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

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Season Series: Stars won, 4-1

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

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

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

-Dallas wins series, 4-1.

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

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Season Series: Blues won, 3-2

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

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

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

-Chicago wins series, 4-2.

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

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

Season Series: Predators won, 2-1

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

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

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

-Anaheim wins series, 4-2.

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

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Season Series: Sharks won, 3-2

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

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

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

-Los Angeles wins series, 4-3.

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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.)

NHL Eastern Conference Quarterfinals prediction

The East began the season looking like a very weak conference. Its teams seemed far inferior to those out west, and they didn’t help themselves by putting up a bad overall conference record against the Western Conference. However, with the second half of the season came some improved play by the East, and it was Boston that ended up winning the President’s Trophy as the team with the most points during the regular season. Unlike the Western Conference, I can only see two real Stanley Cup contenders in the Eastern Conference: Boston and Pittsburgh. I’m not saying no one else will have a shot, but I wouldn’t bet on anyone else to come out of the East.

So with that, here we go.

1-4 Matchup:

Boston_Bruins_logo vs. DRW Logo

I think this is a great first round series. There’s nothing better than two Original Six teams squaring off against one another in the playoffs. For a while, it was looking like the Red Wings might miss the playoffs for the first time in 23 years, but as usual they found a way into the postseason with 93 points and as the East’s last wild card team. Detroit finished the season ranked sixteenth in both goals per game and goals-against per game, neither of which is good. Right now, they are battling some injuries to key players such as their captain Henrik Zetterberg, who isn’t expected back until possibly late in round one if not later than that. Pavel Datsyuk recently returned to the lineup after a knee injury, and his presence on the ice should be a big uplift for this Wings team. For them to have any chance in this series, they are going to need Datsyuk and Gustav Nyquist to come up big on the offensive end. Nyquist ended the regular season as arguably the hottest player in the league, and the Wings will need him to stay hot for this series. Defensively, Detroit has battled some injuries this year as well. Young replacements such as Ouellet, Sproul, and Lashoff will getting their first real taste of playoff hockey in the NHL. Their age and lack of experience could hurt them big time in this series against an elite and proven team like the Bruins. Jimmy Howard is going to have his hands full in net with a lack of defensive support in front of him, so he will need to be outstanding from the opening puck drop to the final whistle of each game. If the Wings want any chance, they are simply going to have to out-work and want this series more than Boston. They almost knocked off the Blackhawks last season using that same recipe.

The Bruins are coming in to this postseason playing the best hockey of any team in the entire NHL. I don’t think you can even begin to argue that any team had a better second half of the season than Boston. Not only did they win the President’s Trophy, but they finished the season third in goals per game, and second in GA/G. No other team in the league finished the season ranked in the top five in both categories. Their defense is arguably the best in the league (right up there with LA), and their goalie is most likely going to win this year’s Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goalie. Defense wins championships, and Boston has what may be the best defense you’ll find if you take their forwards into consideration. Zdeno Chara is always one of the top d-men in the league, and his partner Dougie Hamilton (when will he switch it to just “Doug?”) is becoming a rather strong defensemen as well at a young age. That brings me to my greatest concern with this team. The youthfulness of their defensive corps. Bartkowski, Hamilton, Krug, and Miller are all rather young, with Hamilton (20) and Krug (23) being the youngest. Both Hamilton and Krug saw action during the Bruins playoff run last year, but I still wonder whether they will crumble under immense pressure this time around. This Bruins team has very few weaknesses, but lack of experience from their young d-men is one of them.

I’m expecting the Bruins to keep on rolling and not have much of a problem on offense or in net this series. It’s their young defensemen that have me a little worried, especially if they advance deeper into the playoffs. Detroit will need to play their best hockey of the year to win this, which I wouldn’t necessarily put past them as long as they still have Mike Babcock behind their bench.

-Boston wins series, 4-2.

2-3 Matchup:

TampaBayLightning_LOGO vs. si34dm1f9jex9eoexq9l1svqk

This is an interesting matchup in that I don’t think many people predicted the Lightning to end up with a 2-seed. More on that in a bit. Montreal enters these playoffs as the only representative from Canada. A lot of pressure on them to win right there alone. They finished out the regular season with 100 points, and ranked twenty first in goals per game, and eighth in GA/G. Goal scoring is their biggest weakness. Max Pacioretty led the team with 60 points (39G, 21A), followed by P.K. Subban with 53 points as a defenseman. If you look at their lineup, you would think that this is a deep team with a lot of scoring potential on all lines, especially now that they have Thomas Vanek on their top line. That just hasn’t been the case however, and they’ll need to start scoring with more frequency beginning now. On defense, Montreal’s top pairing of Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin will need to find a way to slow down Steven Stamkos. These two have been good all year, and they’ll need to be even better this series. P.K. Subban will need to step up his defensive game as well. This is an area in which he has been criticized throughout his career. Carey Price could have his work cut out for him in goal against the Lightning, so he’ll need to start playing like he did during the Olympics. However, he may be the least of my concerns with the Canadiens.

As for the Lightning, you have to give this team an awful lot of credit for playing as well as they did earlier this season when they were without Stamkos. The highest point total by any player on their roster this year was just 59, yet they still ranked ninth in goals per game. That is a testament to the balance in their lineup. The Lightning have been getting contributions from just about everyone in their lineup offensively, so it should be interesting to see how effective their depth players can be in this series. Valtteri Filppula has proven to be a much bigger signing than anyone thought he would be when he inked a deal with Tampa last off-season. He finished the season second on this team in points, with 25 goals and 33 assists. Defensively, the Lightning ranked eleventh in GA/G, thanks in large part to goaltender Ben Bishop. Bishop finished the year with the fourth most wins of any goalie and with a 2.23 GAA. Those are very solid numbers. Unfortunately, he has been ruled out for Game One of this series with an elbow injury. The extent and severity of his injury could determine just how far Tampa goes this postseason. Anders Lindback is going to have to step up big time in Bishop’s absence. The defensive corps for Tampa is a mix of experienced and inexperienced players. Guys like Matt Carle, Sami Salo and Victor Hedman are going to need to carry the young guys until they can get comfortable playing in a playoff atmosphere.

This series is a tough one to predict. For me, the outcome will be determined by Ben Bishop’s injury. If he only misses Game One, I think Tampa Bay can win this series. If Bishop is out for two, three, or more games, the Lightning may be in trouble. I’m going to assume the worst for Bishop and the Lightning, however.

-Montreal wins series, 4-2.

1-4 Matchup:

174 vs. bluejackets07-rgbjpg-8678ad1b3fbe2735

I love this matchup. Columbus comes into this series after a very successful season by their standards (93 points), and they are playing with a ton of confidence. You might not find another team in the NHL that works as hard as the Blue Jackets. This team goes all out every night and lays everything on the line. They make their opponents work for everything. They ranked twelfth is goals per game and thirteenth in goals against this season, neither of which is great or bad. Offensively, Ryan Johansen had a breakout year and led the team with 63 points (33G, 30A). He is the glue to this team’s offense, and hopefully for Columbus he continues playing well into this series. The depth of the Jackets at their forward positions is underrated. Guys like Dubinsky, Anisimov, and Letestu are very solid players who can make a difference on a nightly basis. On defense, Jack Johnson had a bit of a down season, but he is still a strong defenseman who can play some big minutes. Fedor Tyutin and James Wisniewski, the Jackets’ top d-pairing, will have their hands full against Pittsburgh, but their work ethic is what gives them a decent shot at slowing down the Penguins’ offense. Sergei Bobrovsky, last season’s Vezina winner, put together another good season this year with a record of 32-20-5 and a 2.38 GAA. He will need to be great this series. To me, he is one of two keys to this series, with the other being his opposing goalie.

The Penguins ended the regular season with 109 points, which was good for second in the East. The finished fifth in goals per game and tenth in GA/G. They have always been a high scoring team, and that was the case again this year. Their powerplay ranked first in the NHL, thanks to guys like Crosby, Kunitz, and Malkin. For them to win this series, they will need continued success with the man advantage. Their offensive game really needs no further explanation because I think we all know who we’re talking about there. On defense, the Penguins have one of the deeper defensive units in the game, led by their top pairing of Orpik and Martin. Kris Letang just returned after a long absence from the lineup due to a stroke that he suffered earlier this year. His presence on the back end is a huge boost for this team. Now we get to the good stuff: Marc-Andre Fleury. Since winning the Stanley Cup back in ’09, Fleury has been extremely inconsistent in the playoffs. Two years ago, he played horrible in a series against Philadelphia and the Penguins were eliminated earlier than most thought they would be. Last year, Fleury was yanked early in Pittsburgh’s series with the Islanders, and sat on the bench for the remainder of their playoff run. How he plays and deals with this year’s playoff pressure could decide just how far the Penguins will go. If he plays like he did this regular season, Pittsburgh should make it to at least the Conference Finals. If Fleury regresses back to the player he was a year ago, the Pens could be going home really early.

I am anxious for this series to begin because I think it could be one of the better series of the whole first round. Columbus’ work ethic against Pittsburgh’s skill and experience will be fun to watch. Keep an eye on Fleury early in Game One. If he gives up a quick one or two goals, the Penguins may be in trouble.

-Pittsburgh wins series, 4-3.

2-3 Matchup:

144 vs. 161

This has all the makings of a heated first round series. These two teams have never liked each other, and this year has been no different. The Flyers got off to a really slow start to the season, which led to head coach Peter Laviolette getting fired only a few games in. Since then, however, new head coach Peter Berube has turned the team back in the right direction. Philadelphia finished off their season with with 94 points, and team captain Claude Giroux is getting heavy consideration for this year’s Hart Trophy. He led the team with 86 points and was a huge reason for the Flyers’ turnaround back before the Olympic break. Philadelphia ranked eighth if goals per game this year, while finishing twentieth in goals-against per game. That last stat is something this team needs to get better heading into the playoffs. The Flyers defense isn’t necessarily bad, but they haven’t performed very well this season. The ageless Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn make up Philly’s top d-pairing, followed by Mark Streit and Nicklas Grossman, and  Andrew MacDonald and Luke Schenn. On paper that looks good, but they just haven’t performed up to expectations this year on the back end. In goal, it’ll be Steve Mason for the Flyers. He had a decent year this year with a 33-18-7 record while averaging 2.50 goals-against per game. For the Flyers to win this series, they’ll need Mason and their defensemen to perform as well as they have all season.

The Rangers ended the regular season with 96 points, which is actually pretty good considering the start that they got off to back in October/November. They ranked eighteenth in goals per game this year, while ranking fourth in GA/G. They can thank Henrik Lundqvist and Ryan McDonagh for that. McDonagh put together a Norris Trophy-worthy campaign this season, and while he most likely won’t win the trophy, he’s bound to win one sooner or later in his career if he keeps progressing. McDonagh is coming off a recent upper body injury, and the Rangers will need him to be healthy if they want any success this postseason. The same can be said for Martin St. Louis who is also coming off an injury. For obvious reasons, New York needs St. Louis to be healthy and in the lineup for the playoffs. He is a world-class playmaker and goal-scorer, and they can’t afford to have him injured. The key for the Rangers in this series may be their third and especially fourth line. New York’s fourth line has come up big a number of times for them this season, and if they do so in the playoffs, that’ll be a huge plus for this team. I am not too worried about Henrik Lundqvist, as he has played in numerous playoff series and has always performed well.

This is bound to be a bruising series and one that will be very entertaining to watch. If I’m the Flyers, I am hoping and praying that Steve Mason doesn’t crumble under the pressure of playing in the postseason. Their team defense isn’t great, so they’ll need Mason to be very good. As for New York, if they get quality ice time and production from their depth players, they will have a good shot at advancing. This is a tough series to call, but in the end, I have to go with the better goalie.

-New York wins series, 4-3.

NHL playoff race begins

nhl-playoffs-logo-600x398Now that the Olympics are over, with Canada bringing home the hockey gold, Sweden the silver, Finland the bronze, and the USA dogs (David Backes is literally bringing home two stray dogs he found in Sochi), the NHL season is set to resume itself. Many teams find themselves in the middle of a heated battle just to get into the playoffs, while other teams are fighting for top spots in each conference and division. As has been the case in recent years, it appears we are in for yet another incredible finish to the NHL regular season.

First, here’s a look at the current standings by division:

Atlantic                                   Metropolitan

Boston – 78 pts                        Pittsburgh – 83 pts

Tampa Bay – 71 pts                 N.Y. Rangers – 67 pts

Montreal – 70 pts                      Philadelphia – 66 pts

Toronto – 70 pts                       Columbus – 63 pts

Detroit – 64 pts                         Washington – 63 pts

Ottawa – 63 pts                        Carolina – 61 pts

Florida – 51 pts                         New Jersey – 61 pts

Buffalo – 40 pts                         N.Y. Islanders – 52 pts

Central                                    Pacific

St. Louis – 84 pts                      Anaheim – 87 pts

Chicago – 84pts                        San Jose – 80 pts

Colorado – 79 pts                      Los Angeles – 68 pts

Minnesota – 69 pts                    Phoenix – 64 pts

Dallas – 64 pts                          Vancouver – 63 pts

Winnipeg – 62 pts                     Calgary – 51 pts

Nashville – 60 pts                      Edmonton – 47 pts

159898991_stdIt would appear that the race atop the Central Division could be the most fun to keep an eye on. St. Louis and Chicago are bitter rivals, and getting first place in the Central Division could very well be more important than winning first place in any other division. With the new playoff format, the winner of the Central will play one of the two wild card teams in the West. The team to finish second in the Central will most likely get a first round matchup with Colorado. They are a first round opponent that I would want no part of. Of all teams currently in third place in their respective division, Colorado has the most points (79) by quite a bit (9). They would be leading the Atlantic division by one point.

nhl-playoffs-logo-600x398Pittsburgh seems to have a stranglehold on the Metropolitan division (I hate that name), but the second and third place spots are up for grabs. With eight teams in the Metropolitan division, just 6 points seperates the second place team (the Rangers) from the seventh place team (the Devils). This will be fun to watch. I think the Rangers will get one of the two remaining top spots in that division, but the other spot is wide open in my opinion. Watch out for Columbus and Washington.

The Atlantic division is shaping up to be a close race as well. Boston seems to be a sure lock for the playoffs assuming they don’t suffer an epic collapse, but after them, everyone else in that divison (aside from Florida and Buffalo) has a shot at making the playoffs. The dt.common.streams.StreamServerRed Wings, currently with 64 points and 6 points behind the third place spot in the division, are trying to make the playoffs for the twenty-third consecutive season. Mike Babcock was recently quoted as saying they “will be in the playoffs.” Knowing Detroit, they will either make the postseason, or fall just a couple points shy. Eight points seperate the number two spot from the six spot in the Atlantic. Notice that Tampa Bay is currently in second place despite being without Steven Stamkos for the past few months.

nhl-playoffs-logo-600x398Out west in the Pacific division, things seem to be a bit more spaced out. There isn’t quite the log-jam that we see in the other divisions. Anaheim, the league’s leading team in points (87), should win that division if they can avoid any key injuries or a major meltdown, which has happened to them in recent years. San Jose sits seven points behind Anaheim, but they have a comfortable twelve-point lead over the third place Kings. Once again, the Kings are putting together a disappointing regular season. They are a team that should theoretically finish in one of the top two spot in their division every year. But, every year they underperform until the playoffs. That is when they step up their game. L.A. has a four-point lead over Phoenix and a five-point lead on Vancouver for the third spot in the division. Calgary and Edmonton are hopeless. If I had to bet, I’d say the top three spots in the Pacific don’t change the rest of the season.

So who ends up with the wild card spots? Well, Toronto and Montreal (each with 70 points) appear to be in good position to get one of the East’s two wild cards. Whichever of those two teams doesn’t get a wild card will probably get the third spot in their division. After that, pretty much any team besides the Islanders, Sabres, and Panthers could be the second wild card team at this point. It’s too hard to predict right now who will win that race.

In the Western Conference, Minnesota currently holds the first wild card spot with 69 points. Dallas and Phoenix, each with 64 points, are tied for the second wild card position. However, Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Nashville are all still very much in contention to become the second wild card team in the West.

This is going to be another great finish to the NHL regular season. There are a number of teams seperated by just a couple of points who are all capable of making the playoffs. Injuries could be a factor in determining who comes out on top, and fatigue could be a factor as well. Every team in the league had at least two players take part in the Olympics, with Chicago and Detroit each sending ten. Will those who did play in the Olympics be worn out by season’s end? Only time will tell. If history proves anything, however, teams with large numbers of Olympians can still win the Stanley Cup without being too fatigued. Look no further than the 2010 Blackhawks who won the Cup after six of their top players played in the Olympics.

NHL Eastern Conference predictions

Here’s how I think the Eastern Conference will play out this season:

Metropolitan 

1. 2518158277_cf0b185de3

The Penguins are consistently one of the best teams in hockey during the regular season with all of that talent. I see no reason as to why that will change this year. The playoffs, however, are a different story with this team.

2. llrs2zxi127vkqgcsvfb

After a couple of down years, I expect Washington to be back near the top of the league this season. Ovechkin found his form over the course of last season, and I think he’ll stay hot heading into this season. However, this team seems to always have the potential to disappoint.

3. 144

This will be their first season under new head coach Alain Vigneault, and I think it could go one of two ways; good, or really bad. I don’t see an in-between with the Rangers. Henrik Lundqvist is always a key factor in this team’s success, and while I expect him to be an elite goalie again this year, I am not as sure about the rest of the team. For now, I’m saying they take third in this division.

4. 161

Last year was a season to forget for the Flyers. They greatly under-performed. Now that Bryzgalov is gone and Ray Emery has taken his place, there should be less off-ice distractions, which will help, but I don’t think last year was a fluke. Teams don’t just go from the top of the conference to the bottom in one year without there being more than a few problems. Having said that, I think Philadelphia has the potential to finish in the top 3 in this division.

5. Carolina-Hurricanes-Logo

The Hurricanes somewhat remind me of the Oilers in terms of their potential. Edmonton has more talent, but both teams are better than what they showed us last season. Like the Oilers, I think Carolina has the potential to make the postseason as a wild card team, but I won’t be surprised if they don’t.

6. 138

Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I should have the Islanders ahead of the Hurricanes or not. They could go either way. Last year was a major surprise for the Islanders as they made the playoffs for the first time in a number of years. John Tavares is becoming one of the best centers in the game, and he’ll probably be named team captain sometime this month. Still, I don’t think this team will replicate what they accomplished last year.

7. bluejackets07-rgbjpg-8678ad1b3fbe2735

For the first time in a long time, the Blue Jackets are not projected to be the worst team in the league. If they were still in the Central Division, I might have them placed higher in the standings. Unfortunately for the Jackets, this division may be the toughest in hockey. While they will be a solid, possibly above .500 team, I don’t see them making the playoffs in this conference.

8. 127

There isn’t a whole lot to look forward to with the Devils. Kovalchuk is gone, Clarkson is gone, and Brodeur is slowly on his way out. They did acquire Corey Schneider, Jaromir Jagr, Ryan Clowe, and Michael Ryder, among others, but there are still a ton of question marks with this team, especially on defense.

Atlantic

1. Detroit-Red-Wings-Logo

This is my big prediction for this upcoming season. While I’m sure others have the Wings finishing first in this division, I don’t think I’m in the majority. Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss were big acquisitions for the Wings that will greatly help. I feel that a line with Datsyuk/Zetterberg and Daniel Alfredsson could be a major threat to opposing teams. Aside from their big name players, the Wings also have a lot of young talent that really looked good in last year’s playoffs. The big question mark here is their defense. I’d expect the Wings to upgrade on the blue line via trade at some point this season.

2. Boston_Bruins_logo

They lost Horton, Seguin, Peverley, and Jagr, but acquired Loui Eriksson and Jarome Iginla. Their offense should be pretty comparable to what it was last year, and their defense remains arguably the best in the NHL. The Bruins will contend for the top spot in the East again this season, but for now I have them finishing second in their own division.

3. Toronto-Maple-Leafs-Logo

This is where the Atlantic Division kind of falls to a lower level. The Wings and Bruins, in my opinion, will be elite teams in the NHL. After them, however, I don’t see another solid lock for the postseason in this division. The Maple Leafs have the best shot of the remaining teams, and rightfully so. They made some big moves this off season by signing David Clarkson and trading for Jonathan Bernier and Dave Bolland. If James Reimer begins to show some weaknesses, expect Bernier to be named their new starting goalie. My fear with Toronto is that they are expecting too much out of Dave Bolland. They have really hyped him up since they traded for him, but he’s not the offensive player that they’re making him out to be. The Leafs will be good, but not great.

4. 2bkf2l3xyxi5p0cavbj8

They made a big move by acquiring Bobby Ryan from the Ducks, but they also lost their captain via free agency. Last year the Senators surprised a lot of people by not only making the playoffs, but by advancing to the second round. In all honesty, I think Ottawa is going to be pretty similar to what they were last season. I think we’re probably looking at a wild card spot for the Sens, but they have the ability to miss the postseason as well.

5. 97hhvk8e5if0riesnex30etgz

This is kind of a “wild card” pick for me. The Lightning were not good last season, but I think they have the talent and potential to be better. Stamkos will continue to be one of the best players in hockey, St. Louis will stay productive, and the signing of Valtteri Filppula will prove to be bigger than people think. They have a decent offensive team, but their defense is still suspect. Matt Carle needs to bounce back after a couple of down seasons since signing in Tampa, and Viktor Hedman needs to play up to his potential for this team to be decent again. Along with their defense, goaltending is another foggy area with the Lightning. I’m not totally sold on Ben Bishop, but only time will tell with him.

6.  canadiens

I felt all of last season that this team was overachieving. I thought for sure that they would choke near the end of the year and either fall to a bottom seed in the East playoffs, or miss the postseason all together. They did neither. This year, I think their record will be a bit more indicative as to how good the Canadiens really are. I don’t think they’ll make the playoffs, and I think they could end up even lower in the standings than I have them here.

7. 230

While they’re not as bad as the Flames, this team is in a rebuilding phase just like Calgary. They’ve had some good talent over the past few years, but nothing ever panned out the way that they wanted it to. Tyler Myers has regressed a bit since his rookie campaign, and guys like Drew Stafford haven’t really improved much over the past couple seasons. Ryan Miller is coming off of one of his worst seasons in the NHL, but I think he’ll be better this year.

8. 94

The Panthers shocked everyone two years ago when they made the playoffs, and there’s a reason for that. They weren’t/aren’t that good. They have a ton of young guys who could turn out to be good hockey players, and they have Jonathan Huberdeau who seems to have a promising future. Still, there are way too many unknowns with this team. Defensively, they have a bit more veteran depth, but they’re not great in that area. Expect another last place finish for Florida.

Playoffs

Metropolitan Division:

1. Penguins 2. Capitals 3. Rangers

Atlantic Division:

1. Red Wings 2. Bruins 3. Maple Leafs

Wild Card teams:

1. Flyers 2. Senators

Red Wings put Blackhawks on the brink of elimination

169382078_slideWell, what seemed like a season from a dream has turned into a nightmare for the Blackhawks. The President’s Trophy winners are now just one more loss away from being eliminated by the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Semifinals. Most people were expecting this team to at least make the Stanley Cup Finals, if not win the whole thing. Now, the Hawks could be on the wrong side of one of the biggest upsets in NHL postseason history.

After running over the Wings in Game 1 of this series, the Blackhawks have lost 3 straight for the first time all season. Also for the first time this season, the Blackhawks were shutout in Game 4 by a score of 2-0. This is not the best time for them to be running into a string of “firsts.” In these last 3 losses to the Red Wings, the Blackhawks have looked tired, frustrated, bad, and even really good at times. Most of all, they haven’t been able to score.

After ending the season as the highest scoring team in the West, the Blackhawks have scored just 2 goals in their last 3 games. Considering it is the playoffs, that is unacceptable. What’s also unacceptable is their power play, or lack there of. The Blackhawks have had 25 power plays this postseason, and they have only scored on 3 of them. In Game 4 against Detroit, the Blackhawks were given three power plays and only managed to get a combined one shot on goal. One of those power plays came with about 5 minutes left in regulation with the Wings leading 1-0, and the Hawks failed to register a shot. Those power play numbers are flat out embarrassing and a disgrace, which leads me to my next topic.

While the Hawks are not yet technically eliminated from the playoffs, they don’t stand a very good chance of advancing past this round. Stan Bowman said at the trade deadline that he felt confident in the “group” (meaning the Blackhawks) and that no big duncan-keithchanges/trades were needed to help their chances in the postseason. I, along with many other Hawks fans, felt that Bowman was entirely wrong and couldn’t be further from the truth. Watching this team during the regular season, it was clear that they needed a true number 2 center and possibly even a bigger, more physical winger or two. So what did Bowman do? He traded for Michal Handzus who was a regular healthy scratch for the San Jose Sharks. His reasoning? Handzus was good at faceoffs.

If you look at the Blackhawks’ biggest weaknesses in this series against Detroit, their inability to win faceoffs might be their most glaring one (aside from the power play). For the playoffs, the Blackhawks have won 48 percent of their draws, which is not good. Michal Handzus, Stan Bowman’s “big” acquisition at the deadline, has won 46 percent of his faceoffs. If he isn’t winning faceoffs, Handzus is a worthless player who can’t skate, has no offensive ability, and refuses to use his 6’5″ frame to his advantage. Basically, he should be benched. My point here is that for the past 3 seasons, Stan Bowman has stated at the trade deadline that he “likes the team the way it is” and that no upgrades via trades are needed. How has that philosophy worked out for you Stan? Take a good look at Pittsburgh, Boston, or even L.A. (all 3 of which are poised to advance to the next round). All three teams addressed their needs at the trade deadline by making bold moves to acquire players such as Jarome Iginla, Brendan Morrow, Jaromir Jagr, and Robyn Regehr, and each move has paid off. If the Blackhawks do not advance to the next round, or even the Stanley Cup, then someone needs to really evaluate Bowman and his position within the organization.

Another thing to look for if the Hawks don’t advance is changes to the coaching staff. The Blackhawks’ power play, as I already stated, is pathetic. There is WAY too much talent on this team for their PP to be so bad. While some of the blame obviously belongs to the players, I believe a lot of it should fall on the coaching. Not once have I seen the Blackhawks try using a different power play system to get things rolling. They constantly try skating the puck into the offensive zone where they then have it stripped at the blue line. Can’t Quenneville or Jamie Kompon (their power play coach) look at video of the Penguins, Sharks, or even the team they’re playing right now, the Wings, and see how these other teams are being successful? Maybe they are, but it sure as heck doesn’t appear so. The bottom line is this. Jamie Kompon has not done the job that he was hired by Quenneville to do: make the power play better. Kompon was highly criticized in L.A. the last few seasons for this same reason before he was eventually let go. Still, Quenneville chose to replace Mike Haviland with him, and therefore Quenneville should be questioned as well.

With the way things are going right now, all signs are indicating that the Blackhawks will not advance past this round. If that comes true, then the organization as whole needs to be reevaluated and the proper changes need to be made. Whether it is the players, management, and/or coaching staff, someone is not doing their job. This team is good, but could have been made better. This team also has a ton of talent, but it isn’t all being utilized by the coaching. While I still believe that it is entirely possible for the Hawks to win Game 5 on home ice, I am not too confident that they will win 3 in a row against a very good Detroit team.

If this team doesn’t advance, pay close attention in the following weeks to any changes that will be made.

Blackhawks now in a hole

169140836_slideFor the first time this season, the Blackhawks find themselves facing some major adversity. This is something that they, nor us fans are really used to. After their 24-game point streak to start the season, the Hawks were pretty much assured a playoff spot without much doubt. Not once this year have they had to play a very meaningful game, until now. Sure, they played a 5-game series against the Wild in the first round, but not once did Minnesota actually put the Blackhawks in a hole, or threaten their Stanley Cup hopes.

With their Game 3 loss to Detroit, the Blackhawks are now down 2-1 in their series with the Wings, with Game 4 scheduled for Thursday night. Their loss in Game 3 was definitely a tough one to swallow after Andrew Shaw had a goal taken away from him early in the third period that would have tied the game at 2 apiece. According to the referee who made the call, Andrew Shaw “interfered” with Jimmy Howard and did not allow Howard a fair chance at making the save. Replay after replay of this play showed that there was absolutely no interference on Shaw’s part, and the Blackhawks got blatantly screwed. This call changed the entire complexion of the third period and gave all the momentum back to Detroit. Still, this is no excuse for losing the game, although it didn’t help.

In Game 1, the Blackhawks used their speed to their advantage and basically skated circles around each Red Wing player on the ice. They forchecked as well as they have all year long and had numerous extended offensive zone shifts. To make it simple, the Blackhawks dominated the first game of this series.

Games 2 and 3, however, were quite different. In Game 2, the Wings were the team with livelier legs and more energy, and at times they were skating circles around the Hawks. It looked as though Detroit was playing a Game 7, and the Blackhawks were playing a regular season game. Game 3 was better for the Hawks, but it still took them 2 periods and a 2-goal deficit to really get going. Even then, they just couldn’t get the job done. They eclipsed the 40-shot mark, which is always good, but ran into a hot goalie and determined defense while doing so.

Detroit is forcing the Hawks to play a dump and chase type game, and they have not allowed the Blackhawks to utilize their speed since Game 1. Along with that, the Wings are playing much more physical than the Wild ever did in round 1, and that seems to be bothering the Hawks. Almost every time this year that a team has tried to play a physical game against Chicago, the Blackhawks have lost. They are not equipped to handle such physical pressure. They get thrown off their game and end up playing in what seems like a “scramble-mode.”

The Blackhawks have been most successful in this series when they have been able to run their cycle in the offensive zone and make clean, quick passes. When they can generate their offense from the blue line and have their defensemen be effective with the duncan-keithpuck in the offensive zone, that is when the Blackhawks’ offense is at its best. Against Detroit, this is more of what they are going to need to do from here on out. The Wings are not letting the Hawks get many two on one/three on two rushes. They are forcing the Hawks to chip the puck in behind Jimmy Howard and go retrieve it. This is why it is imperative for them to get their d-men involved along the blue line and help spread the Wings’ defense out to create more space in the passing lanes.

For the first time this year, the Blackhawks are facing a must-win game in Game 4. They cannot afford to go down 3-1 against Detroit. The Hawks need to be smart and disciplined from start to finish next game and beat the Wings between the whistles. Andrew Shaw cannot continue to take penalties after the whistle has blown, and Bryan Bickell cannot let his emotions get the best of him with Dan Cleary. Yes, the Blackhawks PK has been perfect this postseason, but you can’t keep poking the bear by taking bad penalties.

A number of people didn’t take Joel Quenneville or Jonathan Toews too seriously last round when they both said that the Blackhawks need to play with more energy and intensity. See what happens when you take a round off? Now the Hawks are struggling to find that playoff intensity that is needed to win postseason games, and it is costing them.

Expect to see a desperate and determined Blackhawks team in Game 4. If you don’t, then they’ve got a big problem and could be on the golf course next week sometime.