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NHL Playoffs First Round Preview

Sports
NHL Playoffs First Round Preview

Dennis Wierzbicki/USA TODAY Sports Images

With the conclusion of the NHL’s regular season, fans can now look ahead to the playoffs, which start on Wednesday April 16th. Each of the eight first round series have been determined, presenting a variety of different scenarios. From regional rivalries to teams separated by hundreds of miles, serious underdogs facing Cup contenders to two teams so close that a game seven is almost guaranteed, there’s at least one series to fit any label. Will youth or experience, offense or defense, size or skill be the way in which this year’s Stanley Cup winner finds their success? Over the next two months, fans will be fortunate enough to find out.

In the first round, sixteen teams will enter but only eight will emerge victorious. While a couple teams will consider themselves simply fortunate to have made the playoffs, others eliminated in the first round will be teams perceived as legitimate Cup contenders, who will then require serious thought as to how to proceed next season. There may even be a significant upset or two, with a highly ranked team unexpectedly falling to their much lower-ranked opponent. To get you ready for all your first-round playoff viewing, I’ll break down each series and provide predictions.

8. Eastern Conference : Boston Bruins vs. Detroit Red Wings

Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports Images

Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports Images

It’s impossible to deny the Red Wings are an experienced playoff team capable of playing at a high level, with 1,333 combined games of playoff experience shared by their team’s players. Datsyuk’s return helps fill some of their offensive needs, but the continuing absence of Zetterberg is a significant concern. Their forwards are a good mix of emerging young players like Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar with proven veterans like Datsyuk, Daniel Alfredsson and Johan Franzen, but their blueline is solid, if not spectacular, and goaltender Jimmy Howard is strong but not among the NHL elite.

Boston, on the other hand, has a roster that inspires jealousy amongst other NHL executives, and is the odds-on favourite to emerge as Eastern Conference champions. While they have only won two of their seven games in April after a torrent 16-1-1 March, they remain one of the healthiest contending teams and are prepared for a long playoff run. The Bruins have arguably the deepest forward corps in the league, led by a renewed Jarome Iginla, underrated star David Krejci, Milan Lucic, super-pest Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. Chara dominates discussion about their blueline, but Andrej Mezsaros, Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton add greater depth than Kyle Quincey and Jakub Kindl do in Detroit. Rask also remains one of the league’s best goalies, capable of carrying the team in stretches if the rest of the team falters. Short of a serious injury to Rask, it’s difficult to imagine anyone knocking the Bruins out early, let alone a talented but aging and injury-plagued Detroit team.

Prediction: Boston wins 4-2

7. Eastern Confrence: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Montreal Canadiens

Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports Images

Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports Images

With starting goaltender and possible Vezina candidate Ben Bishop out injured, the Lightning face a difficult road to the second round, as they must face off against Olympic gold medalist Carey Price. The team has faced numerous challenges throughout this season, from Steven Stamkos’ injured leg to the Martin St. Louis trade to the recent arrest of forward Ryan Malone for cocaine possession, and yet have remained one of the East’s best teams. This praiseworthy ability to withstand challenges this season, however, may not be enough to cover over Lindback’s deficiencies. He has played only thirteen minutes of playoff hockey in his career and finished this season with an 8-12-2 record and a below average .891 save percentage. Tampa Bay’s blueline has improved, with Victor Hedman emerging as a true star at both ends of the ice alongside veterans Sami Salo, Matt Carle and Eric Brewer, and newly acquired Ryan Callahan offers premier two-way play, but it may not be enough to stop Montreal.

In previous years, the Canadiens lacked the size up front to compete in the playoffs, but the team has diligently improved on that front. Max Pacioretty, newly acquired Thomas Vanek, and Brandon Prust help to balance the play of their smaller counterparts like David Desharnais, Brendan Gallagher, Brian Gionta and Daniel Briere. If Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin can step up to shut down Stamkos, they will place significant pressure on Ondrej Palat, Valteri Filppula and Tyler Johnson, who may not be able to score enough if they are forced to cover extra defensive responsibilities to cover Lindback.

Bishop’s absence markedly tilts the series in Montreal’s favour, but even his return may not be enough to swing the series away from a Canadiens team that appears prepared to make a run.

Prediction: Montreal wins 4-2

6. Eastern Conference: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

Greg Bartram/USA TODAY Sports Images

Greg Bartram/USA TODAY Sports Images

If there is any series that may be a sweep, it’s this one. Sidney Crosby is healthy and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, notorious in recent years for failing in the playoffs, faces a Columbus group lacking a true offensive star outside of Ryan Johansen now that Nathan Horton is injured. Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has played well after a slow start, defensemen Jack Johnson, James Wisniewski, Fedor Tyutin and Nick Schultz provide a physical force and Columbus has a good team offensive strategy, but Columbus is fortunate to be in the playoffs at all. They can build from a losing experience to have longer playoff runs in the near future, but this will not be their year. Malkin’s foot injury, Letang’s recent return after a stroke and Paul Martin’s recent return from a hand injury all pose question marks, but they are more likely to be issues in later rounds for Pittsburgh than against the Blue Jackets.

Prediction: Pittsburgh wins 4-1

5. Eastern Conference: New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers

Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports Images

Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports Images

The closest of the four Eastern match-ups renews the age-old question of offense vs. defense. If you support an offensive outlook, the depth of the Flyers’ forward group makes them the tantalizing choice. Philadelphia had seven players with 20 or more goals, five of whom, including Giroux, are 27 years of age or younger. Only Lecavalier and Scott Hartnell of the seven were above that mark. The Flyers have a combination of speed, size and skill that make them hard to handle for any team.

The Rangers, however, may be uniquely suited to defeat the Flyers in a series. Lundqvist has improved since the team’s poor start, influenced by a long nine-game road trip to start the season, and the Rangers blueline of Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Kevin Klein is built to handle an attack like the Flyers. Philadelphia’s defense has some talented offensive players like Kimmo Timonen and Mark Streit, but the Flyers’ 227 goals against this season, higher than any other playoff team, reveals defensive deficiencies. Lacking a shutdown defense to protect Steve Mason in net, the Flyers are vulnerable to a Rangers forward corps including St. Louis, Nash, Richards and Mats Zuccarello. Since acquiring St. Louis, the Rangers have also been scoring at a rate of 2.79 goals per game, an improvement over the 2.62 goals per game they were scoring before acquiring him and much closer to the 2.88 goals per game the Flyers scored this season.

The Rangers’ significantly better goaltending and defense will elevate them above the Flyers’ slightly better offensive attack.

Prediction: Rangers win 4-3

4. Western Conference: Anaheim Ducks vs. Dallas Stars

Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports Images

Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports Images

The largest regular-season point differential of any playoff series offers little hope of an upset. The Ducks seem to be able to produce great goaltending from anyone in their system, so even if Jonas Hiller is injured again, Frederik Andersen or John Gibson can step up for the Ducks. The team has a deep blueline able to shut down a speedy Dallas attack led by Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. Getzlaf and Perry dominate on offense for Anaheim but Nick Bonino and Andrew Cogliano both also quietly recorded 20-goal seasons, belying the belief that their team’s offense is entirely reliant on their two superstars.

Dallas, however, does not have that same luxury, with no other forwards eclipsing 35 points after Seguin and Benn. Dallas’ defense corps, after Alex Goligoski, does not have the depth of Anaheim’s, and while Lehtonen deserves credit for recording the best goals against average and save percentages of his career (2.41, .919), few would argue he is a better option than Hiller for Anaheim. Dallas should feel fortunate to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008, and hope to keep the series close, if nothing else.

Prediction: Anaheim wins 4-1

3. Western Conference: San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings

Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports Images

Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports Images

There really is no bad choice in this series. The second-round playoff series last year between them came down to a one-goal difference in Game 7, and it’s hard to argue why that wouldn’t be the case again this year. Niemi is a good goalie, but it’s hard to say any team in the NHL would have an edge over Jonathan Quick, despite the fact that they had nearly identical save percentages (Quick’s .915 narrowly edges Niemi’s .913). Doughty is the strongest blueliner too, but the Sharks have Canadian Olympian Marc-Edouard Vlasic and former Olympian Dan Boyle. After them, both teams have impressive depth in defense, and can keep opposition to few goals, meaning any scoring will be at a premium.

Los Angeles has nearly perfected the art of the 2-1 win, and possess forwards like Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Marian Gaborik, Mike Richards, Justin Williams and Dustin Brown. With the exception of Gaborik, these forwards possess a physical edge that make them hard to play against, and can grind down an opponent.

San Jose has been a perennial playoff disappointment, but their forward corps is deep and talented. Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski, Couture, Burns and now Tomas Hertl can all score, even against a tightly defensive Los Angeles team. The Kings are a fantastic team and it would not surprise me in the least if they won this series, but I’m going to take a risk and pick the Sharks.

Prediction: San Jose wins 4-3

2. Western Conference: Colorado Avalanche vs. Minnesota Wild

Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports Images

Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports Images

Few prognosticators would have selected the Avalanche to win their division even a month ago, let alone before the regular season, yet the Avalanche have surprised everyone this season by doing so. Only Rask had a higher save percentage among starting goalies this year than Varlamov, and the team’s blueline has blossomed from a weakness to become at least a mid-range group, led by Erik Johnson and Jan Hedja. While the group has no one close to the level of Suter, who is capable of playing up to 30 minutes a game in Minnesota, neither team has a truly deep defensive corps ieither. Minnesota, however, is forced to rely on enigma Ilya Bryzgalov in net, who has played well lately but cannot guarantee to continue in such form, or rookie Darcy Kuemper.

On top of their goaltending advantage, the Avalanche also have a better group of scoring forwards. Even with forwards like Parise, Pominville, Moulson and Mikko Koivu, the Wild only finished with 199 goals, fewer than any other playoff team. The Avalanche, in contrast, scored 245, behind only Chicago, Anaheim and Boston this year. Patrick Roy has coaxed the best from Duchene, Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, Ryan O’Reilly and Paul Stastny, making them an easy pick to win the series. Minnesota can play great team defense, but simply can’t score enough goals to keep up with Colorado or get the goaltending needed to beat Varlamov.

Prediction: Colorado wins 4-1

1. Western Conference: St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks

Dennis Wierzbicki/USA TODAY Sports Images

Dennis Wierzbicki/USA TODAY Sports Images

St. Louis and Chicago have been two of the best teams all season and, if it had been logistically possible, I would not have been sad to see the two play in a Conference Final. Instead, however, both teams have fallen to the injury bug. In Chicago, both Toews and Kane suffered recent injuries, though both expect to be ready for Game 1 in St. Louis. The team’s depth at forward still allows them to play Sharp and Hossa in key roles, meaning Toews and Kane can be given reduced minutes compared to their regular workload if needed. With 21 players still on the roster from last season’s Stanley Cup champion, arguably the league’s best blueline, anchored by superstars Keith and Seabrook, and Corey Crawford enjoying another great year in goal, it would have been difficult to pick against Chicago against any team in the first round. Some have argued that Chicago’s 13-11-2 record since February 1 is an indicator of overall team fatigue after their Cup win the previous year, and they may be right, but Chicago should be capable of getting through at least one round before they completely run out of gas.

Injuries, however, have ravaged St. Louis’s forward core, turning their four lines into a shadow of their former selves. The Blues, unlike the Blackhawks, do not have stars the caliber of Toews and Kane to turn to, and with injuries to Backes, Morrow, Oshie, Roy, Sobotka, Tarasenko and Berglund, the Blues simply cannot score enough against a talented Blackhawks team. Ryan Miller has struggled of late as well, as the team has lost six straight games to close the season. Even an extraordinary defense group, which includes Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester and Kevin Shattenkirk, cannot overcome the Blackhawks without some goals. Blues fans deserve better after their spectacular season, but one of these heavyweights has to go, and the Blues cannot match up against the Blackhawks in their battered state.

Prediction: Chicago wins 4-2

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