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%

56 vs. st-louis-blues-logo

Season Series: Blues won, 3-2

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

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

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

-Chicago wins series, 4-2.

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

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

Season Series: Predators won, 2-1

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

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

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

-Anaheim wins series, 4-2.

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

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Season Series: Sharks won, 3-2

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

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

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

-Los Angeles wins series, 4-3.

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

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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.

ANAHEIM_DUCKS_LOGO

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

Hey Nashville, HERE WE COME

15-_DSC2491-toresizeWith the Wild losing today to the Blues down in St. Louis, the Blackhawks have now locked up third place in the Central Division, meaning a showdown with the Predators in the first round of the playoffs. There was some real concern coming into today regarding the Blackhawks and what seed they might get for the playoffs. If the Wild had won, that would have meant the Blackhawks would need to earn at least one point in tonight’s contest with the Avalanche to secure the number three spot in the division. With the way the Hawks have been playing lately, getting a point tonight is by no means a guarantee. Fortunately though, the Wild did us all a favor and lost. So tonight’s game is meaningless for the Blackhawks in terms of the standings, but not with regards to momentum.

Before we get into actual hockey talk, let me get back to Nashville for a minute.

I am confident in saying that there is no other organization in professional sports that is more concerned about an opposing team’s fan base than the Nashville Predators. The management down there is literally obsessed with trying to find ways to keep Blackhawks fans out of Bridgestone Arena (click here for evidence). Earlier this season, Hawks fans dominated the stands in Nashville during a contest between the two teams. This was after the Predators had already enacted their “Keep the Red Out” campaign last season; an attempt to limit the number of ways that Chicagoans could purchase tickets to games in Nashville. Since that game earlier this year, and really even going back further than that, the Predators front office has become fixated on finding ways to keep Hawks fans out of their stadium. In the meantime, their team on the ice was collapsing and lost their huge lead in the division.

So here we are on April 11th, less than a week before the Hawks and Preds will face off in Game One of their first round matchup. Have the Predators come up with an effective plan to keep Blackhawks fans out of their arena for the playoffs? I doubt it, and I would love nothing more than for that building to be an absolute see of red for Game One. And honestly, that’s a very real possibility.

Now back to hockey.

The Blackhawks come into tonight’s game in Colorado having lost three straight games to the Blues, Wild, and Blues again. They scored a TOTAL of three goals in those games, while only allowing six. Had they won all three, maybe they are in first in the division right now. Who knows.. Regardless, the offense is clearly struggling at the moment and desperately needs some sort of spark to get it going again.

Aside from the offense not being there, the energy doesn’t seem to be there either for the Hawks. While those two probably go hand-in-hand, they are both problems and need to be recognized as such. Last Sunday night against the Blues at the United Center, the Hawks came out flying, played a pretty decent game, but lost 2-1. Tuesday night with the Wild in town, the Blackhawks seemed to have less energy than Sunday and again lost 2-1. Then on Thursday in St. Louis, the Hawks appeared to have virtually zero energy or desperation and yet again found themselves on the losing end of a 2-1 game. In the final week of the season with a lot on the line in terms of seeding for the playoffs, one would think that this team would have played St. Louis and Minnesota with all the energy and desperation in the world. That wasn’t the case though, and fortunately for the Hawks it didn’t cost them a top three finish in the division.

Tonight, even though they have nothing left to play for, I hope to see the Blackhawks play as though it is a playoff game. They’ve got to get some kind of momentum or roll going heading into the postseason. You don’t want to end the year on a four-game losing streak and start the first round with doubts in your mind about anything. A win tonight, and a good win, should do a lot to help this team get ready for the playoffs from a mental standpoint.

NHL Update

  • With their win today, the Ottawa Senators have pulled off a semi-miracle and clinched a wild card spot in the playoffs. They went 23-4-4 over their final 31 games.
  • Ottawa getting in means either Pittsburgh or Boston won’t. That all depends on how each team does tonight.
  • The NHL’s defending Stanley Cup champion, the Kings, were eliminated from playoff contention Thursday night. Who would have guessed that would happen? The rest of the West is grateful for that.
  • The team who held off L.A. for the second wild card spot, Winnipeg, will make their first playoff appearance since the last time they called Winnipeg home.

I will hopefully get the time to post my first round predictions at some point before the first game on Wednesday. Until then, let’s just enjoy the fact that the postseason is only days away.

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.

Game 7

bluejackets07-rgbjpg-8678ad1b3fbe2735For the second straight postseason, we’re going to witness a Game 7 featuring the Blackhawks. And, for the second straight year, the Blackhawks come into this one having won games 5 and 6 to force a seventh game. While their victory in Game 6 was about as exciting and nauseating as a game can get, it’s important to realize that all that win did was allow the Hawks to live another day and have a chance to win Game 7. Without a win tonight, Game 6 means jack squat.

Like I’ve done before, here’s what the Hawks need to do tonight in order to win and advance:

  • Corey Crawford needs to be great like he was for most of Game 6.
  • The Blackhawks’ forechecking has to be relentless. The Saad-Shaw-Kane line put on a forechecking clinic last game, so hopefully the other lines will follow their lead.
  • Look for the Kings to play Drew Doughty against Kane and his linemates. This will open up the door for the Toews line to possibly have some success. Tonight would be a good time for Bryan Bickell to show up again.
  • The Hawks cannot afford to take penalties. One or two are fine, because that’s hockey, but they can’t be stupid ones. If they do take penalties, the PK has to be good. They allowed another PP goal to the Kings in Game 6, and it almost cost the Blackhawks their season.
  • Brent Seabrook needs to forget about his whole postseason up to this point. He has not been good. The Hawks really need him to start playing like he has in past playoffs, like last year when he was a huge reason for them winning the Cup. The rest of the defense needs to be great as well. No defensive zone turnovers, no breakdowns in coverage, and no getting beat to rebounds in front of Crawford. The defense as a whole played maybe their best game of the series in Game 6 despite a few mistakes, but they’ll need to be better tonight.
  • The Blackhawks will most likely only roll three lines. The fourth line during the morning skate today was Versteeg-Handzus-Bollig. Those guys will be glued to the bench for most of the game, meaning the other three lines are going to have to somehow play 60 minutes without getting exhausted, much like last game.
  • Lastly, look for Patrick Sharp to have an effect on tonight’s game. He was everywhere in Game 6 and damn near scored a few times. Could he finally be heating up? I hope so.

As for how to handle another Game 7, do what you feel most comfortable doing. Don’t watch it with ANYONE who isn’t going to be 100% focused on the game. If need be, watch it by yourself to avoid any distractions or interruptions. That is what I’ll be doing.

Drew Doughty said following Game 5 that the Kings couldn’t let this series get to a seventh game. After Game 6, he said the Kings won’t lose Game 7. Sounds to me like he’s scrambling for things to say and trying to pick up his team while knowing there’s some doubt in that locker room. As for the Hawks, they have been extremely calm and business-like. I prefer their approach.

If you thought either of the past two games were going to make you vomit from being so nervous, then guess what? We get to go through all of that again in just a couple hours.

I can’t wait.

Blackhawks force Game 6

139990-330-0It wasn’t necessarily pretty, but the Blackhawks won Game 5 of the Western Conference Final on home ice to avoid elimination and send the series to a sixth game in LA. Down 3-1 in the series to the Kings, the Hawks knew they had to come out in Game 5 with their best effort to avoid being sent packing, and while they didn’t quite play with what appeared to be their best effort through the first 40 minutes, the next 43 minutes looked more like it.

Brent Seabrook’s powerplay goal less than two minutes into the game provided the Hawks with a huge spark, and they somewhat took off from their. Moments later, Johnny Oduya made it 2-0 after knocking home the rebound off a shot by Patrick Kane. The Kings would score to make it 2-1, but then Brandon Saad countered that with a goal of his own to reestablish the two-goal lead. Patrick Kane ended the first period with three assists.

The Kings would eventually score the next three goals in the game to go up 4-3 on the Hawks heading into the final frame.

Knowing that they must at least end the third period tied, the Hawks came out buzzing and Ben Smith scored 1:17 into the period to tie it up at 4 apiece. The rest of the period was pretty much all Chicago, but they couldn’t get another puck by Quick, sending Game 5 to overtime.

The first overtime was quite possibly one of the best overtime periods the NHL has seen in recent memory. The Hawks and Kings traded chance after chance with one another, while both Corey Crawford and Jonathan Quick made big save after big save. Anze Kopitar actually beat Crawford on a shot, but it rang off the pipe and left the game tied at 4. A second overtime period was needed for the second straight year in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final between the Hawks and Kings.

940-couture-loganOnce overtime number two began, it didn’t take long until Michal Handzus, of all people, scored the game winner on a beautiful backhand after a great feed from Brandon Saad left Zus all alone in front of Quick (Patrick Kane picked up his fourth assist of the game on the goal). Just like that, the series was sent back to LA for Game 6.

While the Blackhawks gained some obvious momentum with their thrilling OT victory in Game 5, they are still going to need to bring their absolute best effort to beat the Kings on their home ice with LA looking to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. Effort, and a few line changes could very well propel the Hawks to victory and make Game 7 a reality.

Here’s what needs to happen for the Hawks to avoid elimination again:

  • Kris Versteeg should not be dressed for Game 6. He was benched a little over halfway through the second period of Game 5 and never saw the ice again after that. He is becoming WAY too much of a liability on the ice to keep him in the lineup. Peter Regin should take his spot and play with on a line with Sharp and Handzus.
  • While I would like to see Brandon Bollig join Versteeg, it won’t happen. Quenneville won’t put Jeremy Morin (a rookie) into the lineup in an elimination game.
  • The Blackhawks’ powerplay HAS to convert in Game 6. It did in Game 5 and it provided them with a ton of momentum right off the bat.
  • Speaking of special teams, the Hawks’ PK was good in Game 5 and did not allow a goal against. That needs to happen again in LA.
  • Corey Crawford has to play his best game of the series. It’s that simple.
  • The Hawks’ defensemen have got to start boxing out Kings players in front of the net (I’m looking at you Seabrook…). There have been way too many goals scored by the Kings this series that could have been prevented if they were simply boxed out in front of Crawford and not allowed the inside position on a rebound.

Like always, I could continue going on and on, but I’ll leave it at that for now. If the Blackhawks can do those things I mentioned above, we’ll be talking about a Game 7. It won’t be easy though, as the Kings know they do not want to come back to Chicago. As Drew Doughty put it earlier today (Thursday), “We know we can’t let it go to Game 7. We need to win [Game 6].”

So do the Hawks.

Now or never

940-toews-jonathan-8colAfter dropping Game 3 to the Kings on Saturday night in LA, the Blackhawks now trail in the series two games to one. Despite playing a solid first 40 minutes in Game 3 much like they did in Game 2, the Hawks went silent for the final 20 and lost as a result. They know it’s time to step up and put together their best 60 minute effort of the season, or else they’ll be eye-to-eye with the exit door from the playoffs. It’s now or never for the Hawks.

Here is what needs to happen in Game 4 in order for the Blackhawks to even up this Western Conference Final at two games apiece.

  • It’s time that Joel Quenneville reunites Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on the top line. I was calling for this to happen heading into Game 3, but now it’s really time to make the move. The Blackhawks need Kane to get hot, and what better way to help that happen than by putting him back on a line with Toews? Over the years during rough stretches of the playoffs, this has been Quenneville’s go-to move to get the Hawks back on the right track. He did it going into Game 4 in LA last year, and it worked beautifully. He did it in Game 4 in Boston during last year’s Stanley Cup Final, and it worked there as well. By reuniting Kane and Toews, the Kings won’t be able to blanket either player. If they do, then they’re risking leaving the other uncovered, which is not a good thing. Also, it opens up the chance to place Hossa and Sharp back on the second line together, another move that was made going into Game 4 against LA last year that worked like a charm.
  • Michal Handzus cannot center the second line any longer, or at least while Kane is on that line. If Q does put Kane on the top line and Sharp and Hossa on the second, it is possible that he leave Handzus with Sharp and Hossa. That trio did some good things last postseason. However, the lack of speed and offensive skill that you get with Handzus is so alarming that I wouldn’t mind seeing either Smith or Shaw center Sharp and Hossa, despite the success Handzus had with 10 and 81 last year. If Kane does remain on the second line with Sharp, then there is absolutely no way Handzus can stay on that line. Kane needs to play with fast, skilled players in order for him to be effective. Placing Smith or Shaw on his line as the center allows Kane to play with more speed and skill.
  • I’ve been saying this pretty much everyday, but Brandon Bollig needs to go. I don’t know that he even stepped on the ice during the entire third period of Game 3. What good is he to the team if that’s going to happen? In the meantime, you have Peter Regin and Jeremy Morin watching the game as spectators. It’s gotten to the point with Bollig where I’m starting to wonder if the front office (Stan Bowman) isn’t telling Quenneville to keep him in the lineup so that Bowman doesn’t look so bad for handing Bollig a three year extension earlier this season.
  • The Hawks’ penalty kill has to start killing off penalties. They were dominant on the PK through the first two rounds, but now they’ve allowed three powerplay goals to the Kings over the last two games.
  • The Jeff Carter line of the Kings needs to be slowed down. They have torched the Hawks this series, and it’s time Quenneville looks to shut them down. Heading into this series, the Hawks wanted to shut down the Kopitar line, which they have by matching the Toews line against them. Now it might be time to shift their focus to stopping Carter and his linemates. The only potential problem here is this: If Kane is reunited with Toews, then the Hawks lose their “shut down” line of Toews and Hossa.
  • The top line of the Hawks has been good all series, but it’s time that the other three lines quit watching and start playing as well. This series cannot be won by relying on just one line to score all of your goals.
  • Speaking of scoring, the Hawks’ powerplay cost them Game 3. They went 0-4 with the man advantage. They only have two powerplay goals on the road this postseason, which won’t get the job done. It’s time they start finding the back of the net when given the opportunity with an extra man.

Over the past 5-6 years, the Blackhawks have come up with huge win after huge win when they’ve needed it in the playoffs. Tonight calls for another one of those huge wins. If they don’t get it, then they’ll be down 3-1 and on their way out of the playoffs. They need to play a full 60 minutes in Game 4, and they need to step on the Kings’ throats once they get them in a vulnerable position in the game. Some are saying that the Hawks are simply out of gas after all the hockey they’ve played the last two years. While that may be true, if there’s one team who can find another gear and will themselves to victory, it’s the Blackhawks.

A win tonight is imperative for the Hawks.