By: Michael Abitabilo
It’s that time of the year again. You know, that time when non-hockey fans catch the tail end of a double overtime thriller and e-mail their one hockey-fan-friend the next day with something along the lines of: “Hey! Caught the second overtime of that game last night … it was awesome! Any plans this weekend?” (You don’t get it. Yes we have plans. We are watching the games!!!!!!!!!!) That time when casual hockey fans find themselves watching one or two games per week in their entirety and telling their coworkers how great the NHL playoffs are (sometimes accompanied by an empty vow to start watching hockey more regularly). And that time where die hard hockey fans basically turn into meth heads – fully willing to blow off any other responsibilities in their lives just to get their daily fix of the greatest drug in the universe. That’s right, the NHL playoffs are here!
As a result of the NHL’s conference realignment, this season marks the first under its revised playoff format. No longer are the top eight seeds in each conference thrown into one bucket to determine first round matchups (1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, etc.). Instead, the top three teams from each division each earn an automatic playoff berth. The second and third place teams in each division are guaranteed to play each other in round one. The two division winners are matched up against the two “wildcard” teams, i.e. the two teams with the highest point totals that did not finish in the top three in their division. While this will often mean each division’s fourth place team will find its way into the playoffs, that won’t always be the case. In the Western Conference, for example, the Dallas Stars finished fifth in the Central division, but because they had 91 points, they earned the final wildcard spot ahead of the Phoenix Coyotes, who finished fourth in the Pacific Division, but had only 89 points.
The revised playoff format is designed to (1) alleviate the mathematical unfairness created by the fact that the Eastern Conference has two more teams than the Western Conference; and (2) create as many first round matchups between division rivals as possible. In other words, the NHL has ensured that fans of the Round 1’s losing teams will have a particularly bitter off season! Without further ado, let’s examine the matchups and determine which teams’ fans should prepare for a 7-10 day bender, and which ones should clear their calendars for the next month or more.
Boston Bruins (#1) vs. Detroit Red Wings (#4)
For over 20 years now, the Detroit Red Wings have enjoyed an unprecedented run of success. Thanks to a 6-3-1 streak to end the regular season, the Wings were able to advance to the playoffs for the twenty-third consecutive season. With four Stanley Cups over that span, the Red Wings have become the NHL’s model franchise. The Wings will miss Henrik Zetterberg, who is not expected to play in the series, but Mike Babcock already has a Stanley Cup Ring and two Olympic Gold medals as a head coach, Dekes McNastyHands (aka Pavel Datsyuk) has been rounding into form after an injury plagued season, and goaltender Jimmy Howard had his best month of the season in April.
Unfortunately for the Wings, they are playing the Boston Bruins in Round 1, a team that is quietly building its own credentials as a dominant franchise. The Bruins won the Presidents’ Trophy as the team with the most points in the regular season, and their season-long goal differential of +84 was twice that of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had the second-highest goal differential in the Eastern Conference at +42. (By the way, the Buffalo Sabres’ goal differential was an equally incredible -91.) The Bruins are too big, too strong, too deep, and their goaltending is too good.
Prediction: Bruins in 5
Tampa Bay Lightning (#2) vs. Montreal Canadiens (#3)
No doubt this is exactly what the NHL had in mindwhen they drew up this revised playoff format. These two teams are separated by just 1,500 miles and 23 Stanley Cups, and have been in the same division for almost one full year. Talk about heated rivals!
All kidding aside, this is actually a sneaky good first round match up. First-year Lightning coach Jon Cooper has been praised for his non-traditional ascent to the top of the hockey coaching world, and has built himself a case to be considered for the Coach of the Year award by leading the Lightning to a somewhat surprising playoff berth. On the ice, the Lightning are led by super-duper-star Steven Stamkos, who assumed the role of team Captain when Martin St. Louis was traded to the New York Rangers for Ryan Callahan.*
* – Still weird to write.
The Lightning lost their first three games after the trade (two in a shootout), but then rattled off a 7-0-2 run to solidify their postseason position.
Having finished just one point behind the Lightning in the standings, the Canadiens had a very successful regular season themselves. If he is healthy, Olympic gold medalist Carey Price is the type of goaltender who can single-handedly win a series for his team, and the Habs have a deep core of talented forwards bolstered by trade-deadline acquisition Thomas Vanek. While the Canadiens have been criticized for being too small and not physical enough to compete for a championship, the Lightning were a much better at home than they were on the road, and may have a difficult time winning at the raucous Bell Centre in Montreal. If the Canadiens can win just one of the first two games in Tampa, they will have a decided advantage in the rest of the series, despite having the weight of an entire hockey-obsessed country on their shoulders. With the news that Lighning goaltender Ben Bishop is out for at least the first game, it would appear the Canadiens are in a good position to take control of the series early.
Prediction: Canadiens in 6
Pittsburgh Penguins (#1) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (#4)
The Columbus Blue Jackets are this year’s feel-good team. Having made the playoffs just once in the franchise’s first 12 seasons, most hockey experts assumed the Jackets would suffer a similar late-season slide as they did last year, and surrender their precious playoff spot to a marquis franchise like the Washington Capitals, New Jersey Devils, or Toronto Mapl… no, never mind, not them.
But a funny thing happened while we were waiting for the Jackets’ spring swoon: it never happened. 21-year old center Ryan Johansen made “the leap,” reigning Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky elevated his game following the Olympic break (2.52 GAA/.918 SV% pre; 2.13 GAA/.932 SV% post), and the team rallied around its core of hardworking players like Brandon Dubinsky, Cam Atkinson, Nick Foligno and others.
The Penguins, meanwhile, just rattled off another dominant regular season which was constantly overshadowed by the “we’ll see what happens in the playoffs” disclaimer following several disappointing playoff performances. Questions remain regarding goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and the Penguins, but Sidney Crosby is the Best Player in the World and is surrounded by a deep and experienced team. The Penguins postseason woes might continue, but it won’t happen this round.
Prediction: Penguins in 6
New York Rangers (#2) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (#3)
Let’s start with this: I bleed Blue, so I am more than a little bias in assessing this series, but I’ll try anyway.
14 games into their 82 game season, the Flyers had just four wins, and sat in 15th place in the 16-team Eastern Conference. Philadelphia went on quite a tear after that, though, going 38-21-9 over their last 68 games to secure third place in the Metropolitan Division. The Rangers also struggled early, but got progressively better as the season went along, and for the most part were able to carry their pre-Olympic break momentum through the end of the regular season.
The Flyers are a deep team offensively with players like Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Scott Hartnell, Sean Couturier and Vincent LeCavalier all capable of doing damage. They’re also more physical than the Rangers, which bodes well in long playoff series.
But the difference in this series starts at the back end. Once the calendar turned to 2014, Henrik Lundqvist shook off his early season mediocrity and regained his form as one of the NHL’s best goaltenders, improving his GAA/SV% splits from 3.08/.888 in December to 1.91/.938 in January. The Rangers are also superior on defense, led by their shutdown pair Ryan “The Next Captain of The New York Rangers” McDonagh and Dan Girardi, and supported by Marc Staal, Anton Stralman, Kevin Klein (the hockey player, not the actor) and John Moore. The Rangers’ goal differential was +25 this season (218 goals scored to 193 allowed, fourth fewest in the NHL), while the Flyers scored just one more goal than they allowed (236 to 235). The Flyers’ ability to defend is even more questionable in light of the news that starting goaltender Steve Mason is out with an injury, and will be replaced – at least in game 1 – by Ray Emery. Emery has had his moments in the NHL, but really struggled in the second half of the season, playing in just seven games and posting a 3.11 GAA and .905 SV%. Look for the Rangers “third line” (in name only) of Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello, and Benoit Pouliot to have a big series and count on at least one big moment from Martin St. Louis.
Prediction: Rangers in 7
Colorado Avalanche (#1) vs. Minnesota Wild (#4)
After completely flipping out in his first game behind a NHL bench, Patrick Roy proved himself to be a very good coach. After a dreadful 2013 season in which they finished in last place in the Western Conference, Roy transformed the Avalanche into a contender almost overnight. Their late season surge (7-2-1 in their last 10) combined with Blues’ slump during that span (3-7-0) allowed them to overtake St. Louis for the Central Division title.
The Minnesota Wild made the playoffs thanks in part to their dominance at home (26-10-5) but were average on the road (17-17-7) where they will have to beat an equally formidable home team in the Avalanche who were 26-11-4 at home this season. Like most series, special teams will be important here. The Avalanche have the league’s fifth best power play, while the Wild’s penalty killing unit ranked 27th in the NHL this season, which is surprising in light of their otherwise impressive goaltending and defensive statistics.
Prediction: Avalanche in 5
St. Louis Blues (#2) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (#3)
This is one of Round 1’s Can’t Miss series. When the Blues traded for former all-star goaltender Ryan Miller at the March 5 trading deadline, he was supposed to be the missing link they needed to put them over the hump. After winning six of Miller’s first seven games, the Blues had an eight point lead in their division and seemed poised to win the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s best team. But the Blues won only five of their last 14 games, including six straight losses to finish the season. As a result, they lost the division lead and now have to face the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. With Chicago getting healthy just in time for the playoffs, we should find out if the Blues’ late season slump was a regression to their mean, or simply a poorly timed blip in their radar.
If Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews remain healthy, look for Chicago’s depth and experience to prevail.
Prediction: Blackhawks in 6
Anaheim Ducks (#1) vs. Dallas Stars (#4)
Having missed out on the Presidents’ Trophy by just one point, the Ducks enter Round 1 as heavy favorites against the Dallas Stars. Not so fast, though. The Stars played the Ducks tough this year, winning two out of three, making them one of only four teams to beat the Ducks more than once in regulation this season. With dynamic players like Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn anchoring their first two lines, the Stars are able to create matchup problems for slower teams. Add to that the reemergence of Kari Lehtonen in goal, and the Stars are poised to give the Ducks everything they can handle.
In the interest of picking one major upset…
Prediction: Stars in 6
San Jose Sharks (#2) vs. Los Angeles Kings (#3)
In another Can’t Miss series, the 2012 Stanley Cup Champion Kings will take on the team many people are picking to win it all this season. The Kings stumbled into the Olympic break, but won 14 out of their first 17 games after the hiatus to remind everyone that they will be heard from this postseason. The Kings bolstered their offense by acquiring Marian Gaborik at the trade deadline, adding him to a talented group of forwards that includes Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter. But the Kings’ true strength is their team defense: they allowed just 174 goals this season, the fewest in the NHL.
The Sharks’ 111 points would have been good enough to win any other division in the NHL this season, but weren’t good enough in the mighty Pacific. Nonetheless, they come into this series with home ice advantage having lost just seven games in regulation on home ice, tied for the fewest in the league. They were fifth in the league in goals scored (249) and allowed the fifth fewest (200).
During the regular season, the Kings went 3-1-1 against the Sharks while holding San Jose to just 1.8 goals per game, meaning the key to this series is Jonathan Quick. If the Kings’ goaltender is on top of his game, L.A. will pull off the upset. If he is just average, San Jose will advance.
Prediction: Kings in 7
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Mike Abitabilo is the co-founder of the Read Zone, and only really cares about one of these series.