By Ryan Stieg, AllPuck.com
May is my favorite time of year. College hockey wrapped up a few weeks ago, the AHL playoffs are under way and most importantly, the NHL playoffs have begun.
Just a few months ago, amidst the constant bickering and endless debate over a new labor agreement, I didn’t think any of us would be watching playoff hockey. Now that it has begun, I have a feeling it’s going to be just as unpredictable as last year. Did anybody see Los Angeles and Phoenix battling for a bid in the Stanley Cup Finals, or New Jersey getting on an impressive roll at the right time? As I write this, six of the eight opening NHL playoff series have begun, so I’m a little behind. So before Game 2 starts, here are my first round predictions.
Chicago vs. Minnesota
Some see this series as a cakewalk for the Blackhawks. Based on how the ‘Hawks have played this year — especially with that 24-game unbeaten streak — I understand the thinking. Chicago has a stacked offense with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, and goaltender Corey Crawford has dramatically improved from last season where he was the weak link on the team. The Wild aren’t a typical eighth seed, though. With all of the press the Blackhawks have had, it’s easy to forget that Minnesota picked up the two most sought-after free agents on the market, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Parise developed into the team leader in points and goals, and Suter led the team in assists and was third in points. Veteran Mikko Koivu (37 points) also provides an offensive spark. Niklas Backstrom is still a solid goaltender (despite what some people in the Twin Cities might think) and he counters Crawford well. I think this one’s going down to the wire. All in all, the teams are evenly matched and both arenas are going to be loud. Minnesota looks set to be a Cup contender, but not this year. Chicago wins 4-3.
Anaheim vs. Detroit
Like the University of Michigan, Detroit’s NHL franchise has accumulated a long streak of playoff appearances. Whereas the Wolverines’ streak ended this year, the Red Wings extended theirs to 22 straight seasons. They may not be the dominant team from a couple of years ago, but the Wings still have talent. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg were point-per-game players, and Johan Franzen was second on the team in goals. Jimmy Howard continues to get better each year in net and can go toe-to-toe with the league’s best. Anaheim came out of nowhere this year. The Ducks exploded out of the gates and never looked back on their way to picking up the number-two seed. Anaheim relies on its big three players a lot, but it’s quite a threesome. Ryan Getzlaf had 49 points, and Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry both had more than 30. Veteran Finns Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu also provided some offensive punch. The goaltending this season was split between Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth, both of whom had solid seasons. There will be an upset in the Western Conference, but it’s not here. Anaheim wins in six.
Vancouver vs. San Jose
Last year, the Canucks were the number one seed and ended up being promptly dismissed by the eventual champion Kings. This year, Vancouver faces the other California team, the Sharks, and will once again have a battle on its hands. The Canucks are again led by the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, who both had more than 40 points. They also have team goals leader Alexandre Burrows as an additional weapon. When it comes to Vancouver though, the focus will be on goaltending. With starter Corey Schneider injured, the Canucks had to turn to their annual trade-bait Roberto Luongo in Game 1. Luongo actually played fairly well, and Vancouver will need him to play consistently if it wants to get past the Sharks. Like the Canucks, the Sharks are a team known for having great regular seasons and then vanishing come playoff time. As usual, San Jose is led by future Hall of Famer Joe Thornton and his 40 points. However, the Sharks have a multitude of veteran players like Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture and Martin Havlat that can light the lamp. Antti Niemi had a good season in net with a 2.16 GAA and .924 save percentage. This is a tough call, but I’m picking the upset. Vancouver’s website has the statement “This is what we live for” on it. I guess what they live for is frequent disappointment. San Jose in six.
St. Louis vs. Los Angeles
This is a matchup between two teams who were hoping for a little more out of their regular seasons. The defending champs and were passed quickly by the Ducks in the standings and had to fight the Sharks to get the fifth seed. The Blues came within a whisker of winning the President’s Trophy last year but struggled at times this year and couldn’t keep up with Chicago. Still, both teams are capable of making a deep run if things go right. St. Louis doesn’t have any superstars or eye-popping stats, but has a balanced offense led by 30-point man Chris Stewart, captain David Backes, winger Alexander Steen and center Patrik Berglund. The Blues were bitten by the injury bug in goal. Brian Elliott, Jaroslav Halak and Jake Allen split time and none of them had a very memorable season. Elliott played strong in Game 1 and seems to be the most reliable of the three right now, but that’s not saying much. While St. Louis doesn’t have star power, the Kings do in top center Anze Kopitar, veteran Justin Williams and team MVP Jeff Carter (Flyers fans must be kicking themselves that management let him get away). The guy really under the microscope for Los Angeles though is goalie Jonathan Quick. Quick had a stellar playoffs last season on his way to the Conn Smythe Trophy. He dropped off slightly this year, but he’s still one of the top five netminders in the league. The stats are pointing me toward the Kings, but I think the Blues end up pulling this one out. They caught Quick making a crucial error in Game 1 and it’s clear that they want to make up for their lackadaisical performance against L.A. last year. St. Louis in seven.
Pittsburgh vs. New York Islanders
Whereas the #1 and #8 matchup in the West will go the limit, this series will be over quickly. The Penguins had a run similar to the Blackhawks’ during this season, making them the team to beat in the East. Pittsburgh has star power with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jarome Iginla, but also 50-point man Chris Kunitz, and 30-point scorers Pascal DuPuis and Kris Letang. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury may not be elite, but he has the ability to steal a game and can shut teams down when the pressure is on. While the Islanders deserve kudos for making the playoffs, they will be overwhelmed by Pittsburgh. New York has talent at the top with 40-point scorers John Tavares and Matt Moulson, but with the exception of Brad Boyes, there’s nobody that Fleury will lose sleep over. Evgeni Nabokov can still bring forth a quality game in net, but he’ll be standing on his head a lot in this series. The Islanders website says “Believe” on the front page. They can believe all they want, it won’t change the fact that they will lose. Pittsburgh in five.
Montreal vs. Ottawa
It’s always fun to see two Canadian teams battle in the playoffs because the atmosphere at the arenas is phenomenal. Unfortunately, I don’t see this one going to the final game. Montreal has an interesting lineup. The casual hockey fan may not recognize a single name. Five were north of 30 points, though, led by Max Pacioretty and P.K. Subban. The net is also in safe hands with Carey Price, who is no Ken Dryden or Patrick Roy, but seems to be getting better each year. Ottawa doesn’t have much going on offense. Nobody broke the 30-point plateau and the Senators might rely on veterans Daniel Alfredsson and Sergei Gonchar. The net is occupied by veteran Craig Anderson, who has some impressive stats this year (1.69 GAA, .941 save percentage), but like Nabokov with the Islanders, he’ll have to come up big to keep Ottawa in the series. He can, but I don’t think he’ll win it for them. Montreal in six.
Washington vs. New York Rangers
This is the marquee matchup in the East, with a legendary franchise taking on a star-laden group of underachievers. The Capitals still have Alex Ovechkin, who was able to get 56 points and 32 goals, while Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro both eclipsed the 40-point mark. Washington’s revolving door of goaltenders has gone on for quite a while, but it seems to finally have the right piece in Braden Holtby, who had a solid year. The Rangers counter with stars like Rick Nash, Brad Richards and Ryan Callahan as well as points and assists leader Derek Stepan. New York also has the edge between the pipes with Henrik Lundqvist, last year’s Vezina Trophy winner. Lundqvist continues to be one of the best in the game, and seeing as the Rangers almost made the Finals last year, I’m sure he’s eager to get them over the hump. Just like the Islanders, New York has plastered “Believe” on its website. Considering the Rangers’ talent, it shouldn’t take much to believe a Cup is possible. I’m going with the better goalie in this one. New York in seven.
Boston vs. Toronto
The final first round matchup is between a pair of Original Six franchises — both with a lot of wins and a lot of disappointments as well (in the case of the Maple Leafs, I think that encompasses the last four decades). Boston is one of few teams that can challenge the Penguins, and it’s due to the fact that that they have four 30-point scorers along with stars Milan Lucic and Zdeno Chara. They don’t have Tim Thomas in net anymore, but Tuukka Rask had a great year (2.00 GAA and .929 save percentage). Toronto can keep up with the Bruins when it comes to offensive talent with Phil Kessel, James Van Riemsdyk and Dion Phaneuf along with 40-point man Nazem Kadri. They also have a capable goalie in James Reimer, who split time with Cornell grad Ben Scrivens. Reimer struggled in Game 1, but I think he’ll bounce back and make this a good series. This is the toughest one in the East to call, and I’ve gone back in forth on it. Toronto’s website slogan is “The passion that unites us all.” I think after this series though, it will be “The depression that unites us all.” Boston in six.