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

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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%

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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

First half surprises in the NHL

Columbus Blue Jackets  v Florida PanthersBelieve it or not, we are already over halfway through the NHL season. The standings are starting to take shape, but there is still way too much hockey left to come to any solid conclusions as to how they will for sure look in April. There have definitely been some surprises thus far, both good and bad, as well as some not so surprising occurrences. Today we will take a look around the league at some of those surprises, as well as offer up some predictions as to how the rest of the season will unfold.

Let’s get to it.

SURPRISES

The Good

  • How about the Florida Panthers? They just had a 12-game winning streak snapped in Vancouver, and through 43 games Florida sits atop the Atlantic division with 57 points (tied for fourth league-wide). This is due in large part to their defense and starting goaltender, Roberto Luongo. Only one team in the NHL has allowed fewer goals than the Panthers, which is a key statistic. Over the last six seasons, each team to have won the Stanley Cup ranked in the top five in the NHL in fewest goals against. So despite Jaromir Jagr continuing to defy his age, the biggest story coming out of Sunrise, Florida should be the Panthers’ ability to keep the puck out of their own net.
  • This may or may not be a surprise to some people, but the Washington Capitals are a NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Washington Capitalsvery good team. They currently rank second in the league in goals-scored per game, and are tied for first in fewest goals-against per game. Oh, and they lead the NHL in points with 67. Needless to say, the Caps seem to have everything clicking at the moment. Throw in the fact that Alex Ovechkin just notched goals number 500 and 501, and yeah, it’s been a pretty good half-season in the nation’s capital.
  • The Dallas Stars. Most people had them pegged as a playoff team, but not everyone thought they would be this good this fast. They own the league’s top offense and arguably the NHL’s best line. As of this moment, they lead the Central division with 62 points. They have hit a bit of a rough patch over the last week or so, but every team is entitled to one or two of those over the course of a long season. The biggest question with Dallas is whether or not their defense and goaltending will be strong enough come playoff time.
  • Again, some might not see this as surprising, others may. The Chicago Blackhawks are rolling right now and are winners of seven straight games. Despite another offseason that saw a major roster overhaul, this team has picked up right where they left off a year ago and own the third highest point total in the NHL. Rookie sensation Artemi Panarin, who leads all rookies in goals, assists, and points, has become a huge part of the team and is a huge reason why Patrick Kane is having a career year. The trio of Panarin, Anisimov, and Kane is as good as any league-wide and has carried the Hawks at times this season. Also, Corey Crawford is having his best season in the NHL and leads the league with 6 shutouts. While the Hawks may still be an addition or two away from being a Cup-favorite, they’re still a scary team to play against.

The Bad

  • The Columbus Blue Jackets are an absolute mess. This was a team that many people had making the playoffs, but that looks to be impossible at this point. To recap their season so far, they have fired their head coach, hired John Tortorella out of desperation, and recently traded their top player, Ryan Johansen, to the Nashville Predators. The Jackets sit dead last in hockey with 34 points and are showing no signs of turning things around. Yes, they did acquire Seth Jones in exchange for Johansen, but that move won’t help them this year. Even with a history of losing in Columbus, this year’s losing ways were not anticipated.
  • Who predicted the Penguins would be having this much trouble, especially after the addition of Phil Kessel? We have come to know the Penguins as a perennial playoff team over the last eight years or so, but this year does not look as promising. Pittsburgh struggled out of the gate, following their captain’s lead, but have somewhat turned things around in recent weeks, as has Sidney Crosby. Still, they cannot seem to put any consistent, successful play together and are stuck winning a game then losing a game, and so on. Could this be the year they miss the postseason?
  • A lot like Pittsburgh, the Tampa Bay Lightning got off to a slow start to the season 130107_gq_trout_aand have since found it difficult to find any consistency in their play. This was last season’s best offensive team, but now they rank 17th in goals per game. Their captain, Steven Stamkos, has been surrounded by trade rumors all season. Whether or not his contract situation is affecting his play, there is no denying that he is having an “off year” by his standards. Yes, the Lightning have dealt with some injuries, but now is the time for them to start turning their season around if they want to make another deep playoff push.
  • Ready for another underperforming team? You got it. The Ducks might just be the most surprising team in the league so far, and not in a good way. Their 41 points are good for fifth in the Pacific division, and their 78 goals scored are dead last in the league by quite a bit. Much like the two previous teams we discussed, Anaheim has been unable to consistently play “their” game. However, they do have some things going for them. They are the league’s ninth best team in fewest goals-against per game. If they can keep that up, the law of averages suggests that they’ll find their offense and start to pile up the W’s.

Alright, so there are this year’s biggest surprises to this point as seen through these eyes. Now, here are some quick predictions.

PREDICTIONS

  1. The Ducks will make the playoffs as one of the top three teams in the Pacific division. If they miss the playoffs, Bruce Boudreau will get fired at season’s end.
  2. The Penguins will also make the playoffs, but as a wild card team. There’s too much talent in that locker room for them to not make it.
  3. Steven Stamkos will not get traded this year, but he also will not sign an extension with the Lightning.
  4. Going off those lines, a big name in Winnipeg will get dealt. Whether that’s Byfuglien, Ladd, or Trouba is tough to say. One will go though, that’s for sure.
  5. And lastly, we’ll see the Panthers drop in the standings. They’re a good team, and probably a playoff team, but they won’t win that division.

Thanks for reading.

NHL Pacific Division preview

As is the case before each season, I’ll go through and give a real quick preview of each team and division in the NHL, followed by my prediction as to how I think the standings will look at season’s end. This seemingly gets tougher each and every year to predict…

First up, the guys out west.

Pacific Division

ANAHEIM_DUCKS_LOGO

Ducks’ 2014-15 record: 51-24-7 (109 points)

The Ducks come into this season fresh off another Game 7 defeat in the playoffs after having finished the season as the top team in the Western Conference during the regular season. They have been one of the best regular season teams in recent years, but just haven’t been able to get it done in the postseason. This summer, they added Carl Hagelin, Chris Stewart, and Kevin Bieksa, among a couple others, to try and get themselves over that playoff hurdle. In the meantime, they traded away Emerson Etem and lost Matt Belesky to free agency. I have no doubt they’ll be near the league lead in points again this year, but the playoffs are what really matter. How they perform in April, May, and possibly June is what this team will be judged on.

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Coyotes’ 2014-15 record: 24-50-8 (56 points)

Only one team finished last season with fewer points than Arizona. Needless to say, it was a long season in the desert. But, that kind of finish did yield them the number three overall pick in the draft this summer, where they drafted Connor McDavid’s teammate from Erie, Dylan Strome. Arizona has not yet decided what they’ll do with Strome for this season, and he may end up being sent back to the OHL for another year. That’s probably not the worst idea; that or placing him in the AHL. You don’t want to rush a potential future star into the NHL. Another youngster to keep an eye on is Max Domi, who should be on the Coyotes’ opening night roster. Other than that though, there’s not much going on with this team other than the fact they re-signed Antoine Vermette after his short vacation to Chicago. All in all, they’re most likely still a last place finisher in this division, but should see a rise in their point total.

Calgary-Flames-Logo

Flames’ 2014-15 record: 45-30-7 (97 points)

I find it hard to not love what this team is doing. They completely exceeded all expectations last season and found themselves in the postseason where they incredibly advanced to the second round. This offseason, they added Dougie Hamilton and Michael Frolik to bolster their depth at on the blue line and at forward. Players like Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, and Markus Granlund undoubtedly gained extremely valuable experience at a young age from last year’s playoff run, which will only help them as they progress into this season. The Flames will also have their captain Mark Giordano back after he was forced to miss the end of last season and the playoffs due to injury. Assuming Bob Hartley will get his guys to play with as much heart and effort as they did last season, I have a hard time seeing this team missing the playoffs this year.

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Oilers’ 2014-15 record: 24-44-14 (62 points)

Like the Flames, it’s tough to not be excited about the Oilers. After multiple years in a row of seeing their young talent not do much of anything, it finally appears as though Edmonton may have their act together now under the guidance of Peter Chiarelli as the new GM, and new head coach Todd McLellan. They won the draft lottery this past spring and subsequently chose the second coming of Wayne Gretzky in Connor McDavid, who should no doubt make an immediate impact on the team on and off the ice. They should also have 2014 first round pick (third overall) Leon Draisaitl making his NHL debut on opening night alongside McDavid. That pairing has shown some good chemistry throughout training camp and the preseason, and could be a real “thing” this season. The Oilers knew they had to improve their blue line this summer, and so they went out and signed Andrej Sekera to go along with what is a very young, but talented, group of defensemen. Heck, their captain Andrew Ference may not even make the top six d-men! (We all know he will, but should he?) Edmonton also traded for Cam Talbot from the New York Rangers. For the first time in his career, he should be getting the majority of the starts in net. When looking at this team, it seemingly has all the makings of a surprise playoff team.

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Kings’ 2014-15 record: 40-27-15 (95 points)

A year after winning the 2014 Stanley Cup, the Kings were watching the playoffs at home from their couches. They even admitted that they were “coasting” through the regular season and saving their energy for the playoffs. The only problem was that they didn’t flip their switch in time and missed the postseason all together. Had they made the playoffs, they would have been the favorite in just about any matchup they ended up with. But that’s history and now we’re talking about this season. They acquired Milan Lucic this summer from Boston, and also signed d-man Christian Ehrhoff to add to what is already a strong blue line. They lost the likes of Mike Richards, Jarret Stoll, and Slava Voynov due to off-ice issues. When you sit back and really examine L.A.’s roster, it’s not that eye-popping. They aren’t the team they were two years ago, but they’re still a good team that should contend for a playoff spot. One way in which they for sure miss the postseason again is if they continue to lose so many overtime/shootout games. That killed them last year.

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Sharks’ 2014-15 record: 40-33-9 (89 points)

The Sharks missed the playoffs for the first time last year since the 2002-2003 season, and don’t appear to be headed back to the postseason this year either. They traded away their number one netminder, Antti Niemi, and acquired Martin Jones to replace him. Jones has never been a starter in the NHL, so the Sharks are really taking a gamble on that one. At forward, San Jose still owns some of the biggest names in hockey (Thornton, Pavelski, Marleau, Couture), but after them they take a hit. For the Sharks to see success this year, they’ll need guys like Tomas Hertl, Matt Nieto, and Tommy Wingels to take a big next step in their games. They are going to need to score lots of goals because their defense runs rather thin on the blue line, plus they have a goalie in net who has never been a number one in the NHL.

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Canucks’ 2014-15 record: 48-29-5 (101 points)

Much like Calgary, but not to the same extent, Vancouver exceeded most expectations last season and ended the year as a playoff team with over 100 points. However, they lost Kevin Bieksa and Eddie Lack this summer, along with some others, and really don’t appear to be a playoff team. At least not on paper. Ryan Miller will have to play out of his mind this year to give his team a chance at the postseason, and they’ll also need some youngsters to put up some big point totals right away. The Sedin twins are beginning to creep up there in age, and one has to wonder how much longer they’ll be able to carry the team. As it is right now, I think this is one team who made the playoffs last year that for sure won’t this year.

The Pacific Division as a whole appears to be stronger this year than in recent years with the sudden improvement both up in Calgary and Edmonton. While I see the Ducks remaining the division champs, it will likely be up for grabs after that.

Predicted standings:

  1. Ducks 2. Flames 3. Kings 4. Oilers 5. Sharks 6. Canucks 7. Coyotes

Central Division preview and West playoff teams

Blackhawks drop Game 1

10-171460575-smallSo after nine days off since eliminating the Minnesota Wild, the Blackhawks finally got back into game action this afternoon against the Ducks. Many people wondered whether the long layoff would help or hurt the Hawks, and I think it’s safe to say after one game that it did not hurt them. You may look at the score and see that Anaheim won the game by a score of 4-1, but that isn’t an accurate reading as to how this first game actually went.

The first period was absolutely dominated by the Hawks. They were faster, smarter, and simply better than Anaheim in almost every facet of the game. Yet Hampus Lindholm converted on a nice set-up by Jakob Silfverberg to put Anaheim on the board just under nine minutes into the game. After the first period, the Ducks led 1-0, but were being outshot 16-7.

The second period saw a lot of the same. The Blackhawks controlled the play, put Frederik Andersen under some intense pressure, and didn’t allow many chances for the Ducks. However, after David Rundblad failed to clear the puck from the Hawks’ zone, Kyle Palmieri scored to give the Ducks a 2-0 lead with 15:43 left in the period. Then with under a minute remaining in the second, Brad Richards made a nice play to strip the puck from Francois Beauchmin at the Anaheim blue line and proceeded to skate in on Andersen and score. This was a huge goal at the time as it put the Hawks within one heading into the third.

In the final period, Anaheim slowed the game down a bit and never really gave the Blackhawks much to work with at even strength. The Ducks would end up getting goals from Nate Thompson and Jakob Silfverberg (empty netter) to seal the deal.

So, what should we take away from the first game of this series?

  • First and foremost, the Blackhawks were the better team in Game 1. They dominated most of the game and forced Frederik Andersen to make some unbelievable saves, which he did. If the Hawks can control the games moving forward like they did today, they’ll see some better outcomes. It’s not often that a team gets outplayed like the Ducks did and wins.
  • The Hawks MUST get better on the powerplay. They were 0-3 in the game, including two straight powerplays at the beginning of the third period while only down one goal. They generated a few nice chances while on the man advantage, but for the most part weren’t getting much going. They need to quit trying to make the perfect passes and simply shoot the puck. Get some rebounds out of Andersen and knock home a dirty goal. The playoffs are all about getting the “greasy” goals from in front of the net.
  • Anaheim’s top line of Maroon, Getzlaf, and Perry was relatively quiet in Game 1. Yet they still won the game. If the Blackhawks continue keeping the Ducks’ top line off the score sheet, they should be alright. That doesn’t mean they can forget about Anaheim’s bottom two lines. Those lines haven’t produced much in the playoffs, but they did today and have the potential to do it again.
  • The Blackhawks got some solid play out of all of their forward lines today. The only problem was that they simply couldn’t catch a break. While I don’t think it’s necessary for Quenneville to panic and start switching up the line combos, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to do so if Game 2 starts off on the wrong foot.
  • Kyle Cumiskey should start preparing as though he will be dressing on Tuesday night. David Rundblad got beat on the Ducks’ first goal and then turned the puck over in his own end leading to Anaheim’s second goal. It was a pretty awful first 30 minutes of the game for him. He did make a couple nice plays after that, but his tendency to commit costly turnovers is so obvious that Quenneville would be totally justified in benching him. Cumiskey played great down in Rockford this season and brings a ton of speed to the back end. This is something to keep an eye on.
  • Lastly, I thought Corey Crawford was fine today. He never really saw the first goal and had no chance on the second. The third could have been stopped, but again it was not an easy save to make. As long as Crow makes the necessary saves, the Hawks should still be alright.

Overall, I wouldn’t get too worried about this loss. The Blackhawks were the far better team. If they keep turning in performances like this one, they’ll see some victories pile up. Their goal in heading out to California was to win one of the first two games. That can still happen on Tuesday. And judging by how hostile the Honda Center was today, let’s just say the atmosphere shouldn’t do anything to impede the Hawks from winning a game out there (I’ve never head an NHL arena so quiet for a playoff game. There are stadiums around the league that are three times louder for regular season games.).

Game 2 is Tuesday. The Blackhawks need a victory, and I’m rather confident they’ll get it.

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.

Pacific Division preview

Over the next week or so, I’ll be going over my previews/predictions for each division in the NHL. We’ll start now with the Pacific Division, and then hit the Central, Metropolitan, and Atlantic.

PACIFIC DIVISION

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Anaheim: The Ducks finished last season with 116 points, which was good for first place in the brutal Western Conference and second in the entire league. This offseason, they’ve only seemingly gotten better. The additions of Ryan Kesler, Nate Thompson, and Dany Heatley give Anaheim one of the NHL’s most potent group of centers and forwards. The loss of Teemu Selanne will not be as big as some people may expect. He’ll be more missed in the locker room than on the ice. While the Ducks are primed for another dominant season offensively, their defense and goaltending remain a bit suspect. Can Cam Fowler take his game to the next level? Will Andersen and Gibson get the job done between the pipes? Those are the two question marks surrounding this team.

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Arizona: It’s weird calling them the “Arizona” Coyotes now, but it is what it is. They ended the 2013-14 season with 89 points and did not make the playoffs. If they did anything this summer, it was that they got worse. They let go of Mike Ribeiro and did not make any notable free agent signings. They play in a tough division with some elite offenses all around them, which is an area that they are now lacking in. Defensively, the Coyotes have some good players in Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, but after them they fall off a cliff. Mike Smith always has the ability to win his team a game on any given night, so they do have that going for them.

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Calgary: I think a lot of people were somewhat surprised by the Flames last season. Earning 77 points is not going to impress many people, but I do believe most had the Flames finishing with a lower total. This team is still in the rebuilding process and will not be a playoff contender (especially in the West) for at least a couple more years, but that doesn’t mean we should all ignore what goes on in Calgary. Young guns like Sean Monahan and goalie Karri Ramo will be looking to make the step to the next level in their respective games. Newcomers Mason Raymond and Jonas Hiller should make a good impact on the Flames this year. The signing of Hiller was one of the most interesting transactions this summer.

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Edmonton: I was really disappointed with how things unfolded in Edmonton last season. In last year’s season preview, I predicted the Oilers to take one of the two wild card spots in the West. Obviously that didn’t happen as Edmonton finished last in the Conference with 67 points. This year, I’ll make the wiser decision and predict that they miss the playoffs again. Their offense has some very young and potentially elite talent in the forms of Taylor Hall, Nail Yakupov, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Jordan Eberle. It’s their defense that will kill them again. They signed Nikita Nikitin this summer, but that won’t be nearly enough. Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth should have their hands full in goal all season.

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Los Angeles: The Kings are coming into the 2014-15 season fresh off their second Stanley Cup title in the last three seasons. They have basically the same roster back this year as the one they had last year, except now they’ll have Marian Gaborik for the entire year. What’s interesting about the Kings is that they never seem to put together a great regular season. They always finish with a point total somewhere in the mid-90’s, or in last year’s case exactly 100. Once the playoffs begin, then they take their game to the next level. I’ll say that we see more of the same this year. They might finish with more than 100 points this time around, but I don’t see them being one of the top two or even three seeds in the West. The playoffs are a different story…

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San Jose: The Sharks will return this season with most of the same roster that we saw last year, minus Dan Boyle. People are calling the situation in San Jose a “rebuilding process,” but I don’t quite see it that way. The Sharks have not unloaded their top players, and they have a few young guys that should only be getting better this season, like Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto. Goaltending ended up costing the Sharks in the playoffs last year when they went up 3-0 on the Kings in the first round, only to drop the next four games. Antti Niemi has proven that he can be a top-end goalie in the NHL, but he needs to play like one this season. Brent Burns will make the move back to defense this season where he started his career in an attempt to fill the void left by Dan Boyle. I like this change by the Sharks, and I think they’ll without a doubt be a playoff team yet again.

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Vancouver: The Canucks have made it clear that they are now in the process of rebuilding their roster. They traded Roberto Luongo away at last year’s trade deadline, and they dealt Ryan Kesler to the Ducks earlier this summer. They also signed Ryan Miller to be their number one netminder, which surprised me and many other people. Why sign a big name goalie like Miller for a good amount of money if you don’t really plan on contending for a few years to come? It’s an answer I won’t soon find out, but I won’t stay up at night worrying about it either. I’d expect Vancouver to finish with a point total somewhere in the mid to low 80’s this season.

PREDICTED STANDINGS:

1. Ducks 2. Kings 3. Sharks 4. Vancouver 5. Phoenix 6. Edmonton 7. Flames

Keep checking back for my previews on the rest of the NHL.

Ducks or Kings: Who do the Hawks want next?

130107_gq_trout_aNow that the Blackhawks have finally sent the Minnesota Wild packing and on their way to the nearest golf course, we can shift our focus ahead to the Western Conference Final. The Hawks will play the winner of the Ducks-Kings series, which is headed to a seventh game tomorrow night. Both teams are strong in multiple areas of their game, so which one do the Blackhawks really want to play next?

Let’s start by taking a look at a potential Blackhawks-Kings series.

During the regular season, the Hawks went 3-0-0 against LA, outscoring them 9-4 in those 940-couture-loganthree games. However, that was the regular season, and the Kings are playing what may be their best hockey of the year right now. They are an elite defensive team as we have all seen in the past, and they have one of the best goaltenders in the world. If we thought the Wild did a good job at slowing down the pace of the Hawks and keeping them from using their speed to their advantage, just wait until we (potentially) see LA. They can shut their opposition down as well as anyone in the league and can force them to play a slow, chip-and-chase type game. That does not bode necessarily well for the Hawks. On top of that, Jonathan Quick has the ability to single handedly win a series.

david_rundblad_phx_030512As for the Ducks, they finished the regular season as the top team in the Western Conference. Despite that fact, the Blackhawks still went 2-0-1 against them in the regular season, with that one loss being a shootout/coin flip loss. The Ducks were one of the league’s top goal-scoring teams this season, but in the playoffs and against much tougher defenses, they rank eighth (fourth among the remaining teams). Their top line, which features Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, is always one of the most dangerous lines in hockey, but after that the Ducks offense takes a step back. On defense, Cam Fowler leads the way for Anaheim with a couple of other solid, but inexperienced d-men. They have the ability to shut down their opponent’s offense at times, but their lack of experience in the postseason is a problem. In net, it has been a circus for the Ducks this postseason. They started the playoffs with Frederik Andersen in goal, then turned to Jonas Hiller, and are now riding rookie John Gibson, who played in all of three games during the regular season. Who knows if/when they’ll switch it up again. The bottom line is that there is a lot of uncertainty regarding who their number one goalie is right now.

So, which one do the Hawks want to play? While the answer may seem obvious based on what was just said, there’s more to it than just that.

In a series against the Kings, the Blackhawks would get home-ice advantage. There is also somewhat of a “familiarity” with the Kings since the Hawks just played them in the Conference Final last year. Yes, the Kings are probably the better team compared to Anaheim, but there are advantages to playing against them in the Conference Final.

If the Blackhawks end up playing Anaheim, that matchup better favors the Hawks than one with LA. The lack of depth on the Ducks, their inexperience in late playoff rounds, and their goalie problems are not a good recipe when playing the Blackhawks. Yet, the Ducks would have the home-ice advantage over the Hawks based on regular season point totals.

While the Blackhawks would never admit it publicly, they would rather face the Ducks in the Conference Final. There are too many areas of Anaheim’s game that are inferior to those of the Hawks, and the Blackhawks are one of the best teams in the league (if not the best) at winning important games on the road. Having the home-ice advantage is always nice, but in this case I think the Hawks would trade it in for a less complicated matchup with the Ducks.

Regardless of who the Blackhawks end up playing next, they need to elevate their game from where it was at against Minnesota. They can’t come out against the Ducks or Kings with they effort they displayed against the Wild and expect to win again. That just won’t work. They have to get back to being the better puck possession team and having more offensive zone time and shots on goal than they did this last round.

My gut feeling is that the Kings are going to end up winning Game 7 in Anaheim, meaning another showdown with the Hawks. If I’m right, people will be quite surprised when they watch the Kings this time around compared to last year. They are much healthier and want revenge. The Blackhawks will need their A-game to advance.

 

NHL Conference Semifinals predictions

That was a pretty excellent first round if you ask me. Tons of overtimes, three Game 7’s, what more could you ask for? As it turns out, I correctly predicted the winner in six of the eight first round series. My only hiccups were the Wild beating the Avalanche, and the Kings beating the Sharks. Although San Jose really should have won that series… You’re up 3-0 in the series and you lose four straight? There’s a reason this was only the fourth time that’s ever happened in NHL history: because it’s hard to do.

On to the predictions.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

ANAHEIM_DUCKS_LOGO vs. 940-couture-logan

This has all the makings of a very intense, very physical, and very heated second round series. Southern California is well represented here, with these two teams separated by just over 30 miles. The Kings come into the second round as winners of their last four games, all while facing elimination. They were just the fourth team in NHL history to come back and win a series after falling down 3-0 after the first three games. This is a team with incredible confidence and resiliency right now, and I would not want to be their next opponent. In the first round against the Sharks, LA looked rather horrible through the first three games as they allowed 16 goals against during that span. It’s actually hard to allow that many goals in just three games, but they found a way to do it. Jonathan Quick did not look like his usual self, and neither did the rest of the Kings players. From Game 4 on, however, they became a different team. In the final four games against San Jose (all victories), Quick and the Kings only gave up 5 goals. That as well is hard to do. Yet, they did it. The Kings were one of the top defensive teams all season long, and they proved this again in their four wins over the Sharks. Jonathan Quick seems to have rounded back into form, the offense has picked up its pace, and the defense is back to its elite level of play. LA is a complete and physical team right now, and one that I would want no part of.

As for the Ducks, they had a tougher time handling the Stars than I think most people expected. After winning the first two games of the series at home, Anaheim went on to lose the next two in Dallas. From there, the Ducks won the next two games and the series, but it wasn’t without some struggle. Goalie Frederik Andersen allowed 3.40 goals per game against the Stars, which was good for third worst of any goalie in the first round. No goalie that advanced had a worse GAA. This has to be worrisome for the Ducks, but you can’t put all of the blame on Andersen. As a team, the Ducks were not good defensively against the Stars. Stephane Robidas suffered his second broken leg of the season early in the series with Dallas, and his loss on the blue line did nothing but hurt the Ducks the remainder of that series. Robidas is obviously out for the remainder of the postseason, so Anaheim will have to find a way to be successful in their own end without him. One thing that the Ducks do have going for them in their offense. They finished the first round averaging 3.33 goals per game, which was good for fourth place in the opening round. Ryan Getzlaf ended the series with 3 goals and 4 assists, while Corey Perry finished with 2 goals and 5 assists. Against LA, the Ducks will need their top guys to continue being their top guys. That doesn’t mean that they won’t need production from their depth players, because they definitely will.

This is sure to be a fun series to watch and a competitive one. Given the way both teams ended the first round, I’ve got to give the edge to the Kings in this series even though the Ducks had their number during the regular season. LA is an experienced team with exceptional goaltending and defense, and in the playoffs, it’s those two things that win championships.

-Los Angeles wins series, 4-2.

56 vs. Minnesota-Wild-Wallpaper-

This will be a rematch of last year’s Western Conference Quarterfinals series as the Blackhawks and Wild both pulled off an “upset” to advance to the second round. While I personally wouldn’t consider the Hawks’ victory to be an upset, the Wild eliminating the Avalanche was definitely an upset. Who outside the state of Minnesota saw that one coming? The Wild lost the first two games in Denver, but bounced back on home ice to even the series at 2 games apiece heading into Game 5. Colorado defended home ice in the fifth game, and the Wild did the same in Game 6. Then came Game 7, and what a game it was. What the Wild showed me throughout the first round is that they do NOT give up on any game. Regardless of the situation, they are going to continue coming at you with all they’ve got until the whistle blows. Darcy Kuemper definitely did his part in helping the Wild advance, as he posted a 2.03 GAA before leaving Game 7 in the third period due to injury. It would appear he will be good to go for Game 1 in Chicago, but his condition is something to keep an eye on. Offensively, the Wild actually hung in there with the Avs. Minnesota’s biggest problem during the regular season was their inability to score at times, but they were able to put that past them in Round 1. Zach Parise ended the first round tied for the league lead in points with 10 (3G, 7A), while the next closest Wild player to him finished with 6 points. Defensively as a team, the Wild were not great against Colorado, and they will really need to be better in that area if they want any chance to beat Chicago.

The Blackhawks are coming into the second round with a ton of momentum and confidence after their victory over the Blues. St. Louis took each of the first two games of the series (both in overtime and on home ice), but that was all they’d get. The Blackhawks went on to win four straight games to finish off the Blues in 6, making this the second year in a row that the defending champions have gone down 0-2 in Round 1 to the Blues only to win next the four games and advance. The Blackhawks finished the first round ranked third in GA/G, and fifth in G/G. As the series against St. Louis progressed, you could see Chicago gaining more and more confidence and begin playing with that same mentality and attitude that won them the Cup just a year ago. After allowing St. Louis to really dictate how both of the first two games were played (and even most of the third), the Blackhawks were able to get back to playing their game and controlled the puck for much of the last four games of the series. Corey Crawford was phenomenal for most of the series, and he single-handedly won the Hawks Game 3 by shutting out the Blues. Crawford should have been the Conn Smythe winner last season, and the Hawks will need him to keep playing this way from here on out. Duncan Keith played what may have been his best game ever in Game 6, and his domination on the Hawks’ back end has been, and will continue to be huge moving forward. Offensively, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews led the charge in Round 1 for Chicago as usual. The big thing for the Hawks will be getting more production from their third and fourth lines.

I think the Wild may have burned up all their energy taking out the Avs in the first round, and if they didn’t, I still don’t think they’ll have enough left to beat Chicago. The Blackhawks are as experienced a team as you’ll find in the playoffs, and they know how to win playoff games. With the Hawks really coming into their own over their last four games, I don’t see them being stopped at the moment.

-Chicago wins series, 4-1.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Boston_Bruins_logo vs. si34dm1f9jex9eoexq9l1svqk

I love this matchup. Montreal won the season series over Boston 3-1, and seems to give the Bruins more trouble than any team in the East. After sweeping the Lightning in the first round, the Canadiens will enter this series with plenty of rest under their belts and a ton of momentum on their side. Danny Briere was back to playing like his usual playoff-self against Tampa, and the Canadiens are going to need him to keep it up against Boston. Carey Price, who led Canada to the Olympic gold medal this past winter, was good in net during the four games against the Lightning, but there is room for improvement. To me, he is the key to this series for the Canadiens. If Price plays really well, like he is more than capable of doing, I think Montreal will give Boston a good run for their money. Other than Price, the Montreal defense will need to be stellar. They allowed 2.50 goals per game against the Lightning, and if they can do that against Boston, they’ll have a good shot at winning. On offense, the Canadiens finished the first round averaging 4 goals per game, which will not continue. The Bruins are as good a team as you will find defensively, so the Canadiens will have to really use their speed to their advantage to try and catch Boston off guard. Forechecking will play a huge role in this matchup.

The Bruins come into the second round after winning four straight over Detroit. The Wings took Game 1 in Boston, but that was it. Boston’s defense strangled the Red Wings in Round 1 and looked like the best defense in the league. Tuuka Rask enters the second round with the lowest GAA of any goalie, and the Bruins as a team enter the second round with the lowest GA/G average (1.20). I don’t see Boston putting up those same defensive numbers against the Canadiens, but it’s possible for them to do something similar. That’s just how good they are on defense, both their defensemen and forwards. Aside from their defensive ability to completely shut an opponent down, Boston can also be the most physical team in the league. They generate a ton of momentum from their physical play, which will probably be taken to a new level against their hated rivals from Montreal. While the Bruins didn’t do a whole lot on offense against Detroit, the potential is still there for them to be one of the league’s most potent offenses.

I know I didn’t have too much to say about Boston, but that’s just a testament to how good they are. Having said that, I believe that if there’s one team in the East who could eliminate the Bruins, it’s Montreal. The Bell Centre in Montreal is one of the toughest buildings to play in for opponents, and the Canadiens have really had the Bruins’ number this whole season. Still, however, I cannot pick against Boston without feeling like an idiot if they were to end up winning. So, I’ll say the Bruins win this series, but not with a whole lot of confidence.

-Boston wins series, 4-3.

174 vs. 144

Both of these teams enter the second round coming off of a physically taxing first round series. For Pittsburgh, they were roughed up and pushed to their limit by the Blue Jackets, while the Rangers are coming into this series fresh off a Game 7 victory over their hated rivals from Philadelphia. The Rangers ranked 12th in goals per game in the first round, and second in GA/G. Their offense was never their strong point this season, and it would appear nothing has changed now that the postseason is underway. Henrik Lundqvist allowed the Flyers just a meager 2.11 goals per game in the first round, and he’ll need to continue being himself against a very lethal Penguins offense and powerplay. Defensively, the Rangers are one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference. Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi are going to have their hands full going against the Crosby and Malkin lines, respectively. For the Rangers to win this series, they’ll need their depth players to be better than those of the Penguins. Brad Richards needs to elevate his game and provide some much needed offense for New York.

The Penguins did not look good against Columbus in the first round. You could tell they were bothered/distracted by the Jackets’ physicality, and they also lacked confidence at times, which is never good. A big reason for their lack of confidence was yet again due to the sub-par performance by their goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury, as well all know by now, has a history of choking in the playoffs. He might have a good round or two, but at some point he always seems to lose it and cost his team. When you are a team playing in front of a shaky goaltender, like Pittsburgh, you are put under that much more stress to play mistake-free hockey. Trying to play mistake-free hockey is a bad idea and never ends well. For the Penguins to have any further success this postseason, Fleury needs to improve his game and show his teammates that he can be trusted in net. Aside from him, Sidney Crosby needs to get going as well. He was held scoreless by the Blue Jackets in round one, and you get the feeling that Pittsburgh can’t go much longer without their captain producing. As of right now, the top two guys in points on the Penguins are Paul Martin and Matt Niskanen, both with 8 points, and both defensemen. You cannot rely on your d-men to carry your team offensively, so the Penguins will need Crosby, Malkin, Kunitz, etc. to be a lot better from beginning to end against New York.

I think this series could go the distance. It’ll all eventually come down to goaltending, in which case I’ve got to give the advantage to New York. Marc-Andre Fleury has not been good in any recent postseasons, and he wasn’t good again in Round 1. Even though the Rangers’ offense has the potential to come up dry every now and then, the play of Fleury, or lack thereof, is what could keep them in this series. As long as Lundqvist himself is good, I like the Rangers to pull off the upset.

-New York wins series, 4-2.

 

NHL Western Conference Quarterfinals prediction

It has been a long time since the Western Conference was once as strong as it currently is. I cannot remember the last time that there were at least three, four, maybe even five teams from one conference who you could consider a serious Stanley Cup contender. Yet that is what we have in the Western Conference this year. I believe there are three sure candidates in the West to win the Cup this year: Anaheim, Chicago, and St. Louis. Teams like San Jose, Los Angeles, and Colorado could easily be considered strong Cup contenders as well, however I wouldn’t place them in the same class as those first three teams.

Having said that, let’s get to the predictions.

1-4 Matchup:

7327531 vs. Minnesota-Wild-Wallpaper-

Let’s start with Minnesota. The Wild finished the regular season with 98 points, good for seventh most in the West. They finished seventh in the entire NHL in GA/G with a 2.42 average. Their defense is the strongest part of their game, and they will need that to be the case against Colorado. It looks like trade deadline acquisition Ilya Bryzgalov will be their starting netminder for Game One, due to injuries to both Backstrom and Harding during the regular season. Since coming to the Wild, Bryzgalov has been very good. He is 7-1-3 with a 2.12 goals-against average and three shutouts. On defense, Ryan Suter led the league for the second year in a row in playing time per game at 29:24. That’s basically half the game that he’s on the ice. While he is without question one of the premier defensmen in the game, you have to wonder if he isn’t just about burnt out. Playing half a game every game this year (he played in all 82), as well as playing for Team USA in the Olympics is a good recipe for exhaustion. The Wild, and Suter, are going to need the rest of their d-men to pick up their play and take some of the weight off of Suter’s shoulders. On offense, this is where the Wild have been challenged. They finished the regular season ranked twenty fourth in goals per game at 2.43, which is not good. Jason Pominville was their leading scorer recording 30 goals and 30 assists (60 points), while guys like Parise, Koivu, and Heatley had down seasons while also battling injuries.

As for Colorado, the Avalanche are coming off their best regular season in franchise history, recording 112 points to finish third overall in the NHL. I think it’s safe to say no one saw that coming in September. Their strongest aspect of their game is their offense, where they finished fourth in the league in goals per game at 2.99. Matt Duchene led the way for the Avs by finishing with 70 points (23G, 47A). Unfortunately for Colorado, however, Duchene has been out with a knee injury for a few weeks now and is not expected to return to the lineup until late in round one, if not later than that. On top of that, Jan Hejda, Tyson Barrie, John Mitchell, Cody McLeod, and Cory Sarich are all injured as well. The severity of Hejda’s injury is still a bit unknown, and he could miss the beginning of this series. Same goes for John Mitchell, who was diagnosed with a concussion. On defense, the Avalanche are young and inexperienced in the postseason (you could say the same about their forwards). If Hejda and Sarich miss any significant playoff time, the Avs could be in trouble on the blue line. Their defensmen are quite talented and quick, especially Erik Johnson, but their lack of experience in the playoffs and pressure-packed games worries me. They finished in the middle of the pack in GA/G, fifteenth overall, at 2.63. Semyon Varlamov, coming off his best season in the NHL, will need to continue his strong play in net. He finished the year 41-14-6 with a 2.41 GAA. If Varlamov stays hot against the Wild, Minnesota and their struggling offense could be in trouble.

I think the biggest factor in this series is going to be the health of the Avalanche. They will be without Duchene for most, if not all of the series, but how soon will the other injured players be able to play? Also, will the lack of experience on the Avalanche come back to haunt them? These things concern me with Colorado, but their skill and speed make me believe they will get by Minnesota despite the injuries. Don’t be surprised though if they lose the first game and begin to panic.

-Colorado wins series, 4-2.

2-3 Matchup:

st-louis-blues-logo vs. 56

Could you ask for a better first round series? Two weeks ago, no one would have thought these two teams would meet in the first round, but thanks to the Blues’ six-game losing streak to finish out the regular season, here we are. The Blackhawks, the defending Stanley Cup champions, have had a very up and down second half to their season. Following the Olympic break, they have been mostly a .500 team. They ended the year with 107 points, but still won’t have home ice advantage in the this first round. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews both missed the last few weeks of the season due to injury, but both are expected back and healthy for Game One in St. Louis. Chicago’s greatest strength is their offense. They were second in goals per game this year with a 3.18 average, and they had five players finish the season with 60 points or more, led by Patrick Sharp with 78. On defense, Duncan Keith was arguably the best defensmen in hockey this season (6G, 55A), and he is considered the favorite to win the Norris Trophy. Brent Seabrook has had a good, but not great year despite what you might hear from TV broadcasters. The unsung hero of the Hawks’ defensive corps is Niklas Hjalmarsson. He and his partner Johnny Oduya get the toughest defensive assignment every game, going up against the opponents best offensive line. These two will need to play like they did one year ago at this time to beat the Blues. In goal, Corey Crawford is coming off of a decent season in which he had a 2.26 GAA. He will be coming into the playoffs following maybe his best stretch of the season. Guys like Bryan Bickell, Brandon Saad, and Kris Versteeg are going to have to produce this postseason for the Hawks to be successful. The depth of the Blackhawks could be what wins or loses them this series.

The Blues are skating backwards into the playoffs as losers of six straight to finish the season. I can guarantee you that the last thing they wanted was to fall to second in the division and have to open the playoffs against the defending champs and longtime rival Blackhawks. The Blues have prided themselves on their defense this year, and rightfully so. They finished the season third in GA/G with a 2.29 average. Alex Pietrangelo has earned himself some consideration for the Norris Trophy, as he leads one of the best blue lines in hockey. He and Jay Bouwmeester have been one of the league’s best pairings all season. In net, the Blues traded for Ryan Miller at the deadline, and he has been both good and bad for them. Since coming to the Blues, he is 10-8-1 with a 2.47 GAA. Backup netminder Brian Elliott finished the year 18-6-2 with a 1.96 GAA, so look for the Blues to turn to him if Miller struggles early in this series. Offensively is where the potential problems begin for this team. They finished the year ranked 7th in goals per game, but are entering the playoffs having scored just TEN goals in their last nine games. In those nine games, they were shutout four times, and lost the final six. That cannot continue if they want any chance at beating Chicago. The Blues did finish the year with five players scoring over 20 goals, but their offense has disappeared lately. Before the season, I said that the Blues’ lack of offensive firepower is what may hold them back against teams like Chicago this year, and now that theory will be put to the test.

This series is hands-down the most intriguing of all first round series this year. Both teams are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, but one will go home early. I’d expect the Blues to try and use their physical and often dirty play to wear down the Hawks in the first couple of games. Chicago has to stick to their style of play and not try and become a more physical team than they really are. If Kane and Toews are in fact 100 percent for this series and can remain healthy, I think the Hawks have the edge. After all, since 2010, no team has been better on the road in the postseason than Chicago, and they’ll need at least one road win to win this series.

-Chicago wins series, 4-2.

1-4 Matchup:

ANAHEIM_DUCKS_LOGO vs. New_Dallas_Stars

I said in my season preview back before the season began that people were underrating the Dallas Stars and that they could be a potential playoff contender. Well look, here they are. Dallas enters the playoffs with fewer regular season points than any other team to qualify for the postseason, but that doesn’t really mean much to them. Surprisingly, or maybe not to some, the Stars finished the season ranked tenth in the entire NHL in goals per game, thanks in large part to Tyler Seguin (37G, 47A) and Jamie Benn (34G, 45A). These two have been one of the league’s best duos all season long, and I would not want to have to try and defend them in a seven game series. Unfortunately for the Stars, there is a major drop off after those two. The next closest player on the team to Benn in points was defenseman Alex Goligoski, who had 42. This is possibly the Stars’ biggest problem. After their top line with Benn and Seguin, their offense really flattens out. Their defensive unit is rather weak. After trading Robidas to the Ducks, ironically, they were left with Goligoski as their top blue liner. Besides him, Trevor Daley is their next best d-man, and after that it’s really a toss up. Going against a potent Ducks offense could spell disaster for the Dallas defense. Kari Lehtonen, who in my opinion is the most underrated goalie in hockey, will have to stay strong in net and single handedly win a couple games for the Stars if they want to advance.

The Ducks come into the postseason having finished first in the West in points (116), and second in the NHL behind the Bruins. They led the league in goals per game (3.21), and finished ninth in GA/G (2.48). They have what many consider to be the best line in hockey, consisting of both Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. Getzlaf, who finished with 87 points, is considered to be a Hart Trophy candidate as the league’s MVP. Perry finished right behind him with 43 goals (second in the NHL) and 82 points. I think it’s safe to say that offense shouldn’t be much of a problem for this team. On defense, the Ducks are led by Cam Fowler, who finished 36 points on the year. The problem with the Anaheim defense is much like the same problem Colorado has. They have a lot of skill, but not very much experience. The Ducks made the playoffs last year, but lost to Detroit in seven games in the first round. The inexperience on their blue line could be a problem, especially in the later rounds. Their goaltender, Jonas Hiller, finished the season with a 2.48 GAA. His backup Frederik Andersen, however, ended the season with a 20-5-0 record and a 2.29 GAA. While Hiller is their definite number one, look for the Ducks to yank him if he stumbles out of the gates. Neither Anaheim goalie has much playoff experience, which may or may not be costly this postseason.

I think the Stars may win a game here, but for the most part I expect Anaheim to win this series rather easily.

-Anaheim wins series, 4-1.

2-3 Matchup:

crestonwht_rgb vs. 940-couture-logan

Next to the Blackhawks-Blues series, I think this is the second best series of the entire first round, and it is sure to be a physical one. The Kings ended the year pretty strong and finished with 100 points. Many, myself included, thought they would have had a better year than this, but 100 points is still 100 points, especially in the Western Conference. The Kings are led by their defense and goalie. LA has what may be the best set of defensemen in hockey, led by Drew Doughty. They finished first in the NHL in fewest GA/G, and allowed the fewest total goals in the league. I’ve always believed that defense wins championships (last year, the Blackhawks allowed the least amount of goals during the regular season and won the Stanley Cup). Jonathan Quick, while injured most of the first half of the season, finished with a 2.07 GAA, which is ridiculously good, but only managed to have a 27-17-4 record. That really doesn’t compute, unless you look at LA’s offense. They finished twenty-sixth in goals per game this year. When you have a defense and goaltending as good as they do, you need to score more goals than this. Anze Kopitar led the Kings with 70 points, followed by Jeff Carter with 50. That’s a twenty-point difference there and something the Kings would have liked to have been better. They added Marian Gaborik at the trade deadline, and since then he has registered 5 goals and 11 assists in 19 games. He should help boost LA’s scoring heading into this series, and they’re going to need it.

San Jose comes into this series after a 111-point regular season. This team always seems to finish near the top of the conference year in and year out, so give credit to their coaching staff and front office. The Sharks ranked sixth this season in goals per game, and fifth in goals-against per game. That’s a very good combination for obvious reasons. Three players on this team finished the year with at least 70 points (Pavelski, Thornton, and Marleau), and I think Logan Couture could have reached the 70-point plateau had he been healthy all year. Their top two lines are extremely dangerous and consist of some of the best players in the league when it comes to winning faceoffs. It’s their bottom two lines that may be troublesome for the Sharks as they often lack offensive production. Their defensive unit is one of the better ones in the West, as all six defensemen are smart, responsible, and possess a lot of playoff experience. Plus, they were a huge reason for the team finishing fifth in GA/G. Dan Boyle (37 years old) was the leading point-getter on the Sharks blue line this year, and I wonder how he will hold up in an extremely physical playoffs series like this one against LA. He already went down with a concussion earlier in the season, and I’m sure he’ll be a primary target of the Kings. In net, Antti Niemi ended the year tied for second in the NHL in wins and had a 2.39 GAA. Yet, many Sharks fans have been critical of Niemi during the second half of the year due to some lackluster performances. Still, Niemi is one of the league’s best goalies and did win a Stanley Cup not too long ago. If the Sharks’ offense can find a way to beat Jonathan Quick, and if Antti Niemi can be even just good in net, I think they’ll win this series.

This series all comes down to goaltending. Will Jonathan Quick return to his annual playoff form and carry the Kings to the second round? Or will he be human like he was in the Conference Finals last season? If Quick shuts down the Sharks like he has so many times before, the Kings will win. However, I think San Jose is better than they were last year when LA knocked them out in seven games and they will find a way to beat Quick this year.

-San Jose wins series, 4-3.

Check back tomorrow for my Eastern Conference predictions.