Stanley Cup Playoffs: 1st Round Predictions

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

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

EASTERN CONFERENCE

6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h vs. 6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h

Season Series: Panthers won, 2-1

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

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

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

-Florida wins series, 4-2.

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

DRW Logo vs. TampaBayLightning_LOGO

Season Series: Tied, 2-2

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

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

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

-Tampa Bay wins series, 4-3.

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

161 vs. 161

Season Series: Tied, 2-2

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

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

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

-Washington wins series, 4-2.

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

144 vs. 174

Season Series: Penguins won, 3-1

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

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

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

-New York wins series, 4-2.

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

WESTERN CONFERENCE

New_Dallas_Stars vs. New_Dallas_Stars

Season Series: Stars won, 4-1

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

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

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

-Dallas wins series, 4-1.

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

56 vs. st-louis-blues-logo

Season Series: Blues won, 3-2

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

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

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

-Chicago wins series, 4-2.

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

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

Season Series: Predators won, 2-1

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

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

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

-Anaheim wins series, 4-2.

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

crestonwht_rgb vs. third_jersey_logo

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

Advertisements

Blackhawks acquire Timonen, but may not be done

15-_DSC2491-toresizeFriday night the Blackhawks traded for 39 year old Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen in exchange for a couple of draft picks, including this year’s 2nd round pick. The Hawks badly needed to upgrade their blue line before the trade deadline came and went, and it appears that they have done so. It all depends on Timonen’s health, however.

Kimmo Timonen, a 5-time NHL All Star and 4-time Olympian (Finland), has yet to play in a game this season. Last summer, blood clots were discovered in his right leg and both lungs, which kept him off the ice for quite some time. Since being cleared to resume hockey activities, Timonen had been practicing with the Flyers and was apparently ready to start playing in games again as of Friday. He was supposed to be back in the Flyers’ lineup tonight as a matter of fact, and is likely to be in the Hawks’ lineup on Monday.

In a phone conference after learning that he had been traded to the Hawks, Timonen said that his one goal in returning to play hockey this season is to win the Stanley Cup. That’s it. He also made it clear that it may take him a few games to really get back into “game shape” and back to the level of playing that he is used to. That should come as no surprise.

While we were all anticipating Stan Bowman to acquire a defenseman before the trade deadline on Monday, Kimmo Timonen’s name was not often mentioned as a possible target of the Hawks. Now that the deal is done, let’s take a look at what the Hawks got:

  • I’m guessing most people’s first reaction to the trade was “He’s 39!?” Or something along those lines. The answer is yes, but don’t be discouraged by that. People close to him have commented that “he’s in the best shape of his life.”
  • Timonen was once one of the NHL’s elite defenseman with the Predators and Flyers. He is, as mentioned before, a 5-time All Star and 4-time Olympian. He had, and still has, incredible skating ability and great offensive and defensive awareness.
  • His game is more of an offensive style, which fits perfectly with the way that the Blackhawks play. They can easily use him on the second d-pairing if they want (or third when Oduya comes back), and the powerplay. He is another good left-handed shot from the point.
  • Despite being 39, age has not really caught up with Timonen the way it does with most aging players. He isn’t what he once was, but he’s not that far off either. He can still out-skate a lot of guys in the NHL.
  • He is a great presence in any locker room and is yet another leader we can add to the roster.
  • Timonen carries a 1-year, $2 million dollar contract with him and has already stated he is going to retire after this season.

To sum it all up, even though he has yet to play this season, Timonen was a great acquisition for this specific team. Obviously the ultimate decision on this move can’t be made until we see how he performs, but all signs look good at this point.

By getting Timonen, the Hawks now have at least four reliable defensemen on the roster. Maybe even five if Oduya can get back to the way he was playing the last two years. Adding Timonen now also allows Quenneville to reunite Seabrook and Keith on the team’s top d-pairing. That pair is often regarded as one of the best in hockey.

With Trevor van Riemsdyk getting set to return to the Hawks sometime very soon, the defense doesn’t look all that bad suddenly (it’s worth noting that the Hawks placed Tim Erixon on waivers today and sent Kyle Cumiskey back down to Rockford). If the Blackhawks can enter the playoffs with a trio of d-pairings that looks something like Keith-Seabrook, Hjalmarsson-Timonen, Oduya-TVR, I’d be quite happy. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be that way barring another injury.

In other news, it sounds as though Bowman isn’t done trading yet. He told reporters that he would still like to add another forward via trade by Monday. The team still has roughly 4-5 million dollars in cap space, and it appears they are intent on taking advantage of that.

Antoine Vermette and Curtis Glencross have both been heavily linked to the Hawks in trade rumors over the past few days. Vermette, a center, would be the better option of the two. He is a two-way player, is great at the faceoff dot, and would be a great add to a Blackhawks team that could use another center. I’m not so sure that the Blackhawks’ centers (aside from Toews) could truly compete with the centers of the Kings, Ducks, and even Blues as the roster stands right now. With Brad Richards’ decline in performance over the past couple months, it would be great to add a younger and bigger centerman to the Hawks’ second line. This would allow them to demote Richards to the third line and move Shaw his natural wing position, which happens to be where he is most valuable as well.

As for Glencross, he’s got a lot of talent and skill, but he’s a left winger, and the Hawks really don’t need another wing. Obviously the more scoring potential on the roster the better, but when it comes down to Vermette and Glencross, Vermette would be the better fit. Especially if/when Kane comes back in the playoffs.

There are also A LOT of Patrick Sharp rumors out there right now. And by rumors, I mean hockey rumors, and non-hockey rumors… Supposedly the Hawks have had trade discussions with Detroit, Montreal, and Washington regarding Sharp. That was reported by a number of NHL reporters and writers. At the same time, however, Sharp’s agent is claiming that the Hawks told him Sharp will not be dealt by the trade deadline. With Kane now out, I think it would be smart to hang onto Sharp unless they’re getting a top 6 forward in return.

As for the non-hockey rumors surrounding Patrick Sharp, they’ve actually been there since last year, but only now is the average fan finding out about them. If I can say one thing, it’s this: Be cautious with what you believe. There are a lot of rumors out there right now, leading me to think that something did in fact happen, but I’m also being real careful with what I choose to see as facts. Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire, but just how big of a fire? Until that information is leaked and confirmed, take the rumors with a grain of salt. Don’t believe everything you read. If the situation inside the locker room is really as bad as some are making it sound, I think we see Sharp get traded by the deadline. Keep in mind though that this supposed “stuff” was already there before the season even started. It didn’t just happen in the last week.

That’s all for now. The next 48 hours should be fun.

Metropolitan Division preview

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

METROPOLITAN DIVISION

Minnesota-Wild-Wallpaper-

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

bluejackets07-rgbjpg-8678ad1b3fbe2735

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

6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h

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

6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h

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

144

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

161

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

174

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

161

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

PREDICTED STANDINGS:

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

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

Penguins, Canucks on brink of elimination

After losing each of their first two games at home, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Vancouver Canucks headed into their respective Game 3’s on Sunday looking to get a huge road win. Unfortunately for them, neither Pittsburgh or Vancouver were able to get a win on Sunday, and they now find themselves down 3-0 in their series’.

Many people were predicting that the Canucks and Penguins would meet in the Stanley Cup Finals this year heading into the playoffs. The Canucks had just locked up their second straight President’s Trophy, and the Penguins were finally a healthy team with Sidney Crosby back. Each team looked destined for a deep playoff run. However, both sides are now facing elimination in Game 4 of their respective series. You can blame the Canucks and Penguins for “choking,” but give credit where credit is due. The Kings and Flyers have been playing excellent hockey through their first 3 games of the playoffs, and they have earned their 3-0 series leads.

Let’s start with the Flyers. As great of a season that the Flyers had, finishing 5th in the East with 103 points, they were looked at as the underdogs heading into their first round matchup with Pittsburgh, and rightfully so. As I mentioned before, Pittsburgh was on a roll heading into the playoffs having become a fully healthy team for the first time in a long time. This did not intimidate the Flyers one bit. They came into this series with the mindset that they are the better team, and they will do everything to prove that. So far through the first 3 games of this series, the Flyers have out-hustled and out-played the Penguins in just about every aspect of the game. In the 3 games that have been played, the Flyers have 20 goals. That is pretty much unheard of. The Penguins defense has had no answer for the offense of the Flyers. Because of the high number of goals that the Flyers have scored, Marc-Andre Fleury’s confidence has been shot. This is one of the best goalies in the world, who has already won a Stanley Cup. Assuming that the Flyers go on to win this series, they instantly become a top contender for the Stanley Cup.

Moving out West now, the Canucks find themselves down 3-0 in their series with the Kings. Vancouver came into the playoffs as the defending Western Conference champions, and fresh off of their second straight President’s Trophy-winning season. The L.A. Kings, on the other hand, barely made it into the playoffs as the 8 seed following what can only be described as a disappointing regular season. People expected them to contend for one of the top spots in the West this year, but they just never seemed to be able to play consistently good hockey. Well, they are now. They have outscored the Canucks in this series 9-4, with Jonathan Quick registering a shutout in last night’s game. The Kings’ defense has proven to be too much for the Canucks so far in this series, and their offense has essentially booted Roberto Luongo from his starting job in goal. For the first time all season, the Kings seem to be putting together an all-around, consistent style of winning hockey. They definitely have the potential and the right set of players to make a deep playoff run, but it remains to be seen if they will fall back into their regular season form and abandon their current style of play. Jonathan Quick has been great all season long, but only now are his teammates playing up to their potential.

These are two shocking deficits that the Penguins and Canucks find themselves in, but don’t get too surprised by them. The Flyers and Kings are two very talented hockey teams that are playing phenomenal hockey right now, and they deserve a ton of credit for putting the Penguins and Canucks on the brink of elimination.