Hey Nashville, HERE WE COME

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

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

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

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

Now back to hockey.

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

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

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

NHL Update

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

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

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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.

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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.)

Not looking good

7327531For the second game in a row, the Blackhawks were badly out-played and have left us fans questioning their desire and work ethic. In Boston on Thursday night, the Hawks were shutout 3-0 and never once looked like they wanted to be playing in that game. In tonight’s 5-2 loss, the Blackhawks looked even worse than Thursday for about 35 of the 60 minutes played against Ottawa, a team that won’t be making the playoffs, and a team that the Blackhawks need to be beating at this time of year.

I’m not quite sure where to even begin trying to explain how bad the Hawks were tonight, but here we go:

  • They came out looking OK through the first 5 minutes tonight, but then proceeded to lose all energy, all effort, and all competitiveness for the remainder of the first.
  • This may have been the worst game of the season for the Hawks’ defensemen. Ottawa torched them multiple times for odd-man rushes and breakaways. If it wasn’t for Raanta, this could have been a 7-2 final, at least…
  • How much longer are we going to watch guys like Versteeg, Sharp, Keith, etc., continue to pass up open looks at the net to try and force a pass through traffic? When you’re down 3-0, you need to shoot the puck as much as possible. This did not happen against the Senators.
  • I am beginning to wonder if Quenneville is losing his mind a little bit. At what point will he see that Bollig and Handzus are bigger liabilities to this team than they are assets? Yeah, Bollig will “fight” now and then (big help that was tonight….not), but he is terrible offensively and just average on defense. Handzus’ only upside is his work on the PK. The rest is flat out bad. Nothing a guy like Morin couldn’t do better.

Maybe it’s that time of year where the playoffs are so close, yet so far away and the Blackhawks are losing focus on the remainder of the regular season. I hope that’s the case, because this effort cannot continue. Multiple times over these last two games have I caught myself saying “they aren’t even trying,” or “this team has no desire to win.” It shouldn’t be that way, not with a team this talented, not with a team this experienced, and not with a team that represents a very proud organization. It’s on Quenneville now to get their heads back into place.

Joel QuennevilleSpeaking of Quenneville, like I mentioned above, his decision making is becoming extremely infuriating. Peter Regin has done nothing but play his butt off since he joined the team by crashing the net, winning board battles, and effectively backchecking the opponents. Yet, Q benches him seemingly every other game in favor of Handzus. Near the end of tonight’s game, it was Regin going hard to the net prior to Seabrook’s goal that may have thrown Anderson off, thus causing the goal. This is what the Hawks need more of, but Regin will probably sit in a sky-box Sunday in Pittsburgh instead. In the case of Brandon Bollig, why Bowman ever gave him a 3-year extension I will never understand. He is not very skilled, he’s a defensive liability, and he makes some bad decisions. In a playoff series, I’d MUCH rather take my chances with someone like Jeremy Morin who can create offense and hustles.

Teuvo Teravainen was not in the lineup tonight after playing in each of the team’s last two games. The Blackhawks still have not hinted one way or another as to what their plan is with Teravainen right now. My gut unfortunately tells me they’ll keep him under 10 games played to avoid using up the first year of his contract. I don’t agree with that move, but I can see that happening.

As a few side notes, Antti Raanta appeared to hurt himself during the first period tonight after falling awkwardly on his right leg. He played the rest of the game, but this is something to keep an eye on. Also, Niklas Hjalmarsson was blatantly kneed by Chris Neil near the end of the second period and looked to be in a lot of pain. He too continued playing, but then appeared to have been held off the ice for most of the third. Hopefully he doesn’t miss any time. Andrew Shaw was called for spearing late in the game and received a game misconduct. By rule, the NHL has to review the incident to determine 130107_gq_trout_awhether or not further penalty(s) are warranted. Lastly, Matt Carey made his NHL debut tonight. Unfortunately for him, it was not a memorable debut. Cody Ceci’s shot from the point in the first period deflected off of Carey’s stick before going into the net past Raanta for the Sens second goal. Then Carey took a bad delay of game/faceoff violation penalty early in the third that led to Ottawa’s fourth goal (a dagger).

With the way the Blackhawks are playing at the moment, I don’t see any reason why the Avalanche couldn’t put them away in just 5 games in the first round of the playoffs. Granted, the Hawks are without Patrick Kane right now, but still.

They better show up in Pittsburgh Sunday night.

NHL Eastern Conference Semifinals predictions

So as it turns out after last night’s pair of Game 7’s, I went 6-2 in predicting the outcomes of the first round. I’m pretty proud of myself to be honest with you. What a comeback by the Bruins! I’ve never seen anything like that in hockey. The city of Toronto will be in mourning for the next month, that’s for sure.

Alright, the predictions.

1-7 Matchup:

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Season series: Penguins 3-0-0 against Senators.

Next to the Sharks, I think the Senators were by far the most impressive team in the first round. Maybe even more impressive than San Jose, but that’s debatable. Ottawa survived the intensity of their series with the Canadiens and flat out dominated them between fights. Goal scoring was not an issue in that first round for the Sens, as they averaged exactly 4 goals per game (good for second behind Pittsburgh). Everyone was seemingly producing and tallying points for Ottawa. Meanwhile, Craig Anderson played a phenomenal series in net and shut down the Montreal offense. He has been one of the most underrated goalies in the NHL in recent years, and now he is finally starting to get some respect. This guys is for real. For Ottawa to beat Pittsburgh, Anderson is going to need to be great again. The Penguins have arguably the league’s most potent offense, and they rely on that offense to win them games. If the Senators can play solid defense and get good goaltending, we might have ourselves an upset.

As for the Penguins, they have to be a little concerned after the way they performed against the Islanders in the first round. Sure, they won the series without going to a 7th game, but a lot of people feel that series should have been over with a lot sooner. I’d say that in 3 or maybe even 4 of those games against the Islanders, New York dominated the play. The fact that Pittsburgh still came away with a victory in that series is a credit to their depth and talent. However, that series also exposed some weaknesses of the Penguins. Marc Andre Fleury is no longer their starting goalie after yet another bad first round performance. Thomas Vokoun is their guy in goal now, and they’ll need him to be solid from here on out. Over his career, Vokoun has been a pretty streaky goalie, so we’ll just have to see which side of him shows up in this series. Also, Pittsburgh’s defense is very beatable. The Islanders proved this. For Pittsburgh to win this series, their blue liners are going to need to be a lot better than they were in round one. Ottawa has one of the hottest offenses right now, and that could be an issue for Pittsburgh’s defense.

-Pittsburgh wins series, 4-3.

4-6 Matchup:

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Season series: Rangers 2-1-0 against Bruins.

It took 7 games for both of these teams to advance to the second round, and thankfully for us NHL fans, we have our second series consisting of two Original 6 teams (the other being Chicago-Detroit). Incredibly, this is the first postseason meeting between these two teams since the mid ’70’s. In their first round series with Washington, New York got great goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist, and timely scoring from a number of players. Derick Brassard (acquired from Columbus at the deadline) has been huge for New York and was a key component to their first round victory. Other than him, however, no Rangers forwards were really that great in the first round. They ranked 10th in goals per game after round one, and that needs to improve. They will be going against a much better defense in the Boston Bruins in the second round. To me, the biggest question with New York is their scoring. They have the weapons to be a good offensive team, but they just haven’t produced like one all year long. They absolutely have to be better against Boston. One thing going for the Rangers, however, is the fact that they have Henrik Lundqvist on their side. He can single-handedly win any series.

The Bruins are lucky to still be alive right now. After trailing 4-1 midway through the third period of their Game 7 against Toronto, it looked for sure like the Leafs would pull of the upset. However, Boston never gave up and willed their way back into the game, scoring 2 goals with the goalie pulled in the final minute and a half of regulation time to tie it. Patrice Bergeron scored the eventual game winner in overtime to send the TD Garden into a frenzy. Now, that they’re in the second round, the Bruins need to wake up and play their game. They were ugly, slow, and downright sloppy at times against Toronto. That can’ happen anymore. Tuukka Rask played alright in the first round, but we all know he can be better. He’ll need to be. Offensively, Boston ranked 5th in goals per game in the first round, which isn’t bad. On the flip side, they ranked 9th in goals against. That needs to be better. All year long, the Bruins have prided themselves on their defense and goaltending. Those two areas need to improve for them to advance any further in these playoffs. One advantage that they have over New York is experience. Boston is just 2 years removed from winning the Stanley Cup, and they still have a number of players from that team on their roster. Those guys that have won the Cup need to step up and lead the team.

-Boston wins series, 4-2.

NHL Eastern Conference playoff predictions

Who would have thought that the Eastern Conference playoff teams would not consist of the Philadelphia Flyers? I didn’t predict that, that’s for sure. Nonetheless, it is nice to see some new faces in the playoffs this year, like the Islanders and Maple Leafs. And how about the Senators? After all the adversity that this team has faced this season, it is pretty remarkable that they’re in the postseason again. So having said that, let’s get to the predictions.

1-8 Matchup:

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Season series: Penguins 4-1-0 against Islanders.

Well it’s no surprise to see Pittsburgh as the number 1 seed in the East, but it is a surprise to see the Islanders as the number 8 seed. I am confident in saying that I don’t believe many people projected the Islanders to be a playoff team this year. John Tavares, on the other hand, had different thoughts about his team and willed them to the postseason. Him and Matt Moulson recorded 47 and 44 points respectively this year, and they are going to need to continue to produce against the Penguins. Evgeni Nabakov had a major bounce back season this year by going 23-11-7, and his playoff experience is huge for the Islanders. Not many guys on that team have ever played in the postseason before, so it’s nice for them to have a goalie with experience. He’s going to need to be great for the Islanders to advance.

The Penguins have shown all year long that they are a force in the Eastern Conference, and they are going to be the toughest out in the East. They went out and really upgraded their team at the trade deadline by acquiring Jarome Iginla and Brendan Morrow, and both of those guys have fit pretty well into the lineup since. The biggest concern for Pittsburgh right now is the health of Sidney Crosby. He recently started practicing again after sitting out for a month with a broken jaw, but it is unclear as to when he may return to game action. Although I feel that the Penguins should still take down the Islanders without much of a problem even without Crosby, I wouldn’t ink them in as the Eastern Conference champs like many people are. Marc Andre Fleury worries me about the Penguins chances with his sub-par play in recent postseasons.

-Pittsburgh wins series, 4-1.

2-7 Matchup:

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Season series: Senators 2-1-1 against Canadiens.

After a couple years of missing the playoffs, Montreal is back as the number 2 seed in the East after barely edging out the Bruins for the division championship. Ottawa, meanwhile, is back in the playoffs yet again even after all the injuries they suffered this season. Daniel Alfredsson (their captain) missed the entire season, and Jason Spezza (their best goal scorer) played in just 5 games. Neither will play in the postseason. Erik Karlsson only played in 17 games because of a severed achilles, but made a remarkable return to the lineup for the last game of the regular season. His presence in the lineup will be HUGE for the Senators in the playoffs. Craig Anderson had his best season as a goalie, posting 1.69 goals-against average and a .941 save percentage. He should be a Vezina finalist, and rightfully so. Ottawa will need Anderson to continue his strong play into the postseason. If he does, this is a team that could do some damage.

Montreal had a great start to the season, but saw their play slip a little in April (a 7-7-0 record). They had 5 players record at least 30 points this year, including 2 defensemen. One of which, P.K. Subban, should be a Norris Trophy finalist. But to me, the biggest story-line surrounding this team will be the play of Carey Price. He went 21-13-4 this season with a 2.59 GAA and a .905 save percentage. Over the last month or so, however, Price has really started to fade. Fans in Montreal have become extremely critical of Price, and I am sure that if he slips up early in this series that Peter Budaj will take over in net. To me, the Canadiens go as Carey Price goes.

-Ottawa wins series, 4-2.

3-6 Matchup:

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Season series: Rangers 2-0-1 against Capitals.

Thanks to the unbelievable play of Alex Ovechkin down the home stretch of the season, the Capitals find themselves as division champions and the 3 seed in the East. The Rangers, however, cannot be happy with their 6th place finish in the conference. This was a team that almost everyone had winning the conference and advancing to the Finals prior to the season after their acquisition of Rick Nash. Unexpectedly, the Rangers just couldn’t get things rolling until April where they went 10-3-1. At the trade deadline, they parted ways with Marian Gaborik and received Derek Dorsett, Derick Brassard, and John Moore in return. This was apparently the spark that the Rangers needed to get going, because they have been a much better team since. Henrik Lundqvist is still one of the top goalies in hockey, and he has the ability to single-handedly win a series for New York. If he plays well and Derek Stepan keeps up his torrid pace, this team will get by the first round.

-New York wins series, 4-3.

4-5 Matchup:

Boston-Bruins-Logo vs. Toronto-Maple-Leafs-Logo

 

Season series: Boston 3-1-0 against Maple Leafs.

Talk about a classic rivalry series… I think I speak on behalf of most NHL fans when I say that I am excited to watch these two teams go at it. Finally, the Maple Leafs are back in the playoffs, and their fans are going to be going nuts at the Air Canada Centre for Game 3. After all that talk of Toronto possibly trading for either Roberto Luongo or Mikka Kiprusoff, their goaltending really hasn’t been bad. James Reimer went 19-8-5 this year with a 2.46 GAA and a .924 save percentage. He doesn’t have playoff experience, which could hurt, but the Leafs have to have some confidence in this guy after the season he had. Phil Kessel, who led the Leafs with 52 points, will get a chance to eliminate his former team, and the Maple Leafs are going to need him to give everything he’s got.

After a great start to the season, Boston was eventually caught and overrun by the Canadiens in the division. But don’t let that fool you. The Bruins are still one of the best teams in hockey, and one of the toughest teams to play against. Tuukka Rask was one of the better goalies in hockey this season with a 2.00 GAA and a .929 save percentage. His play, plus the team defense of the Bruins resulted in Boston finishing third in the league in GA/G. Teams with a good GA/G always tend to fare well in the postseason. The addition of Jaromir Jagr at the trade deadline could pay off now more than it has up to this point in the season, as Jagr is a very experienced postseason player and knows how to win big games. Also, the Bruins are just 2 years removed from winning the Cup and know what it takes to get back there. Don’t let their finish in the conference fool you. This is a dangerous team.

-Boston wins series, 4-1.

Look for my second round predictions for both conferences once the first round ends.

Thanks for reading.