Gone from the playoffs are recent Stanley Cup finals stalwarts Los Angeles and Boston. Joining them for an early summer golf vacation are the San Jose Sharks, who’ve been to 10 straight postseasons (and 15 of the last 16), and fellow 2014 postseason participants Colorado, Dallas, Columbus and Philadelphia.
Taking the place of those seven teams are Washington, the New York Islanders, Ottawa, Nashville, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Calgary.
The result of all of the chaos: A wide-open Eastern Conference playoff bracket, featuring one dominant team (the Presidents’ Trophy-winning New York Rangers) and a whole slew of legitimate Cup contenders, including Montreal, Tampa Bay and Washington.
In the West, Anaheim should be the clear favorite after being able to avoid both Los Angeles and San Jose in the Pacific Division, and having to face Winnipeg and then either the Flames or Canucks in the second round. All three teams missed the postseason last year. But the 2010 and 2013 Stanley Cup champions — the Blackhawks — lurk as a potential Conference finals opponent.
However, Chicago will have to get by St. Louis, Minnesota or Nashville in the brutal Central Division bracket. It’s easy to make a case for any one of these four teams as a possible Stanley Cup Finalist.
So how will it all shake out? Here are my first round predictions:
Atlantic Division Semifinals:
1. Montreal (50-22-10) vs. WC1. Ottawa (43-26-13)
A year after Montreal made an unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Canadiens took another step forward in their development by winning the Atlantic Division. However, Montreal’s impressive season covers up some glaring issues that will need to be addressed for the Habs to have another long spring run. Montreal is the most one-player reliant team in the league. Thanks to MVP-to-be goaltender Carey Price (44-16-6, league-leading 1.96 Goals Against Average, .933 save percentage) the Canadiens allowed the fewest goals in the NHL this season. Price should continue to be at his best against archrival Ottawa, but without a healthy Max Pacioretty (team-leading 37 goals and 67 points), the Canadiens may struggle to score at the times. At least Montreal will have the services of two of the NHL’s best two-way transition defenders in P.K. Subban (team leading 45 assists) and Andrei Markov.
Ottawa is another offensively light team, lacking a go-to player with the exception of all-world defenseman Erik Karlsson (team-leading 45 assists and 66 points). However, Ottawa’s biggest boon has been 27-year-old goaltender Andrew Hammond, an essential unknown, who was signed as free agent out of Bowling Green in 2013. The Hamburglar’s record with the Senators in 2015 was an unheard of 20-1-2 with a 1.79 G.A.A. and .941 save percentage, carrying Ottawa to a 23-4-4 stretch run and perhaps hockey’s most shocking playoff berth. Hammond’s dominance overshadowed a couple notable storylines. Ottawa unceremoniously fired its well-respected coach Paul MacLean at midseason, bringing in unheralded Dave Cameron, and witnessed the emergence of a pair of third-year forwards — Mike Hoffman (team leading 27 goals) and Mark Stone (64 points).
Montreal will be heavily favored in this series, but their nightmare scenario as Atlantic Division champion was to face rival Ottawa in the first round. The Senators upset a less-physical Montreal team two years ago in a heavy five-game series. The scorchingly hot Senators may run out of gas at some point in the playoffs, but not until after they shock Montreal yet again. Sens in seven.
2. Tampa Bay (50-24-8) vs. 3. Detroit (43-25-14)
The Tampa Bay Lightning have been quietly one of the NHL’s best teams all season. Since their only title run in 2004, the franchise has impressively rebuilt itself around superstar forward Steven Stamkos (team-leading 43 goals and 72 points) and hulking goaltender Ben Bishop (40-13-5, 2.32 G.A.A., .916 save percentage). Most impressive about the Bolts is their depth: Stamkos and former second overall pick defenseman Victor Hedman are joined by forwards Tyler Johnson (72 points), Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palata and Ryan Callahan, plus defenseman Jason Garrison, Matt Carle and Anton Stralman.
Despite the franchise’s across-the-board youth movement, Detroit still follows the lead of its superstars, Henrik Zetterberg (team-leading 49 assists and 66 points), Pavel Datsyuk (65 points in 63 games) and defenseman Niklas Kronwall. Complementing the aging stalwarts are dynamic forwards Tomas Tatar (team-leading 29 goals) and Gustav Nyquist, along with the tenacious Justin Abdelkader. The Red Wings’ Achilles heel this season is in goal, as both Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek have had their ups and downs this season. In game one it will be Mrazek (16-9-2, 2.38 G.A.A., .918 SP) that gets the first crack at shutting down the potent Lightning.
A fun series here as the old guard Red Wings (making their 24th straight postseason appearance) face the upstart Lightning, with lots of common ties between the franchises. With Detroit’s issues in goal, and their recent swoon, I like Tampa in a short playoff tune up in the first round. Bolts in five.
Metropolitan Division Semifinals:
1. New York Rangers (53-22-7) vs. WC2. Pittsburgh (43-27-12)
A year after a near-miss in a heated Stanley Cup finals against Los Angeles, the Rangers enter the 2015 postseason as the NHL’s President Trophy winners and as betting favorite to win the Stanley Cup. New York’s strengths lie in all facets of the game; they rank as the third-most potent offensive team in the league and the third-most effective defensive squad. The Rangers have elite goaltending in either Henrik Lundqvist (30-13-3, 2.25 G.A.A., .922 S.P.) or backup Cam Talbot, a proven offense (and depth) led by a rejuvenated Rick Nash (team-leading 42 goals and 69 points) and a deep and steady veteran blue line that includes Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Dan Boyle and the top pick-up of the trade deadline, defenseman Keith Yandle (11 points in 21 games in New York). If there is a concern for the Blueshirts, it’s their overall age and depth. The Rangers window is quickly closing with salary-cap issues coming their way, therefore 2015 marks the perfect time to capture the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1994.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh enters the postseason a decided underdog, an unheard-of place for a team led by Sidney Crosby (team-leading 56 assists and 84 points). The Penguins literally and figuratively limped into the playoffs, losing its 2014-15 MVP Kris Letang to a concussion, while both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (team-leading 28 goals in 69 games), along with most of its blue line played through injuries all season, resulting in a 4-9-2 stretch run. But unlike their nemesis Bruins or Philadelphia, Pittsburgh still has a postseason pulse, plus a streaky goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury (34-20-9, 2.32 G.A.A., .920) with a Stanley Cup title on his resume. This squad is also a bit more rounded this spring thanks to the additions of Patric Hornqvist, Blake Comeau, Steve Downie, David Perron and Nick Spaling.
Much like the Red Wings a year ago, who were riddled with injuries all season, Pittsburgh may be too banged up to pose much of the threat to the rested Rangers. Even though the Penguins will be motivated from last year’s upset playoff loss, I expect New York to handle Pittsburgh convincingly. Rangers in five.
2. Washington (45-26-11) vs. 3. New York Islanders (47-28-7)
This year provides a big welcome back to the playoffs for Washington under the guidance of their seasoned, defense-first head coach Barry Trotz, who might be leading the best Capitals team of the Alex Ovechkin (NHL leading 53 goals and 81 points) era. One of the NHL’s best bench bosses guided Washington to play a much more structured game, while still allowing the team’s big-scoring stars, Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom (NHL leading 60 assists) to shine. Though the Caps remain a bit thin as far as roster depth, young forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov and Marcus Johansson are both emerging, plus the team’s blue line is proving to be more of an asset as opposed to the liability it always was in years past. Same goes in goal, where Braden Holtby (41-20-10, 2.22 G.A.A., .923 SP), offered up a Vezina-worthy season.
From the opening bell, the New York Islanders rocketed to the top of the NHL in unexpected fashion, led by hockey’s most well-rounded star, John Tavares (team-leading 38 goals, 48 assists and 86 points). Tavares is joined by centers Ryan Strome, Frans Nielsen and Brock Nelson, making the Islanders one of the NHL’s deepest teams down the middle of the ice, which is always a good formula for playoff success. Meanwhile, the additions of Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy made the Islanders much stronger and deeper along its blue line. New York is also much improved in goal with Jaroslav Halak (38-17-4, 2.43 G.A.A., .914 SP), but the veteran could give way to Michal Neuvirth if he struggles at all in the postseason.
Two of the NHL’s best players, Ovechkin and Tavares, return to the playoffs to square off in this headliner series featuring two legitimate Cup contenders. In what should be a very even series, Washington’s one key edge, goaltending, should prove the difference. Caps in seven.
Central Division Semifinals:
1. St. Louis (51-24-7) vs. WC1. Minnesota (46-28-8)
St. Louis may be the most balanced team in the NHL, featuring the league’s fifth-best offense, fourth-best defense, plus a solid power play and penalty kill. Leading the charge is budding superstar Vladimir Tarasenko (team-leading 37 goals and 73 points), a super sniper just starting his prime years. He’s joined by a bevy of quality scorers like Alexander Steen (team-leading 40 assists), Jaden Schwartz, veteran Paul Stastny and tough-as-nails captain David Backes (104 PIM). On defense the Blues are big, mobile and feature two of the league’s best in transition in Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk. The only thing that might hold back the Blues, other than a brutal playoff road map through the Central Division, is their usual weakness, goaltending. Underrated Jake Allen (22-7-4, 2.28 G.A.A., .913 SP) gets the first shot at backstopping St. Louis, while Brian Elliott is a more than capable number two option. Since Allen might just be the real deal, expect these playoffs to be his coming-out party.
Halfway through the season, few would have predicted Minnesota’s return to the playoffs. The Wild, mired in first-half stupor, could not find a goaltender to keep the puck out of the net, while the team’s two stars, Zach Parise (team-leading 33 goals and 62 points) and Ryan Suter (team-leading 36 assists) played with heavy hearts due to the loss of their fathers. Then, general manager Chuck Fletcher went out and made the trade of the year, picking up castaway goaltender Devan Dubnyk (27-9-2, 1.78 G.A.A., .936 SP with the Wild), who tossed the team on his back and carried Minnesota to the playoffs. The Wild, though still not especially deep, are a formidable foe for any team, including the favored Blues, just due to the fact that they carried the NHL’s best record since the All-Star break, and are 28-9-3 since January 15.
As per usual, St. Louis opens the playoffs against an opponent capable of winning the Stanley Cup. Such is life for the Blues, who will need a full series worth of games to dispatch Minnesota, one of the NHL’s hottest teams. Blues in seven.
2. Nashville (47-25-10) vs. 3. Chicago (48-28-6)
After a two-year hiatus, Nashville is back with a vengeance in 2015. The Predators’ roster is especially along its blue line, which is arguably the best in the NHL. On the point, the Predators feature captain Shea Weber, emerging two-way threats Roman Josi and Seth Jones, plus the likes of Ryan Ellis and others. Offensively the Predators added a lot coming into the season. Rookie Filip Forsberg (team-leading 26 goals and 63 points) successfully transitioned up from AHL affiliate Milwaukee to become a Calder Trophy favorite. Meanwhile, a pair of crafty transactions by G.M. David Poile brought in offensive threats in Mike Ribeiro (team-leading 47 assists) and James Neal, along with new coach Peter Laviolette, to enhance the two-way standard already in place. However, the big reason for the Predators’ return to prominence is goaltender Pekka Rinne (41-17-6, 2.18 G.A.A., .923 S.P.), a Vezina trophy candidate when healthy this season.
With an impressive recent postseason track record, Chicago returns as the favorite in the Western Conference after falling in an epic series against Los Angeles a season ago. They got good news this week when the Blackhawks found out that 2013 Conn Smythe Winner Patrick Kane would be back and healthy for Game 1. Though Kane might not be 100 percent, much of the offense, including Marian Hossa (team-leading 39 assists), Jonathan Toews (team-leading 28 goals and 66 points) and Patrick Sharp all should be. Chicago’s defense has not been great this season, but it still features top-end pair Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, plus goaltender Corey Crawford (32-20-5, 2.27 G.A.A., .924 S.P.), who continues to perform.
The Predators have the misfortune of drawing heavily favored Chicago, the most recent Stanley Cup winner in the field. Blackhawks fans will likely invade Bridgestone Arena and make their presence felt. However, the Predators’ superior depth, defensive corps and goaltending, plus a more healthy roster overall, should dispatch Chicago. The Preds narrowly lost to the Blackhawks in 2010. They’ll win this series in seven.
Pacific Division Semifinals:
1. Anaheim (51-24-7) vs. WC2. Winnipeg (43-26-13)
As the only Pacific Division team returning to the playoffs, Anaheim will be the odds-on favorite to advance to the Western Conference finals and perhaps beyond. The Ducks are loaded on offense, with stars Ryan Getzlaf (team-leading 45 assists and 70 points) and Corey Perry (team-leading 33 goals) leading the way. This year the dynamic duo will be joined by fellow playoff standout Ryan Kesler, who slots in nicely as the number-two center. If there is an underrated element to Anaheim’s game, it is their defense. Sami Vatanen, Hampus Lindholm and Cam Fowler are all unproven in the postseason but coming off a solid regular season. The Ducks’ biggest question mark lies in goal. It always seems to for head coach Bruce Boudreau. Frederik Andersen (35-12-5, 2.38 G.A.A., .914 S.P.) will get the nod to start, while young John Gibson offers a decent second option. Whether one or the other can backstop an extended Cup run remains to be seen.
Winnipeg enters the playoffs a dangerous crossover squad as the fifth playoff team from the Central Division. The Jets are loaded on the blue line, featuring size and strength in abundance with a top six as good as any in the NHL. Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom and Tyler Myers are the headliners, but the other three options are just about as good. Winnipeg isn’t overly impressive offensively, but there is the plenty of size and grit — much like the 2011 Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, or for that matter, their opponent in this series. Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler (62 and 61 points, respectively) lead the way as far as scoring, but like Anaheim the Jets’ glaring weakness (along with a lack of playoff experience) is its goaltenders. Ondrej Pavelec (22-16-8, 2.28 G.A.A., .920 S.P.) or Michael Hutchinson can come up big at times, with Pavelec getting the first crack at Anaheim in Game 1. Winnipeg also has a raucous home crowd, the envy of any team in the league, which will be a dangerous asset if the Jets can grab a lead in any series.
Winnipeg will give Anaheim all it can handle in a first-round series that might go down as one of the best of the playoffs. If the Jets can steal a win in Southern California, the upset alert absolutely will be on. However, with the addition of Kesler, Anaheim is poised for a big run and they will hold on. Ducks in seven.
2. Vancouver (48-29-5) vs. 3. Calgary (45-30-7)
Vancouver’s rough 2013-14 had more to do with a bad coach fit than the team truly being poor. Enter Willie Desjardins, a hot prospect among head coaches, who allowed the Canucks to re-find their offensive stride. It did not hurt that the franchise also added a new General Manager in Jim Benning, who made three smart maneuvers, first trading Kesler (who wanted out), then signing two of the off season’s top free agents in goaltender Ryan Miller (29-15-1, 2.53 G.A.A., .911 S.P.) and forward Radim Vrbata (team-leading 31 goals), who fit in nicely with the Sedin twins. In 2014-15, both Daniel (team-leading 56 assists and 76 points) and Henrik (73 points) proved they still have a lot left in the tank even at age 34. The result was an impressive 2014-15 that resulted in a home playoff berth in round one.
The Canucks’ opponent in the first round is easily the biggest surprise in the NHL this season, Calgary. After finally committing to a full rebuild, the Flames have been smart in building a new roster based around character players, similar to Poile’s long run of competitive Nashville teams. Calgary, though not laced with great veteran talent, with the notable exception of leading scorer Jiri Hudler (team-leading 45 assists and 76 points), have a solid goaltender with playoff experience in Jonas Hiller (26-19-4, 2.36 G.A.A., .918 S.P). The Flames also feature a more than capable defense, even without Norris trophy candidate Mark Giordano, and an explosive young offense with some talented scorers like Sean Monahan (team-leading 31 goals) and Johnny “Hockey” Gaudreau.
In what is clearly the weakest series in round one, each team has a chance to win this series and start an upset run through the playoffs. Though Vancouver is, and should be, a heavy favorite, I like the character of the hard-working Flames. Flames in seven.
Forecasting the Rest of the Playoffs:
In the West I will take St. Louis over Nashville in five games, while Anaheim will sweep away the Flames.
In the East, I expect Tampa Bay to hold off Ottawa in six games, while the Rangers will oust Washington in five.
In the West I see the Blues beating the Ducks in seven games, while in the East the Lightning will turn the same trick on the Rangers.
Stanley Cup Finals Prediction:
Finally, I predict St. Louis to claim the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in six games over Tampa Bay.