Metropolitan Division preview

Last season, this division was the only division in the NHL that did not see three teams earn over 100 points. Pittsburgh was the only Metro team to accomplish that feat as they ended the year with 109. It may be more of the same again this season.

METROPOLITAN DIVISION

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Carolina: The Hurricanes were another team that somewhat under-performed in my eyes last season (along with the Oilers). I thought they had the talent to finish with over 90 points, but they only managed to salvage 83 and took second to last in this division. This year, not much will be different in terms of their roster. They have some highly skilled forwards in Eric Staal (who will be looking for a bounce-back season), Alex Semin, Jordan Staal, Jeff Skinner, and maybe even Jiri Tlusty. After that, they have a bunch of bottom six forwards who will be interchanging on the lines throughout the season. On defense, the Canes are led by Justin Falk, Andrej Sekera, Ron Hainsey, and Tim Gleason. That’s not a bad foursome, but it’s not one of the league’s best either. Possibly the biggest strength of this team is their goalie tandem. Cam Ward couldn’t seem to stay healthy last season, but when he is healthy, he’s always a top 15 goalie in the NHL (if not higher). Backup goaltender, Anton Khudobin, put together a fairly impressive season last year in Ward’s absence. That combo could be one of the better combos in the league this year if they stay healthy. All in all I’m not seeing the playoffs this year for Carolina, but you never know with the Eastern Conference.

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Columbus: It’s hard not to like what’s been going on in Columbus. Just a couple years removed from being the laughing stock of the NHL, the Blue Jackets are now primed for what should be a second straight playoff appearance this season. Their roster is not full of high profile names, but it is full of good, reliable players. Guys such as Ryan Johansen, Brandon Dubinsky, and Nick Foligno are all very good players that could be effective on just about any team in the league, especially Johansen. Then they have players like Nathan Horton, who when healthy, can be a top six forward in the NHL. They also added Scott Hartnell via a trade with the Flyers this summer. Hartnell should fit in nicely with that group in Columbus and give their offense a boost. Defensively, Columbus could use some upgrades. Jack Johnson is their best d-man and would be a top four on any team in the league. He is followed by James Wisniewski and Fedor Tyutin as far as the top three go. If the Blue Jackets could have landed one of the top defensemen available on July 1st, I’d like this team a lot. However, they didn’t and they are left with a good/mediocre group of defensemen. Their goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky, is coming off of back-to-back good seasons after being traded to Columbus from Philadelphia three years ago. I’d expect nothing different from him this year. As long as he’s good again, the Jackets should finish no worse than fourth in this division.

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New Jersey: This team is a real wild card in my eyes, meaning they could finish as a top three team in this division, or they could miss the playoffs all together. It’s a tough call. Their roster is full of recognizable names, however many of whom are past their prime. Their two newest members, Mike Cammalleri and Martin Havlat, should provide the Devils with some added scoring and play-making ability to go along with Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique, and Jaromir Jagr among a handful of others. I see their real problem lying within their defense. Bryce Salvador, Andy Greene, and Marek Zidlicky are all good defensemen, but after that there’s nothing. The Devils are going to have to rely on Cory Schneider to bail them out on a lot of nights, as well as their forwards who will need to play good defense in their own end. Like I said before, the Devils could go either way this year. If they do make the playoffs, they won’t be going to the Stanley Cup Final again. That much I’m sure of.

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New York Islanders: A year after surprising most hockey people by making the playoffs, the Islanders were back in last place in their division to finish the 2013-14 season. Granted, they did lose their captain and best player John Tavares for the season due to an injury suffered in the Olympics. This offseason, I feel they did about all they could do to get better given the fact that they’re the Islanders and not many players want to play for that franchise at the moment. The signed Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, both highly skilled forwards, which should really make their offense better. Add in the fact that Tavares should be back and healthy from the start, along with Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner, and Frans Nielson, and there’s reason to be optimistic about the Islanders’ forward corps this year. Once again, it’s the team’s defensive unit that will hurt them most. They are full of mediocre/unproven defensemen, which in today’s day in age will not get the job done. In goal, they now have Jaroslav Halak as their number one netminder. We’ve seen how good he can be in the past, but he hasn’t played up to that level the last couple years. I see the Islanders finishing no higher than fifth in this division.

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New York Rangers: I think I’m safe in saying that almost no one had the Ranges advancing to the Stanley Cup Final at the beginning of last season. The Rangers’ playoff-run late this past spring was a good story and good for the sport in the Big Apple. Unfortunately for them, they came up short against the Kings and suffered some heartbreaking overtime losses in the SCF. This summer, their biggest move was probably their acquisition of veteran d-man Dan Boyle. Boyle will add some offense and puck-moving ability to the Rangers’ blue line to go along with Ryan McDonagh. Speaking of McDonagh, anyone familiar with today’s NHL would have to believe this guy will be winning a Norris Trophy sometime in the near future. He’s that good. As for the rest of their defense, the Rangers lost Anton Stralman to the Lightning this offseason, but held onto the other prominent defensemen that led them to the Cup Final in June. Offensively, this team has multiple good players, but not a whole lot of “firepower.” Martin St. Louis is probably destined for the Hall of Fame when his career is over, but the problem for the Rangers is that his career is almost over. Rick Nash is going to have to step up and play like we’ve seen him in the past for this team to be a real threat in the East. Their most obvious strength comes in the form of Henrik Lundqvist, who is probably the league’s best goalie. Assuming he doesn’t have a meltdown this season, the Rangers can’t ever be truly counted out.

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Philadelphia: I thought the fact that the Flyers earned 94 points last season was impressive. I didn’t think they would do that, and don’t think they’ll do it again this year. When you look at their roster, Claude Giroux obviously stands out, but other than him they really don’t have one of the league’s better offensive teams. Assuming Vincent Lecavalier is a Flyer this season, can he get anywhere close to the level he once played at in Tampa Bay? I don’t think so. And after him the skill level of this team takes a bit of a hit. On defense, the Flyers have become somewhat of a joke in recent years because of their continued trend of overpaying for “big name” defensemen. This offseason they didn’t exactly continue that tradition, but they are still full of once high profiled defensemen who are now making more than they’re worth. Their best defensemen, Kimmo Timonen, may not even be available until sometime after the season starts as he was just diagnosed with blood clots in his leg and both lungs. In goal, they’ll be bringing back the same tandem that they had last year. Steve Mason will be looking to repeat the success he had last year, as Ray Emery will try to regain the form he had just two years ago in Chicago. As far as where this team will end up, I’ll say they miss the postseason.

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Pittsburgh: After finishing with the second highest point total in the East last season, I feel like the Penguins didn’t improve at all this offseason. If anything, they got worse. They made a somewhat surprising move by trading James Neal to Nashville in exchange for Patric Hornqvist, and they signed Steve Downie to apparently add some grit to the lineup. As for the rest of the forwards, not much is different than it was a year ago. The Penguins are hoping to get a healthy Pascal Dupuis back into the lineup sometime this season after he suffered a torn ACL last December. While the forwards on this team aren’t as notable as they usually are, you can’t deny the fact that Pittsburgh still has two of the worlds greatest players in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. On defense, the Penguins lost two of their top d-men to the Capitals this summer. Both Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen elected to leave Pittsburgh for Washington, which has to sting a bit for the Penguins and their fans. In response, the Penguins went ahead and signed Christian Ehrhoff to go along with a still rather solid defensive group. The biggest question yet again is Marc-Andre Fleury. We know he can be good in the regular season, but what about the postseason? Ever since he and the Penguins hoisted the Cup in 2009, Fleury has not been the same playoff performer. I don’t think this team has what it takes to win the Cup, or even the East.

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Washington: The Capitals are coming off yet another disappointing season in which they missed the playoffs. If there’s one team that seems to always under-perform, it’s these guys. Everyone wants to label Alex Ovechkin as such an incredible hockey player, which he is, but I don’t think he should be an NHL captain. He does not lead by example in the least bit. As for the rest of the forwards, there’s Nicklas Backstrom, Troy Brouwer, Jason Chimera, and Brooks Laich, but not too much else. Despite having the league’s best powerplay last year, the Capitals aren’t anywhere close to as good when it comes to five on five play. This year is a rare instance in which the Capitals defense is their strong-suit. As was mentioned in the Penguins’ preview, the Capitals stole both Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen away from Pittsburgh to go along with Mike Green, John Carlson, and Karl Alzner. You can’t complain too much about those five. Along with the offense, goaltending will be a big question mark for this team. I’m not seeing them as a playoff team come April.

PREDICTED STANDINGS:

1. Pittsburgh 2. New York Rangers 3. Columbus 4. New Jersey 5. Philadelphia 6. Washington 7. New York Islanders 8. Carolina

(Much like the Central Division, this thing could really end up in any number of ways.)

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NHL Eastern Conference Quarterfinals prediction

The East began the season looking like a very weak conference. Its teams seemed far inferior to those out west, and they didn’t help themselves by putting up a bad overall conference record against the Western Conference. However, with the second half of the season came some improved play by the East, and it was Boston that ended up winning the President’s Trophy as the team with the most points during the regular season. Unlike the Western Conference, I can only see two real Stanley Cup contenders in the Eastern Conference: Boston and Pittsburgh. I’m not saying no one else will have a shot, but I wouldn’t bet on anyone else to come out of the East.

So with that, here we go.

1-4 Matchup:

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I think this is a great first round series. There’s nothing better than two Original Six teams squaring off against one another in the playoffs. For a while, it was looking like the Red Wings might miss the playoffs for the first time in 23 years, but as usual they found a way into the postseason with 93 points and as the East’s last wild card team. Detroit finished the season ranked sixteenth in both goals per game and goals-against per game, neither of which is good. Right now, they are battling some injuries to key players such as their captain Henrik Zetterberg, who isn’t expected back until possibly late in round one if not later than that. Pavel Datsyuk recently returned to the lineup after a knee injury, and his presence on the ice should be a big uplift for this Wings team. For them to have any chance in this series, they are going to need Datsyuk and Gustav Nyquist to come up big on the offensive end. Nyquist ended the regular season as arguably the hottest player in the league, and the Wings will need him to stay hot for this series. Defensively, Detroit has battled some injuries this year as well. Young replacements such as Ouellet, Sproul, and Lashoff will getting their first real taste of playoff hockey in the NHL. Their age and lack of experience could hurt them big time in this series against an elite and proven team like the Bruins. Jimmy Howard is going to have his hands full in net with a lack of defensive support in front of him, so he will need to be outstanding from the opening puck drop to the final whistle of each game. If the Wings want any chance, they are simply going to have to out-work and want this series more than Boston. They almost knocked off the Blackhawks last season using that same recipe.

The Bruins are coming in to this postseason playing the best hockey of any team in the entire NHL. I don’t think you can even begin to argue that any team had a better second half of the season than Boston. Not only did they win the President’s Trophy, but they finished the season third in goals per game, and second in GA/G. No other team in the league finished the season ranked in the top five in both categories. Their defense is arguably the best in the league (right up there with LA), and their goalie is most likely going to win this year’s Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goalie. Defense wins championships, and Boston has what may be the best defense you’ll find if you take their forwards into consideration. Zdeno Chara is always one of the top d-men in the league, and his partner Dougie Hamilton (when will he switch it to just “Doug?”) is becoming a rather strong defensemen as well at a young age. That brings me to my greatest concern with this team. The youthfulness of their defensive corps. Bartkowski, Hamilton, Krug, and Miller are all rather young, with Hamilton (20) and Krug (23) being the youngest. Both Hamilton and Krug saw action during the Bruins playoff run last year, but I still wonder whether they will crumble under immense pressure this time around. This Bruins team has very few weaknesses, but lack of experience from their young d-men is one of them.

I’m expecting the Bruins to keep on rolling and not have much of a problem on offense or in net this series. It’s their young defensemen that have me a little worried, especially if they advance deeper into the playoffs. Detroit will need to play their best hockey of the year to win this, which I wouldn’t necessarily put past them as long as they still have Mike Babcock behind their bench.

-Boston wins series, 4-2.

2-3 Matchup:

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This is an interesting matchup in that I don’t think many people predicted the Lightning to end up with a 2-seed. More on that in a bit. Montreal enters these playoffs as the only representative from Canada. A lot of pressure on them to win right there alone. They finished out the regular season with 100 points, and ranked twenty first in goals per game, and eighth in GA/G. Goal scoring is their biggest weakness. Max Pacioretty led the team with 60 points (39G, 21A), followed by P.K. Subban with 53 points as a defenseman. If you look at their lineup, you would think that this is a deep team with a lot of scoring potential on all lines, especially now that they have Thomas Vanek on their top line. That just hasn’t been the case however, and they’ll need to start scoring with more frequency beginning now. On defense, Montreal’s top pairing of Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin will need to find a way to slow down Steven Stamkos. These two have been good all year, and they’ll need to be even better this series. P.K. Subban will need to step up his defensive game as well. This is an area in which he has been criticized throughout his career. Carey Price could have his work cut out for him in goal against the Lightning, so he’ll need to start playing like he did during the Olympics. However, he may be the least of my concerns with the Canadiens.

As for the Lightning, you have to give this team an awful lot of credit for playing as well as they did earlier this season when they were without Stamkos. The highest point total by any player on their roster this year was just 59, yet they still ranked ninth in goals per game. That is a testament to the balance in their lineup. The Lightning have been getting contributions from just about everyone in their lineup offensively, so it should be interesting to see how effective their depth players can be in this series. Valtteri Filppula has proven to be a much bigger signing than anyone thought he would be when he inked a deal with Tampa last off-season. He finished the season second on this team in points, with 25 goals and 33 assists. Defensively, the Lightning ranked eleventh in GA/G, thanks in large part to goaltender Ben Bishop. Bishop finished the year with the fourth most wins of any goalie and with a 2.23 GAA. Those are very solid numbers. Unfortunately, he has been ruled out for Game One of this series with an elbow injury. The extent and severity of his injury could determine just how far Tampa goes this postseason. Anders Lindback is going to have to step up big time in Bishop’s absence. The defensive corps for Tampa is a mix of experienced and inexperienced players. Guys like Matt Carle, Sami Salo and Victor Hedman are going to need to carry the young guys until they can get comfortable playing in a playoff atmosphere.

This series is a tough one to predict. For me, the outcome will be determined by Ben Bishop’s injury. If he only misses Game One, I think Tampa Bay can win this series. If Bishop is out for two, three, or more games, the Lightning may be in trouble. I’m going to assume the worst for Bishop and the Lightning, however.

-Montreal wins series, 4-2.

1-4 Matchup:

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I love this matchup. Columbus comes into this series after a very successful season by their standards (93 points), and they are playing with a ton of confidence. You might not find another team in the NHL that works as hard as the Blue Jackets. This team goes all out every night and lays everything on the line. They make their opponents work for everything. They ranked twelfth is goals per game and thirteenth in goals against this season, neither of which is great or bad. Offensively, Ryan Johansen had a breakout year and led the team with 63 points (33G, 30A). He is the glue to this team’s offense, and hopefully for Columbus he continues playing well into this series. The depth of the Jackets at their forward positions is underrated. Guys like Dubinsky, Anisimov, and Letestu are very solid players who can make a difference on a nightly basis. On defense, Jack Johnson had a bit of a down season, but he is still a strong defenseman who can play some big minutes. Fedor Tyutin and James Wisniewski, the Jackets’ top d-pairing, will have their hands full against Pittsburgh, but their work ethic is what gives them a decent shot at slowing down the Penguins’ offense. Sergei Bobrovsky, last season’s Vezina winner, put together another good season this year with a record of 32-20-5 and a 2.38 GAA. He will need to be great this series. To me, he is one of two keys to this series, with the other being his opposing goalie.

The Penguins ended the regular season with 109 points, which was good for second in the East. The finished fifth in goals per game and tenth in GA/G. They have always been a high scoring team, and that was the case again this year. Their powerplay ranked first in the NHL, thanks to guys like Crosby, Kunitz, and Malkin. For them to win this series, they will need continued success with the man advantage. Their offensive game really needs no further explanation because I think we all know who we’re talking about there. On defense, the Penguins have one of the deeper defensive units in the game, led by their top pairing of Orpik and Martin. Kris Letang just returned after a long absence from the lineup due to a stroke that he suffered earlier this year. His presence on the back end is a huge boost for this team. Now we get to the good stuff: Marc-Andre Fleury. Since winning the Stanley Cup back in ’09, Fleury has been extremely inconsistent in the playoffs. Two years ago, he played horrible in a series against Philadelphia and the Penguins were eliminated earlier than most thought they would be. Last year, Fleury was yanked early in Pittsburgh’s series with the Islanders, and sat on the bench for the remainder of their playoff run. How he plays and deals with this year’s playoff pressure could decide just how far the Penguins will go. If he plays like he did this regular season, Pittsburgh should make it to at least the Conference Finals. If Fleury regresses back to the player he was a year ago, the Pens could be going home really early.

I am anxious for this series to begin because I think it could be one of the better series of the whole first round. Columbus’ work ethic against Pittsburgh’s skill and experience will be fun to watch. Keep an eye on Fleury early in Game One. If he gives up a quick one or two goals, the Penguins may be in trouble.

-Pittsburgh wins series, 4-3.

2-3 Matchup:

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This has all the makings of a heated first round series. These two teams have never liked each other, and this year has been no different. The Flyers got off to a really slow start to the season, which led to head coach Peter Laviolette getting fired only a few games in. Since then, however, new head coach Peter Berube has turned the team back in the right direction. Philadelphia finished off their season with with 94 points, and team captain Claude Giroux is getting heavy consideration for this year’s Hart Trophy. He led the team with 86 points and was a huge reason for the Flyers’ turnaround back before the Olympic break. Philadelphia ranked eighth if goals per game this year, while finishing twentieth in goals-against per game. That last stat is something this team needs to get better heading into the playoffs. The Flyers defense isn’t necessarily bad, but they haven’t performed very well this season. The ageless Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn make up Philly’s top d-pairing, followed by Mark Streit and Nicklas Grossman, and  Andrew MacDonald and Luke Schenn. On paper that looks good, but they just haven’t performed up to expectations this year on the back end. In goal, it’ll be Steve Mason for the Flyers. He had a decent year this year with a 33-18-7 record while averaging 2.50 goals-against per game. For the Flyers to win this series, they’ll need Mason and their defensemen to perform as well as they have all season.

The Rangers ended the regular season with 96 points, which is actually pretty good considering the start that they got off to back in October/November. They ranked eighteenth in goals per game this year, while ranking fourth in GA/G. They can thank Henrik Lundqvist and Ryan McDonagh for that. McDonagh put together a Norris Trophy-worthy campaign this season, and while he most likely won’t win the trophy, he’s bound to win one sooner or later in his career if he keeps progressing. McDonagh is coming off a recent upper body injury, and the Rangers will need him to be healthy if they want any success this postseason. The same can be said for Martin St. Louis who is also coming off an injury. For obvious reasons, New York needs St. Louis to be healthy and in the lineup for the playoffs. He is a world-class playmaker and goal-scorer, and they can’t afford to have him injured. The key for the Rangers in this series may be their third and especially fourth line. New York’s fourth line has come up big a number of times for them this season, and if they do so in the playoffs, that’ll be a huge plus for this team. I am not too worried about Henrik Lundqvist, as he has played in numerous playoff series and has always performed well.

This is bound to be a bruising series and one that will be very entertaining to watch. If I’m the Flyers, I am hoping and praying that Steve Mason doesn’t crumble under the pressure of playing in the postseason. Their team defense isn’t great, so they’ll need Mason to be very good. As for New York, if they get quality ice time and production from their depth players, they will have a good shot at advancing. This is a tough series to call, but in the end, I have to go with the better goalie.

-New York wins series, 4-3.

Blackhawks’ potential first round opponents

166440366_slideWith the NHL regular season coming to an end, it is time to start thinking about the playoffs. The Blackhawks have already clinched the Central Division and first place in the Western Conference. They are not far off from clinching the best record in the league and winning the President’s Trophy for doing so. It would seem that the Hawks are in position to make a good run in the playoffs, but in order to do so, they must get by the first round, which they haven’t done in three years. So now the question becomes, who could they play in the first round, and who do they want to play in the first round?

The 7th and 10th spots in the West are only separated by 4 points. That means that virtually anyone currently sitting in one of those spots or between there could end up with the 7th or 8th seed in the West. Right now, Minnesota holds the 7th seed with 51 points (44 games played), and Columbus has the 8th seed with 49 points (45 games played). Detroit and Dallas currently sit 9th and 10th in the conference respectively, both teams with 47 points (Detroit with 43 games played, Dallas with 44 games played).

A lot can happen over the next couple weeks here, but I’ll say that Minnesota and Detroit end up making the playoffs as the bottom 2 seeds in the West. I will also predict that Minnesota hangs onto the 7th seed (they won’t pass the Blues, who are currently 6th), with Detroit finishing 8th. Detroit has played 2 fewer games than Columbus and are only 2 points behind them in the standings.This would mean that Detroit would play the Blackhawks in the first round.

Of the possible first round opponents for the Hawks at this point, Detroit, Dallas or Columbus (assuming the Wild hang on to the 7 spot), I think that Dallas would be the one 166692550_slideteam the Hawks would rather play. Dallas is not a very deep team, and they recently traded away Brendan Morrow (their captain), Derek Roy, and Jaromir Jagr. Those were 3 of their 4 best players. They still have Jammie Benn, and they still have Kari Lehtonen in net, but that won’t be enough to scare the Hawks. In the three games that these two teams played against each other this regular season, the Blackhawks won all three and outscored the Stars 16-5. Two of those games were before Dallas traded away Morrow, Roy, and Jagr…

Pavel-DatsyukThe Detroit matchup isn’t one that worries me too much either, to be honest. Yes, they are still the Red Wings, which is always scary, but they aren’t the same team that they have been over the last decade. With the loss of Lidstrom and Holmstrom after last season (among others), the Wings really lost a lot of talent and leadership. This year, they have barely stayed in the playoff hunt and have had to rely on a lot of young players to get them through the season. They still have Datsyuk and Zetterberg, and they still have Jimmy Howard in net, but the Hawks have proven this year by going 4-0 against Detroit that they are way too much for the Wings to handle, especially in a 7-game series.

A Hawks-Jackets series is one that concerns me. If there is any team that has given the Hawks big problems this year, Columbus is it. The Hawks might have a 4-0 record against 160127648_slidethem this season, but all four of those wins were by just 1 goal. With the way Sergei Bobrovsky is playing in net for the Blue Jackets (he’ll be a Vezina Trophy finalist), I wouldn’t want to face these guys in the first round. Not to mention the work ethic of the Blue Jackets, who are one of the hardest working teams in the league. Yes they traded away a handful of players at the deadline, but  they got Marian Gaborik in return. He hasn’t had his best season this year, but he is still one of the most dangerous and prolific scorers in the game. If you take all of that into consideration, plus the fact that they are playing good hockey right now (7-3-0 over their last 10 games), this would be the toughest matchup for the Blackhawks in the first round.

I am anticipating that the Hawks will play Detroit in round one, but that is just a guess. The players will never admit which team they would prefer to play, but I can guarantee you it is not Columbus. The playoffs are almost here, and I can’t wait for them to begin.