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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.