The NHL playoffs are upon us. 2014 is the first year of the new playoff format that was introduced along with the realignment of divisions. Teams will not be reseeded after each round and instead there is a bracket that will give divisional rounds, the conference finals, and the Stanley Cup Final. The first round of the playoffs is one of my favourite parts of the season, and this year’s first round is poised to be great!
Boston v. Detroit
The Red Wings have the potential to upset the heavily seeded Bruins the way the early 2000’s-era Montreal Canadiens did. The main reason that won’t happen is the Finnish Wall the Bruins set up in front of their net before the start of each hockey game that goes by the name of Tuukka Rask. Aside from starring for the bronze medal-winning Finnish team earlier this year in Sochi, he is the Vezina Trophy front runner and a safety net should the Bruins have trouble getting the puck past Jimmy Howard. This Bruins team is simply too deep to lose four games to a Detroit team that is not what it used to be.
Prediction: Bruins in five.
Tampa Bay v. Montreal
Steven Stamkos scored at a 55 goal pace when he wasn’t sidelined due to wrapping his leg around a goal post in November. If he can continue that pace he will take some pressure off of Ben Bishop, a major Vezina contender, to match the play of the unflappable Carey Price. Montreal has an interesting mix of players and Tomas Vanek, while in no way Stamkos’s equal in the goal scoring department, is the true game-breaker that the Canadiens have lacked in recent years. The Habs have are never an easy draw, and Vanek and Price will outduel Stamkos and Bishop.
Prediction: Habs in six
Pittsburgh v. Columbus
The Columbus Blue Jackets are in the playoffs again for the first time since the 2008-09 season, the only other year they have qualified for the playoffs. They will be aiming for their first playoff win in franchise history on the strength of Ryan Johansen’s 33 goal, breakout season. While Sergei Bobrovsky likely won’t take home the Vezina trophy for a second straight year, he has shown that last year’s Vezina win was no fluke, and he has the ability to outduel Marc-Andre Fleury. While the Penguins are obviously an offensive powerhouse they lack depth, and Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and James Neal are amongst the least robust players in the game. It’s not the first round of the NHL playoffs without a major upset; Columbus takes this series in seven for the surprise of the playoffs.
Prediction: Blue Jackets in seven.
NYR v. Philadelphia
This is as exciting a first round matchup as one can hope for, but maybe that’s just because I never know what to expect from the Philadelphia Flyers. Claude Giroux made up for his slow start to finish third in league scoring, and Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek are rugged players that can score. The Martin St. Louis era in New York has gone puzzlingly poorly so far, and even though Henrik Lundqvist is one of the league’s best goalies, the Flyers will do whatever they can to get him off his game. The Flyers are a team built for the playoffs and love to drive other teams crazy. They’ll take it in six.
Prediction: Flyers in six.
Colorado v. Minnesota
The Colorado Avalanche were the surprise team of the year in Patrick Roy’s first season behind an NHL bench. Semyon Varlamov led the league with 41 wins, and the Avalanche boast an impressive top six forwards led by hard-nosed Gabriel Landeskog. Expect Landeskog to have an impressive playoffs. While a move to Minnesota has worked out well thus far for Ilya Bryzgalov, he’s not exactly the model of consistency. It will be easy for the Avalanche to get to Bryzgalov and take this series.
Prediction: Avalanche in five.
St. Louis v. Chicago
The Blues have been decimated by injuries recently with leaders David Backes, T.J. Oshie, and Alex Pietrangelo out with various ailments. Backes and Oshie should be available for the first round matchup, but they might not be 100%. Despite their depth, the Blues won’t be able to replace players of this caliber to match the Blackhawks, who will have Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews back from their own injuries just in time for the playoffs. This will be a long series and the winner likely won’t make it past the second round. Assuming their stars can dress I think the Blues will be able to take it, but regardless of who wins, I’ll be surprised if this series takes less than seven games to decide a winner.
Prediction: Blues in seven.
Anaheim v. Dallas
The Dallas Stars had the least amount of points of any playoff team, and while they had big years offensively from Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, those players will draw the Ducks best shutdown line every time they’re on the ice. It won’t be a fun first round for Seguin and Benn, but at least it will be short. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry put up excellent years offensively and Teemu Selanne will be looking to go out on a high note.
Prediction: Ducks in four.
San Jose v. Los Angeles
The Sharks are going to be in tough to shake their reputation as perennial playoff underachievers when they take on the Kings, the stingiest team in the regular season. But the Kings have appeared in the last two Western Conference finals, and they sent a bevy of stars to Sochi, most of whom played major roles for their respective countries – fatigue has to be setting in for this team. The Sharks’ desire to lose the playoff failure tag will ultimately make them too strong for a tired Kings team that will be worn down quickly.
Prediction: Sharks in six.