Don’t be fooled by the playoff seedings after a 48-game regular season. There are no shoo-ins here.
Think the short season wasn’t long enough to shake things up? The Maple Leafs are playoff upstarts and the Red Wings are fading. Jarome Iginla is in Pittsburgh and Jaromir Jagr is in Boston. The defending champions brought nearly their entire Stanley Cup-winning roster back into the regular season, yet aren’t favored to get out of the first round.
And yet, amidst the craziness, the best hockey teams on the planet are seeded first in each conference, on a collision course to a memorable Stanley Cup Finals.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins (36-12-0) vs. 8. New York Islanders (24-17-7)
If/when healthy, Pittsburgh features a loaded squad that is the class of the East. Sidney Crosby basically missed the last month of the season, yet almost won the scoring title, while Evgeni Malkin was dominant at times in an injury-plagued campaign. The big change for the Penguins was the addition of two former gritty captains, Jarome Iginla and Brandon Morrow, plus tough defenseman Douglas Murray. Iginla, at 35, is not the superstar he used to be, but do not count out his competitiveness or how badly he wants to win a Stanley Cup. The Penguins’ blue line is better than it’s been in recent years but still has its flaws. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury got some much-needed help from Tomas Vokoun, and either is capable to taking this team on a run.
After years of finishing near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, New York is flourishing under the leadership of potential NHL MVP John Tavares. This is a young, fast club with players who can skate and score, like Matt Moulson and Michael Grabner. The Islanders’ back half is far weaker, though Mark Streit is as solid a two-way defenseman. Aging goalie Evgeni Nabokov, never at his best in the playoffs, will have to play over his head to knock off Pittsburgh, but he could get some help if tough guys like Matt Martin and Matt Carkner get under the Penguins’ skin.
Of all the teams Pittsburgh could face in the Eastern Conference playoffs, strangely, this might be its most dangerous opponent. The Penguins did not play particularly well against the Islanders this season and New York features more than enough offense and speed to play a run-and-gun game with Pittsburgh. Worse, the Penguins could pick up some bad habits playing run-and-gun hockey in this series that could carry over to the later rounds. Still, I’ll take Pittsburgh in a surprisingly close six-game series.
2. Montreal Canadiens (29-14-5) vs. 7. Ottawa Senators (25-17-6)
After a dead-last finish in the Eastern Conference, Montreal returns to the postseason as winners of the competitive Northeast Division from virtually out of nowhere. The Habs have a nice blend of youth, skill, an emerging blueline and an elite goaltender in Carey Price. After a brief contract holdout, defenseman P.K. Subban returned to become a force. Veteran Andrei Markov is having a comeback year as a terrific transition blue-liner. The question for Montreal, which improved dramatically in the toughness department, is whether or not there is enough offense to score timely goals.
The Senators are a dangerous team whose talent overshadows their seeding. Despite missing top scorer Jason Spezza, the NHL’s best offensive defenseman in Erik Karlsson, and number-one goaltender Craig Anderson for a prolonged stretch, Ottawa stayed afloat and qualified for the playoffs. Forty-year-old Daniel Alfredsson continues to lead the Senators, who will struggle to score goals. However, their emerging blueline is as good as just about any in the East.
Great coaches and even better goaltenders highlight a classic Ontario/Quebec border clash. This will be an extremely low-scoring, competitive, grinding series – a style more suited for Ottawa. I think the Senators will upset Montreal in seven games.
3. Washington Capitals (27-18-3) vs. 6. New York Rangers (26-18-4)
After a horrendous start under new coach Adam Oates, Washington turned things around just in time to get back into the playoffs, but more importantly become a threat to come out of the East. Much of this has to the reemergence of the all-world Alex Ovechkin/Nicklas Backstrom combo and the return to health of defenseman Mike Green. It doesn’t hurt that goaltender Braden Holtby is starting to look like he did in last year’s playoffs. The question for the Capitals is are the additions, forwards Martin Erat, Mike Ribero and company provide Washington’s top line enough support to make a deep run.
Take out Rick Nash, the five-time all-star right wing acquired in the off-season, and the Rangers wouldn’t be in the playoffs. While they floundered for much of the season, Nash was amazing, while star center Brad Richards and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist took time to shake off their lockout rust. New York never quite got back to its gritty style of previous years (likely due to some key personnel losses), but it’s gotten better lately. Losing defenseman Marc Staal to a potentially career threatening eye injury still looms large. Lundqvist will decide how far this team goes.
You can look at this series a couple ways. Washington and New York are old Patrick Division rivals and playoff foes from a year ago. They’re also a pair of teams that underachieved most of the season. Washington found a way to come out of its funk and get hot playing weak Southeast Division opponents to close the year; New York underachieved and played stuck in neutral all spring. Unless Lundqvist takes over the series, I don’t see the Rangers as anything more than a playoff one-and-done. I’ll take the Caps in six games.
4. Boston Bruins (28-14-6) vs. 5. Toronto (26-17-5)
The Big Bad Bruins looked anything but in the season’s final month, limping into the playoffs and letting go of their stranglehold on the Northeast Division. However, on paper Boston remains a team with enough depth to challenge the East’s best. The Bruins can roll three solid lines with David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand all dangerous offensive threats. The addition of Jaromir Jagr added to the Bruins’ skill level, but unless Milan Lucic comes out of his season-long funk, or Nathan Horton rediscovers his playoff heroics from two years ago, Boston may endure a second straight short spring. The Bruins’ “X factor” could be sensational goaltender Tuukka Rask. For all his talent, Rask has yet to show that he can steal games in the playoffs like former No. 1 Tim Thomas.
The center of the hockey universe is still that in April – finally – as Toronto is postseason-bound for the first time since the 2004-05 lockout. This is a team that could potentially be dangerous thanks to its strong blue line, multiple scoring threats, and its nasty edge. Joffrey Lupul, Phil Kessel and Nazem Kadri are all fast and explosive scorers. The emergence of James van Riemsdyk, a steal from Philadelphia, really pushed the Leafs over its 8-year hump. A comeback year for defenseman Dion Phaneuf didn’t hurt, either. Toronto’s limiting factor will be its youth and inexperience in goal, but James Reimer showed signs of brilliance this season.
The only team more capable of finally waking up Boston in the first round is archrival Montreal. The Leafs should force the Bruins to play their favorite, physical brand of hockey in order to outmuscle Toronto. However, if Boston doesn’t respond, an upset could occur here. I’ll give the Bruins the benefit of the doubt in six games.
1. Chicago Blackhawks (36-7-5) vs. 8. Minnesota Wild (26-19-3)
The 2012-13 season was a dominant one for Chicago, wire-to-wire leaders of the far stronger Western Conference after a record-setting start. The Blackhawks are solid and deep in all phases of the game. Chicago has elite talent up front, including scorers like Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane and captain Jonathan Toews. The Blackhawks also feature an awesome defense led by Duncan Keith and two potential No. 1 goaltenders in Corey Crawford and Ray Emery. As evidenced by their incredible record, Chicago just finds ways to win games.
Big changes in the offseason pointed Minnesota in a new direction. Forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter were brought in primarily to improve the offense, but Minnesota still struggles to score goals at times. The defense behind Suter has its issues as well. Netminder Niklas Backstrom can be great but also can also be average. That’s a position that might need to be addressed in the future if the Wild truly want to contend with the West’s best.
On paper this is a closer matchup than the seeding would predict – even just a few weeks ago, Minnesota was leading the Northwest Division. However, the Wild took a swan dive heading into the playoffs and that bodes poorly against the juggernaut Blackhawks. Chicago will sweep the series.
2. Anaheim Ducks (30-12-6) vs. 7. Detroit Red Wings (24-16-8)
Out of nowhere, the Ducks won the always-tough Pacific Division and claimed the second seed in the conference. Much of that had to do with a resurgent season for captain Ryan Getzlaf, a breakout year for defenseman François Beauchemin, and the solid tandem of Viktor Fasth and Jonas Hiller in goal. However, the Ducks really became a changed team late last year with the addition of head coach Bruce Boudreau, who loosened the reins on Anaheim’s offense. Ageless wonders Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu continue to provide effective secondary scoring.
Even after the lockout lifted, 2013 was nearly miserable for hockey in Detroit. The Red Wings got hot at just the right time to earn the franchise’s 22nd straight playoff berth. Yet Detroit is still retooling, painfully, with no Nicklas Lidstrom, Kris Draper or Brian Rafalski to lean on in the postseason. The core here is still solid – especially on offense with Pavel Datsyuk and new captain Henrik Zetterberg leading the way. Power forward Johan Franzen has been a mule down the stretch and when he is at his best, he is unstoppable. Unfortunately, Detroit’s defense is only average and that makes life difficult for goaltender Jimmy Howard.
If you were predicting this series before the season, odds are good that you would have Detroit as the two-seed and Anaheim at seven. The Red Wings have plenty of playoff experience, solid goaltending and a coach with miles of playoff experience. The Ducks’ offense can create matchup problems, but I see Franzen, Datsyuk and Zetterberg willing a first round series upset in seven games.
3. Vancouver Canucks (26-15-7) vs. 6. San Jose Sharks (25-16-7)
Much is made out of the Vancouver goaltending mess, but the Canucks still have two of the game’s best in Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo. Right now this is Schneider’s team, but any wobbles or injuries, and Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault will turn to the veteran. In front of the tandem is an aging squad that managed to dominate a weak Northwest Division after a slow start. The superstar Sedin Twins struggled at times this season, and have yet to find their top level. Couple their struggles with playoff stud Ryan Kesler’s injury issues (right now, he’s healthy), and the Canucks have questions to scare even the most diehard fans.
Like Vancouver, San Jose’s winning window is closing. Its three elite stars, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and defenseman Dan Boyle, are 33 or older. This year, the youngsters have shown some flash and that will need to continue for San Jose to make a run. What really makes the Sharks dangerous this time around were the midseason changes brought on by General Manager Doug Wilson. Raffi Torres and Scott Hannan gave the Sharks some fresh, hungry blood for the playoffs. Fan favorites Ryan Clowe and Murray left via trades, yet the Sharks were much improved after the trade deadline. San Jose was almost unbeatable at home and goaltender Antti Niemi had a career year backstopping the Sharks.
Still smarting after last year’s playoff ouster to Los Angeles, Vancouver will be hungry for another deep playoff run. However, I think underdog San Jose will surprise in this series and will steal it away in seven games.
4. St. Louis Blues (29-17-2) vs. 5. Los Angeles (27-16-5)
Kudos to St. Louis for overcoming early season lethargy to emerge as a Stanley Cup favorite and earn home ice for the first round. With young, explosive talent up front led by Chris Stewart, David Backes and David Perron, an elite defense led by Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo (bolstered by deadline acquisition Jay Bouwmeester) and two potential No. 1 goalies in Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak, the Blues have the tools go far. The question is whether the Blues’ talent will bear down and make a run, or whether St. Louis didn’t learn from last year’s sweep at the hands of the Kings.
The defending champion Kings also got off to a slow start, then things turned around in the middle of the year. With talented forwards Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, and a great young defense, Los Angeles had to play better. What the Kings weren’t counting on was an “off” season for last year’s Conn Smythe winner, goaltender Jonathan Quick, which brought elite prospect Jonathan Bernier back into the spotlight. Both goalies played well down the stretch and could again backstop a deep playoff run.
Two heavyweights, St. Louis and Los Angeles, meet in a titanic first round clash. Both teams are solid on offense and defense, are tough, and have a pair of goaltenders who could carry their clubs to a Stanley Cup. But with last year’s playoff MVP Quick off his game a little this year, I see the Blues edging last year’s champs in seven games.
Eastern Conference semifinals
1. Pittsburgh vs. 7. Ottawa: The Penguins will roll over the tired, but full of heart Senators in five games.
3. Washington vs. 4. Boston: In a playoff rematch from last year, Boston will out physical Washington in seven games in another tight series.
Eastern Conference final
1. Pittsburgh vs. 4. Boston: The tired Bruins run out of gas and bow out in four games to the overwhelming Penguins.
Western Conference semifinals
1. Chicago vs. 7. Detroit: In one last Western Conference playoff matchup between these archrivals, the Blackhawks take this series in five exciting games.
4. St. Louis vs. 6. San Jose: The Sharks have one round of upset in them, but the Blues will be too much here. Like last year, St. Louis will dump San Jose in six games.
Western Conference final
1. Chicago vs. 4. St. Louis: Not that Detroit was weak, but St. Louis will push the Blackhawks to the brink in an epic series between two young and hungry clubs. Chicago outlasts the Blues in seven games.
Stanley Cup Finals
1. Chicago vs. 1. Pittsburgh: The most obvious Finals matchup is a clash of two titans. I will take the Penguins, rested against the weak East, in a seven-game grudge match for the Stanley Cup.