It’s time for playoff hockey and thankfully this year the NHL is going to wrap its season up before the temps reach triple digits and we’ve all got our minds on the beach and sun, not the ice. Last year’s playoffs were great, but the season’s butchered schedule caused hockey to go well into the summer, not the ideal time to tune into the “coolest game on earth”. We’ve got a little of everything in 2014, including the two most dominant teams of the last three years, Chicago and Boston, fighting for a possible rematch for Lord Stanley’s Cup, but it’s not going to be easy. The Eastern Conference is still home to the greatest hockey player on the planet and likely MVP Sidney Crosby, an upstart Columbus Blue Jackets team making its second playoff appearance in franchise history, one sole Canadian team…the Canadiens, the return of the Tampa Bay Lightning and of course, the evil empire themselves, the Red Wings. It won’t be any easier for Chicago, who play rival St. Louis in the first round. Anaheim skated their way to the top seed as the Avalanche fell just short in the first year of Patrick Roy’s time at the helm. Fierce rivals Los Angeles and San Jose will meet again in a rematch of one of last year’s most entertaining series and the Wild and Stars have the opportunity to play spoiler and shake the entire bracket up.
With the puck dropping tonight, it’s time to look at our first round match-ups and make some predictions on who will be hoisting The Cup, in Place To Be Nation’s 2014 NHL Playoff preview!
Boston Bruins (President’s Cup Winner) vs. Detroit Red Wings
Boston went on a tear this season, thanks to their impressive size and balance on offense and defense. When you can say you’re in the top 3 in both goals for and goals against, that’s always a good thing. Boston heads into this series with its most powerful weapons ready to go, including superstars Jarome Iginla and Patrice Bergeron pushing the puck forward. In net, the Bruins have Tukka Rask, the NHL’s leader in shutouts, he’s aided by one of the best defensemen in the league, Zdeno Chara, the Norris hopeful is also equally deadly on offense, scoring 17 goals this season. Detroit comes into this series having salvaged the season enough to reach the playoffs for the 23rd consecutive season. Last year, Detroit shook things up as an underdog upsetting #2 seed Anaheim in the first round. Do they have it in them this year? The Wings are a fast, athletic team that will have to rely on their proven stars like Pavel Datsyuk and Daniel Alfredsson to make up for the potential loss of Henrik Zetterberg. Before his injury on February 8, Zetterberg might have been the team’s best player. It’s unlikely Zetterberg is back for this series and without him, the Red Wings are significantly less talented up front. In the Wings favor is their faithful fans and rowdy arena and the fact that it’s unlikely the Red Wings would ever fall flat on their back and give up. There’s going to be too much for the Wings to overcome, but they should at least snag a game in this series. Prediction: Boston in 5
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Montreal Canadiens
This is potentially the conference’s most exciting series, with two fast, athletic teams that excel on different ends of the rink. Tampa Bay, headlined by perennial All-Star and highlight reel Steven Stamkos are top 10 in scoring and very efficient on the power play. The departure of franchise hero Martin St. Louis in favor of Rangers favorite Ryan Callahan has worked well for Tampa. Callahan’s arrival was timed perfectly with the return of Stamkos from injury and since the two have played on the same ice, the Lightning have looked dominant. There will be serious questions surrounding the team this series, however. RW Ryan Malone was arrested for DUI and possession of cocaine a week before the playoffs and goalie Ben Bishop will at least miss the first game of the series against Montreal. For the Canadiens, the name of the game is defense as Les Habitants are #8 in the NHL in goals against and #4 in the penalty kill. Montreal’s defensive prowess is led by the enigmatic P.K. Subban (who also leads the team in assists) and the help of Andrei Markov. The real star of the Habs defense is goaltender Carey Price, who, on top of another medal with Canada in the Winter Olympics, will likely find himself in Vezina trophy discussions at year’s end. The difference in this match-up is who shows up, and when? The frantic style of Tampa Bay has stifled opponents all season, but many of the younger Lightning players outside of Stamkos and Callahan will have never experienced the sort of atmosphere they’ll face in Montreal. Still, Montreal’s offensive woes are worth noting, the team is near the bottom of the league in scoring. I’ll give the advantage to the home team in what should be a fun series to watch, thanks to the potential of Stamkos to dominate a game 7 at home. Prediction: Lightning in 7.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Any discussion on the Pittsburgh Penguins begins with Sidney Crosby, perhaps the best player the NHL has seen since Gretzky. Crosby’s 104 points make him the runaway favorite for the Hart Trophy, but the most important player for the Penguins might be Evgeni Malkin. Crosby’s partner in crime and former Hart winner will likely be back in action for the first game of the series. Malkin hasn’t played since the end of March and having two MVP caliber players on the same roster is an obvious advantage for any team. The Penguins’ biggest question mark is likely goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury has been one of the better netminders this season, putting together what is probably the best effort of his career, certainly since being named an All-Star in 2011. It’s not the regular season that has fans worried about Fleury…it’s what happens now. Fleury was benched last season against the Islanders and has been wildly inconsistent to downright awful in the playoffs. The Blue Jackets are making their second ever playoff appearance in perhaps the franchise’s best season. Unfortunately for Columbus, they ended the season playing four games in five nights. They’re also coming into the series without Nathan Horton. Still, there’s reason to be optimistic for Columbus. This year has been a coming out party for Ryan Johansen, the 21 year old scored 33 goals this season en route to becoming one of the game’s most promising young stars. The Jackets are likely strongest in goal, with reigning Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky. The Russian might have been disappointed in Sochi, but he’s been stellar overall this season in the NHL. In the first round, it’s not impossible for a goalie standing on his head to turn the tide for a lesser team, which, by most estimations, Columbus is in this series. Pittsburgh will prove too strong at forward and too experienced for the Jackets. Still, the difference in goal and the ability for Columbus to play better than the sum of their parts will make things a little tense. Prediction: Penguins in 6.
New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers
Depending on what sort of hockey you like, this might be your most or least favorite series. Both teams have made their names playing tough, hard nosed hockey, but like the Tampa/Montreal series, both excel on opposite ends of the spectrum this year. New York has yet to see the full realization of Martin St. Louis in a Ranger uniform, but there’s no better time than against a traditional rival like Philly. Likewise, they’ve got another big, proven commodity in Rick Nash that’s frustrated fans at times this year, particularly on New York’s weak power play. New York is best on defense, anchored by Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal. Both are premier defensemen, among the NHL’s best. Behind them is Henrik Lundqvist, a household name among puckheads who’s coming into the playoffs off of a very strong second half. On the other side of the circle is Philadelphia. The Broad Street Bullies are one of the league’s better offensive squads, top 10 in both goals per game and power play percentage. The catalyst for the Flyers offense is captain Claude Giroux, who’s 28 goals are eclipsed by his tremendous 58 assists. Sean Couturier is one of the best two way forwards in the game and Philly will need his skills, for as strong as they are on offense (including having a 20 goal scorer Vincent Lecavalier on the fourth line) they’re equally as bad in the rear. Kimmo Timonen has had a very good career, but at age 39, he’s nearing the end of his days as a true star. Braydon Coburn is solid, but there’s significant dropoff after Timonen. Most importantly, the Flyers play tough, bruising hockey, but it’s a style that’s conducive to penalty minutes, lapses in judgement and errors that could cost the team greatly in the playoffs. Without home ice advantage, it’s important for the Flyers to play smart, don’t let the Rangers make up for their lesser forwards by spending too much time in the box. In the end, the Rangers will grind one out in one of the more beautifully ugly series you may ever see. Prediction: Rangers in 6.
Anaheim Ducks vs. Dallas Stars
Anaheim grabbed the top seed in the West when it seemed as nobody else wanted it. At various points in the season, any combination of the Ducks, Avalanche or Blues seemed like they were squarely in control of the conference, but it wasn’t until the end that Anaheim ended up on top by a single win. Ryan Getzlaf is the closest player in points (87) to Sidney Crosby (104). While that speaks to Crosby’s greatness, it also speaks to the type of season Getzlaf has had this year. He’s notched 31 goals with an impressive 56 assists, the stat line of dreams for a center (not named Crosby). The Ducks don’t stop at Getzlaf, they’ve also got the explosive Corey Perry who netted 43 goals this season. Anaheim scored more goals than any team in the NHL this season and were 9th in goals against. Part of the team’s surprising defense has been rookie superstar Hampus Lindholm, the 20 year old is one of the best stories of the year. Dallas is no slouch shooting the puck either, cracking the top 10 in goal scoring this year. The team is led by Tyler Seguin, in his first year with the Stars he’s led the team in goals (37) and assists (47). The biggest difference in this series could be in goal. For as great a team as Anaheim’s been, they’ve seen some up and down performances lately out of goalie Jonas Hiller. The Stars have to be happy with how Kari Lehtonen has been in between the pipes lately, but he’s somehow yet to play Anaheim this year. It is not a great time to be going against the Ducks cold. Prediction: Anaheim in 5.
San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings
This match-up was one of the most fun series in last year’s playoffs and we’re treated to it again this year in the first round. The Sharks have been a Western Conference staple in the playoffs, but have never seemed to put it together when it counts. Los Angeles resurfaced out of obscurity in the late 2000s and after winning it all in 2011, they haven’t looked back. Last year, the Kings had the favor of a game 7 at home, this year, the tables are turned. When two teams dislike each other as much as the Kings and Sharks, home ice could mean everything. The Sharks are likely the superior team this year, but can they overcome their past failures in the playoffs? The Sharks have one of the NHL’s best goal scorers in Joe Pavelski. They’ve got the guy to distribute the puck with Joe Thornton and his insane 65 assists. This combination, along with promising young stars like Tomas Hertl gave the Sharks the league’s 6th highest scoring offense this year. San Jose has some reason to be nervous in goal with Antti Niemi. Niemi has had a slight drop-off from his tremendous 2012-2013 season, but still has the potential to control the game at any given time. For Los Angeles, the name of the game is defense. They’ll need strong defenders like Drew Doughty, Willie Mitchell and Jake Muzzin to play as well as they have all season. If the Kings’ blue line does just that, they could have the best group of defensemen in the field. They’ve also got one of the best goalies in the entire field between the pipes. Jonathan Quick might be the most important player for Los Angeles if they want to advance. The Kings are one of the weakest offenses in the entire playoffs, East or West, but they’ve got the tools on the blue line to get it done. Any offensive magic from Los Angeles will be at the hands of the criminally underrated Anze Kopitar, the team’s most potent offensive threat. They’ll need to hold tight against Pavelski & Co. and expose San Jose’s weak depth after their first two lines. Prediction: Kings in 7.
Colorado Avalanche vs. Minnesota Wild
Colorado came out of nowhere this year and became one of the best stories in hockey, largely thanks to the legendary Patrick Roy in his first season as head coach. Roy had the Avalanche *this close* to taking Anaheim’s spot in the playoffs but like many others, fell just short. Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov could very well win the Vezina Trophy this year and is up there with Jonathan Quick as one of the best goalies in this year’s playoff field. Nathan MacKinnon tied the rookie record for goals (24) at age 18 and is likely a cornerstone of the franchise over the next decade. Matt Duchene leads the team in points (70) and assists (47)…it’s unfortunate for the Avalanche that he’ll miss the series against Minnesota. As will John Mitchell, Cody McLeod, Jan Hejda, Tyson Barrie and Cory Sarich. The injury bug couldn’t come at a worse time, but the loss of Duchene might be too much to overcome to continue Colorado’s dream season. The depleted offense will need Paul Stastny to step up on offense in a big way. For Minnesota, they’ll need to find a way to score, which is going to be easier said than done against Varlamov. For as strong a team as they are on defense, thanks to superstars like Ryan Suter, the Wild are lacking firepower and have difficulty putting the puck into the net. This means big time players like Zach Parise and leading scorer Jason Pominville will need to turn the lights on. Both teams are awful in penalty kill, a stat that might be the difference in what’s now a closer series than it appears thanks to Colorado’s injuries. I think the inexperience and injuries of Colorado may be too much to overcome, mostly due to the loss of Duchene. Prediction: Wild in 7.
St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks
We’re treated to some great rivalries and match-ups in the first round this year and St. Louis vs. Chicago is no exception. The rivalry might not mean much to those who aren’t fans of either team, but it will only take a couple of minutes of play to see the animosity between the two and feel the raucous crowds that will fill the arenas in both cities. Like so many others, this series is a tale of two teams on very different paths. The Blues spent most of this season at an all time high, dominating the Western Conference, until the Olympics, then Ryan Miller came, and somehow everything turned south. Adding Ryan Miller was supposed to be the final piece of the puzzle, the spark that finally drove St. Louis to the Cup. What’s happened since then is a flurry of injuries that has them limping into a showdown with the champs regaining their two most important players. There’s high hopes that TJ Oshie, Patrik Berglund, David Backes, Alex Pietrangelo, Vladimir Sobotka, Vladimir Tarasenko, Barret Jackman and Brenden Marrow make their return in time for Game 1, or at some point in the series. As it stands, that’s a pretty impressive list of injuries to almost all of the team’s key players. The ones who have lived to see another day, like Jay Bouwmeester represent what’s made the Blues such a great team at times this season. The Blues are incredibly strong on defense and if they can get the return of investment they’re expecting from former Vezina winner and Team USA legend Miller, they can take this series, and much more. The problem for Blues fans will be, do you hedge your bet on all of those players returning and playing at 110%? The Blackhawks find themselves in a similar situation. It’s been a frustrating season for the Hawks, but much of that is hopefully, for Chicago fans, due to the injuries to Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. They’ll get both back in time for the playoffs and if healthy, both are the two best players in the series. Their return will only make the jobs of formidable defensemen Duncan Keith and Jonny Oduya easier, the Blackhawks sport a similarly elite defensive unit like St. Louis. Winning this series would be a huge monkey off the Blues’ backs, but the returning firepower on Chicago might prove too much. If the Blues want to take this series, they’ll have to hope for top health and Chicago’s Corey Crawford living up to his so-so reputation in goal and Ryan Miller playing his ‘A’ game. Prediction: Chicago in 6.
Boston Bruins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning: Boston in 5
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Rangers: Penguins in 7
Anaheim Ducks vs. Los Angeles Kings: Ducks in 6
Minnesota Wild vs. Chicago Blackhawks: Blackhawks in 5
Boston Bruins vs. Pittsburgh Penguins: Boston in 6
Anaheim Ducks vs. Chicago Blackhawks: Chicago in 7
STANLEY CUP FINAL:
Boston Bruins vs. Chicago Blackhawks: Boston in 6
The size, depth and balance of a lethal offense and stout defense proves too strong for the Blackhawks and Boston gets revenge. There’s plenty of room for upsets and madness in this year’s playoffs. The difference in series like St. Louis vs. Chicago, Minnesota vs. Colorado, Montreal and Tampa Bay are razor thin. Outside of Boston, there shouldn’t be a definitive favorite this year in the field. And, it’s never wise to bet the house on the President’s Cup winner, no matter how dominant they may seem. Will this go against Boston’s favor once the action starts and the play on the ice is all that matters? One thing is for sure, the NHL playoffs never disappoint, so there’s going to be a little something for everyone to enjoy.
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