New York Rangers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins: These are two teams heading in opposite directions. The Rangers are going up right now, jumping ahead of the crowded pack in the Metropolitan division and winning the President’s Trophy. Even when Henrik Lundqvist was out, the rest of the team picked up their performance and they kept on rolling. This team looks to have a chip on their shoulder and are playing like they are out for blood after what happened in last year’s finals-blowing leads in multiple games they could have won. On the other hand, the Penguins were painful to watch over the last few weeks of the season. They sputtered into the playoffs and lucked out enough to get the Sabres on the last day of the regular season and get the necessary two points to make it into the playoffs. They are beat up—now without Kris Letang and more of their depleted blue line group. In the playoffs Marc Andre-Fluery generally turns into a turnstile, and if that happens again they have no shot at winning this series, no matter how good Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can play. For a team that just got in, they won’t be in the playoffs long. Rangers in four.
Washington Capitals vs. New York Islanders: Ah, the most interesting series of the first round. Both teams finished with 101 points, with the Caps getting home ice advantage in the series. The season series between the two was fairly even, making this a really hard series to predict. On one hand, the Caps are solid all around, finishing the top 10 in goals per game, goals allowed per game, penalty kill and power play. However, so did the St. Louis Blues last season and they were bounced in the first round. This Islanders team is an exciting one to watch. John Tavares is a bona fide Superstar and he has played at an MVP level this season. With him leading the offense and a revitalized blueline bolstered by the offseason acquisitions of Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy, they have been able to provide some protection for Jaroslav Halak. This series comes down to who performs better in net, and Halak has been there before while Braden Holtby really hasn’t. It goes seven games, but the Islanders pull it out. They’re due for a playoff series win after all these years anyway.
Montreal Canadiens vs. Ottawa Senators: These two teams met in the playoffs two years ago with Ottawa winning in five games. While these are two different teams than they were in 2013, some things remain the same. The Senators just cause matchup problems with their speed for the grind-it-out style of the Canadiens. Furthermore the Senators are just insanely hot right now, having just tore it up over the last couple months of the season behind Andrew Hammond to steal a spot in the postseason. There is no reason why they can’t keep rolling here, even against the best goaltender in the league in Carey Price. The player to keep an eye on in this series is Mark Stone for Ottawa. He has been tearing it up recently and will probably draw a lot of attention from P.K. Subban in this series. But, it will free up other guys like Bobby Ryan and Kyle Turris to make plays and steal this series. Senators in six.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Detroit Red Wings: The Detroit Red Wings are the staple of consistency in all American sports right now. 24 straight playoff appearances is simply outstanding. But alas, this one will not last long. They have struggled in net—Jimmy Howard has not played up to his talent, which is leading Mike Babcock to start the series with Petr Mrazek in goal…against the highest scoring team in the NHL. More than just Steven Stamkos the whole lineup has gotten in on the act this season. Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherev and Valterri Filpulla have become a great set of forwards and after their humiliating performance in last year’s playoffs without Ben Bishop in net, the Lightning will be out for redemption in this series. They owned the season series with Detroit and they will take this series in six games.
Anaheim Ducks vs. Winnipeg Jets: Yet again Anaheim racked up a bunch of regular season points and the top seed in the conference. Now all eyes are on them to see what they do with it. They dominated the Jets in the regular season, winning all three games. Will they play inspired or just kinda go through the motions like they did against a scrappy Dallas Stars team like they did in the first round last year? If they do, they could be in trouble. But fortunately for them this Winnipeg team does not present the challenge that Dallas did—Dallas was a team that relied on speed and went nonstop, but the Jets are a more defensive minded team that tries to slow the game down and grind it out. The Jets have a young goaltender in Ondrej Pavalec that is getting his first taste of the postseason, along with a lot of these players for Winnipeg. The Ducks will certainly be up for the challenge this time. Ducks in five.
Vancouver Canucks vs. Calgary Flames: This is probably the most uninspiring series in the first round for me, probably because neither looks capable of winning anything more than this series. This series will go the full seven, just because these two teams are so mediocre that neither will be able to establish an edge. While the Canucks have a lot more experience, the Flames arguably have the better goaltender, which is key in a series like this. But Eddie Lack has come on this season, being a serviceable net minder himself. The young and energetic Flames, led by young guys in Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau as well as 30 goal scorer Jiri Hudler, will give the Canucks all they can handle but ultimately the Sedins will end up making enough plays to lead Vancouver to victory on their home ice in game seven.
St. Louis Blues vs. Minnesota Wild: This will be a physical, smash mouth series that exemplifies what playoff hockey is all about. The Wild were left for dead in the bottom of the central division at midseason, but since acquiring Devan Dubnyk they rose all the way into the playoff race. Their offense has really picked up, they are now in the top half of the league in goals scored and always had great defense in front of their goalie. They certainly can pull this upset—they were one team that could potentially be a dark horse in the western conference. But alas, they fall in seven. The Blues finally get a first round matchup with someone other than Los Angeles or Chicago, and they know they have to take advantage. Brian Elliot is a better goaltender and they have a bunch of new forwards to make plays—this is when they need to step up. Paul Stastny first and foremost. Jori Lehtera and Dimitry Jaskin are experiencing their first taste of the NHL playoffs, and they will need to adjust quickly to prevent the Wild from pulling an upset. This is going to be a fun series.
Nashville Predators vs. Chicago Blackhawks: Chicago dominated the season series between the two teams, all played before Patrick Kane went down with his injury on February 24th. Now, they will have Kane for this series after it looked like he might be out for the season. It might be enough to get the Blackhawks out of their funk that plagued them over the last couple weeks of the season, destroying any chance for them to take the central division at the end. But the Predators have been just as cold heading into the playoffs. Since clinching a playoff spot they have a losing record, and have barely been a .500 team since the all-star break. If they are going to advance, they will need a stellar performance from Pekka Rinne, who has been somewhat unsteady in his playoff appearances so far. Furthermore they can't match up with Chicago down the middle with Jonathan Toews, Antoine Vermette, and Andrew Shaw down the middle. Peter Laviolette has done a great job with a lot of aging centers this season but they won’t be able to cut it in this series, particularly against Chicago’s defense, arguably the best in the league. Blackhawks in six.
The Rest of the Playoffs
New York Rangers vs. New York Islanders: This will be a fun series between two teams with great speed who like to fly up and down the ice. But the Rangers experience and better goaltending make the difference. Rangers in six.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Ottawa Senators: While the Senators will have an edge over Montreal with their speed, they will not have that in this series. The Lightning are more skilled and faster offensively, have better defense and better goaltending. Bolts in five.
New York Rangers vs. Tampa Bay Lightning: This will be an enthralling series. Both teams have a lot of speed and have great goaltending and very skilled defensemen. The Lightning took the season series, but those games were all early in the season. These are two different teams now, and this Tampa team has little experience together this team in the postseason. The experience last year will provide an edge for the Rangers as they take game seven on their home ice.
Anaheim Ducks vs. Vancouver Canucks: While there is some concern to be had over how the Ducks have underachieved in the playoffs in recent years, this writer can’t see them dropping this series against a team they’re just that much better than. The Canucks have some savvy veterans that will give the Ducks a challenge, but the Ducks prevail in six.
St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks: Ultimately if the Blues are going to make a run they are going to have to get past Chicago. Do they have the playmaking ability on offense to finally crack Chicago’s D? Yours truly just doesn't think so. Particularly with Kane back—the Blackhawks had the upper hand in the season series when Kane played. This series goes the distance but Chicago wins.
Anaheim Ducks vs. Chicago Blackhawks: The Ducks get to the conference finals fairly unencumbered but will be in for a stiffer test than they have faced to this point. The Ducks we are used to seeing come out in this series and the Blackhawks will simply outwork and outplay the Ducks as they return to the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in three years.
Stanley Cup Final
New York Rangers vs. Chicago Blackhawks: This should be a fascinating series. Will the Rangers learn from their mistakes last year and be able to finish games this time around instead of letting them slip away? This writer thinks so. After a defeat that bitter last year, the Rangers will be a different team this time around. This series will feature some great individual matches—Rick Nash and Patrick Kane, two of the best scoring wingers in the league, Jonathan Toews, the best center in the league and a guy who has carried them a lot of this season, vs. Henrik Lundqvist, obviously one of the finest goaltenders in the league, and two former Arizona teammates in Keith Yandle and Antoine Vermette, now on opposite sides of this series. We haven’t had a Stanley Cup Final with an intense seventh game since 2009 when the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Red Wings to win their first Cup since the early 90’s, and they were the last team to win the Cup after losing in the Finals the previous season. But we get both of those again as the Rangers win a thriller on their home ice in game seven to win their first cup since the early 90’s.