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

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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.