For sixteen teams, it’s a chance to dream. For some participants, they’ll get out of the gate tomorrow. Eight teams are in action Wednesday. They include the Canadiens, Senators, Capitals, Islanders, Predators, Blackhawks, Canucks and Flames. Indeed, Canada will be well represented with five of its seven teams in the fancy tournament for Lord Stanley.
Also back is Winnipeg for the first time since 1996 when the original Jets were eliminated by the Red Wings in the first round their final year before relocating to Phoenix. This time, the Jets will meet the Ducks in a slate of four series beginning Thursday. That also features the top seeded Rangers, who’ll face enormous pressure when they take on the Penguins. Can the President’s Trophy winners measure up and deliver a Stanley Cup down the Canyon Of Heroes for the first time in 21 years? Or might an upstart like the Islanders or resurgent Capitals wreck it? For the 24th consecutive time, the Red Wings are in and will be facing a deep Lightning team built for a run. Is this the year Steven Stamkos carries his team to a Conference Final? And what about the Blues, who don’t exactly have an easy assignment facing a stingy Wild team carried by Devan Dubnyk? What if they fail to get out of the first round again?
There are plenty of exciting story lines worth following. That includes a tough Winnipeg team that could give Anaheim all it can handle. If you love Canadian rivalries, they’re back with two delicious appetizers. Montreal and Ottawa renew acquaintances while Vancouver and Calgary try to recapture the glory days when they battled for seven games in ’04 with a Jarome Iginla led Flames making a great run to the Stanley Cup Final.
The first round features classic rivalries with former Patrick Division rivals the Rangers and Penguins doing battle for a second straight Spring while the Capitals and Islanders turn back the clock to the days of Pierre Turgeon and Dale Hunter. The battle lines have been drawn. Who’s ready to make a serious push into June? Let’s find out.
(1) Rangers vs (8) Penguins
Series Outlook: A rematch of last year’s memorable second round encounter, this time it’s the Rangers who are the heavy favorite with the Penguins playing the unfamiliar role of underdog. For once, there’s little pressure on Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin who look to carry a beaten up team past a deep foe who ran away with the Metro Division.
Analysis: A balanced top three lines featuring Rick Nash, Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello, Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, Carl Hagelin, Kevin Hayes and Martin St. Louis should be a handful for a thin Pens’ blueline. Unless Paul Martin and Rob Scuderi get help defensively, the Rangers should be able to forecheck. As good a season as Marc-Andre Fleury’s had, it’s hard to see him outperforming Henrik Lundqvist. The Pens need big series from support players Brandon Sutter, Chris Kunitz, David Perron and Blake Comeau to have any shot.
Series Prediction: Rangers in 6
(M2) Capitals vs (M3) Islanders
Series Outlook: Considering that the Capitals and Islanders tied in points (101) and feature superstars Alex Ovechkin and John Tavares, they’re quite similar. So, it should be competitive. Imagine the game’s best finisher against the game’s best scorer. Tavares is in elite company. Can he carry the Islanders past the Caps into a potential second round blood battle against the Rangers?
Analysis: The Isles need Jaroslav Halak to outplay Braden Holtby, whose season went under the radar. Halak once took the Habs to a Conference Final but hasn’t had much success since. Which supporting cast is better? Ryan Strome, Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, Nikolay Kulemin, Matt Martin, Cal Clutterbuck. Or Nicklas Backstrom, Troy Brouwer, Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Jason Chimera, Eric Fehr, Joel Ward, Curtis Glencross? Unless Travis Hamonic returns, the Isles’ are at a disadvantage on the blueline. Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy will have to carry the load along with young Calvin de Haan. The Caps are deeper with John Carlson, Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen and Mike Green.
Series Prediction: Capitals in 6
(1) Canadiens vs (7) Senators
Series Outlook: The Canadiens are facing Cinderella. The Senators went 23-4-4 to make the playoffs. Thanks to the heroics of the Hamburglar along with rookies Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman, Ottawa is here. They could be dangerous for a focused Montreal club featuring certain double Hart/Vezina winner Carey Price. The Habs are a superb team that includes P.K. Subban and Max Pacioretty. But it’s Pacioretty’s status that could determine the outcome. He still hasn’t been medically cleared to play from a concussion.
Analysis: Does Montreal have enough to get through Ottawa if Pacioretty can’t go? They’re still deep with Brendan Gallagher, Alex Galchenyuk, Tomas Plekanec, David Desharnais, Lars Eller, Brandon Prust and Dale Weise. The blueline is underrated featuring Subban, Andrei Markov, Tom Gilbert, Alexei Emelin, Sergei Gonchar and Jeff Petry. Special teams could be a battle against Karlsson, Kyle Turris, Bobby Ryan, Stone, Hoffman and Mike Zibanejad. Ottawa has solid depth in Clarke MacArthur, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Curtis Lazar. Marc Methot and Mark Borowiecki are battle tested. This could be a long series. I’ll still go with Price over Andrew Hammond as the deciding factor.
Series Prediction: Canadiens in 7
(A2) Lightning vs (A3) Red Wings
Series Outlook: Picked by many to contend, Tampa quietly went about its business winning 50 games and 108 points finishing second in the Atlantic. Even with Steven Stamkos’ scoring a little down, he still pumped home 43 goals ranking second behind Ovechkin. The Bolts boast the best second line in hockey featuring Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. They’re going to be a handful for Detroit, who squeaked in with 100 points thanks to strong finishes from vet tandem Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.
Analysis: In order for the Red Wings to win, Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist must perform. They combined for 56 goals but didn’t score much down the stretch. Valuable net presence Justin Abdelkader is questionable due to a hand injury. It can’t just be the Datsyuk and Zetterberg show against a deep Tampa team that features Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman. Jimmy Howard will need to erase ghosts of playoff past and stand on his head. The Bolts are deep with playoff proven Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle, former Wing Valtteri Filppula and talented rookie Jonathan Drouin. Their blueline is deeper with Matt Carle, Jason Garrison. That should make it easier on Ben Bishop, who won 40 games. The Wings are carried by Niklas Kronwall and solid second-year man Danny DeKeyser. Vet Marek Zidlicky has been a good addition. One of their unheralded youngsters must step up. Riley Sheehan and Luke Glendening are candidates.
Series Prediction: Lightning in 5
(1) Ducks vs (8) Jets
Series Outlook: Somehow, Anaheim ran away with the Pacific again racking up 109 points and were one regulation/overtime win better than St. Louis to earn the West’s top seed. For their trouble, they draw a tough physical Winnipeg team who could prove quite difficult. Outside of dynamic duo Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, there’s not much else I like about Anaheim. Especially in net where Frederik Andersen is a bad period away from being pulled for John Gibson. Not that Ondrej Pavelec is any better. Though his play down the stretch was brilliant finishing with three straight shutouts.
Analysis: The Ducks will need Ryan Kesler to step up. They got him for this. Jacob Silfverberg, Matt Beleskey, Andrew Cogliano, Richard Rackell, Patrick Maroon, Jiri Sekac and Nate Thompson are key secondary players who must contribute. Anaheim is banking on the blueline of Francois Beauchemin, Sami Vatanen, Hampus Lindholm and Cam Fowler to blanket a talented Jets core featuring Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little, Mark Schiefele, Michael Frolik and Mathieu Perreault. Drew Stafford and Lee Stempniak have been factors since coming over. Winnipeg’s back end is led by ornery Dustin Byfuglien. Can he control himself or will he fall victim to Perry? Jacob Trouba is a future star and Toby Enstrom is solid. Tyler Myers has been good too. It shapes up to be a physical series that may well depend on discipline and goaltending. It’s a toss up.
Series Prediction: Jets in 7
(P2) Canucks vs (P3) Flames
Series Outlook: The last time they met, it was the same round 11 years ago. This time, it’s The Sedins featuring Radim Vrbata against Flames young guns Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau. Goaltending is way different with Eddie Lack the likely Vancouver starter for Game 1 over Ryan Miller, who just returned from a knee injury. Calgary counters with Jonas Hiller.
Analysis: If you can’t get the juices flowing for a Western Canadian series that should be frenetic and energetic, go watch bowling. Secondary players such as Bo Horvat, Nick Bonino, Derek Dorsett and Linden Vey could become vaguely familiar. The Canucks bring the usual spunk with Alex Burrows, Chris Higgins and Jannik Hansen. You’ll be familiar with defensemen Alex Edler, Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis. But Yannick Weber and Luca Sbisa could pop up at key moments for Vancouver. Calgary has done this without Mark Giordano. But they have Johnny Hockey, Monahan and Jiri Hudler. A red hot scoring line that carried them. It’s a offensive attack from the back end led by Dennis Wideman, T.J. Brodie and Kris Russell that makes them go. Is there enough quality depth? Maybe a Lance Bouma or Josh Jooris becomes a folk hero in Alberta if they go on a run. It’s happened before. Current assistant Martin Gelinas.
Series Prediction: Flames in 7
(1) Blues vs (7) Wild
Series Outlook: St. Louis had another fine regular season tying with Anaheim for the second most points behind the Rangers. So, why does it feel like it could be all for naught again? Their opponent Minnesota has a hot goalie in Hart/Vezina candidate Devan Dubnyk, who can tilt the series in the Wild’s favor. That’s not a knock on Brian Elliott. He just doesn’t steal games. Can a talented Blues core of Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, David Backes, Alex Steen and T.J. Oshie drive them to a Conference Final?
Analysis: Blueline anchors Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk are healthy. So too is vet Paul Stastny, who was signed last summer for such big series. He can definitely help if scoring dries up. St. Louis can bang with anyone thanks to Ryan Reaves, Backes and Dmitrij Jaskin. They’re both skilled and tough boasting strong depth with Patrik Berglund, Jori Lehtera along with vet D Jay Bouwmeester and Barret Jackman. The Wild counter with Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek and Mikko Koivu. While not as talented, they boast good depth in Mikael Granlund, Nino Ninoreitter, Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle. Ryan Suter anchors the blueline with help from Jonas Brodin, Matthew Dumba and Marco Scandella. This is a tough one to call.
Series Prediction: Blues in 7
(C2) Predators vs (C3) Blackhawks
Series Outlook: For most of the season, the Predators were one of the NHL’s biggest surprises. Led by Calder candidate Filip Forsberg and Vezina candidate Pekka Rinne, they had a great turnaround under coach Peter Laviolette. Eventually, the league caught up. Can Nashville finally overcome their nemesis Chicago in a heavyweight series? Or is it just too much with Patrick Kane putting on his cape for Game 1?
Analysis: The Preds still feature a better blueline anchored by Shea Weber and my Norris darkhorse Roman Josi. They’re loaded thanks to Seth Jones, Ryan Ellis along with vets Anton Volchenkov and Cody Franson assuming he can go. Mike Ribeiro centers the top line with the ultra talented Forsberg and James Neal, who was banged up late. Scoring could be a issue if they don’t get help from Craig Smith, Colin Wilson and Mike Fisher. They might need an unsung hero like Calle Jarnkrok or Mattias Ekholm to step up. When you face the Hawks, it’s Jonathan Toews and Kane leading a skilled core that includes Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Brandon Saad and battle tested Brad Richards. Don’t forget Andrew Shaw, Bryan Bickell, Antoine Vermette or Kris Versteeg. The back end isn’t great but still boasts Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Kimmo Timonen. There’s also Corey Crawford, who put together a outstanding season. This could prove a difficult task for the Preds.
Series Prediction: Blackhawks in 7
PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS: Second Round And Beyond
Eastern Conference Semifinals
(1) Rangers over (2) Capitals in 7
(2) Lightning over (1) Canadiens in 6
Eastern Conference Final
(1) Rangers over (2) Lightning in 7
Western Conference Semifinals
(8) Jets over (3) Flames in 6
(1) Blues over (3) Blackhawks in 7
Western Conference Final
(1) Blues over (8) Jets in 6
Stanley Cup Final
(1) Rangers over (1) Blues in 7
Conn Smythe-Rick Nash, Rangers