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 Game 1 thoughts; Game 2 preview

10-171460575-smallThe truth of the matter is that the Blackhawks are coming into tonight’s Game 2 in Tampa Bay knowing very well that they need to step it up from the way they played throughout most of Game 1. The Lightning are coming into tonight’s game feeling pretty good about themselves after their Game 1 performance, or so it seems. Then you have what the national media is saying, and that sounds similar to what the Lightning are saying: “Tampa proved they can hang with and beat the Blackhawks based on how they came out in Game 1.”

Here’s what I’m saying:

We all fully expected, or at least should have expected, the Lightning to come out of the gates just as they did in the first game of this series. They had tons of energy, an overload of adrenaline, were playing at warp speed, and dominated most of the first period. This was to be expected.

The media and maybe even the Lightning players seem to believe that if the Lightning can just do that again for the rest of this series, they’ll win and be fine.

Since no one in the media seems to be saying it, I’ll say it: There is NO WAY that Tampa Bay can play with that much energy for an entire 60 minutes, let alone for the remainder of this series. It’s physically impossible. If you go back and watch the replay of the first period from Game 1, it won’t take more than two minutes to realize that the Lightning were jacked up on adrenaline (first game of the SCF, and on home ice) and using every ounce of energy they had in them. It’s not possible for a team to play that way for an entire game, or four, five or six. Counter my argument as you’d like, but I’m sticking by my words.

The second half of Game 1 was largely controlled by the Blackhawks, who were finally able to net two goals in a 1:58 span late in the third period to tie and win the game. They responded to Tampa’s fast start like the experienced champions that they are and walked away with a big win. All the pressure in the world now rests on the Lightning’s shoulders heading into Game 2.

Tampa Bay knows very well that they most likely cannot recover from a 2-0 series deficit with the series shifting to Chicago for games 3 and 4, thus making Game 2 a rare must-win.

On the Blackhawks’ side of things, they know that they didn’t play anywhere close to their best game in Game 1, yet still found a way to win. That in itself should give them some added confidence heading into tonight’s game.

So, what do we need to see from the Hawks tonight to get a 2-0 series lead?

  • More production from the top two lines. The Toews-Kane line was pretty ineffective for the most part in Game 1. They just couldn’t seem to get much going. Credit Cedric Paquette and his line for doing a nice job defensively against Toews and Kane. Their performance seems to have given Paquette some extra confidence heading into tonight, as he has stated he plans on “chirping” at Toews to get him off his game. (Yeah, good luck with that Cedric. Just ask Ryan Kesler how well that worked out for him…) I am definitely expecting more out of the Hawks’ top lines tonight. Rarely do they put together back-to-back bad games. If Quenneville sticks with Toews and Kane on the top line, those two and Saad are bound to get something going.
  • Continued production from third and fourth lines. The Hawks’ third line 15-_DSC2491-toresizeregistered both goals in Game 1, with Teravainen getting the first, and Vermette the second. I talked a lot about each team’s depth leading up to Game 1 and how that’s where the Blackhawks had the biggest advantage over Tampa. It proved to be true on Wednesday, and if the Hawks get more production from their bottom two lines tonight and as the series progresses, the Lightning will be in trouble.
  • Hold the “Triplets” in check again. The now famed “Triplets” line of the Lightning was hardly noticeable in Game 1. Tyler Johnson was held to just one shot the whole night, and that line never got much of anything going. This line has produced more goals than any other line for the Lightning this postseason, so limiting them is a death blow to Tampa. Again, as I said in my series preview, if the Hawks could find a way to just limit, not even shut down, one of Tampa Bay’s top two lines, the Hawks would be in good shape. They did just that in Game 1 and walked away with the victory.
  • Get good “D”. The Blackhawks’ top four defensemen played a pretty solid game Wednesday night from the end of the first period on. The fifth and sixth d-men had a bit more trouble. Specifically David Rundblad. This was the shakiest we have seen Rundblad since Game 1 against Anaheim last round, only this time it didn’t cost the Hawks. It looks like he’ll be back in there again in Game 2. Hopefully he got his “jitters” out of the way in Game 1 and will be more confident tonight. As for Kyle Cumiskey, he still has done nothing to warrant being taken out of the lineup. His in-zone coverage has been pretty good, his passing has been above average, and his speed is always a threat. He needs to simply keep doing what he’s doing.
  • Win some faceoffs. The Blackhawks were abysmal at the faceoff dot through the first half of Game 1. They won just 30 percent of the faceoffs in the first period, and ended the game having won 47 percent. Those numbers need to improve. Odds are that Jonathan Toews will not have another bad night in draws (45% in Game 1), but you never know. On the powerplay in Game 1, the Hawks lost all four faceoffs that they took. People wonder why they often have trouble getting the PP set up, and if you look at the fact that they went 0-4 at the dot with the man advantage, that should tell you something. Losing the draw means the opponent will clear the zone and dump the puck into your own end. Winning the offensive zone faceoffs on the powerplay, and at even strength, allows you to immediately set up in the offensive zone without having to get the puck in over the blue line.
  • Lastly, get the powerplay back on track. The Hawks’ powerplay is converting just over 18 percent of the time right now, which isn’t good enough given the personnel they have on the ice. They scored a couple big goals in Game 7 in Anaheim on the PP, but went 0-3 with the man advantage Wednesday night in Tampa. Given the fact that the Lightning have a pretty lethal powerplay and will eventually get a powerplay goal or two, the Hawks need to match that by doing the same. Had the Hawks scored even just once with the man advantage in Game 1, they would have had a much more comfortable victory. They have got to figure this thing out and start making Tampa pay for their penalties.

As I already said, Game 2 is a huge game for the Lightning. They cannot afford to go down two games to nothing with the series shifting north to Chicago where the Blackhawks are nearly unbeatable right now. At the same time, this is also a big game for the Hawks for the exact same reason. They know that if they get a win tonight, Tampa Bay will be backed up against a wall fighting for their life just three games into the series. Heading home up 2-0 in the Stanley Cup Final is a scenario any team would dream of.

Like was the case in Game 1, I’m expecting the Lightning to come out flying again in Game 2. The Hawks just need to hold their ground and weather the early storm. There’s no way the Lightning can play a full 60 minutes the way they played the first period on Wednesday, so getting through the first ten minutes tonight either tied or with the lead could be big for the Hawks.

Blackhawks – Lightning: Stanley Cup Final prediction

10-171460575-smallAfter Saturday night’s rather dominating victory over the Ducks in Game 7 of the Western Conference Final, the Blackhawks had punched their ticket to their third Stanley Cup Final appearance in the last six years. No other team in hockey can say they’ve done that. Opposing the Blackhawks will be the Tampa Bay Lightning; a team many had picked to come out of the East well before this season ever began. If a hockey lover could have hand picked their dream Stanley Cup Final, this one may very well have been it. Both teams are highly skilled, fast, exciting, and dress big name players. There aren’t many other matchups that could consist of players such as Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Victor Hedman, just to name a few. Just consider ourselves lucky that we get to witness such a star-studded final.

56

Let’s start with the Blackhawks. The Hawks come into this year’s SCF after having knocked off the Predators, Wild, and Ducks in the first three rounds. One could argue that the Blackhawks have had to travel the tougher road up to this point, but that’s an argument not worth getting into at the moment.

Up front, the Blackhawks own what many consider to be the deepest group of forwards in the NHL. Their top two lines are nearly unparalleled, and their third line often plays like another top two line. What eventually helped put the Blackhawks over the top against Anaheim was that they kept getting contributions from their bottom two lines. If you look at the seven games that were played in the WCF, the Hawks got continuous scoring and production from those bottom six forwards. Whether it was Marcus Kruger, Andrew Shaw, Antoine Vermette, or Teuvo Teravainen, those guys kept coming up with big plays and goals. The Ducks simply couldn’t match that. And now that Kane and Toews have been reunited on the top line, the Blackhawks offense has looked nearly unstoppable.

Defensively, a lot has been made of the number of minutes that the Hawks’ top four d-men are playing. Clearly, however, that hasn’t fazed those guys one bit. Duncan Keith is coming off of one of his best ever playoff series, as is Johnny Oduya, and Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson just continue to be themselves and make the big plays offensively and defensively. Not many teams own as solid of a top four as the Blackhawks. Kyle Cumiskey and David Rundblad both played pretty well in games 6 and 7 against the Ducks, which is a good sign moving forward.

In net, Corey Crawford is back to his 2013 form. He currently owns a .919 save percentage and has single handedly won the Blackhawks a couple of games this postseason. His rebound control has seemingly gotten better and better as these playoffs have progressed, and when he is absorbing the puck like he did in Game 7, for example, it’s tough to score on him.

TampaBayLightning_LOGO

As for the Lightning, they were the best offensive team during the regular season, and they haven’t slowed down all that much in the playoffs. They have three players with at least 17 points this postseason, including Tyler Johnson who leads the playoffs with 21. His 12 goals are also a playoff best up to this point. Tampa Bay’s top two lines have been nearly unstoppable for long stretches during these playoffs, and if that continues, they’ll have a chance in this series. The problem with their forwards is their bottom six. Ryan Callahan leads them in points with just 4. To compare, Patrick Sharp leads the Blackhawks’ bottom six with 12. The Lightning absolutely must receive more from their bottom two lines if they want to succeed in this series.

On the back end Tampa owns a pretty solid group of defensemen. Led by their top pairing of Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman, the Lightning have speed and defensive reliability with most of their d-men. Hedman, Stralman, and Nikita Nesterov all have recorded more points than any of Tampa’s bottom six forwards. This is a defensive group that likes to be active in the offensive zone and tends to take some chances when most wouldn’t anticipate them to. When you take into account their top two lines, the Lightning’s ability to also produce offense from the blue line makes their offense lethal at times.

Between the pipes for Tampa Bay stands Ben Bishop and his 6’7″ frame. His .920 save percentage is one point higher than that of Corey Crawford. Bishop, while he has looked quite “leaky” at times (especially against New York), has also turned in some big time performances. He recorded shutouts in games 5 and 7 against the Rangers, with both of those games being played in New York. That should tell you that this guy doesn’t get easily rattled when under pressure to perform.

THE PREDICTION

This is going to be an extremely fast-paced series featuring two teams that like to play that way. The key to winning will come down to depth and special teams. On the one hand, Chicago has the definite advantage in the depth department. Their bottom two lines have been phenomenal this postseason, and Tampa’s have not. On the other hand, the Lightning have been the better team on both the powerplay and penalty kill thus far.

Even though Tampa Bay has the better special teams (statistically), the Blackhawks are getting just enough production out of theirs to still be successful. Add in Chicago’s depth at forward and the entire team’s level of experience in the Stanley Cup Final, and it’s nearly impossible to pick against them.

Blackhawks in six.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: 2nd round predictions

Alright, so I went 6-2 with my first round predictions this year. Not bad, but not great. I should have known better than to actually think the Blues would get out of the first round. Their annual disappearing act in round one is something everyone should witness. My other hiccup came via the Calgary-Vancouver series. I had Vancouver in seven. Give credit to the Flames for playing as well as they did in what was the first career playoff series for a lot of their players.

The second round features some really intruiging matchups. Hopefully they live up to expectations. Due to time constraints on my end between now and the first games Thursday night, this is going to be a quick post.

144 vs. 161

New York is coming off a fairly easy first round win over Pittsburgh while the Caps needed seven games to oust the Islanders. For me, the forward depth of these two teams is comparable with New York probably having the slight edge. It’s the defensive depth that separates one team from the other here.

-New York wins series, 4-2.

si34dm1f9jex9eoexq9l1svqk vs. TampaBayLightning_LOGO

Montreal began playing with fire against the Senators in round one after going up 3-0 in the series. It took a home loss in Game 5 to wake them back up and shut out the Sens in Game 6 to advance. As for Tampa Bay, they’ll be coming into this series fresh off of a Game 7 win at home over Detroit. They possess major speed and a guy named Steven Stamkos. The Habs have Carey Price, though. Expect a back and fourth series here with home ice ultimately being the deciding factor.

-Montreal wins series, 4-3.

ANAHEIM_DUCKS_LOGO vs. jesus-clip-art-2

Not many people saw a sweep coming from the Ducks against Winnipeg. If it wasn’t for their ability to mount multiple third period comebacks, that series would have gone the distance. While Anaheim did play well, their habit of trailing heading into the third is not a good one. Calgary, on the other hand, played a hell of a series against Vancouver. Despite their season-long poor possession numbers, they found a way into the playoffs as well as into the second round. They’ll need all four lines and Jonas Hiller to be great in this one.

-Anaheim wins series, 4-2.

56 vs. Minnesota-Wild-Wallpaper-

I already posted my preview of this series, so here’s a recap. This is the third straight year these two have met in the playoffs, with the Blackhawks winning the first two series. The Hawks didn’t play great in their victory over Nashville, but got clutch performances from their star players. Corey Crawford, as well as the same star players on this team, will need to play great this series. For Minnesota, they’re feeling pretty good about themselves right now after knocking out the Blues. Devan Dubnyk has to perform at a Vezina-type level, and the bottom two lines for Minnesota need to contribute for them to advance. In the end, Chicago just has too many weapons.

-Chicago wins series, 4-2.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Quarterfinals predictions

Incredibly, it’s already playoff time again in the NHL. Each season seems to pass by quicker than the one before it. This year, the amount of parity in the league appears to be as great as it’s ever been. Twelve teams finished with over 100 points on the season, and none of them appears to be an absolute clear-cut favorite to win the Cup. Or maybe in better terms, they all seem capable of winning it.

With that, here are my first round predictions.

144 vs. 174

This year’s President’s Trophy winners and the defending Eastern Conference champions, the Rangers, are about as talented of a team as you’ll find from top to bottom in the NHL. They may not have the extreme offensive firepower that other teams have throughout the league, but each of their lines is more than capable of finding the back of the net. Add in the fact that their blue line, now with Keith Yandle, is arguably the best in hockey, and that they have one of the world’s best goalies, there’s really no reason to bet against these guys.

The Penguins ended the season with one of the worst second half records in hockey. To put that into context, they were right there with Arizona in terms of record since the All Star break. That is not good. Still, they are a team with names such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and cannot be taken lightly. Despite just making it into the postseason as the second Wild Card team in the East, the Penguins will not be an easy out. This is a team that has a lot of playoff experience and seems to have the ability to take their game to the next level when it matters. As usual, however, the Penguins will only go as far as Fleury lets them.

All in all, this really should be a good series. These two teams do not like each other and will no doubt let that be known on the ice. In the end though, I just don’t see the Rangers being ousted in the first round. They’ll knock out Pittsburgh for the second year in a row.

-New York wins series, 4-2.

ANAHEIM_DUCKS_LOGO vs. WinnipegJets

The Ducks ended the season tied with the second most points in hockey at 109, but won the tie-breaker with the Blues and therefore got the number one seed in the West. The addition of Ryan Kesler to their lineup this year was a big one and added a lot of depth to their already deep group of centers. Defensively, the Ducks are not as strong as their record as a team may indicate. They ranked 20th in the league in goals against per game, which is not good. Their defensemen are not necessarily below average, but I don’t think they are good enough to win the Cup by any means. Aside from that, they have some big questions marks in goal for the second straight postseason.

As for the Jets, they are making their first playoff appearance since returning to Winnipeg just a few years ago. That city will be electric for Game 3 and should propel the team to at least one home victory between games 3 and 4. As for as the team itself, they will be a tough out. They’re one of only a couple teams in the league that can effectively combine great size, skill, and speed. They are a big team and will wear you down physically in a short amount of time. While their goaltending has been above average this season, to me it could go either way for them in the playoffs. Ondrej Pavolec tends to be an up and down type player, but has played really well most of this year. If he can keep up his current level of play, I think the Jets have a legitimate chance of pulling off the upset.

I am anticipating this series going the distance. The winner will be decided by goaltending, and at this point, I couldn’t tell you who has a definitive advantage in that category.

-Anaheim wins series, 4-3.

si34dm1f9jex9eoexq9l1svqk vs. 6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h

The Canadiens were at or near the top of the NHL standings from start to finish this year and ended the season with the league’s best goals against average. Offensively, however, they rank 20th in goals per game. While they might not be the strongest team in that regard, their defense should make up for it. Their depth on the blue line, coupled with Carey Price in net, makes them arguably the toughest team in the league to score on as evidenced by their GA/G.

In Ottawa, they just witnessed a semi-miracle. The Sens finished out the regular season going 23-4-4 in their last 31 games, thanks to rookie goalie sensation Andrew Hammond. The guy went 20-1-5 over the past couple months and helped sneak the Senators into a Wild Card spot with a win in the last game of the regular season. Not many people had Ottawa pegged as a playoff team back in October, but here they are. Aside from Hammond, rookie Mark Stone has done everything in his power to earn this year’s Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie. He ended the year with 26 goals and 38 assists, basically carrying the Sens in goal scoring over the last couple weeks.

It wasn’t long ago that the Senators pulled off a big upset over the Habs in the first round of the playoffs, and this year’s team seems to have the makeup to do that again. While I won’t specifically predict that to happen, I wouldn’t be shocked if it did.

-Montreal wins series, 4-2.

st-louis-blues-logo vs. Minnesota-Wild-Wallpaper-

St. Louis yet again enters the playoffs as a “favorite” to win the Cup by a lot of people. Unfortunately for them though, they haven’t lived up to those expectations in recent years, or ever for that matter. All that aside, this year’s team does look to have the makeup of a true contender. Along with the Rangers, the Blues have one of the league’s elite group of d-men. Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk might just be the best one-two punch of right handed defensemen on any team in the NHL. Add in the fact that they have Bouwmeester and now Michalek, and the Blues are without a doubt one of the hardest teams to score on. Offensively, St. Louis got a lot better this year. Vladmir Tarasenko is coming off an injury, but when healthy is lethal. The emergence of Jaden Schwartz as a top six forward has been a welcomed one for the Blues, and has made them a much better goal scoring team. Their only real question mark is in goal, where it looks like Jake Allen will be their starter for Game 1.

Was there a better team in the NHL since January 1st than the Minnesota Wild? Devan Dubnyk almost single handedly brought this team back from the dead to earn the top Wild Card spot in the West, and he should be considered an MVP candidate. He has started practically every game for the Wild since signing there and went 27-9-7 on the year. On offense, the Wild are better this year than in year’s past as they ranked 12th in goals per game. Zach Parise is constantly a major threat with the puck on his stick, and now that they have Thomas Vanek on the roster, their top two lines have become much tougher to handle. On the blue line they have Superman himself in Ryan Suter, who averaged more ice time per game than any other player in the league (29:03). After him, the Wild are good, but not great.

My question is this: will Devan Dubnyk become worn out at any point in this series after playing almost every game since January? Maybe, maybe not. Even if he remains at the top of his game, however, I’m not sure that’ll be enough for the Wild to pull off the upset.

-St. Louis wins series, 4-2.

161 vs. 6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h

 

Here we have the seemingly annual underachieving Washington Capitals, although this season was a little different. They didn’t quite start the year at a playoff pace, but over the course of the second half of the season, they have turned it on. Alex Ovechkin topped the 50 goal plateau again and finished the year with more than anyone else in the league. As a team, the Caps ended the regular season ranked 6th in the NHL in goals per game. Braden Holtby closed out his regular season 41 wins, good for third among all goaltenders, and will need to be great for his team to have success in the playoffs. Defensively, the Capitals also rank in the top 10, as they ended with the 7th best goals against average in the league.

The Islanders have now made the playoffs in two of the last three seasons after not seeing postseason action in quite some time. They began this season as possibly the hottest team in hockey and held the number one spot in the East for a decent amount of time. John Tavares has become one of the game’s elite players and fell just one point shy of Jamie Benn for the league lead in points this year. Him and Kyle Okposo lead the forward group on this team in terms of offensive production, and blue liners Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuck make up one of the NHL’s most lethal defensive pairings. In net, Jaroslav Halak seems to have found a home with the Islanders. He’s had good postseason success in the past, and he’ll need it again.

This is one series that I really don’t have a good feel for. In my mind, it could go either way. However, with the way these two teams finished out their regular seasons, I have to lean towards Washington.

-Washington wins series, 4-2.

6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h vs. jesus-clip-art-2

First of all, how many people had either of these teams making the playoffs back in the preseason? Couldn’t be many. Regardless of that, here they are as first round opponents. After doing what many people perceived as a mini rebuild late last season and over the summer, the Canucks put together a 101 point season. Start to finish this year, the Canucks were one of the best teams in a very competitive Western Conference. Despite losing Ryan Miller a little past the halfway point of the season, the Canucks never missed a beat and kept on winning with Eddie Lack in net. He will be the team’s starter for Game One. On offense, the Sedin twins still lead this team, but Radim Vrbata proved to be a great offseason acquisition as he ended up with 31 goals and 32 assists. As far as defense goes, the Canucks are slightly below average and have a lot of inexperience on their back end.

Now to this year’s Cinderella story, the Calgary Flames. This team was sitting near or at the bottom of the league standings for the past handful of years, and now in just one year are a Wild Card team. A huge reason for that is their incredible, young talent. Another reason is their work ethic. This team works harder than possibly any other team in the NHL, thanks in large part to their coach who demands that style of play. Jiri Hudler, rookie sensation Johnny Gaudreau, and Sean Monahan are the offensive leaders of this team and make up the team’s first line. They have been a handful for anyone they’ve played against this year and figure to do the same against Vancouver. Calgary’s defensemen might be the most active offensively of any team’s d-men. After the previously mentioned trio of forwards, the next four players in points on the Flames are all defensemen. In goal they have Jonas Hiller, who has had a very solid season and will need to keep that up against the Canucks.

Despite these two teams combining for the fewest point total of any first round matchup, this has all the makings of being one of the best first round series this year. It’s been a while since we’ve had a series between two western Canadian teams, so hopefully this one lives up to the hype. In the end, it will come down to which team has more depth.

-Vancouver wins series, 4-3.

TampaBayLightning_LOGO vs. DRW Logo

The Lightning had been hovering around the top spot in the Eastern Conference all season, but came up five points shy of the Rangers. Led by Steven Stamkos, the Lightning own one of the league’s most threatening offenses as they finished first in the league in goals per game with a 3.16 average. Aside from Stamkos, Tampa has maybe the league’s most underrated player in Tyler Johnson, who in five fewer games finished with as many points (72) as Stamkos. On defense, the Lightning are good and have three d-pairings that are all effective and reliable. Unlike last year, they should have Ben Bishop in goal for the first round barring an unexpected injury. One could argue that his absence from the lineup last postseason was a huge reason why the Lightning got swept by Montreal in the opening round. When healthy, Bishop is one of the game’s best between the pipes.

On the other side sits the Red Wings. Detroit is making their 24th consecutive playoff appearance this year, which is flat out incredible. One of their biggest strengths is their team speed, but it’s also something that their opponent is good at as well. Whenever you have Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg on your team though, you can always be optimistic. The Wings finished as a top 10 team in goals per game this year, and they’ll need their offense to keep clicking in order to beat Bishop. On the blue line, Detroit is above average, but not elite. Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson are a very talented first pairing and will no doubt have their hands full against the top lines of Tampa Bay. Jimmy Howard, who has proven he can be a clutch playoff performer, is going to need to bring his A game in goal this series. Without goaltending, you have no shot in the playoffs.

While I feel inclined to take Tampa Bay right away, Detroit is quietly one of the toughest teams to beat in the NHL. Add in that they have two superstars in Datsyuk and Zetterberg, a great head coach in Babcock, and a goalie who has the potential to steal a series, and you just can’t count these guys out. This one’s going the distance.

-Tampa Bay wins series, 4-3.

NHL-Nashville-Predators-Logo-Wallpaper vs. 56

The Predators had been leading the Central Division for almost the whole season until the past few weeks or so. After trading for Cody Franson before the trade deadline, the Nashville kind of went into a free fall. Their once big lead in the division quickly evaporated as both the Blues and Blackhawks made up a lot of ground on the Preds. They enter the playoffs as losers of three straight. Having said that, this is still one of the best teams in hockey. While their group of forwards is not that eye popping by any means, they do have some quality depth and can roll four lines. Their defensemen, on the other hand, can be as good as any in hockey. The top pairing of Josi and Weber may be the best duo in the league, and they are followed up by Ekholm and Jones, and Ellis and Franson. In net, I think we are all aware of who Pekka Rinne is. The guy could easily be considered the best goaltender in the NHL and without a doubt can win a series on his own.

For the Blackhawks, news broke today that Patrick Kane has been cleared to play for Game One. So much for that whole “out for 12 weeks” thing. This is very bad for Nashville and the rest of the playoff teams. Since Kane went down with his injury, the Hawks’ offense has severely struggled. Getting him back will be a huge boost. If the Hawks had been able to score over the past month and a half, they might have finished first or second in the division as their defense and goaltending have been rock solid for the most part. The addition of Kimmo Timonen on the back end really helped solidify the Hawks’ third d-pairing, and while he missed the last few games of the regular season, he is expected back for the first round. Aside from him, the Hawks still have Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, and Oduya. In goal, Corey Crawford put together his best season as a starter and earned a share of the Jennings Trophy along with Carey Price. Crawford already has one ring, and there should be little doubt surrounding him as he goes for his second.

This should be a tightly contested series, and maybe a low scoring one. In the end, however, I think the Blackhawks have way too much firepower for the Predators to handle, especially with Kane now back.

-Chicago wins series, 4-2.

Atlantic Division preview

Last season, the Atlantic Division was home to the President’s Trophy-winning team as well as the team with the fewest points in the NHL. In other words, there was quite a gap between the top and bottom of this division in terms of talent. This year, things should be slightly more even.

ATLANTIC DIVISION

Boston_Bruins_logo

Boston: The Bruins will enter this season after winning last year’s President’s Trophy as the team to finish the regular season with the most points (117). Despite being the best team in the regular season, Boston couldn’t make it past the second round of the playoffs where they lost in seven games to a determined Montreal team. This year, I’m thinking the Bruins will take a step backwards. They were so good during the regular season last year that it will be extremely difficult to put the same numbers this year. Offensively, the Bruins were the highest scoring team in the East last season even though they didn’t have any real superstar scorers on their roster. Most of that roster will be back again this year, minus Jarome Iginla. I think the Bruins will still have one of the better offenses in the league this year, but they won’t duplicate last year’s numbers. As for their defense, the Bruins will once again be one of the deepest defensive team in the league. Led by Zdeno Chara, Boston’s defensive unit is composed of a number of solid, hard-nosed defensemen like Dennis Seidenberg (who will be returning from a season-ending injury from last year), Johnny Boychuck, Dougie Hamilton, Matt Bartkowski, Torey Krug, and Adam McQuaid. When you take into account that Boston has one of the best groups of defensive forwards in the league, led by Selke Trophy-winner Patrice Bergeron, it becomes clear that these guys will be tough to score on. That’s not even to mention the fact that they’ll have the reigning Vezina Trophy-winner starting in goal. While the Bruins won’t have the same numbers as last year, I still think they have the best shot at winning this division.

NHL-Nashville-Predators-Logo-Wallpaper

Buffalo: Last season ended as another last place finish for the Sabres. They finished the year with the lowest point total in the NHL (52), and didn’t really seem to make any strides towards getting better. This offseason, Buffalo signed Brian Gionta and Matt Moulson to try and add some offense to the lineup. Moulson played 44 games with the Sabres last season before being dealt to the Wild at the trade deadline, and his presence back in the Buffalo lineup will be noticed. The Sabres will also have Chris Stewart for the whole season this year. While he’s not an offensive juggernaut or anything remotely close to one, he is a big, physical forward who isn’t afraid to play in the corners or in front of the net on offense. Defensivley, the Sabres signed Andre Benoit and Andrej Meszaros this summer. These two are not all stars by any means, but they are an upgrade from what the Sabres were working with last season. It will be interesting to see if Tyler Myers finally takes his game to the next level this season after putting together multiple disappointing seasons since his rookie campaign. The defensive unit as a whole for Buffalo is not great by any means. In goal, they will have Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth. Neither one of them is a true number one goalie in the NHL, so the combination of them plus a weak defense should lead to another long season for the Sabres.

DRW Logo

Detroit: Well I messed up pretty bad on my prediction for the Red Wings last season. In my season preview, I had this team finishing near the top of the conference, only to see them grab the last wild card spot. This year, I think it’ll be a similar outcome. The Wings have a number of good, young players on their roster who should only be getting better this year. Gustav Nyquist finished last year’s regular season on an absolute tear, and the Red Wings will be looking for him to produce again this year. Whether or not he can regain his form from the end of last year or not should be interesting to keep an eye on. Still, the two offensive leaders of this team are Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. If these guys don’t shoulder the majority of the load for Detroit, the Red Wings will have problems. On defense, we’ll be looking at much of the same names that we saw last year. Niklas Kronwall will be Detroit’s number one d-man again this year, which is not necessarily a good thing. While the Wings have a number of quality players on their back end, they lack the high-end talent in their top two that the good teams all have. As for the goaltending situation, Jimmy Howard has be better this year than he was last season. Without good goaltending, no team in the league has a legitimate shot at winning anything. We’ve seen Howard play at elite levels before, so hopefully for the Wings he can get back to doing so. Whether or not Detroit makes the playoffs again may lie on the shoulders of Howard.

6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h

Florida: You want to talk about a team with a lot of young and potential talent, let’s talk about the Panthers. This team is stacked with youngsters that they’ve either brought up through their system or acquired from other teams. Players such as Brandon Pirri, Aleksander Barkov (this year’s number one pick), Nick Bjugstad, Jimmy Hayes, and Jonathan Huberdeau are all young guys with a lot of potential upside to their game. Then you’ve got guys like Tomas Fleischmann, Dave Bolland (Florida greatly overpaid for him), Tomas Kopecky, and Scottie Upshall who are all proven veterans with good play-making and scoring abilities. If the young forwards on this team can improve their own individual games this season, good things could happen in Sunrise this year. Defensively, Brian Campbell is still Florida’s top defenseman, but the Panthers did add Willie Mitchell who will provide a lot of experience and leadership along their blueline. Still, Florida is one of the weaker defensive teams in the East which will inevitably hurt them again. However, now that they’ll have Roberto Luongo in goal from day one of the regular season, their defense can afford to make a mistake here and there without getting scored on. Luongo should single-handedly lead the Panthers to a few more wins than they had last season. All in all, this is still not a playoff team.

si34dm1f9jex9eoexq9l1svqk

Montreal: These guys are coming into this season after putting together a rather successful playoff run this past spring. After finishing the regular season with 100 points, the Canadiens took their game to another level in the playoffs and managed to defeat the Bruins in seven games to advance to the Eastern Conference Final, where they eventually were eliminated by the Rangers. This offseason, they lost Thomas Vanek to Minnesota and Brian Gionta to Buffalo. Both losses will hurt the Canadiens as they really did nothing to replace either player. They also traded Danny Briere to the Avalanche in exchange for P.A. Parenteau; a move that I don’t believe will help or hurt Montreal. The biggest news for the Canadiens this offseason was their agreement with P.K. Subban on a big contract extension. No upgrades were made to their defense, and no changes were needed with their goalies. So essentially, Montreal should be similar to what they were last year, only without Vanek and Gionta, which will no doubt lead to less offensive production. Depending on the play of Carey Price in goal this year, I do believe Montreal should make the postseason again, but I wouldn’t bet much money on it. 

6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h

Ottawa: The major news out of Ottawa this summer was the departure of Jason Spezza to the Dallas Stars via a trade. Spezza made it clear that he wanted out, and the Senators granted his wish. In return, Ottawa received one NHLer in Alex Chiasson. Aside from his addition, the Sens also acquired David Legwand through free agency. On the offensive side of things, the Senators do have some scoring ability in players such as Bobby Ryan, Milan Michalek, Clarke MaCarthur, and Kyle Turris. After them however, there’s not much left to the forward group on this team. Defensively, they’re even weaker. Erik Karlsson is obviously a great offensive-defenseman, but he’s really not that great defensively. After him, they’ve got Chris Phillips, Marc Methot, Jared Cowen, etc. Bottom line: nothing great on the back end. This was a big problem for Ottawa last season, and it looks like it will be again this year. Craig Anderson will have his hands full in net, as will Robin Lehner who may overtake Anderson as the number one goalie by season’s end. I’m expecting another playoff miss for the Senators.

TampaBayLightning_LOGO

Tampa Bay: Now here’s a team that people should take note of immediately. After finishing second in this division last year with 101 points, the Lightning improved their roster this offseason by signing Brian Boyle (center), Brendan Morrow (wing), Jason Garrison (defense), and Anton Stralman (defense). They’ll have a healthy Steven Stamkos to begin the season after he missed much of last year due to injury. The fact that this team still managed to earn over 100 points last year while Stamkos only played in 37 games is pretty impressive to me. That’s a big testamate to the rest of their forwards. They did trade Nate Thompson to Anaheim this summer, which will hurt, but it’s not a loss that can’t be overcome. On defense, the Lighting really added quality depth by signing Garrison and Stralman. Stralman had a fantastic postseason with the Rangers this past spring, which led to him receiving a nice contract from Tampa Bay. Defense was a big reason for this team’s first round exit to the Canadiens last year, and I think they did a nice job of improving in that area this summer. In goal, Ben Bishop had a crazy good season last year by going 37-14-7 while posting a .924 save percentage and a 2.23 goals-against average. If he hadn’t gotten hurt at the end of the regular season last year, who know where this team may have gone in the playoffs. I’m expecting another big year from Bishop this season. If that happens, there’s no way these guys don’t make the playoffs again. In fact, I wouldn’t be shocked if they win the division assuming everyone stays relatively healthy.

6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h

Toronto: There’s really no other way to describe Toronto’s season last year than “disappointing.” Most people thought they’d be back in the postseason last year after a successful 2012-13 season, but they choked down the stretch and landed on the outside looking in. This offseason saw the Leafs acquire forwards David Booth, Matt Fratin, and Mike Santorelli. None of those three will make a huge difference to this team on their own, but the three combined add some depth to this Toronto lineup. The forward group that the Maple Leafs have is not bad by any means, but they could really use another good goal scorer other than Kessel and Van Riemsdyk. The defensive group in Toronto is not bad either. Dion Phaneuf, who many thought would be traded this summer, is the anchor on the Leafs’ back end. He is joined by Cody Franson, Jake Gardiner, Roman Polak, Morgan Reilly, and Stephane Robidas, who when healthy can be a difference maker. The goalie tandem in Toronto of Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer did not live up to expectations last year, and they’ll have to be better this season if the Leafs want a chance at the playoffs. I honestly think the offense and defense are, for the most part, in place for the Leafs to make the postseason, but they can’t afford their top players or goalies to under-perform.

PREDICTED STANDINGS:

1. Boston 2. Tampa Bay 3. Toronto 4. Montreal 5. Detroit 6. Ottawa 7. Florida 8. Buffalo

(Toronto is my “big prediction” for this division. I think both Florida and Buffalo will improve this year as well.)

PREDICTED EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF TEAMS:

1. Boston 2. Pittsburgh 3. Tampa Bay 4. NYR 5. Columbus 6. Toronto 7. New Jersey 8. Montreal

(I have much more faith in my Western Conference playoff prediction than I do in this one. I feel like there are no obvious playoff teams in the East outside of Boston, Pittsburgh, and Tampa Bay.)