Stanley Cup Playoffs: 1st Round Predictions

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

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

EASTERN CONFERENCE

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Season Series: Panthers won, 2-1

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

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

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

-Florida wins series, 4-2.

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

DRW Logo vs. TampaBayLightning_LOGO

Season Series: Tied, 2-2

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

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

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

-Tampa Bay wins series, 4-3.

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

161 vs. 161

Season Series: Tied, 2-2

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

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

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

-Washington wins series, 4-2.

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

144 vs. 174

Season Series: Penguins won, 3-1

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

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

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

-New York wins series, 4-2.

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

WESTERN CONFERENCE

New_Dallas_Stars vs. New_Dallas_Stars

Season Series: Stars won, 4-1

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

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

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

-Dallas wins series, 4-1.

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

56 vs. st-louis-blues-logo

Season Series: Blues won, 3-2

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

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

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

-Chicago wins series, 4-2.

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

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

Season Series: Predators won, 2-1

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

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

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

-Anaheim wins series, 4-2.

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

crestonwht_rgb vs. third_jersey_logo

Season Series: Sharks won, 3-2

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

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

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

-Los Angeles wins series, 4-3.

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

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Blackhawks’ biggest threats in the West

2015-11-07 13.59.52Now that the NHL trade deadline has passed, we have ourselves a better idea of how each team’s roster should (for the most part) look come playoff time. Minor changes could be made here and there and players could get injured between now and April, but we can’t predict any of that. So we’re left with the present rosters.

Many people are naming the Blackhawks as this year’s big winners of the trade deadline, and I’m not sure anyone can thoroughly argue that. But aside from what the Hawks did, there were some other big moves by other teams as well.

Given the current rosters of each team in the West, let’s look at which teams may pose the biggest threat to the Blackhawks’ hopes of returning to the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight season.

  1. Los Angeles Kings: The Kings are always scary in my mind. They aren’t as deep as they have been in the past when they won their two Cups, although they did just trade for Kris Versteeg, and their defense isn’t as much of a sure thing as it once was. That said, they’re still the Kings and they still possess more playoff experience than just about any other team in the league outside of the Blackhawks. Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar are world-class players at their respective positions, and those two alone can carry this team to another Cup if all goes well. Also, if they can get a healthy Marian Gaborik back for the playoffs, they’ll be that much better. So while L.A. may not be as good as the next team on this list, the fact that they’ve climbed to the mountain top and back twice is reason enough for me to be more afraid of them than any other team in the Western Conference.
  2. Anaheim Ducks: Despite their rocky start to the season, the Ducks find themselves in a position where they could win the Pacific Division. They didn’t make any big moves at the trade deadline, but I’m not completely sure that they needed to. They’re a deep team at forward and on defense, but their defense can also be torched at times. Come playoff-time, Anaheim will likely have to get by L.A. at some point if they are to end up facing the Blackhawks (again), and the same goes for the Kings having to face the Ducks. I bring that up because I don’t think Anaheim beats Los Angeles in a seven game series, thus eliminating their threat to the Hawks. The bottom line with the Ducks, however, is that unless they get great goaltending from Gibson, which can be a toss-up, and unless Getzlaf and Perry perform like all-stars, this team won’t beat the Kings or Blackhawks in a playoff series.
  3. St. Louis Blues: I’m still scratching my head over the fact that Doug Armstrong made zero moves to help his team at the trade deadline. They could really use another goalie given the injuries to Allen and Elliott, and James Reimer was available, but Armstrong did nothing. They could also have used a scoring winger and a defenseman, but again, they did nothing. As currently constructed, the Blues lack the forward and defensive depth to knock off a Chicago, L.A., or Anaheim in a playoff series. They’re a tough, bruising team, but like always they lack that offensive firepower that is necessary to make a deep playoff run.
  4. San Jose Sharks: This team has performed much better than expectations this year, and they lead the NHL with 22 road victories. It is imperative that you be a good road team if you want any success in the playoffs. Aside from that, they have decent depth at forward and own a very good top two lines led by Thornton, Pavelski, Marleau, and Couture. Defensively they’re not bad either, but they’re not great. Brent Burns is arguably the league’s best offensive d-man and adds a big scoring threat when on the ice, but overall their defense can be beaten. I really like their addition of James Reimer at the trade deadline, as they now have a very good goaltending tandem of him and Martin Jones. That said, Jones, their number one, has no playoff experience and Reimer has little. This is a team that has the talent to pull off an upset over a someone like Anaheim, L.A, or St. Louis, but not Chicago (I say that as unbiased as I can).
  5. Dallas Stars: Some may ask why they’re number five on this list, and I suppose that is somewhat justifiable. Here’s the thing, though: Dallas got WORSE at the trade deadline. I cannot fathom why Kris Russell drew so much attention when all he was in Calgary was a terrible defenseman on a bad defensive team. Sure, he may have some offensive numbers, but his defensive stats are horrible. Yet the Stars went out and got him with the hopes of deepening their d-corps. That d-corps, by the way, has some recognizable names to it, but they’re almost all offensive-defensemen with the exception of Oduya. Then you factor in their goaltending, which is probably the worst of any team near the top of the standings in either conference, and you begin to see why they really don’t have a strong chance of knocking off a team like the Blackhawks in a playoff series. Sure their offense is elite, but if you can’t keep the puck out of your net in the postseason, you have no chance. Oh, and I like to make note of the “experience factor” come playoff-time, of which the Stars have minimal with all things considered.

Given the additions made by the Blackhawks over the last week, I firmly believe they are the best team in the West, and quite possibly the NHL. They definitely have the deepest set of forwards in the league, which is absolutely crucial in the playoffs. Their defense could have really used a guy like Dan Hamhuis, but the hope is that Christian Erhoff will find success in the Hawks’ system and turn into a reliable number four, puck-moving defenseman by the end of the regular season.

I like the Blackhawks’ chances in a playoff series against any team in the Western Conference due to their forward depth and experience (keep in mind that they are still without Hossa and Kruger), but ultimately they’ll have to go out and prove they’re the best team yet again.

This is still too early to be making any solid playoff predictions, so we’ll hold off on that until the playoff matchups are set, but as of right now the Blackhawks are my Stanley Cup favorite for many reasons.

How the Blackhawks can win the Cup

10-171460575-smallMy series preview and prediction have already been posted, meaning it’s now time to take a closer look at the Blackhawks and what they need to do to bring home Lord Stanley for a third time in six years.

The Hawks are coming off of what many are calling one of their toughest series in the Toews-Kane era. The Ducks were arguably the deepest team that the Blackhawks have faced in a seven game series in recent years, as well as one of the biggest. Anaheim, or more specifically Ryan Kesler, was sure that there was no way any human being could withstand the physical pounding induced by the Ducks and still win the series. Well, that may be true because the Blackhawks aren’t really humans. They are more along the lines of indestructible machines that don’t seem to care what style of hockey you play. They’ll simply adjust and still find a way to win.

Over the course of the Western Conference Final, we saw what kind of team the Blackhawks truly are this year. Not to take anything away from Nashville or Minnesota, but neither team really pushed the Hawks to their limit in nearly each game of the series like the Ducks just did.

In beating Anaheim, we learned/rediscovered the fact that this group of Blackhawks players never backs down when faced with adversity and has too much experience, leadership, and heart to lose. We also learned that this Hawks team is the deepest team in the NHL at the forward position; a huge reason for their victory over the Ducks.

Duncan Keith, as if trying to remind us all of his superhuman abilities, logged more minutes against Anaheim than in any previous playoff series he had played, yet only seemed to get stronger as the series prolonged. If the playoffs ended today, he’d be a top three candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.

Looking ahead now to their date with Tampa Bay in the Stanley Cup Final, here’s what the Blackhawks must do to win:

  1. Four-line production. I’ve said it a couple times already, and I’ll say it again. The Blackhawks need to keep getting production from all four lines. Their bottom two 1383642_616596775058148_1814435643_nlines are what kept them alive in the WCF before Toews and Kane were reunited on the top line and took over the show. Assuming the lines from Game 7 stick heading into Game 1 with Tampa, it would be safe to think the Hawks’ top line will continue producing, and possibly at an even higher rate than they already have been due to there being no more Ryan Kesler on the other side. The second line of Bickell, Richards, and Hossa looked pretty solid in Game 7 (despite Bickell sitting with an injury most of the night), and this line could be a key to victory for the Hawks in this series. With Hossa starting to get hot and Richards looking more and more like his old self, rolling two formidable lines could be huge against Tampa. The third and fourth lines of the Hawks just need to keep doing what they’ve been doing. Keep in mind that the Hawks just knocked off Anaheim without Patrick Sharp scoring a single goal in the series. If he gets going now, look out.
  2. Stabilize Tampa’s top six. Nearly ALL of Tampa Bay’s scoring in these playoffs has come from their top two lines. The leading scorer on either of their bottom two lines, Ryan Callahan, has a grand total of just FOUR points this postseason. If the Blackhawks can take away some of the scoring from even just one of the Lightning’s top two lines, Tampa will be in trouble and their bottom six will be forced to produce. It’s hard to win the Stanley Cup while getting production from just two lines.
  3. Keep up the good D. Despite using basically four and a half defensemen against the Ducks, the Blackhawks’ blue liners still played a really solid series. Duncan Anaheim Ducks v Chicago Blackhawks - Game SixKeith is playing out of this world right now and is looking like the planet’s best d-man yet again. Brent Seabrook has been just what he’s needed to be defensively this postseason, while also coming up with big goals along the way. Niklas Hjalmarsson keeps blocking shots and is arguably the Hawks’ best d-man in the defensive zone, which is saying something. Johnny Oduya is having an incredible postseason, which has allowed Quenneville to pair him up with Hjalmarsson and Seabrook at any point in time. As for the fifth and sixth d-men, it’s now Kyle Cumiskey and David Rundblad filling those slots. Kimmo Timonen and Michal Roszival started the playoffs as the Hawks’ last two defensemen, but have since been benched and injured respectively. Given Tampa’s lack of size and good speed, Kyle Cumiskey may very well see his role increase this series. He’s quick and likes playing a fast game. If David Rundblad can simply do what he did in games 6 and 7 against Anaheim, he’ll be fine.
  4. Win or play to a draw on special teams. The Blackhawks’ powerplay has been rather ineffective for much of these playoffs, despite getting a couple big goals in Game 7 against the Ducks. When given a man advantage in this series, the Hawks have got to at least generate chances and momentum, and preferably score. Too many times have they given their opponent momentum by getting nothing going on the powerplay. That can’t continue happening now. As for the penalty kill, the Blackhawks have gotten better in that area recently, but will be going up against a usually potent powerplay of the Lightning. Killing off penalties, as usual, will be key. If the Hawks can win or at least come out even in special teams against the Lightning, I like the Blackhawks’ chances due to their depth advantage at even strength.
  5. And the obvious one, Corey Crawford. If you don’t have good goaltending right now, you’ve got no shot. Crawford has been on this stage before, whereas Ben Bishop has not, and Crawford needs to play that way. By that, I mean he needs to play this series like he’s been here before. He has come up huge for the Hawks already on a handful of occasions this postseason, including a couple times against the Ducks (most notably games 2, 6, and 7). His .919 save percentage is just one point behind Bishop, but given where that number was at after the first round, Crawford has clearly turned his game around. As I said in my series prediction, Crawford’s rebound control has been phenomenal at times this postseason, including, yet again, games 2 and 7 against the Ducks. When he is absorbing the puck and not giving up rebounds, he is nearly unbeatable. If he can keep up his play in net, it’ll be on the guys in front of him to get the job done, and that’s a good thing.

Something I didn’t mention above is that the Lightning love playing with speed going north and south. The Blackhawks are one of the best teams at defending that. If you go back and look at Game 7 against the Ducks, for example, Anaheim tried continuously to move the puck through the neutral zone with speed, only to run into a wall of defenders or have the puck stripped. Considering that playing with speed through the neutral zone and getting odd man rushes is such a huge part of Tampa’s offense, if the Hawks can slow them down in that regard, the Lightning could be in trouble.

On the flip side, the Blackhawks also like playing with speed going north and south through the neutral zone. Anaheim, one of the league’s best defensive teams at the forward spot, had serious trouble stopping the Hawks from playing that way. Tampa Bay, who probably doesn’t have the caliber of defensive forwards that Anaheim does, will most likely also have trouble, and maybe more, stopping the Blackhawks from using their speed going up the ice with the puck. If the Hawks can be the ones to dictate the pace of play and use their north-south speed to their advantage, they’ll be in good shape.

Another thing that I haven’t touched on is the experience factor. I’m sure some of you are now rolling your eyes and saying that this aspect of the game gets blown out of proportion. If you think that way, that’s perfectly fine. However, you cannot overlook the fact that the Blackhawks have been here twice in the last six years and walked away hoisting the Cup both times. This team knows better than any other team how to handle big games, pressure, and adversity. That type of experience pays big dividends, as evidenced by the way the Hawks blew out Anaheim in Game 7. I’m not saying the pressure will ultimately make Tampa Bay crumble, but it may wear on them more than it will the Hawks.

Looking at this matchup on paper, which is all we can really do at this point, the Blackhawks have a decent advantage in my eyes. Yes Tampa is fast and probably faster than anyone the Hawks have faced, but their lack of depth and experience will prove to be too costly against a Hawks team that is loaded with forward depth and experience in this round. If the Blackhawks can take one of the first two games in Tampa Bay, it will put the Lightning under a lot of pressure to win one of the first two games in Chicago, where the Blackhawks are nearly unbeatable. Whether or not that pressure proves to be too much for this young and inexperienced Tampa team remains to be seen.

I’m saying Blackhawks in six.

Blackhawks – Lightning: Stanley Cup Final prediction

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

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

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

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

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

TampaBayLightning_LOGO

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

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

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

THE PREDICTION

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

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

Blackhawks in six.

How the Blackhawks can win the Cup

play_wip_15I already posted my prediction on how the Stanley Cup Final between the Blackhawks and Bruins will end. I said the Blackhawks will win in 7 games. While I am sticking with the prediction that the Hawks will win the series, who knows how many games it may take… Logic just says it’ll be 7 games based on how good both teams are. In that write-up in which I have my series prediction, I also threw some stats out there and gave a few opinions on both teams. Here, I will give my take on how I think the Blackhawks can win this series and bring the Cup back home.

Let’s start with my keys to success for the Blackhawks.

  1. Chicago’s top 2 lines. The Bruins absolutely shut down two of the world’s greatest forwards in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin while sweeping the Penguins in the Conference Finals. They limited Pittsburgh as a whole to just 2 goals in the series. If the Blackhawks’ top 2 lines of Bickell-Toews-Kane and Sharp-Handzus-Hossa can continue producing in this series, and if Kane stays hot and Toews gets hot, Boston will be in trouble.
  2. Corey Crawford. He has been great through the first 3 rounds this postseason and 169382078_slidehas arguably been the MVP of the Hawks. His 1.74 GAA is the best of any goalie this postseason, and his .935 save percentage is second best. Boston has averaged the second most G/G during these playoffs (behind Pittsburgh), and therefore Crawford will need to be great again in this series.
  3. The power play. Neither Boston nor Chicago have a good power play, but both have stellar penalty killing units. One power play goal by either team could prove to be the difference in this series. While that sounds a little extreme, it’s not. The Blackhawks could really afford for their PP to get going and get a goal or two.
  4. Dave Bolland. Where has he been this postseason? He missed all of the first round due to a lower body injury, and maybe that’s still bothering him. Regardless, he has been rather ineffective over the last two rounds, which for him is very rare given his great postseason track record. It would be huge for him to finally get going against Boston. That doesn’t mean he needs to be averaging a point per game, but if he can get under Boston’s skin and create some chances for the 4th line, good things will happen.
  5. Win at home. The Blackhawks need to take care of business on their home ice. CT blackhawks-kings38.JPGSince 2010, Boston has the best home record in the playoffs of any team in the league. It will not be easy to win at the TD Garden. Therefore, winning at the United Center is imperative for the Hawks if they are going to win this series. While the Blackhawks have been really good on the road, they can’t count on winning in Boston. Grabbing games 1 and 2 would be huge for the Hawks before heading out east.

To build off of my first “key” of the top 2 lines producing for the Blackhawks, let me say this. Yes, Boston is one of the league’s best defensive teams. That is not a question. However, I don’t believe that they are as good as they may have appeared to have been against Pittsburgh. Holding a team to just goals in a 4-game sweep is unheard of. While the Bruins did play great defense against the Penguins, I think Pittsburgh had a lot to do with how that series played out as well.

The Penguins got away from their game plan and the style of play that they were using all season long. Instead, they tried becoming enforcers and tried to get into the heads of the Bruins by being a physical team, which they’re not. There was no better example of this than Sidney Crosby going after Zdeno Chara in Game 1. That is not the Crosby we know. In trying to change the way they played against Boston, the Penguins did just that. They got away from their smart, offensive-minded game plan that got them to the Conference Finals in the first place, and it cost them. They shot themselves in the foot that series, which led to poor play and a sweep. Yes, the Bruins were good defensively, but they got some help from the Penguins as well.

tumblr_mnr55hVBeD1rmzsm8o1_500I honestly do not think that Boston will be able to hold Chicago’s top guys scoreless in this series. In fact, I don’t think they will shut them down like many are predicting. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are playing their best hockey of the postseason right now since being reunited on the top line (along with Bryan Bickell), and I don’t see the Bruins stopping them. If they do limit the Hawks’ first line, then there is the second line of Sharp, Handzus, and Hossa to worry about.

Patrick Sharp is tied with Bickell for second place in goals-scored this postseason with 8, while Marian Hossa has 7. Sharp and Hossa have been arguably the two most consistent players for the Blackhawks this postseason, and they are as dangerous of a second line as you will find. Michal Handzus has become a key player for the Blackhawks on the second line, and he has seemingly found some great chemistry with Hossa. If Boston does find a way to slow down the Blackhawks’ first line, they still have the second line to be concerned about. I haven’t even mentioned Chicago’s third and fourth lines.

The Blackhawks’ third line of Stalberg, Shaw, and Saad is a huge reason as to why the Blackhawks have made it this far. Andrew Shaw, while he has only 4 goals this postseason, has been a very valuable asset to the Blackhawks’ offense. He is physical, he’s an agitator, he’s fearless, and he is getting better and better at camping in front of the Chicago Blackhawks' Andrew Shaw celebrates his first period goal against the Los Angeles Kings in Game 2 of their NHL Western Conference finals playoff hockey game in Chicagonet on the power play. Viktor Stalberg has been disappointing up to this point and often receives the lowest playing time on the team, but his speed makes him a constant threat. Lately, he’s been getting more chances to produce, but hasn’t converted. As for Calder Trophy finalist Brandon Saad, his statistics are misleading. He has just 4 points (all assists), but is one of the best play-makers in the lineup. He often looks a lot like Toews and Hossa with his ability to maneuver through the defense with the puck to get to the net.

The fourth line of Frolik, Bolland, and Kruger is at times the best defensive line for Chicago. They will most likely play against David Krejci’s line in this series. As I stated earlier, look for David Bolland to pick up his game this series. He has been invisible for far too long, and it’s time for him to show up. If this line and/or the third line can get a handful of goals against Boston, the Blackhawks should be in good shape.

Defensively, Keith and Seabrook will have their hands full going against Boston’s top line. I am confident that they will get the job done. However, I will say again that the Hjalmarsson-chi_g_hjalmarsson_b1_600Oduya pairing will have a big impact on how this series plays out. Niklas Hjalmarsson is playing his best hockey of the year right now, and he’ll need to continue doing so. Johnny Oduya has looked good at times as well, but he has made way too many turnovers at others. He needs to be smarter with the puck in his own end and the neutral zone. If he can do that and be where he needs to be on defense, and if Hjalmarsson continues his hot play, I again like the Hawks’ chances.

I briefly eluded to this in my series prediction, but I’ll say it again. Boston has not played a team with as much speed as Chicago. They have not played a team who can use the stretch pass as effectively as Chicago. The Bruins will need to respect both the Hawks’ speed and stretch pass capabilities in this series by playing a conservative defense, which should open up some other chances for the Blackhawks. Chicago will need to have a good forecheck in this series, as Boston will most likely clog the neutral zone on defense.

The Blackhawks’ biggest weakness right now besides their power play is their ability to win faceoffs. They have won 47% of their draws this postseason, while Boston has won 56% of theirs (that’s the best of any playoff team). This is the biggest difference between the Bruins and Blackhawks. While the Hawks were able to win games against L.A. despite their inability to win faceoffs, they’ll need to be at least a little better against Boston. Not many teams can still be as good after losing the faceoff as the Chicago, but they can’t count on losing that many draws and being successful in this series.

There are so many different aspects of this series that can be discussed, but these are the biggest ones for the Blackhawks. If they can play the way they did against L.A., which I think they will, I like their odds. Boston is going to be the toughest challenge for Chicago since maybe the Red Wings in the ’09 playoffs, but this Blackhawks team is more than capable of winning.

Game 1 can’t come soon enough.

Stanley Cup Final prediction

First off, I have correctly predicted the outcomes of 11 of the 14 playoff series’ this postseason after the Conference Finals. I had Chicago over L.A., but Pittsburgh over Boston.

I don’t think anyone could have asked for a better final series than this one. Two major hockey cities, two Original Six teams. Boston and Chicago, the Bruins and Blackhawks. NBC couldn’t be happier, because the TV ratings for this series will probably be higher than any Stanley Cup Final in the past. Maybe the only person upset about this matchup is Gary Bettman, who probably would have liked it if Phoenix and Florida met in the Cup. But who cares what he wants, right? On to the prediction.

STANLEY CUP FINAL

56 vs. Boston-Bruins-Logo

The President’s Trophy-winning Blackhawks and the 4th seeded Bruins are two very similar teams, but also different at the same time. Both are tremendous defensively, but they each have their own way of scoring goals. After their incredible Game 7 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round, Boston has been an unstoppable force in the East. The went on to defeat the Rangers in just 5 games, and now they are coming off of a sweep of the number 1 seeded Penguins in the Conference Final. A lot of people, myself included, didn’t think Crosby, Malkin, and the rest of the Penguins’ offense could be stopped. Man were we wrong. In their series with Pittsburgh, the Bruins allowed just TWO goals against. Now remember, the Penguins were the best team in the NHL at scoring goals this year, and yet they only had two in four games against the Bruins. That is a remarkable statistic for Boston. Credit Patrice Bergeron and his line, as well as Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask for shutting down the Penguins offense. What Boston did against Pittsburgh is what they’ll most likely do against Chicago in terms of defense. They had Patrice Bergeron’s line play against either the Crosby or Malkin line, while Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg played against the other line centered by either Crosby or Malkin. Against Chicago, they will probably have Bergeron playing the Toews line, and Chara playing the Handzus line (or vice versa). Bergeron is a Selke Trophy finalist, which is awarded each year to the best defensive forward in the NHL. Chara is constantly in the Norris Trophy discussion, although this year he is not a finalist. The bottom line here is that the Bruins, led by Bergeron and Chara, are an incredible defensive team from top to bottom. In net, Tuukka Rask has been phenomenal as well. He ranks second in GAA this postseason (behind Corey Crawford), and first in save percentage. He had two shutouts in the four games against Pittsburgh. Offensively, Boston has 6 guys with over 10 points this postseason, led by David Krejci who has 21 (most in the NHL). They have been getting contributions from everyone on offense, including their defensemen. Unlike the Blackhawks, Boston gets the majority of their goals on shots from the point, or rebounds in front of the net. The Bruins are also one of the best teams in hockey at winning faceoffs, and Chicago is not. This could be a key to any success the Bruins might have in this series.

The Blackhawks have had an interesting postseason. They knocked out the Wild in 5 games in the first round, but never really played with a playoff-like intensity. In the second round, they fell into a 3-1 hole against Detroit after the first 4 games. It was at this point that the Hawks finally started to play like it was the playoffs. They won 3 straight against the Wings to advance to the Conference Final, and rolled over the Kings in 5 games to reach the Stanley Cup Final. I thought that the Blackhawks would have had a lot more trouble against the Kings than they really did. The Kings were a big, physical, and fast team that liked to throw their weight around. They were the exact type of team that the Hawks have had trouble against all season. However, all that went out the door in this series, and the Blackhawks never seemed fazed by L.A.’s physicality. Corey Crawford was the MVP of this series. He came up with a number of massive saves, especially in the two overtimes of Game 5. Prior to the Conference Final, all anyone was talking about was Jonathan Quick and how amazing he was playing. Now, I think Crawford is beginning to get the respect that he deserves. He is first in the NHL in GAA this postseason, and is second in save percentage. Defensively, ever since Joel Quenneville reunited Keith and Seabrook, the Blackhawks have been really good. Niklas Hjalmarsson had arguably his best playoff series of his career against the Kings, and the Hawks will need him to continue playing well against Boston. I said before the Conference Final that the Hjalmarsson-Oduya pairing would be a key component of the Blackhawks-Kings series, and I was right. Jonathan Toews, a Selke finalist, and Marian Hossa are two of the best defensive forwards in the game and have the ability to really disrupt any team’s offense. Offensively, the Blackhawks have really turned it up over the last 4-5 games. They chased Jonathan Quick in Game 2, and put up 14 goals over 5 games against L.A. Bryan Bickell has arguably been the Hawks’ MVP this postseason, as he has 8 goals and 5 assists. Patrick Kane hadn’t done much prior to Game 4 of last series, but scored 4 goals in the final two games, including a hat trick and the winning goal in Game 5. If he stays hot for the Hawks, look out. Jonathan Toews has played a lot better lately even without lighting the lamp. Hossa and Sharp continue to get great chances and are converting more often than not.

This is going to be an excellent series. While Boston was able to completely shut down Crosby and Malkin, I am not so sure they can do that again against the Blackhawks’ top guys. Chicago has 2 all-star caliber lines, and a third and fourth line that can be dangerous as well. The stretch pass that the Blackhawks use is unlike anything Boston has tried to defend in the East this year, and they will need to respect that in this series, which will open up other opportunities for the Hawks. Also, the speed of Chicago on the backcheck and forecheck is better than any speed the Bruins have seen so far. The Blackhawks are possibly the fastest team in hockey, and they know how to use that to their advantage. Having said that, this series will be one for the ages.

-Chicago wins series, 4-3.