleared to play for Game One. So much for that whole “out for 12 weeks” thing. This is very bad for Nashville and the rest of the playoff teams. Since Kane went down with his injury, the Hawks’ offense has severely struggled. Getting him back will be a huge boost. If the Hawks had been able to score over the past month and a half, they might have finished first or second in the division as their defense and goaltending have been rock solid for the most part. The addition of Kimmo Timonen on the back end really helped solidify the Hawks’ third d-pairing, and while he missed the last few games of the regular season, he is expected back for the first round. Aside from him, the Hawks still have Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, and Oduya. In goal, Corey Crawford put together his best season as a starter and earned a share of the Jennings Trophy along with Carey Price. Crawford already has one ring, and there should be little doubt surrounding him as he goes for his second.

This should be a tightly contested series, and maybe a low scoring one. In the end, however, I think the Blackhawks have way too much firepower for the Predators to handle, especially with Kane now back.

-Chicago wins series, 4-2.

Hey Nashville, HERE WE COME

15-_DSC2491-toresizeWith the Wild losing today to the Blues down in St. Louis, the Blackhawks have now locked up third place in the Central Division, meaning a showdown with the Predators in the first round of the playoffs. There was some real concern coming into today regarding the Blackhawks and what seed they might get for the playoffs. If the Wild had won, that would have meant the Blackhawks would need to earn at least one point in tonight’s contest with the Avalanche to secure the number three spot in the division. With the way the Hawks have been playing lately, getting a point tonight is by no means a guarantee. Fortunately though, the Wild did us all a favor and lost. So tonight’s game is meaningless for the Blackhawks in terms of the standings, but not with regards to momentum.

Before we get into actual hockey talk, let me get back to Nashville for a minute.

I am confident in saying that there is no other organization in professional sports that is more concerned about an opposing team’s fan base than the Nashville Predators. The management down there is literally obsessed with trying to find ways to keep Blackhawks fans out of Bridgestone Arena (click here for evidence). Earlier this season, Hawks fans dominated the stands in Nashville during a contest between the two teams. This was after the Predators had already enacted their “Keep the Red Out” campaign last season; an attempt to limit the number of ways that Chicagoans could purchase tickets to games in Nashville. Since that game earlier this year, and really even going back further than that, the Predators front office has become fixated on finding ways to keep Hawks fans out of their stadium. In the meantime, their team on the ice was collapsing and lost their huge lead in the division.

So here we are on April 11th, less than a week before the Hawks and Preds will face off in Game One of their first round matchup. Have the Predators come up with an effective plan to keep Blackhawks fans out of their arena for the playoffs? I doubt it, and I would love nothing more than for that building to be an absolute see of red for Game One. And honestly, that’s a very real possibility.

Now back to hockey.

The Blackhawks come into tonight’s game in Colorado having lost three straight games to the Blues, Wild, and Blues again. They scored a TOTAL of three goals in those games, while only allowing six. Had they won all three, maybe they are in first in the division right now. Who knows.. Regardless, the offense is clearly struggling at the moment and desperately needs some sort of spark to get it going again.

Aside from the offense not being there, the energy doesn’t seem to be there either for the Hawks. While those two probably go hand-in-hand, they are both problems and need to be recognized as such. Last Sunday night against the Blues at the United Center, the Hawks came out flying, played a pretty decent game, but lost 2-1. Tuesday night with the Wild in town, the Blackhawks seemed to have less energy than Sunday and again lost 2-1. Then on Thursday in St. Louis, the Hawks appeared to have virtually zero energy or desperation and yet again found themselves on the losing end of a 2-1 game. In the final week of the season with a lot on the line in terms of seeding for the playoffs, one would think that this team would have played St. Louis and Minnesota with all the energy and desperation in the world. That wasn’t the case though, and fortunately for the Hawks it didn’t cost them a top three finish in the division.

Tonight, even though they have nothing left to play for, I hope to see the Blackhawks play as though it is a playoff game. They’ve got to get some kind of momentum or roll going heading into the postseason. You don’t want to end the year on a four-game losing streak and start the first round with doubts in your mind about anything. A win tonight, and a good win, should do a lot to help this team get ready for the playoffs from a mental standpoint.

NHL Update

  • With their win today, the Ottawa Senators have pulled off a semi-miracle and clinched a wild card spot in the playoffs. They went 23-4-4 over their final 31 games.
  • Ottawa getting in means either Pittsburgh or Boston won’t. That all depends on how each team does tonight.
  • The NHL’s defending Stanley Cup champion, the Kings, were eliminated from playoff contention Thursday night. Who would have guessed that would happen? The rest of the West is grateful for that.
  • The team who held off L.A. for the second wild card spot, Winnipeg, will make their first playoff appearance since the last time they called Winnipeg home.

I will hopefully get the time to post my first round predictions at some point before the first game on Wednesday. Until then, let’s just enjoy the fact that the postseason is only days away.