After 82 regular season games, 16 teams remain to play for the Stanley Cup. This is the most intriguing playoffs in sports, last two months of intense hockey action on almost a nightly basis. Last year the Chicago Blackhawks celebrated a Stanley Cup win for the third time in the last six seasons. Who will be celebrating this year? Here is this writer's preview and predictions of all the first round matchups all the way through the Stanley Cup Final.
Dallas Stars vs Minnesota Wild
The Stars owned the season series this year, winning four of five games. Three of the games went to overtime or shootout, and the Stars won all of them. The Stars are most likely going to get Tyler Seguin back for this series, which further expands the edge in speed and skill the Stars have on the Wild.
Dallas played well down the stretch even without their number one center, going 8-2 without Seguin. On the other side Minnesota faltered down the stretch, winning just six of their last 13 games, including losing their last five regular season games. The improved defense of the Stars was on display all year and they will prevent the Wild from getting many scoring chances. The only way the Wild win this series is if Devan Dubnyk plays the best hockey he’s ever played and the Stars goaltending, which has been fairly good as of late, falters.
Stars win in five.
St. Louis Blues vs Chicago Blackhawks
These two teams have the second and tied for third highest point totals in the west, yet here they are playing each other in the first round. These two bitter rivals are no stranger to one another, particularly in playoff situations. Familiarity breeds contempt, and that’s exactly what these two have. They also have two of the best scoring wingers in the league in Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko, so I imagine these two will produce some high scoring games.
The Blues had a chance to win the division on the last day of their season, and laid an egg on their home ice against the Washington Capitals. The good news is, they are starting to get healthy and Chicago will be missing Duncan Keith for the first game of the series. Moreover, Corey Crawford just came back from injury and did not look good in the regular season finale against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Meanwhile, the Blues should be getting defenseman Jay Bouwmeester and forward Robby Fabbri back for the start of the series and will need to seize upon the rust of Crawford and absence of Keith to win this series. It’s really close to call, so when in doubt pick the Blackhawks.
Blackhawks win in seven.
Anaheim Ducks vs Nashville Predators
The three meetings they played were all in October and November when the Ducks were languishing at the bottom of the league standings. How things have changed. Since Christmas the Ducks have gone 34-10-5, earning 73 of a possible 98 points (74.49%), which is roughly the pace the Capitals had all season. Meanwhile, the Predators enter the playoffs on uneven terrain, having won just two of their last seven games.
The Ducks have the top special teams in the league, first in both penalty kill and power play. They also led the league in goals against with just 192. They struggled for the first 2+ months to put the puck in the net, particularly struggling without top center Ryan Getzlaf, who missed time to injury. But with him healthy, Corey Perry has returned to form and Jakob Silfverberg has stepped up lately, scoring four goals and dishing out three assists in the last seven games. The Predators are a solid team, anchored by a defensive group led by leading scorer Roman Josi and captain Shea Weber, but even with 30+ goal scorers in Filip Forsberg and James Neal as well as a long awaited #1 center in trade acquisition Ryan Johansen, it won’t be enough in this series.
Ducks win in six.
Los Angeles Kings vs San Jose Sharks
The Sharks have the look of one of those teams you don’t want to see in the first round. In fact, there is a compelling argument for the Sharks to win this series. They are going to be out to avenge their loss in the first round two years ago when they had a 3-0 lead and lost it as the Kings went on to win the Cup. They are the best road team in the league, in fact they play better away from their home ice than they do on it. They won the season series with the Kings 3-1-1 and the Kings faltered over the last month or so of the season, going 4-6-1 since March 21. They had a chance to seal up the Pacific division and blew a 3-0 lead at home to the Winnipeg Jets. Getting smothered by the Capitals like the Blues did is one thing but what the Kings did is inexcusable.
Still, the Kings have a great deal of moxie and experience that will come in handy here. They are one of the hardest teams in the league to score against and as we saw in the Super Bowl, defense beats offense. This series will go the distance, and will pit a great home team against a great road team. How to chose? There is a principle involved (well two actually, they just happen to go together)—when in doubt pick the Kings, don’t pick the Sharks.
Kings win in seven, with Drew Doughty scoring the winning goal.
Dallas Stars vs Chicago Blackhawks
The Stars dominated the season series with the Blackhawks but the playoffs are a different animal. While there is some playoff experience with Jason Spezza from his days in Ottawa, Seguin won a Stanley Cup in Boston (though he was not a main part of the team), Antti Niemi won one with Chicago in 2010 and then former Blackhawks (as in last season) Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya bring some championship pedigree to Dallas.
However, if there is a team out there who can flip the switch come playoff time, it’s the Blackhawks. With Crawford back in sync after more games back, he will be able to carry the load against the high powered offense of the Stars. The issue is going to be defensive depth for the Blackhawks, as the Stars ate up Chicago’s third pair all year. After Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson there is something to be desired on Chicago’s blue line. However, the goaltending of the Stars has been up and down all season and with the highest scoring player in the league in Patrick Kane and other seasoned veterans, I think Chicago finds a way, but Dallas is more than capable of winning and this could be one of the top series of the postseason.
Blackhawks win in seven.
Anaheim Ducks vs Los Angeles Kings
After a grueling series with the Sharks, the Kings roll into the second round with tired legs. For fans of high scoring hockey, this is not the series for you. This is going to be a slugfest between two bitter rivals that share a city and allow the fewest and third fewest goals in the league.The Kings won two Stanley Cups in large part because they had great center depth. Anze Kopitar led the top line with Jeff Carter and Mike Richards behind him. But Richards is gone and Carter scored his fewest goals since 2011-12.
The Ducks now have the ability to match up with Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler on the top two lines, capable of shutting down anyone. Behind them Rickard Rackell and Nate Thompson are solid, and they have flexibility on the third line center with guys like Andrew Cogliano also in the fold. John Gibson has been great this season with a 2.07 goals against average and .920 save percentage. While Jonathan Quick has not performed like he did during the two Stanley Cup runs so far this season, he can steal a game or two on his own. But after the way the Kings closed the season, I don’t know if they can match up with a hot Ducks team in this one.
Ducks win in six.
Anaheim Ducks vs Chicago Blackhawks
In a rematch of last year’s championship series, the Blackhawks will be exhausted after two arduous matchups in the first two rounds that go the distance.
Last year the size of the Ducks frustrated the Blackhawks, taking a 3-2 lead before the Blackhawks rallied to win the final two games and the series. Frederik Andersen just couldn’t keep up his stellar play from the start of the series as the series went on and Chicago took advantage. The Ducks also did a good job containing Patrick Kane in that series but in game seven Jonathan Toews showed why he is the captain with two goals that set the tone for game seven. But this time the other captain, Getzlaf, will be the one to take over.
I can only hope for a series as entertaining as last year’s, which included three overtime games and six overtime periods. But this time the Ducks will be able to take advantage of the thinner blue line of the Blackhawks and be able to pull through late in games and close the deal this time.
Ducks win in six.
Philadelphia Flyers vs Washington Capitals
The Capitals have slowed down a bit in the last couple weeks while the Flyers have been surging over the last month. Philadelphia has won 15 of their last 23 games while the Caps got a comfortable lead in the division (and the entire league for that matter) and have been on somewhat of cruise control since winning the President’s Trophy. Still, I think this is arguably the worst matchup in the first round for the Caps.
This young Flyers team is gritty with seasoned veterans mixed in with young talent. They played three one goal games in their last three against the Caps, winning two of them. Despite their favorable results, the Caps are just too good. But expect the Flyers to give them all they can handle in this series.
Capitals win in seven.
New York Rangers vs Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins are arguably the hottest team in the NHL entering the postseason. They won eight of their last ten games even though they missed Evgeni Malkin and played without Marc Andre-Fleury for a number of games. What will get really dicey for the Penguins is if Matt Murray is unable to go and Jeff Zatkoff will enter the playoffs as the starter. However, the Rangers have injury concerns of their own as they will be without defensemen Ryan McDonagh, their captain, and Dan Girardi.
The Rangers have ousted the Penguins from the playoffs each of the last two seasons, but this time around things will be different. The Penguins have found speed and scoring from all four lines, and are as fast if not faster than the Rangers and are more skilled. The Penguins dominated the season series, winning three of four, scoring 12 goals in the three wins. They will get revenge for the last two years in this series.
Penguins win in six.
New York Islanders vs Florida Panthers
These two teams have the longest steaks without a playoff series win. The Isles haven’t won one since 1993 and the Panthers since 1996. A lot of people are dishing on the Panthers right now, saying that it’d be easier to play them than the Penguins. But this is a savvy group with experienced veterans in Jaromir Jagr, Jiri Hudler and others mixed with talented young players like Aaron Ekblad and Jonathan Huberdeau and they have an experienced goalie in Roberto Luongo. Meanwhile, the Islanders are going to be starting a goalie in Thomas Greiss with just 108 career starts since entering the league in 07-08 with the Sharks. He has been a career backup who was forced into action for a large part of this season with the injury to Jaroslav Halak.
The Isles defense has been much better this season, but they won’t be able to hold back the attack of the Panthers, who had nine players score double digit goals for them (including Brandon Pirri, who is now with the Ducks), with trade acquisitions Hudler and Teddy Purcell scoring in double digits for the year. Others might say the Atlantic division wasn’t very good, but the Panthers played really well against the Metropolitan division this season with a record of 15-4-5. This Panthers team is for real and all the doubt is just going to put a bigger chip on the shoulders of this team.
Panthers win in six.
Detroit Red Wings vs Tampa Bay Lightning
This Lightning team is really banged up right now. Steven Stamkos is out for the playoffs, as is one of their top blue liners in Anton Stralman. The good news is that Victor Hedman, their top defenseman and Nikita Kucherov, their top scorer, should be back, even if they are not 100%. Ben Bishop has had an excellent year, and he will be relied on even more in this series.
The news came that this is the last stand for Pavel Datsyuk, who will leave the Red Wings at the end of the season and return to his native Russia to finish out his career. I think that is going to be extra motivation for the Wings and getting revenge for last season’s first round loss at the hands of the Lightning will give the Wings that extra edge to pull through this time.
Red Wings win in six.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs Washington Capitals
The Capitals know this feeling all too well. They make it to the second round but can’t make that final push over the edge. This time it will be different. They will shred the weakened defense of the Penguins and frustrate Fleury, if he is back for this series.
It comes down to Braden Holtby. The overwhelming Veniza favorite tied the NHL record for most wins by a goalie in a single season with 48, and he will need to be on his best against Sidney Crosby and a team in Pittsburgh that can roll four lines. I think he’s up to the task.
Capitals win in six.
Detroit Red Wings vs Florida Panthers
The Panthers young players will receive baptism by fire in this series, having to work for everything against an experienced Red Wings squad. Detroit will keep these games close but ultimately the Panthers have more talent and it will show. They have a better set of blue liners and an edge in goal and arguably a deeper set of forwards, even though they don’t have as many big names.
Datsyuk will score three goals to keep the Wings in this series but ultimately Jagr will win the battle of wily veterans still going strong. But with so much young talent on the Panthers and a Wings squad led into the future by Dylan Larkin, these two teams are going to see plenty of one another in the coming years.
Panthers win in five.
Florida Panthers vs Washington Capitals
After two hard fought series in the first two rounds for both squads, both will be tired coming into this matchup. The Panthers took all three games in the regular season, but Holtby did not play in any of them.
That said, fatigue of playing two long series before this one will set in at the end of this series for the Capitals. Their dynamic scorers in Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov will be frustrated by the size of the Florida defense and skilled two way forwards. Luongo gets another shot at winning a Stanley Cup.
Panthers win in seven, but it will go to overtime and the winning goal will be scored by Jonathan Huberdeau.
Stanley Cup Finals
Florida Panthers vs Anaheim Ducks
Southern California vs. Southern Florida. Not exactly a hockey lover’s Stanley Cup. Still, this will be a sensational series between two teams that play good old-fashioned hockey.
Goals will be hard to come by in this series as two tough teams match wits. While the Panthers did not have a 30 goal scorer, Alexander Barkov came close with 28 goals in 66 games. Had he been healthy there is no doubt that he would have made it to 30. These two teams are very evenly matched on both ends. While Gibson has had a better season than Luongo in net, the Panthers net minder has more experience. Both teams have experienced forwards, but both blue lines are very young. These two teams almost mirror one another. The difference in this series will be coaching, where Bruce Boudreau has more experience than Gerard Gallant.
Ducks win in seven.