Stanley Cup Playoffs: 1st Round Predictions

And just like that, the best time of the year is finally back. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are set to begin Wednesday night after a long and grueling regular season. Some teams steam rolled their way into the postseason as others backed their way in while relying on help from other teams around the league. Nonetheless, we’re in for a couple months of heart-stopping hockey.

Each year I take some time to make my predictions for every playoff series, and this year is no different. This is one of my favorite topics to write about, so let’s get to it.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h vs. 6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h

Season Series: Panthers won, 2-1

It’s not the most marquee matchup on tap in the first round, but that doesn’t mean this won’t be an exciting one. These are two relatively young teams that built from the ground up over the past few years and now get to try and prove themselves in the postseason. The Islanders were in the playoffs just last season and were eliminated in a tough seven game series against the Capitals. This is a team that is looking to finally get over that first round hurdle and advance to the second round. They are led by what can be a potent top two lines featuring John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, and Frans Nielsen, but after that they take a bit of a dip in production. Defensively, the Islanders have a pretty solid unit led by Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, and company. In net, they’ll likely be turning to Thomas Greiss as Jaroslav Halak is sidelined with an injury. This could end up being the biggest factor in this series as Halak has been a pretty good postseason performer in his career and has the talent to steal any game. With him out, lots of pressure shifts to Greiss and Chris Gibson if called upon.

On the Panthers’ side of things, this team may have been the best surprise of the year from start to finish. Dale Tallon, the architect of Chicago’s 2010 Cup-winning team, is working his magic again in south Florida. His compilation of young talent mixed with skilled and experienced veterans such as Jagr, Campbell, and Luongo have proven to be a solid formula all year long and led the Panthers to the Atlantic Division crown. The additions of Jiri Hudler and Teddy Purcell have worked out quite well so far and give the Panthers decent forward depth from nearly top to bottom. On the blue line they have a solid top three defensemen, but after that they go downhill just a bit. They will need their top two defensive pairs to stay strong for them to remain the better team in this series. Even if the Florida defense does begin to falter, they have one of the game’s top goaltenders standing between the pipes to back them up.

Ultimately, the Panthers are the better team in this series in nearly every aspect, most importantly in net. The Islanders will need to play their best hockey of the year to reel off four more wins.

-Florida wins series, 4-2.

STAT TO KNOW: Islanders – 84.5% PK; Panthers – 2.44 GAA

DRW Logo vs. TampaBayLightning_LOGO

Season Series: Tied, 2-2

On the one hand we have a Red Wings team that just clinched their twenty-fifth consecutive playoff berth. On the other, a Lightning squad looking to return to the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight year. First things first though for the latter of the two. Detroit will not be an easy out. They are no longer led by head coach Mike Babcock, but the same mentality still exists in that locker room. Guys like Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Richards, and Kronwall who have all been here before many, many times know what it takes to win in the playoffs. When you add in the youth of players such as Dylan Larkin, this team has a nice combination of experience and fresh legs. And despite them barely making the postseason, the Red Wings have pretty good forward depth, which is always a must in the postseason. They ranked 8th this season in goals scored per game. Defensively they ran into some trouble while finishing 17th in goals against average, but this team still has the ability to turn in strong defensive performances. What once seemed like a foregone conclusion is now anything but: who starts in goal for Game 1? Given the minutes Jimmy Howard played down the stretch, don’t be shocked if it’s him in net and not Petr Mrazek, who started 49 games this year.

As for the Lightning, they are returning to the playoffs with *mostly* the same team they had last year at this time. The two big differences, and they’re big ones, are the absence of captain Steven Stamkos (blood clot) and defenseman Anton Stralman (broken leg). Neither player is expected to return to the lineup this spring, although the odds are better for Stamkos. The question with this team now is whether or not they can overcome those two losses to still be successful in the playoffs. You can’t replace Steven Stamkos from within, although Jonathan Drouin was recalled to take his roster spot. And in the case of the Lightning, they have no actual replacement for Stralman either. Can they still win a series? Of course. They still have some really solid forward depth that can score at a frequent pace, and they still have Victor Hedman leading the defense. Also, they own one of the league’s best netminders in Ben Bishop who can single handedly win a series. While losing Stamkos and Stralman hurts, big time, it’s not the end of the world for Tampa Bay, or at least not in the first round.

I think we’ll see a very competitive series between these two much like we did a year ago. In the end, I think goaltending is the deciding factor. You could say that in just about any series, but with uncertainty for the Wings in that area and the opposite for the Lightning, it will play a big role in this series.

-Tampa Bay wins series, 4-3.

STAT TO KNOW: Red Wings – 22nd in penalty minutes; Lightning – Bishop 2.06 GAA (1st in NHL, minimum 40 GP)

161 vs. 161

Season Series: Tied, 2-2

This could potentially end up being the best series of the first round in the East if everything goes right. Beginning with the team from Philly, the Flyers rode a hot wave through the last month or so of the season to earn themselves the East’s last wild card spot. They have been getting production all year long from the likes of Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds, as was expected. What wasn’t necessarily expected was the sudden emergence of Brayden Schenn as a point-producer (career high 59 points), or Shayne Gostisbehere as one of the league’s best offensive d-men as a rookie (46 points). Offensive depth has been an issue for the Flyers this year, but the increased and added production from those two players are a huge reason why this team is in the playoffs. To now go on and win in the playoffs, they’ll need contributions from top to bottom. This is a team that ranked 22nd in goals per game, so they’ll either need pucks to start going in the net more regularly, or their defense (12th in GAA) will need to get even better, which isn’t out of the question. Steve Mason, who started 17 of the team’s final 18 games in net, is another major reason this team made the playoffs. He has had spurts here and there where he is incredibly tough to score on. The Flyers will need that to happen again starting now.

Taking on the Flyers is this year’s President’s Trophy winner, the Washington Capitals. The Caps closed out their season with a whopping 120 points and really don’t appear to have many flaws in their game. To find support for that statement, look no further than the fact that Washington ranked second league-wide in both goals per game and fewest goals against per game, and led the NHL with a +59 goal differential. That’s a deadly combination regardless of how you look at it. Alex Ovechkin reached the 50 goal plateau for the seventh time in his career, and Evgeny Kuznetsov led the team in points with 77. Offensively, this may be the deepest and most dangerous team in hockey. While that’s all nice, the Capitals are one of the strongest defensive teams in the league as well. They are fully healthy on their blue line, led by a top four of Alzner, Niskanen, Orpik, and Carlson, and have a young d-man in Dmitry Orlov who took his game up to another level this year on both sides of the puck. Then you have that guy standing in the blue paint who tied Martin Brodeur for the single-season win record with 48 to go with only 9 regulation losses. Braden Holtby also finished 6th in goals against average, and 8th in save percentage. Needless to say, Washington is pretty stacked everywhere you look.

Having said all of that, the Flyers are a tough team to play against almost every night. They have virtually zero pressure on them as everyone expects the Capitals to play deep into the postseason. The Philly faithful also give the Flyers one of the best home-ice advantages in hockey. I’m expecting this series to be a close one, with the possibility of a huge upset.

-Washington wins series, 4-2.

STAT TO KNOW: Flyers – 5th in shots per game; Capitals – 5th ranked PP, 2nd ranked PK

144 vs. 174

Season Series: Penguins won, 3-1

It feels like these two meet every year in the playoffs, and here we are again. The Rangers, Eastern Conference champions just two seasons ago, and runner up last year, are looking to make another deep playoff push this spring. They added Eric Staal at the trade deadline, which has worked out pretty well to this point, and own one of the deepest forward groups of any team in the playoffs. That being said, their top six is not as lethal as most other teams’ top six. They don’t have an Ovechkin, Kane, Perry, Giroux, and so on. They do have Rick Nash, but he once again underperformed this year and, despite last year, does not have a great track record in the postseason. What tends to win games for the Rangers this time of year is their defense and goaltending. Unfortunately for them, they’ll be without their top defenseman and captain, Ryan McDonagh, for at least the beginning of the first round. This means guys like Girardi, Marc Staal, Yandle, and Klein will pick up more minutes and be heavily relied upon against a potent offense in Pittsburgh. Henrik Lundqvist will for sure have his hands full in net, but like we’ve seen in the past, is more than capable of getting the job done.

For Pittsburgh, they’ll be without Evgeni Malkin for likely the whole first round. He is about four weeks into what is supposed to be a six to eight week recovery from an “upper-body” injury. Despite his absence, the Penguins caught fire in the final weeks of the regular season and landed second in the Metropolitan Division. Sidney Crosby, after a slow start to the season, finished third league-wide in points (85) and is looking like his old self again. The Penguins also have Phil Kessel this time around, who has been a big part of Pittsburgh’s offensive success this year (3rd in NHL in goals per game as a team). Where Pittsburgh gets thin is their bottom two forward lines and 4-6 defensemen. It could be repeated a million times and still be a valid point: depth is crucial in the playoffs. In Pittsburgh’s case, they lack good enough depth to be considered a strong Cup contender. Add in that Marc-Andre Fleury is recovering from a concussion (he could play Game 1), and the Penguins may be in trouble.

This series is a tough one to decide on. You’ve got a deep team in the Rangers who are without their top d-man and captain going against a not as deep, but top heavy team in the Penguins. If New York can keep Crosby in check, they’ll win the series for sure.

-New York wins series, 4-2.

STAT TO KNOW: Rangers – 26th in PK%; Penguins – 2nd in CF%

WESTERN CONFERENCE

New_Dallas_Stars vs. New_Dallas_Stars

Season Series: Stars won, 4-1

Finally we get a matchup of the old North Stars versus the North Stars’ Minnesota-replacement, the Wild. Minnesota comes into this one as losers of five straight games to close out the regular season. If it wasn’t for Colorado losing their last six games of the season, this could be a different matchup. But here we are nonetheless. It was revealed within the last few days that Zach Parise, Minnesota’s leading scorer in the regular season, could miss an indefinite amount of time due to aggravating a herniated disk in his back. This is about the worst news the Wild could have gotten as there is no way they win a series without Parise. But, to try and move on they’ll need big contributions from players like Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Jason Zucker, Jason Pominville, etc. There’s no easy way to replace a Zach Parise-type player. Also, add in that Vanek may not even play in the first round and that Erik Haula is “iffy” for Game 1, and you begin to see a big problem for Minnesota. They’ll have to heavily rely on their defense and Devan Dubnyk to slow down the Stars’ offense.

Speaking of the Stars, they finished the year as champions of arguably the best division in hockey while leading the NHL in goals scored. Jamie Benn ended the season with 89 points (good for 2nd in the league), and Tyler Seguin, despite missing 10 games, finished with 73. However, it is unclear whether Seguin will be ready for round one due to an Achilles injury that has kept him sidelined since March. Even if he does miss this series, or the majority of it, the Stars should still be in good shape. What Dallas has to worry most about is their goaltending. Their team save percentage is .904, which is tied for the 4th worst in the NHL. It will likely be Kari Lehtonen starting in Game 1 for the Stars over Antti Niemi, but nothing is official as of yet. Luckily for Dallas, they are going against a Minnesota team that finished 18th in goals per game and will be without their top scorer. While Dallas doesn’t have a ton of postseason experience, the addition of players such as Sharp, Oduya, and Spezza who have all either won the Cup or played deep into the postseason should help them get through some rough patches.

The Wild are already in a hole in this series due to injuries, and they’ll need lots of fortunate occurrences to come out on top.

-Dallas wins series, 4-1.

STAT TO KNOW: Wild – 27th in PK%; Stars – 4th in PP%

56 vs. st-louis-blues-logo

Season Series: Blues won, 3-2

This series may be the single best matchup in the entire first round of the playoffs. The two teams met five times in the regular season, and three of those times the game was decided in overtime or a shootout. For the Blackhawks, they’ll be without Duncan Keith for Game 1 as he finishes up his six game suspension. Other than that, everyone else is ready to go. Their second line of Panarin, Anisimov, and Kane cooled off a bit in March, but has since regained their early season form. Kane ended the year leading the league in points and finished with 46 goals. Panarin led all rookies in goals (30), assists (47), and points (77). Those two alone can win a series if they continue to fire on all cylinders. The top line of Ladd, Toews, and Hossa started to increase their production until Hossa went down with back-to-back injuries, but now they’re all healthy and will need to create offense yet again. Where Chicago has the potential to make themselves the Cup favorite lies within their bottom two lines. If they get production from their fourth line again like they did last spring with the same three players, and if their third line continues to create chances like they have been as of late, they’ll be an extremely tough out for any team. Their weakness is their defense. They have yet to find a way to fully replace Johnny Oduya and have had a revolving door on their bottom pair. Corey Crawford will likely be tested in this one, and he’ll somehow have to regain his mid-season form to help his team advance.

The Blues come into the first round with everyone back and healthy. They finished the year ranked 4th in fewest goals against average, and 1st in team save percentage. Obviously, this is a team that relies on keeping the puck out of their net to be successful. When you look at their forward lines, you definitely notice that they have really good depth, but they lack that top-end firepower. Sure, Tarasenko was a 40-goal scorer this season, but after that they do not match up with Chicago in terms of offense. Where St. Louis is going to win or lose this series is defense. Can they stop Chicago’s offense, or limit it, for four games out of seven? We’ll see. They definitely have the defensive corps and goaltending to do it, but actually doing it successfully for a whole playoff series is not easy. If they can shutdown the Blackhawks’ 2nd ranked powerplay, St. Louis will have a good shot at winning this series. However, while the Blues do have the league’s third best penalty kill, they have a tendency to end up in the box as they ranked 9th in penalty minutes this year. In what will be a physical series, the Blues are going to have to not be dumb and take stupid penalties that will give the Blackhawks more powerplay time.

I’m expecting a bruising series here, and one that could potentially go seven games. In the end though, Chicago’s ability to score along with their experience in the playoffs should put them over the top.

-Chicago wins series, 4-2.

STAT TO KNOW: Blackhawks – 2nd in PP%; Blues – 5th in Faceoff %

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

Season Series: Predators won, 2-1

What we have here is a matchup of two of the NHL’s best teams over the course of the second half of this season. Nashville started the year pretty slow, then they acquired Ryan Johansen in exchange for Seth Jones and everything seemed to turn around. They rank near the middle of the pack in most offensive and defensive categories, yet they still have decent forward depth and one of the league’s best sets of top four defensemen. Given the Ducks’ offensive capabilities, the Predators will need that defense to elevate their game to the next level. Pekka Rinne, who had a subpar season by his standards, cannot take a night off at this point. His team will need to ride on his shoulders from time to time in this series. If Nashville can get timely scoring, especially from their top guys such as Forsberg and Neal, they’ll have a shot in this series.

For Anaheim, they simply just need to play their game. They have the edge in talent and depth over Nashville, they’re one of the top teams in possession (52.4% Corsi rating), and they are the top team on both the powerplay and penalty kill. They have suffered some injuries to players such as David Perron, Rickard Rakell, and Kevin Bieksa, and it’s unclear which, if any, of those players will see ice time in this series. Where they could run into problems is on defense. The Ducks run a little thin in this department, and a good offensive team could potentially give them trouble.

On paper, the Ducks should have this thing locked up. They have the talent and statistical edge over Nashville. However, anything could always happen.

-Anaheim wins series, 4-2.

STAT TO KNOW: Predators – 1st in fewest shots against/game; Ducks – 1st in PP% and PK%

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Season Series: Sharks won, 3-2

Who doesn’t love another good rivalry in the first round? Next to Chicago – St. Louis, this is the next most heated matchup of the opening round. The Sharks weren’t even really supposed to be a playoff team this season, but General Manager Doug Wilson kept his core players intact and it has paid off so far. Joe Thornton (82 points) had what many are calling a Hart Trophy-worthy season if not for Patrick Kane, and he was closely followed by Joe Pavelski (78) and Brent Burns (75). What was most impressive about the Sharks this season in both a good and bad sense was the fact that they led the NHL in road victories with 28, but had the fewest home wins (18) of any team to make the playoffs. For a team that has always had a great home ice advantage, their home woes this season are mind boggling. Will it be an issue in the playoffs? Maybe, except that they do not have home ice advantage in this series, which may benefit them. Aside from that, the Sharks rank 4th in goals per game and 10th in goals against average. Their blue line is surprisingly deep, and they have two solid goalies. Martin Jones appears ready to get the Game 1 start, but if he falters early look for James Reimer to replace him.

Standing in the Sharks’ way is the team that has won two of the last four Stanley Cups: the Kings. This is what Los Angeles lives for. They aren’t a great regular season team, but as soon as the playoffs begin, they become one of the best teams in hockey. They have the depth at forward and the right goaltender to go all the way, but for once it’s the defense that may hurt them. That’s not to say that their defensive unit is a bad one by any means, but they aren’t what they were during their previous two Cup runs. Aside from that, L.A. did lead the NHL in possession numbers this season and ranked 3rd in shots per 60 minutes of play. If they can find their playoff form again after a year off from the postseason, look out.

The Sharks always give L.A. problems. They were up 3-0 on the Kings two years ago in the playoffs, but ended up losing four straight. I’m not saying that exact same thing will take place again, but the Kings are in for a tough series.

-Los Angeles wins series, 4-3.

STAT TO KNOW: Sharks – 4th in goals per game; Kings – 1st in possession

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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.

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.

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

Minnesota-Wild-Wallpaper-

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.

bluejackets07-rgbjpg-8678ad1b3fbe2735

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.

144

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.

161

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.

174

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.

161

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.)

More Blackhawks rumors

130107_gq_trout_aAccording to a report from the Ottawa Sun, Ryan Kesler has made it clear to the Canucks’ management that he wants to be traded to either the Blackhawks or Penguins. I’ve talked on here before about the likelihood, or lack thereof, of Kesler actually becoming a Blackhawk, and now I guess I have to do it again since these rumors and reports keep surfacing.

Vancouver is entering a rebuild mode right now. They traded away Roberto Luongo this past spring, they fired their head coach John Tortorella after just one season, and they are really focusing a lot of their attention on their younger players and prospects with the hopes to build a new, younger and better team in the near future. Ryan Kesler is a 29 year old veteran on that team who wants out. If the Canucks are to trade him, which it looks like they certainly will, Vancouver is going to want good, young talent in return. If not that, then they’ll want a star player who will be a good role model to the younger guys on that team. Enter the names Patrick Sharp, Teuvo Teravainen, and Brandon Saad.

The Canucks will almost positively be seeking one of those three players from the Hawks in return for Ryan Kesler. The question is, is Kesler worth that price?

Odds are it would have to be Patrick Sharp leaving town to get Kesler simply for the money reasons. Sharp is due $5.9 million annually for three more seasons, so trading his contract would open up the cap space for Ryan Kesler and his five million dollar contract. With Ryan Kesler, the Hawks would be getting a 20-30 goals per season center, as well as a former Selke Trophy winner as the league’s best defensive forward. Kesler is also one of the more physical forwards in the league, which makes him that much tougher to play against. He would no doubt be as good of a fit for the Blackhawks’ number two center position as anyone. As for Sharp, the Hawks would be losing probably a more talented player than Kesler (especially offensively), a proven leader, and a two-time Stanley Cup champion and one-time Olympic gold medalist. Not to mention his presence would no longer be in that Blackhawks locker room, and I don’t think it’s any secret how well liked he is among the other Hawks players.

Clearly, it’s a tough call to make if you’re Stan Bowman as to whether or not it’s worth trading Sharp for Kesler. I think one thing the Hawks like about Kesler over Sharp is the fact that Kesler is just 29 years old, while Sharp is 32. This is one of those potential trades that has it’s definite positives and it’s definite negatives.

So what about Teravinen and Saad?

Originally it was believed that the Canucks wanted Brandon Saad as part of any deal that involved Ryan Kesler coming to the Hawks. Obviously, the word on the street is that the Blackhawks said “no way” and those talks ended. The only reason the Kesler rumors have picked up again is because it would appear Brandon Saad no longer has to be part of the deal. Some people have said that in place of Saad, the Canucks now want Teuvo Teravainen, the Hawks’ top prospect. While I’m sure they do want him, there’s no way they’re getting him. Even if the Hawks were willing to part ways with Teuvo or Saad, neither of those players has a large enough contract to open the cap space for Kesler (the cap space would be there right now, but not in two years after the Hawks re-sign Kane and Toews). And there’s no way the Hawks trade Saad/Teravainen and Sharp.

So that leaves Patrick Sharp as being the only real possible candidate to get traded for Kesler. I’m sure the Hawks would gladly trade Seabrook and his contract for Kesler, but I’m not sure the Canucks would go for that. The Blackhawks are looking for ways to get their young defensemen (Clendening, Dahlbeck, and Johns) into the NHL, and trading Seabrook or Oduya would open up that door.

Another name that has really come onto the scene recently is that of Jason Spezza. He wants out of Ottawa, and the Senators appear to be trying to grant his wish. Spezza is another center that would fit perfectly on the Hawks’ second line, and he might even come at a cheaper price. Still, a big contract would have to be moved from the Hawks to get him. I’d say the Kesler thing is a bit more likely than this one.

WINTER CLASSIC

7327531TSN’s Bob McKenzie confirmed yesterday that the Blackhawks will be Washington’s opponent in next year’s Winter Classic. This will be the second time that each of these teams has taken part in a Winter Classic, with Chicago having done so in 2009 at Wrigley Field, and Washington in 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

Personally, this matchup makes very little sense to me from a hockey standpoint. These two teams have zero rivalry between them, and the Capitals aren’t even a playoff team. The only reason Washington is in this game is because they have Alex Ovechkin and they’re an east coast team. The NHL always seems to need an east coast team in these big games just to be “safe” with their TV ratings.

If I’m a west coast team like Minnesota, Colorado, or St. Louis, I’m pretty hacked off at this point. All three of them just made the playoffs, and all three could fill up an outdoor stadium for a Winter Classic. Yet other teams are already playing in their second Winter Classic, some of them not even playoff teams. If you put them (Minnesota, Colorado, or St. Louis) up against a team like the Blackhawks, it would make for a much better game than a Hawks-Capitals one. The Hawks share a “rivalry” with all three of those teams, and the Blackhawks generate large TV ratings, which would make it a “safe” game for the NHL. But what do I know?

Thanks for reading.

NHL Eastern Conference predictions

Here’s how I think the Eastern Conference will play out this season:

Metropolitan 

1. 2518158277_cf0b185de3

The Penguins are consistently one of the best teams in hockey during the regular season with all of that talent. I see no reason as to why that will change this year. The playoffs, however, are a different story with this team.

2. llrs2zxi127vkqgcsvfb

After a couple of down years, I expect Washington to be back near the top of the league this season. Ovechkin found his form over the course of last season, and I think he’ll stay hot heading into this season. However, this team seems to always have the potential to disappoint.

3. 144

This will be their first season under new head coach Alain Vigneault, and I think it could go one of two ways; good, or really bad. I don’t see an in-between with the Rangers. Henrik Lundqvist is always a key factor in this team’s success, and while I expect him to be an elite goalie again this year, I am not as sure about the rest of the team. For now, I’m saying they take third in this division.

4. 161

Last year was a season to forget for the Flyers. They greatly under-performed. Now that Bryzgalov is gone and Ray Emery has taken his place, there should be less off-ice distractions, which will help, but I don’t think last year was a fluke. Teams don’t just go from the top of the conference to the bottom in one year without there being more than a few problems. Having said that, I think Philadelphia has the potential to finish in the top 3 in this division.

5. Carolina-Hurricanes-Logo

The Hurricanes somewhat remind me of the Oilers in terms of their potential. Edmonton has more talent, but both teams are better than what they showed us last season. Like the Oilers, I think Carolina has the potential to make the postseason as a wild card team, but I won’t be surprised if they don’t.

6. 138

Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I should have the Islanders ahead of the Hurricanes or not. They could go either way. Last year was a major surprise for the Islanders as they made the playoffs for the first time in a number of years. John Tavares is becoming one of the best centers in the game, and he’ll probably be named team captain sometime this month. Still, I don’t think this team will replicate what they accomplished last year.

7. bluejackets07-rgbjpg-8678ad1b3fbe2735

For the first time in a long time, the Blue Jackets are not projected to be the worst team in the league. If they were still in the Central Division, I might have them placed higher in the standings. Unfortunately for the Jackets, this division may be the toughest in hockey. While they will be a solid, possibly above .500 team, I don’t see them making the playoffs in this conference.

8. 127

There isn’t a whole lot to look forward to with the Devils. Kovalchuk is gone, Clarkson is gone, and Brodeur is slowly on his way out. They did acquire Corey Schneider, Jaromir Jagr, Ryan Clowe, and Michael Ryder, among others, but there are still a ton of question marks with this team, especially on defense.

Atlantic

1. Detroit-Red-Wings-Logo

This is my big prediction for this upcoming season. While I’m sure others have the Wings finishing first in this division, I don’t think I’m in the majority. Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss were big acquisitions for the Wings that will greatly help. I feel that a line with Datsyuk/Zetterberg and Daniel Alfredsson could be a major threat to opposing teams. Aside from their big name players, the Wings also have a lot of young talent that really looked good in last year’s playoffs. The big question mark here is their defense. I’d expect the Wings to upgrade on the blue line via trade at some point this season.

2. Boston_Bruins_logo

They lost Horton, Seguin, Peverley, and Jagr, but acquired Loui Eriksson and Jarome Iginla. Their offense should be pretty comparable to what it was last year, and their defense remains arguably the best in the NHL. The Bruins will contend for the top spot in the East again this season, but for now I have them finishing second in their own division.

3. Toronto-Maple-Leafs-Logo

This is where the Atlantic Division kind of falls to a lower level. The Wings and Bruins, in my opinion, will be elite teams in the NHL. After them, however, I don’t see another solid lock for the postseason in this division. The Maple Leafs have the best shot of the remaining teams, and rightfully so. They made some big moves this off season by signing David Clarkson and trading for Jonathan Bernier and Dave Bolland. If James Reimer begins to show some weaknesses, expect Bernier to be named their new starting goalie. My fear with Toronto is that they are expecting too much out of Dave Bolland. They have really hyped him up since they traded for him, but he’s not the offensive player that they’re making him out to be. The Leafs will be good, but not great.

4. 2bkf2l3xyxi5p0cavbj8

They made a big move by acquiring Bobby Ryan from the Ducks, but they also lost their captain via free agency. Last year the Senators surprised a lot of people by not only making the playoffs, but by advancing to the second round. In all honesty, I think Ottawa is going to be pretty similar to what they were last season. I think we’re probably looking at a wild card spot for the Sens, but they have the ability to miss the postseason as well.

5. 97hhvk8e5if0riesnex30etgz

This is kind of a “wild card” pick for me. The Lightning were not good last season, but I think they have the talent and potential to be better. Stamkos will continue to be one of the best players in hockey, St. Louis will stay productive, and the signing of Valtteri Filppula will prove to be bigger than people think. They have a decent offensive team, but their defense is still suspect. Matt Carle needs to bounce back after a couple of down seasons since signing in Tampa, and Viktor Hedman needs to play up to his potential for this team to be decent again. Along with their defense, goaltending is another foggy area with the Lightning. I’m not totally sold on Ben Bishop, but only time will tell with him.

6.  canadiens

I felt all of last season that this team was overachieving. I thought for sure that they would choke near the end of the year and either fall to a bottom seed in the East playoffs, or miss the postseason all together. They did neither. This year, I think their record will be a bit more indicative as to how good the Canadiens really are. I don’t think they’ll make the playoffs, and I think they could end up even lower in the standings than I have them here.

7. 230

While they’re not as bad as the Flames, this team is in a rebuilding phase just like Calgary. They’ve had some good talent over the past few years, but nothing ever panned out the way that they wanted it to. Tyler Myers has regressed a bit since his rookie campaign, and guys like Drew Stafford haven’t really improved much over the past couple seasons. Ryan Miller is coming off of one of his worst seasons in the NHL, but I think he’ll be better this year.

8. 94

The Panthers shocked everyone two years ago when they made the playoffs, and there’s a reason for that. They weren’t/aren’t that good. They have a ton of young guys who could turn out to be good hockey players, and they have Jonathan Huberdeau who seems to have a promising future. Still, there are way too many unknowns with this team. Defensively, they have a bit more veteran depth, but they’re not great in that area. Expect another last place finish for Florida.

Playoffs

Metropolitan Division:

1. Penguins 2. Capitals 3. Rangers

Atlantic Division:

1. Red Wings 2. Bruins 3. Maple Leafs

Wild Card teams:

1. Flyers 2. Senators

NHL Eastern Conference playoff predictions

Who would have thought that the Eastern Conference playoff teams would not consist of the Philadelphia Flyers? I didn’t predict that, that’s for sure. Nonetheless, it is nice to see some new faces in the playoffs this year, like the Islanders and Maple Leafs. And how about the Senators? After all the adversity that this team has faced this season, it is pretty remarkable that they’re in the postseason again. So having said that, let’s get to the predictions.

1-8 Matchup:

2518158277_cf0b185de3 vs. 138

Season series: Penguins 4-1-0 against Islanders.

Well it’s no surprise to see Pittsburgh as the number 1 seed in the East, but it is a surprise to see the Islanders as the number 8 seed. I am confident in saying that I don’t believe many people projected the Islanders to be a playoff team this year. John Tavares, on the other hand, had different thoughts about his team and willed them to the postseason. Him and Matt Moulson recorded 47 and 44 points respectively this year, and they are going to need to continue to produce against the Penguins. Evgeni Nabakov had a major bounce back season this year by going 23-11-7, and his playoff experience is huge for the Islanders. Not many guys on that team have ever played in the postseason before, so it’s nice for them to have a goalie with experience. He’s going to need to be great for the Islanders to advance.

The Penguins have shown all year long that they are a force in the Eastern Conference, and they are going to be the toughest out in the East. They went out and really upgraded their team at the trade deadline by acquiring Jarome Iginla and Brendan Morrow, and both of those guys have fit pretty well into the lineup since. The biggest concern for Pittsburgh right now is the health of Sidney Crosby. He recently started practicing again after sitting out for a month with a broken jaw, but it is unclear as to when he may return to game action. Although I feel that the Penguins should still take down the Islanders without much of a problem even without Crosby, I wouldn’t ink them in as the Eastern Conference champs like many people are. Marc Andre Fleury worries me about the Penguins chances with his sub-par play in recent postseasons.

-Pittsburgh wins series, 4-1.

2-7 Matchup:

124 vs. 2bkf2l3xyxi5p0cavbj8

Season series: Senators 2-1-1 against Canadiens.

After a couple years of missing the playoffs, Montreal is back as the number 2 seed in the East after barely edging out the Bruins for the division championship. Ottawa, meanwhile, is back in the playoffs yet again even after all the injuries they suffered this season. Daniel Alfredsson (their captain) missed the entire season, and Jason Spezza (their best goal scorer) played in just 5 games. Neither will play in the postseason. Erik Karlsson only played in 17 games because of a severed achilles, but made a remarkable return to the lineup for the last game of the regular season. His presence in the lineup will be HUGE for the Senators in the playoffs. Craig Anderson had his best season as a goalie, posting 1.69 goals-against average and a .941 save percentage. He should be a Vezina finalist, and rightfully so. Ottawa will need Anderson to continue his strong play into the postseason. If he does, this is a team that could do some damage.

Montreal had a great start to the season, but saw their play slip a little in April (a 7-7-0 record). They had 5 players record at least 30 points this year, including 2 defensemen. One of which, P.K. Subban, should be a Norris Trophy finalist. But to me, the biggest story-line surrounding this team will be the play of Carey Price. He went 21-13-4 this season with a 2.59 GAA and a .905 save percentage. Over the last month or so, however, Price has really started to fade. Fans in Montreal have become extremely critical of Price, and I am sure that if he slips up early in this series that Peter Budaj will take over in net. To me, the Canadiens go as Carey Price goes.

-Ottawa wins series, 4-2.

3-6 Matchup:

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Season series: Rangers 2-0-1 against Capitals.

Thanks to the unbelievable play of Alex Ovechkin down the home stretch of the season, the Capitals find themselves as division champions and the 3 seed in the East. The Rangers, however, cannot be happy with their 6th place finish in the conference. This was a team that almost everyone had winning the conference and advancing to the Finals prior to the season after their acquisition of Rick Nash. Unexpectedly, the Rangers just couldn’t get things rolling until April where they went 10-3-1. At the trade deadline, they parted ways with Marian Gaborik and received Derek Dorsett, Derick Brassard, and John Moore in return. This was apparently the spark that the Rangers needed to get going, because they have been a much better team since. Henrik Lundqvist is still one of the top goalies in hockey, and he has the ability to single-handedly win a series for New York. If he plays well and Derek Stepan keeps up his torrid pace, this team will get by the first round.

-New York wins series, 4-3.

4-5 Matchup:

Boston-Bruins-Logo vs. Toronto-Maple-Leafs-Logo

 

Season series: Boston 3-1-0 against Maple Leafs.

Talk about a classic rivalry series… I think I speak on behalf of most NHL fans when I say that I am excited to watch these two teams go at it. Finally, the Maple Leafs are back in the playoffs, and their fans are going to be going nuts at the Air Canada Centre for Game 3. After all that talk of Toronto possibly trading for either Roberto Luongo or Mikka Kiprusoff, their goaltending really hasn’t been bad. James Reimer went 19-8-5 this year with a 2.46 GAA and a .924 save percentage. He doesn’t have playoff experience, which could hurt, but the Leafs have to have some confidence in this guy after the season he had. Phil Kessel, who led the Leafs with 52 points, will get a chance to eliminate his former team, and the Maple Leafs are going to need him to give everything he’s got.

After a great start to the season, Boston was eventually caught and overrun by the Canadiens in the division. But don’t let that fool you. The Bruins are still one of the best teams in hockey, and one of the toughest teams to play against. Tuukka Rask was one of the better goalies in hockey this season with a 2.00 GAA and a .929 save percentage. His play, plus the team defense of the Bruins resulted in Boston finishing third in the league in GA/G. Teams with a good GA/G always tend to fare well in the postseason. The addition of Jaromir Jagr at the trade deadline could pay off now more than it has up to this point in the season, as Jagr is a very experienced postseason player and knows how to win big games. Also, the Bruins are just 2 years removed from winning the Cup and know what it takes to get back there. Don’t let their finish in the conference fool you. This is a dangerous team.

-Boston wins series, 4-1.

Look for my second round predictions for both conferences once the first round ends.

Thanks for reading.