The first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs saw my original 2015 Stanley Cup pick, St. Louis, collapse at the hands of Minnesota, while my choice in the east, Tampa Bay, essentially stole its first round series from Detroit. However, I did correctly predict both series in two of the four divisions and five of eight series overall. Considering the parity in the current NHL, 62.5% isn’t too bad! Take out the coin flip Central Division, which pitted four potential Cup winners, and I batted 83%.
With how impressive Minnesota was in the first round, it would be easy to jump on the Wild’s bandwagon as this year’s new Cup threat, but I think I’ve seen the light on Anaheim. The Ducks are not the NHL’s best team, or even close to the most analytically sound team, but they are also not playing in the stacked Central or Metropolitan Divisions; instead they enjoy a spot in a surprisingly weak Pacific Division. For that reason I think they will be the last team standing when the dust clears on the 2015 postseason.
Atlantic Division Finals
1. Montreal (50-22-10) vs. 2. Tampa Bay (50-24-8)
As bad a matchup as Detroit proved to be for Tampa Bay in the first round (heroic performances by forward Tyler Johnson and, in Game 7, goaltender Ben Bishop prevented a big upset), Montreal presents the Lightning with a team built in a near mirror image to themselves. Tampa and postseason no-show (so far) Steven Stamkos owned the Habs during the regular season, winning five games against the Canadiens. In doing so the Lightning simply outplayed Montreal at all of their strengths, team speed, offensive depth and elite goaltending. Meanwhile, the Canadiens were also lucky to escape the first round with a struggling power play, but have one huge asset on their side going forward—a dominant Carey Price. It was Price that offered the best goaltending effort of the playoffs so far in Montreal’s gritty six-game series win over rival Ottawa.
In a rematch of last year’s first-round series, I like the Lightning to continue their late momentum against Detroit and outlast Montreal, even if Price steals a pair. Tampa in six games.
1. New York Rangers (53-22-7) vs. 2. Washington (45-26-11)
Though New York and Washington finished one-two in the Metropolitan Division during the regular season, there was a big gap between the Rangers and Capitals in talent and in overall play, which bodes well for the Blueshirts. New York played like the clear favorite in the East in the first round, getting all four of its wins over Pittsburgh by identical 2-1 scores. Though not heavily tested, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was dominant throughout the series, while the Rangers’ blue line stepped up its play as well. If New York’s offense can kick into high gear, there may be no team in the league that can slow them down. On the other side of the coin, Washington won an emotional seven-game series against their rival Islanders, with perhaps the franchise’s best defensive effort ever in the series clincher. Say what you will about the other disappearing stars in the playoffs, but Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Ovechkin bring great playoff efforts each and every night, while the Capitals blue line behind them is very underrated.
This will be an extremely tight series filled with low-scoring games as Lundqvist and Washington’s Braden Holtby will duel to the finish. I expect the Rangers to escape, but not until the series goes the distance. New York in seven games.
Central Division Finals
3. Chicago (48-28-6) vs. WC1. Minnesota (46-28-8)
In the first round I picked two losers in the Central Division, but that was hardly a surprise considering the tightness of all seven of its teams all season long. I fully expect more close games in this third straight postseason clash between Chicago and Minnesota. The Blackhawks come into this matchup with much less of an edge than previous years. Stalwarts Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrok and the ageless Marian Hossa all impressed in the first round versus Nashville, stunning Predators goalie Pekka Rinne early and often, but Chicago’s netminder Corey Crawford looked vulnerable, and Nashville essentially played without the NHL’s top defenseman Shea Weber all series long. Minnesota has no such qualms about plucked-from-the-scrap-heap goaltender Devan Dubnyk, who made the favored Blues quiver with his impressive round one showing. Though the Wild lacks Chicago’s overall depth, Minnesota’s big game players, notably Zach Parise, stepped up in round one in what was a surprisingly easy series against St. Louis.
It’s hard to find much of an edge between either of these teams, with perhaps the only exceptions being Chicago’s experience versus Minnesota’s play in net. When it comes down to just those factors, I will take the goaltending over the veteran presence, as the Wild finally move on past the Blackhawks. Minnesota in seven games.
Pacific Division Finals
1. Anaheim (51-24-7) vs. 3. Calgary (45-30-7)
In its first-round sweep of Winnipeg, Anaheim took a page out of the cardiac Flames handbook, stealing games late against the inexperienced Jets. That has been the calling card for the analytically challenged Ducks all season, who just know how to win close games, even it continues to cause coach Bruce Boudreau’s hair to fall out. Anaheim appears to have its ducks in a row with strong play out of Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and newcomer Ryan Kesler in round one. Perhaps the only concern is the massive layoff they enjoyed after sinking Winnipeg’s hopes in the crazy MTS Centre. Meanwhile, in the Northwest first-round clash, Calgary continued defying expectations with a six-game drubbing of Vancouver that was more lopsided than the series score showed. The most resilient team in the NHL simply outworked the Canucks in all facets of the game, and got enough goaltending from Jonah Hiller to advance. Plus, Calgary’s young stars of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Kris Russell all looked good in exposing Vancouver’s aging defense.
This will be a big series for Hiller as he faces the team that discarded him a year ago. Expect some tight games in this series, but Anaheim brings with it a huge advantage in the overall talent department and that will result in another short series. Ducks in four games.
Forecasting the Rest of the Playoffs
In the West I see the Ducks holding off Minnesota in six games, while in the East the Lightning will take all seven games to dispatch the Rangers.
Stanley Cup Finals Prediction:
In my new Stanley Cup Finals prediction, I will go with the well-rested Anaheim Ducks over Tampa Bay in six games.
To read my predictions before the start of the playoffs, click here.