Boston and St. Louis finished second and third in the NHL in goals against per game this season, respectively. Their goaltending is proven, their defensemen unyielding. Now, thanks to a favorable and static bracket (no reseeding!), the Bruins and Blues have the inside track on meeting in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final. But the road will not be easy.
Here is how both conferences break down, series-by-series, ending with B’s on top of the hockey world.
Atlantic Division Opening Round Series Previews
1. Boston (54-19-9) vs. WC2. Detroit (39-28-15)
What does a Presidents’ Trophy earn you these days? How about a first-round matchup with the Detroit Red Wings, who in the postseason for the 23rd consecutive season.
This year will be different. One summer removed from a crushing Stanley Cup Final loss to Chicago, the Boston Bruins are the overwhelming favorite to represent the Eastern Conference again.
Boston finished with 54 wins and 117 points, and excel at every aspect of the game except high-end scoring. The Bruins are tough, faster than expected, roll four solid lines and feature arguably the NHL’s best goaltender this season in Tuukka Rask (36-15-6, 2.04 goals-against average, .930 save percentage). Boston ranks third in goals scored this season, on the back of threats like David Krejci (50 assists, 69 points) and 30-goal scorers Patrice Bergeron and Jarome Iginla.
Where Boston lies weakest is usually the team’s strength: defense. Zdeno Chara is having a remarkable season (17 goals, 40 points) at age 37, after showing some signs of slowing down last year. His supporting cast includes quality blue liners Johnny Boychuk and rookie Torey Krug (14 goals, 40 points), but the absence of Dennis Seidenberg (knee) and perhaps Adam McQuaid (quadriceps) looms large.
With Henrik Zetterberg (back) unlikely to return for this series, Detroit is a less dangerous out than in past years. Pavel Datsyuk (37 points in just 45 games) is a still a clear leader, as are Johan Franzen (41 points in 54 games), defenseman Niklas Kronwall (team-leading 41 assists) and newcomer Daniel Alfredsson, the Red Wings’ surprising leading scorer (31 assists, 49 points). Besides the vets, the players to watch for Detroit are rookie sensations Gustav Nyquist (28 goals and 48 points in 57 games) and Tomas Tatar (39 points). If the Red Wings are to make noise, veteran goaltender Jimmy Howard, coming off his poorest campaign to date (21-19-11, 2.66 G.A.A., .910 S.P.), must rediscover his form of playoffs past.
In what will be a true clash of styles — Detroit’s Western Conference-bred skill and puck possession game, versus Boston’s in your face North-South style — I expect the Bruins to survive and advance. Boston’s superior depth will outlast Detroit’s superior skill in six.
2. Tampa Bay (46-27-9) vs. 3. Montreal (46-28-8)
The Eastern Conference’s two-three matchups lack the star power of the West’s opening round clashes. Unlike San Jose, Los Angeles, St. Louis and Chicago, Tampa Bay, Montreal, New York and Philadelphia aren’t Stanley Cup favorites this time around. But this Atlantic Division matchup has twofold appeal: the conference’s best upstart team in Tampa Bay, three years removed from its last playoff appearance, versus Canada’s only representative in Montreal.
The Lightning’s 2011 run to the Eastern Conference final seems like a distant memory for Tampa Bay fans. Stalwarts Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier left town via trades. The scoring load is shouldered by the dynamic Steven Stamkos (25 goals in 37 games) and rental two-way threat Ryan Callahan (36 points). After a couple of tough years, the Lightning’s youth has really emerged — notably former seventh-rounder Ondrej Palat, undrafted center Tyler Johnson and 2009 second-overall pick defenseman Victor Hedman. The big question mark is whether the team’s reliable backstop Ben Bishop (37-14-7, 2.23 G.A.A., .924 S.P.) will be able to play in this series, or will have to give way to a capable backup in Anders Lindback.
Meanwhile, Montreal is one year removed from a playoff reality check, when the franchise quickly turned around a horrendous 2011-12 campaign with a surprising run to the playoffs last season — only to last just five games in a slugfest with rival Ottawa. A battle-tested and well-rounded club, the Canadiens have endured a lot: an injury to top goaltender Carey Price (34-20-5, 2.32 G.A.A., .927 S.P), the uneven play of last year’s Norris Trophy winner, P.K. Subban (minus-4 rating), and Daniel Briere’s limited impact (25 points). Like Tampa, youth is being served on this Canadiens club. Leading scorer Max Pacioretty (39 goals, 60 points) is 24. Brendan Gallagher (41 points) and Alex Galchenyuk are 40 — combined. Meanwhile, rental forward Tomas Vanek was rejuvenated in Quebec, scoring 15 points in 18 games since joining Montreal.
If Bishop is healthy, the combination of superstar Stamkos and the hulking netminder might be too much for Montreal. However, the Lightning are not a team that can expose Montreal’s glaring weak physical play. That will happen later in the playoffs. For now, I see the Habs keying on Stamkos and scoring just enough to take this series in six games.
Division Finals Preview
1. Boston vs. 3. Montreal
Boston will attempt to hammer Montreal into submission, but the Canadiens will get off to a fast start in this series. My expectation is that Boston will finally wear down Montreal to take this series in six games.
Metropolitan Division Opening Round Series Previews
1. Pittsburgh (51-24-7) vs. WC1. Columbus (43-32-7)
A new rivalry will begin to fester here as the Pittsburgh Penguins, the clear class of the new Metropolitan Division, take on the geographically closeby Columbus Blue Jackets. The Western Conference defectors are an upstart club, the definition of a group that exceeds the sum of its parts.
For all the talk of Patrick Roy as coach of the year, my second choice might be Pittsburgh’s Dan Bylsma, who guided the injury-plagued Penguins to a completely dominant season within their division. The Penguins have an explosive top two lines, led as usual by Sidney Crosby. The clear-cut Hart Trophy winner led the team with 36 goals, and led the NHL with 68 assists and 104 points.
Chris Kunitz (35 goals, 68 points), James Neal (61 points in 59 games) and Evgeni Malkin (72 points in 60 games) are valued supporting players. Malkin is likely to return from a foot injury in Game 1 or shortly thereafter. Despite being plagued by two straight poor playoff showings, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (39-18-5, 2.37 G.A.A., .915 S.P.) has bounced back with arguably his best season. The defense, which includes Brooks Orpik and healthy blueliners Paul Martin, Rob Scuderi and Kris Letang (22 points in 37 games), is much improved over recent years.
Columbus lacks star power, but center Ryan Johansen, the team’s leading-scorer with 33 goals and 63 points, qualifies as an emerging star. Defenseman James Wisniewski, Jack Johnson and Fedor Tyutin highlight the league’s most underrated blue line, while sniper Nathan Horton could have added badly needed playoff experience, only to have abdominal surgery just before the postseason. If the Blue Jackets are to make any noise this spring — their next playoff win will be the first in franchise history — the difference maker must be reigning Vezina trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky (32-20-5, 2.35 G.A.A., .923 S.P.).
A stellar regular season allows the Penguins to avoid the Rangers and Flyers in the first round, but injuries across the board rarely allowed the team to play at full strength. Will the Penguins march together? I see Pittsburgh swimming into the second round in five games.
2. New York (45-31-6) vs. 3. Philadelphia (42-30-10)
After a horrible start out of the gate, New York and Philadelphia recovered. Both teams are itching for deep playoff runs, and both believe they are built for exactly that purpose.
The Rangers did just enough to earn home-ice advantage in the series. That could make a big difference for New York, which is hardly the dynamic offensive team coach Alain Vigneault wishes they could be. The Rangers offer flashy playmakers in forwards Mats Zuccarello (team-leading 59 points), Derek Stepan (40 assists) and Brad Richards (51 points), but power forward Rick Nash (26 goals) has hardly been his usual
imposing self. Neither has reigning scoring champ Martin St. Louis, who has one goal in 19 games since being acquired from Tampa Bay.
The Rangers will lean on a quality blue line led by Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Anton Stralman. The deciding factor in the series could be goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (33-24-5, 2.36 G.A.A., .920 S.P.), who won the Vezina Trophy in 2011-12.
Led by Claude Giroux, who racked up an unappreciated 58 assists and 86 points this season, Philadelphia overcame a woeful start under first-year coach Craig Berube (who stepped in just four games into the season). The core of this roster remains the same, with maturing talents Jakub Voracek (62 points), Wayne Simmonds (team-leading 29 goals) and Scott Hartnell (52 points) as the go-to scorers. Along with a solid supporting offensive cast, some complimentary parts have been added in the form of Vincent Lecavalier (20 goals in 69 games), defenseman Mark Streit (34 assists) and recently acquired blue-liner Andrew MacDonald.
The question that seems to plague Philadelphia every postseason is whether it has a goalie capable of carrying the workload. Steve Mason had a great comeback season (33-18-7, 2.50 G.A.A., .917 S.P.), while Ray Emery is a quality backup likely to be in net to start the series.
It is funny how matchups play into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Historically San Jose and St. Louis struggle with Los Angeles. Pittsburgh struggles with Philadelphia. Boston struggles with Montreal. The Rangers tend to be the Flyers’ nemeses, and I expect Lundqvist and company to move past Philadelphia in seven hard-fought games.
Division Finals Preview
1. Pittsburgh vs. 2. New York
The Penguins should survive this series simply by outlasting a beat-up Rangers squad and scoring just enough goals on Lundqvist to take the series in seven games.
Eastern Conference Finals Preview
1. Boston vs. 1. Pittsburgh
Like last year, the Bruins will prove too much for the Penguins, overwhelming Pittsburgh with their physical play and their depth. I like the Killer Bs in six games, two more than last year’s surprising sweep.
Central Division Opening Round Series Previews
1. Colorado (52-22-8) vs. WC1. Minnesota (43-27-12)
Nobody had Colorado winning the Central Division before the season. Clearly, this team was improving, and the Avalanche added a possible kickstarter in coach Patrick Roy, but passing Chicago and St. Louis seemed like a non-starter. Meanwhile, Minnesota endured one of the strangest seasons ever in goal. The club’s two goalies when the season began, Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding, aren’t on the playoff roster. Yet Minnesota persevered and is prepared to improve on last year’s first-round exit.
Floundering for three seasons after an unexpected playoff run in 2009-10, this Colorado squad turned things around with Roy guiding a terrific core of young, explosive talent. The roster also proved surprisingly deep. Matt Duchene (team-leading 47 assists and 70 points) is Colorado’s most prolific offensive threat, and is joined by two-way specialist captain Gabriel Landeskog (65 points), rookie sensation Nathan MacKinnon (63 points), veteran Paul Stastny (60 points) and talented power forward Ryan O’Reilly (team-leading 28 goals, 65 points). Defenseman Erik Johnson (39 points) leads a thoroughly unheralded group that provides good support for goaltender Semyon Valramov. Varlamov’s numbers (41-14-6, 2.41 G.A.A., .927 S.P.) make this his best season yet.
As a whole Minnesota is a weaker offensive team than Colorado. There is not much scoring help behind Jason Pominville (30 goals, 60 points), spark plug Zach Parise (29 goals, 56 points in 67 games), captain Mikko Koivu (team-leading 43 assists in 65 games), Mikael Grandlund and Nino Niederreiter.
However, the Wild can skate and check. The blue line, led by Ryan Suter (43 points, plus-15 rating) and Jonas Brodin, is stronger than Colorado’s. The obvious question mark for Minnesota is in goal, where Backstrom gave way to Harding, who was having a career year before being shut down due to complications from multiple sclerosis. Their replacements are rookie Darcy Kuemper (12-8-4, 2.43 G.A.A., .915 S.P.) and trade-deadline acquisition Ilya Bryzgalov (7-1-3 with Minnesota). It will likely be Bryzgalov that will be asked to shoulder a big load against the explosive Avs.
In perhaps the most unexpected matchup of the first round, I predict an upset here. Nothing against Colorado, which deserves full marks for an exceptional season, but Minnesota presents issues for the Aves. The Wild have enough defense to slow Colorado’s top guns and a veteran goaltender in Bryzgalov with 38 Stanley Cup playoff games to his credit. I will take the Wild in a seven-game shocker.
2. St. Louis (52-23-7) vs. 3. Chicago (46-21-15)
After battling all season with the Boston Bruins for the President’s Trophy, the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks let upstart Colorado slide by in the season’s final days. The result is a matchup neither team wanted to see in the first round.
Until the final weeks of the season the Blues looked poised for a deep playoff run. Alex Steen emerged as an elite scorer (team-leading 33 goals and 62 points), complimented by the currently injuried T.J. Oshie (60 points), David Backes (27 goals, 56 points), sophomore sensation Jaden Schwartz (56 points) and budding star Vladimir Tarasenko (43 points in 64 games). Though St. Louis’ forwards are pretty banged up heading into this series, the Blues are anchored by the best top-six defense in the NHL, led by Alex Pietrangelo (team-leading 43 assists), Kevin Shattenkirk (45 points), Jay Bouwmeester (team-best plus-26 rating), Barret Jackman and Roman Polak. Goaltending has always bit of an Achilles heel for St. Louis come playoff time, despite Brian Elliott’s continued impressive regular season numbers. Enter former Vezina Trophy winner Ryan Miller via trade from Buffalo (10-8-1, 2.47 G.A.A., .903 S.P. since joining the team), who got off to fast start in the Gateway City, only to stumble like the rest of the team down the final stretch.
Before the season Chicago was an easy pick by many to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions, returning almost its entire roster from a squad that outlasted Boston in a thrilling six-game Final. Yet the new year brought big question marks heading into playoffs — namely, how did they stumble from having home-ice advantage for the first round in the final weeks? The team’s two biggest stars, Patrick Kane (69 points) and captain Jonathan Toews (68 points) each sustained late season injuries, but are expected to return to the lineup for Game 1 against the Blues. Even without Toews and Kane at full strength, the Blackhawks still have fire power in the form of Patrick Sharp (team-leading 34 goals and 78 points), ageless wonder Marian Hossa (30 goals, 60 points, team-best plus-28 rating) and top defensemen Duncan Keith (team-leading 55 assists) and Brent Seabrook (41 points).
Beyond this solid core, the complimentary parts are strong, especially in goal. Corey Crawford (32-16-10, 2.26 G.A.A., .917 S.P.) has emerged as of the league’s best and most underappreciated netminders.
One top flight Stanley Cup contender will be eliminated in this first-round series that has the potential (like San Jose-L.A.) to be the best series of the entire playoffs. In a later round matchup, I would like Chicago, but right now I think the Blackhawks are too beat up to outlast St. Louis, as the recovering Blues win this series in seven games on the back of Miller time.
Division Finals Preview
2. St. Louis vs. 4. Minnesota
The Blues represent a brutal matchup for Minnesota, with enough depth enough to cause problems for the Wild. Meanwhile, St. Louis’ lone weakness (go-to scoring) is lessened against the weaker goaltending of Minnesota. I see the Blue-notes singing their way into the Conference finals in five games.
Pacific Division Opening Round Series Previews
1. Anaheim (54-20-8) vs. 4. Dallas (40-31-11)
This series features several compelling storylines, yet is likely the weakest television draw of the first round.
On one side are the resurgent Ducks, who climbed back into the NHL’s elite last season under coach Bruce Boudreau (the dysfunctional Capitals really look really silly for firing him). On the other side are the Stars, who acquired star forward Tyler Seguin in the offseason, added longtime Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff and then held off Stanley Cup dark horse Phoenix in a heated race to make the playoffs.
For some reason Anaheim does not get the respect the franchise deserves. Maybe it’s because the Ducks have a reputation for being a one-line team led by Ryan Getzlaf (team-leading 56 assists, 87 points) and Corey Perry (team-leading 43 goals and 83 points). Maybe it’s because Boudreau has a poor track record in the Stanley Cup Playoffs; he’s never taken a team beyond the second round. Maybe it’s the fact that Anaheim might have too many options in goal, with three potential number ones in veteran Jonas Hiller (29-13-7, 2.48 G.A.A., .911 S.P.) and rookies Frederik Andersen and John Gibson. Or maybe it’s because of the team’s surprising 2013 first-round exit at the hands of Detroit, which keyed on shutting down Getzlaf and Perry.
For whatever reason, the Ducks have been too easily dismissed. True, much of the team’s scoring comes from its top line, but Nick Bonino, Matthieum Perreault and Andrew Cogliano are all quality players, as are the ageless Saku Koivu (39 years old) and Teemu Selanne (43) who is playing in his final postseason.
Dallas returns to the playoffs for this first time since 2008, on the back of one of the league’s best top lines. The dynamic duo of Seguin (team-leading 37 goals and 84 points) and Jamie Benn (79 points) are unstoppable at times. Young budding star Valeri Nichushkin (34 points) is coming into his own, as is quarterback defenseman Alex Goligoski (42 points) — the forgotten part of the James Neal trade a few years back. But if the thin Stars are to do anything this postseason, oft-injured goaltender Kari Lehtonen (33-20-10, 2.41 G.A.A., .919 S.P.) must be at the top of his game.
Of all the first round matchups, none seem as one-sided as this one. The Ducks are preparing for a deep run while the Stars, after several years of near-misses, slipped into the playoffs at the last minute. I like Anaheim to sweep Selanne quickly into the second round.
2. San Jose (51-22-9) vs. 3. Los Angeles (46-28-8)
Fresh off their titanic second round clash less than 12 months ago, San Jose and Los Angeles are back at it in the 2014 first round. Last year the Kings got the upper hand on the Sharks in tight series that saw the winner bruised and battered for the Conference Finals. This year will likely be more of the same as another Stanley Cup favorite gets booted from the playoffs three rounds too soon.
Rather than rebuilding from all of its near misses in previous postseasons, San Jose effectively retooled on the fly by putting together the roster general manager Doug Wilson always envisioned. This might be the fastest team in the NHL, bolstered by the most prolific group of centers in the entire league. San Jose’s 1-2-3 punch of Joe Thornton (team-leading 65 assists), Logan Couture (54 points in 65 games) and Joe Pavelski (team-leading 41 goals, 79 points) are an opposing coach’s nightmare, joined by fellow talents Patrick Marleau (70 points), converted defenseman Brent Burns (48 points) and rookie sniper Tomas Hertl (15 goals in 37 games).
Marleau, Thornton and two-way defenseman Dan Boyle will try to prove they have one last run in them, while young stud defeseman Marc-Edourd Vlasic and Jason Demers are trying to prove they’re ready for prime time. Behind them goaltender Antti Niemi (39-17-7, 2.39 G.A.A. and .913 S.P.) is a playoff proven backstop.
The Kings are among the Cup favorites again despite a less-than-thrilling regular season performance. Los Angeles came on down the stretch to threaten San Jose and Anaheim for the Pacific Division, due in large part to goaltender Jonathan Quick’s (27-17-4, 2.07 G.A.A., .915 S.P.) return from injury. Quick, perhaps the best big-game netminder in the world, bolsters the Kings’ Cup chances every spring.
Defensemen Drew Doughty (37 points), Slava Voynov (30 assists) and Alec Martinez continue to improve, while up front Anze Kopitar is still the straw that stirs the drink (team-leading 29 goals, 70 points) on a team that still struggles to score in stretches. He is flanked by Philadelphia castaways Jeff Carter (27 goals) and Mike Richards (30 assists), plus Mr. Clutch Justin Williams (43 points). The lethal Marian Gaborik added 16 points in 19 games after arriving ahead of the trade deadline.
This series features a true clash of styles between speedy San Jose and gritty Los Angeles. Given the two teams’ track records in the playoffs, it would be easy to pick the Kings, but I just think Los Angeles is too hard-pressed to score goals, while San Jose is fresh and eager for payback. The Sharks will prevail in seven games.
Division Finals Preview
1. Anaheim vs. 2. San Jose
The well-rested Ducks will take on a Sharks team bruised and battered after a tough first round. That should provide the margin on which Anaheim keeps Selanne marching into the Conference Finals in seven games.
Western Conference Finals Preview
1. Anaheim vs. 2. St. Louis
Considering the recent teams to come out of the Western Conference, Anaheim and St. Louis would offer fresh blood in the West’s championship series. Despite a great run to this point for the Ducks, something tells me this is the Blues’ year. I see St. Louis surviving in six games against the Ducks.
Stanley Cup Finals Preview
From the start of the season, St. Louis and Boston were my Stanley Cup darlings. These two teams couldn’t be more similar. Their coaches preach the exact same principles. The Blues may have a slight edge defensively, while Boston features a little more offensive firepower and a hint of a difference in goal — the only real differences. Thanks to home-ice advantage and weaker Conference road, I think the Bruins will win their second Stanley Cup in three years on the back of a six-game Finals victory.