Western Conference playoff preview and prediction
Now that the season has finally wound down the real fun can begin. The NHL Playoffs begin on Wednesday evening as three different series kick off the 2014 postseason.
While the Boston Bruins claimed the President’s Trophy this year, the Western Conference boasts four of the league’s top five teams based on the final point standings. The West has been regarded as the stronger conference this season, but there’s a strong possibility that the team coming away with the Clarence C. Campbell Cup will have taken a savage beating to get there.
Colorado Avalanche vs. Minnesota Wild
The Avalanche used a late run and a backslide by St. Louis to sneak into the top spot in the Central Division. The surge not only lifted the Avs to a division title but also out of a first round showdown with Chicago. They’ll face Central Division rival, Minnesota, who finished with a stranglehold on the first wild card position in the West.
Minnesota worked through a goaltending carousel in order to capture what would have previously been considered the seventh seed under the old playoff format. They finished seven points clear of Dallas and wound up with a nice cushion in the standings as Dallas and Phoenix fought for the final position.
What to Watch For
Colorado has been powered by their young core that features three top-three selections. Matt Duchene (3rd overall 2009) is on the shelf with an injury but captain Gabriel Landeskog (2nd overall 2011) and Nathan MacKinnon (1st overall 2013) have kept the ship on course over the last few weeks. While Duchene won’t likely factor in this series, the Avs have solid scoring depth and have received stout goaltending for much of the season.
Minnesota features a more veteran laden lineup with a few elite talents that power their engine. Ryan Suter is their minute eating stalwart and his fellow free agent classmate Zach Parise headlines a forward group with plenty of offensive pedigree. There may be some question marks in the crease, but the players playing in front of Ilya Bryzgalov can skate with just about anyone in the league.
Colorado is the favorite entering the series despite Duchene’s absence. While I think that Suter’s ability on the backend and Minnesota’s ability to match a great deal of Colorado’s lineup will keep the series close, I think that the Avs have enough depth to really give Minnesota fits. If the Wild’s scorers are able to get free it could be a long series. But if cast behind Landeskog and MacKinnon
Between the pipes:
COL: Semyon Varlamov
MIN: Ilya Bryzgalov
Edge: Colorado. Varlamov is going to get some votes for the Vezina and could potentially be a finalist. Bryzgalov’s resurgence in Minnesota has been nice to see after the rough ride he got in Philadelphia the last few years. While his play has improved, his countryman has been a rock for the entire year.
Colorado in six
Chicago Blackhawks vs. St. Louis Blues
Things couldn’t have ended much worse for the Blues as they’ve seen a bevvy of injuries underscore an ugly losing streak that knocked them from the top spot in the west and into an incredibly challenging series against the defending Cup champs.
Chicago enters the series a little banged up as well with both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are nursing injuries of their own. The Blackhawks dropped the season series against the Blues but seem to have had their number lately, winning their last two meetings quite decisively.
What to watch for
This series is going to hinge on two things for the Blues: their goal scoring and goaltending. Ryan Miller has had a rough streak to end the season and has plenty of Blues fans questioning why they spent so much to acquire him. He hasn’t gotten much goal support despite the incredible puck possession the Blues exhibit each night. St. Louis has been shutout in three of their last six and they’ll need superhuman goaltending from Miller or Brian Elliott if they expect to get by the Hawks. But hoping to win four 1-0 games wouldn’t work if Dominik Hasek was in net.
As for the Blackhawks, they have the depth to be a very scary team even when Toews and Kane aren’t at 100%. If those two return and dominate this will be a very short series. If they remain hobbled the onus will fall on Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to carry the load. Given their collective skillset it shouldn’t be an issue.
The Blues will need to hope they heal up quickly if they plan on advancing past the first round. Should they get healthy prior to the series I could see them matching Chicago player-for-player should Toews and Kane not see considerable minutes. Depth scoring will likely drive the series as I expect each team’s top guns to be locked down for the duration of the series. If that is the case I’d say the Hawks come away winners.
Between the pipes:
STL: Ryan Miller
CHI: Corey Crawford
Edge: Chicago. On paper you might choose Miller over Crawford but the former has hit the skids hard as of late and Crawford is the proud owner of a Cup ring. Whether or not both teams return to full health, Miller will have far more to prove in the series and I expect the Blackhawks to be victorious.
Chicago in six
Anaheim Ducks vs. Dallas Stars
This is expected to be a series that advanced stats fans watch very closely. The Ducks finished the year with below average possession numbers while the Stars were quite respectable in that department. Many who track advanced stats closely see the Stars as a legitimate threat to the Ducks in the first round despite how the standings shook out.
Anaheim has a solid blueline and a pair of world-class scorers in Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Getzlaf is probably going to finish second to Sidney Crosby in the Hart Trophy voting while Perry continues to pour in goals like it’s going out of style. Bruce Boudreau will have a tough choice to make in net as Jonas Hiller has been okay but not tremendous this year. Meanwhile Frederik Andersen and John Gibson are both viable options to roll with. However, the youth of the latter two makes them tough to roll with right off the bat.
Dallas saw a major roster overhaul kickoff last summer and the result is a playoff berth. Pairing Tyler Seguin with Jamie Benn has created a scoring duo that can run with any team’s top line across the league. Seeing if they can outscore Getzlaf and Perry will be fascinating although their success may hinge on Kari Lehtonen’s performance. If he’s on, I expect the Stars to pull the upset.
What to watch for
Anaheim needs sound goaltending and I suspect that Hiller isn’t the solution to that particular issue. While he’s started the majority of their games this season, it would appear as if Andersen or Gibson could be the direction to follow. I would assume that Hiller starts but is given a very short leash to operate on. Goal scoring won’t be a problem for the Ducks as they have a very deep lineup, but they’ll be relying heavily on their netminders to advance.
What could serve as Dallas’ Achilles Heel is their depth. It’s not so much that it’s lacking but I don’t know how well it matches up with what Anaheim will roll out. If Benn and Seguin are locked down, I’ll be interested to see where their goal scoring will come from.
This is setting up to be a home team series as line matching and locking down scorers will likely drive each team’s respective game plan and success.
Between the pipes
DAL: Kari Lehtonen
Edge: Dallas. Lehtonen is always one wrong move away from injury but he’s been very steady for the Stars all year. While Hiller could be described as dependable, he hasn’t been outstanding and, in turn, hasn’t inspired much faith with his play. Lehtonen is the constant here while the Ducks are in limbo.
Ducks in seven
San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings
It’s safe to say this series is precisely why the NHL switched back to the divisional format. The opportunity for the Sharks, Ducks and Kings to see each other in the postseason along with other rivalries like the Canadiens and Bruins and Penguins and Flyers were the blueprint. It’s safe to say that this one shows they might have gotten things right.
The Kings did their thing yet again, cruising through the regular season and locking up a playoff spot relatively early on. Their goaltender captured the Jennings Trophy and they made some adept moves at the deadline to strengthen their depth, particularly up front, and they appear to be poised for another run.
San Jose isn’t easy to ignore as their up and coming stars have taken over from the old core that couldn’t get over the hump in the early 2000s. The fact that the old core still remains adds to the ridiculous talent pool the Sharks boast as Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and Joe Pavelski compliment Joe Thornton, Partrick Marleau and others.
What to watch for
The Sharks talent up front features two lines that would be the top line for a majority of the teams around the league. The fact that they are able to spread that talent over not two, but three lines speaks to the roster they’ve built. I think they are left wanting on the back end to an extent and while they have some elite talent on the blue line (see Vlasic, Marc-Edouard) that might be the only weak spot they have.
Los Angeles has the talent to completely blow games open with their dominant puck possession style. They boast a likely Selke Finalist in Anze Kopitar, an explosive scoring winger in Jeff Carter and a number of complimentary pieces that rounds out their top nine. They also have Justin Williams, who has proven to be beyond clutch come playoff time. Their blueline is sound and I’d definitely give their group the edge over San Jose’s blueline in terms of a head-to-head comparison.
This has all the makings for a knock down, seven game series which the winner will likely crawl, not walk, away from. I really have no idea who I’d favor between the two teams, although a recent Cup and the edge in net likely favors the Kings.
Between the Pipes
SJS: Antti Niemi
LAK: Jonathan Quick
Edge: Los Angeles. While Niemi has had a great year, Quick’s has been better. He captured the Jennings Trophy (with some help from Martin Jones) and already has a Conn Smythe Trophy to his record. He’s been terrific yet again this year and there’s no reason to think he isn’t good for at least one series win this spring.
Los Angeles in seven
Eastern Conference playoff preview and prediction
A pair of Eastern Conference series kick off this year’s postseason and while the East may not be as deep or talented as the West, their best teams can run with anyone in the league.
Boston and the Penguins are the favorites to come out of the East but I won’t be surprised to see one, or both, upset along the way.
Boston Bruins vs. Detroit Red Wings
Detroit extended their impressive playoff streak to 23 seasons despite battling a ridiculous number of injuries down the stretch this year. While most of their walking wounded are preparing to return, the level of health the team will be playing at is certainly going to be a focal point.
Boston, meanwhile, captured the President’s Trophy and steamrolled the East on their way to a 117 point season. The Bruins bully their way around with an impressive combination of size and skill throughout their lineup.
What to watch for
Patrice Bergeron is going to win the Selke Trophy again and he’s going to garner votes for the Hart Trophy as well. He’s not an offensive powerhouse but his positive puck possession numbers make his line a lethal trio to handle. Offseason acquisition Loui Eriksson was beat up a bit this season but if he can return to full health for the playoffs he’d present the Bruins another tremendous scoring option. The obvious story along the blueline is Zdeno Chara but his countryman Andrej Meszaros has proven to be a terrific deadline acquisition for Peter Chiarelli and has shored up what was already a strong group.
The Wings get a nice treat in their first year in the East with a berth against last year’s Cup finalists coming off a stretch run where their playoff streak was in jeopardy due to a number of injuries. Pavel Datsyuk is back on the ice but isn’t likely back to full strength just yet. Henrik Zetterberg appears to be somewhat close to a return. However, even if he does make it back for this series, what sort of condition will he be in?
Detroit’s youth will have to carry them to victories as players like Gustav Nyqusit, Tomas Tatar and Tomas Jurco will be looked to as important cogs to any success the Red Wings will have. The key for Boston will be to lean on the Red Wings defensive corps. They’re a youthful bunch who could be targeted by the Bruins, especially at the TD Garden when Claude Julien has the last change.
Between the pipes
BOS: Tuukka Rask
DET: Jimmy Howard
Edge: Boston. Jimmy Howard is a terrific goaltender but Tuukka Rask happens to be better. Rask is a lock to win the Vezina and I expect him to steal at least one game on his own this series.
Boston in five
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Montreal Canadiens
If the San Jose/Los Angeles series is the perfect example of the division format I’d argue that this series is the antitheses of that. Both teams are talented groups with a handful of exciting players dotting each roster. However, there’s no real meat to the matchup itself.
The Canadiens feature a tremendous goaltender and nice depth up and down their lineup. They might be a little thin on the blue line and their five-on-five scoring leaves you wanting but when you have a forward group that features Max Pacioretty and Thomas Vanek on the same line, it’s likely that you have something working in your favor. Finding scoring beyond those two could prove to be a challenge.
Tampa Bay suffered what could be a major blow at the end of the year as Ben Bishop went down with an injury and is a question mark for this first round series. Steven Stamkos is on a level that few other NHLers can reach and will be a major factor for the Bolts in this series. Like the Canadiens, Tampa will rely on their secondary scoring to advance past the first round.
What to watch for
Montreal’s power play is tremendous. Vanek and Pacioretty are both lethal scorers and PK Subban is equally potent from the point. However, if that top line gets shut down by the Lightning, the Canadiens could be in a lot of trouble. However, their special teams are phenomenal and could certainly wind up as the difference maker in this series.
If Ben Bishop doesn’t come back in time to make a difference in this series the Lightning could be cooked before the first puck drops. Even if he does return, his physical condition could make him more of a hindrance than a benefit. Tampa will need to match Montreal on special teams and their young stars will need to shine.
I believe Tampa Bay has a little more depth than Montreal up front. Should that depth start producing early I could see the Lightning coming away with the win. However, Bishop’s status likely condemns the Lightning to an early exit which is unfortunate considering the season they enjoyed.
Between the pipes
MTL: Carey Price
Edge: Montreal. If Bishop was at full health this would be a dead heat. Both Price and Bishop are going to garner attention for the Vezina and have been two of the league’s best goalies this year. Lindback has been quite streaky and represents a significant drop off when compared to Bishop.
Montreal in five
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
At some point the Blue Jackets will catch a break. Their first playoff appearance in franchise history saw them face the Red Wings who were in the middle of a run where they played for back-to-back Cups. Columbus was overmatched by a Red Wings roster that is starting to tail off when compared to this year’s team. Now the Blue Jackets are treated to a showdown with Sidney Crosby and co. in the 2014 first round.
While the Blue Jackets have some nice pieces, Ryan Johansen immediately comes to mind, they don’t have that cornerstone talent you can look to for a big performance. They score by committee and are a team that defines the whole being greater than the sum of it’s parts. They have a number of exciting young talents to keep an eye on, but lacking that big gun could hurt them in the end.
The Penguins come as advertised. They have one of the best forward groups in the league that is top heavy with offensive dynamos like Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and others. They’re blueline is a little thin and Marc-Andre Fleury is surrounded by question marks. Their shortcomings are well documented but they’re often overshadowed by their strengths.
What to watch for
If Columbus hopes to compete in this series they’ll need to have all four lines rolling with their top nine chipping in on a regular basis. If they’re able to quiet one of Pittsburgh’s top units they’ll have a punchers chance based on the overall depth they possess.
The Blue Jackets certainly have the edge in net and the mental makeup of Fluery heading into this series is going to be something to focus on. He is likely operating on a short leash even with an unstable situation behind him. However, even if Fleury struggles, Tomas Vokoun was part of last year’s Eastern Conference Final appearance. I find it hard to say that they don’t have enough talent and fire power to get past Columbus.
Pittsburgh will wind up taking this series simply because they have too many heads to contain. While the Blue Jackets feature a lineup with more than one line that can score, the Penguins take that to a whole different level.
Between the pipes
PIT: Marc-Andre Fleury
CBJ: Sergei Bobrovsky
Edge: Columbus. While I’m not the biggest fan of Bobrovsky, he’s shown much more promise and success than Fluery this season. While Fleury benefits from playing behind what almost equates to an All Star team in some respects, Bobrovsky handles a more difficult workload. While I see the Penguins taking the series, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was in spite of Fleury.
Pittsburgh in six
New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers
It may not be the Flyers and Penguins, but this series still boasts some nice background to build on. While neither squad started the year well, each rallied hard to not only qualify for the post season but avoid a serious push at a wild card position.
The Rangers come in with the edge in net but I’d argue that the Flyers have the edge in terms of talent up front. I suspect that a lot of New York’s success will come from the ability to match Ryan McDonagh and friends against Claude Giroux. If Giroux’s line is stymied the Rangers will have a lot of success in this round. If not, watch out.
Philly doesn’t necessarily live and die with Giroux, of course, but he’s clearly their MVP. While the Rangers probably have the stronger blue line, I don’t think the Flyers will be outdone with their ability to shutdown New York’s top scorers thanks to Sean Couturier. It sets things up for a chess match of line matching and shutdown players as both coaches have specific targets they need to hone in on.
What to watch for
The Rangers are an interesting case as they have a number of recognizable names but don’t boast the scoring depth like many other teams in this year’s playoffs. Martin St. Louis hasn’t caught on as of yet and his struggles highlight a forward group with big names but lack big numbers. If Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello are shutdown, the Rangers may struggle to score goals.
Philly has the most dynamic line between the two teams and Giroux, Jakub Voarcek and Scott Hartnell are a lethal trio who will be difficult to contain. They’ll see a whole lot of McDonagh and Craig Berube will need to be clever to try and work them away from that matchup. They also have a potential question mark in goal. While Steve Mason seems to have shaken the poor play that chased him from Columbus, exactly how well he will play remains in limbo.
The Rangers may luck out with the question marks in goal and the thin blue line the Flyers will ice. If they can get players not named Nash and Zuccarello scoring this could be a quick series. If not, watch the Flyers advance.
Between the pipes
NYR: Henrik Lundqvist
PHI: Steve Mason
Edge: New York. Lundqvist probably won’t walk away with any hardware this season but he’s a perennial Vezina Candidate for a reason. Mason happens to be good but that’s probably where the scale stops. While Lundqvist can be relied on to steal a game it’s more likely that Mason will be relied on not to lose a game.
Rangers in seven
Stay tuned here for more previews and predictions as each series progresses.