Teams, players, and fans can finally gear up for the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs now that the regular season has come to a close. It’s the most wonderful time of the year...
Home ice and several match-ups were determined on the final two days of the season. In the East the Boston Bruins captured the best record in the NHL earning them a first round matchup against the Detroit Red Wings. The other matchup in the Atlantic division finds the Tampa Bay Lightning with home ice advantage over the Montreal Canadiens. The other half of the East includes 4 teams from the Metropolitan Division, the number one seed Pittsburgh Penguins hosting the Columbus Blue Jackets and the New York Rangers having home ice against the Philadelphia Flyers.
In the West the number one seed is Pacific Division champion Anaheim who will host the Dallas Stars. The other half of the Pacific finds the San Jose Sharks hosting the Los Angeles Kings. In the Central Division surprise division champion Colorado Avalanche host the Minnesota Wild and the suddenly slumping St. Louis Blues host the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Here’s a brief rundown of what to look for in each matchup, including my predictions for each.
Boston Bruins vs. Detroit Red Wings
What to expect
The Boston Bruins seem to be the favorite heading into the playoffs, which makes sense considering that they had the most points in the NHL and won the President’s Trophy. They seem to have everything a cup contender can dream of, from a quick-strike offense to a strong defense and a solid goalie. The Bruins are a rare team that is equally at home in the slowed-down, grapple-and-fight style and the fast-paced, high-action sort of game.
Player to watch: Zdeno Chara (Defense, Bruins)
At 37 the 6’9” defenseman is slowly reaching the “awfully old” category. But that just means that his experience makes him poised for another deep run in the playoffs.
The Bruins in six. Detroit will test them early in the series but the Bruins offense will be too much to overcome.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Montreal Canadiens
What to expect
Despite being the only Canadian team in the playoffs this year, carrying the pride of a nation won’t be too much for the Habs to handle. Tampa Bay without the ageless wonder Martin St. Louis or Vincent Lecavalier have to depend on Steven Stamkos for a majority of their offense. As good as Stamkos is at scoring he won’t be able to carry the team for the full series.
Player to watch: Carey Price (Goalie, Canadiens)
The job of a goaltender is never easy in any market. But in Montreal it is especially difficult, as it only takes one bad game for the media and fans to turn against you. He’ll need to play to his potential to stay in the fans’ good graces.
The Canadiens in seven. Stamkos will provide excitement early in the series but the Habs will make adjustments and shut him down.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
What to expect
Columbus’ playoff appearance means that both teams that moved from the old Western Conference to the new East made it to the postseason. Not only did the Jackets join the Red Wings as the other wild card team, they will also join them on the golf course after an early exit out of the playoffs. Although the Penguins are not the same team that went to back-to-back Stanley Cup finals they will be too much for the Jackets to control.
Player to watch: Marc-Andre Fluery (Goalie, Penguins)
If the goalie they call Flower stumbles at all it could mean the end of the Penguins playoff dreams. Since they recently recalled backup goalie Tomas Vokoun from his rehab stint I expect a quick trigger on Fluery if he struggles at all.
The Penguins in five. If Flower struggles, however, I could see Columbus managing the upset.
New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers
What to expect
This series between the Blue Shirts and the Broad Street Bullies isn’t likely to remind anyone of old-time hockey but it’ll still be entertaining. The Rangers, even with all the firepower on their offense, have struggled to score at times this year. As long as they don’t go into one of their slumps they should handle the Flyers.
Player to watch: Rick Nash (Forward, Rangers)
Nash has always been a true goal scorer and a pretty good playmaker. If he gets hot few teams will be able to stop him and Rangers.
The Rangers in six. Lundqvist will carry the team for a majority of series.
Anaheim Ducks vs. Dallas Stars
What to expect
Although the Ducks have dropped the “mighty” from their name they still have one of the most dangerous first lines in the NHL. As other teams stumbled to the finish line Anaheim played their way to the top of the conference. With that in mind the inconsistent Stars don’t appear to be too much of a threat to them. If Dallas get into their “defense second” philosophy the Ducks will fly away with the series and send the Stars to the driving range.
The sound two-way center for the Ducks is set to have a big playoff run. If he and his line-mates start scoring early they will score often.
The Ducks in five. Anaheim only has to worry about the Seguin line of the Stars. If they shut that line down and Jonas Hiller plays to his full capabilities the Ducks shouldn’t have a problem winning the series.
San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings
What to expect
Because both teams play a fast, physical game, the battle of So. Cal vs. No. Cal will be a hard-hitting series. The Sharks, who are younger than they have been in recent years, look to advance past the first round against a familiar opponent. I don’t see their offense being fast enough to get going early, though, which they’ll have to do. If they can’t the Kings, who have the experience of deep runs in the playoffs, will gain confidence and make this a very tough series for them.
Player to watch: Dustin Brown (Forward, Kings)
Brown is unlike many captains in the league. He isn’t a first line player with a ton of scoring ability but an energy guy that will go out and hit anything that is wearing the wrong color. If he can keep his hits legal he can turn a game around in a single shift.
The Kings in seven. It is not easy to pick a team that will be on the road for a game 7, but if any team has proven that home ice doesn’t mean a whole lot it’s the Kings. They will send San Jose to another early departure from the playoffs.
St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks
What to expect
The Blues, who finished the regular season by losing six straight games to drop them from first in the conference to second in their division, will have a tough time beating the defending champions. With Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane returning the Blackhawks will have motivation and the firepower to overcome the Blues physicality.
Player to watch: Patrick Kane (Forward, Blackhawks)
Kane is a very fast, highly skilled player who has both playmaking and goal scoring abilities. If he gets into the speed of the game after being out for an extended period look for him to rack up the points.
The Blackhawks in six. Their high-octane offense and fast, physical game will be too much for the Blues to handle. Ryan Miller will prove to be an unnecessary trade deadline addition for the Blues, as he won’t be able to carry them to a deep playoff run.
The Minnesota Wild, who made the playoffs for the second straight year after missing out the previous four seasons, face a team that had the second-lowest point total in the league last season. Although they went 1-0-4 against the Avs this season they haven’t seen each other since Jan. 30th. The Wild, who are on their fourth starting goalie of the season, now have a different look after the additions of Ilya Bryzgalov, Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick. Luckily for them Colorado’s top-scorer Matt Duchene will not be back from injury in time to play in the series.
Player to Watch: Jason Pominville (Forward, Wild)
After becoming the third player in Wild History to reach the 30 goal mark (after Gaborik and Rolston) he will be the focus of the Wild’s offense. He found chemistry with Mikael Granlund early in the season and has recently gelled with new center Erik Haula. In 47 previous playoff games Pominville has an elite 12 goals and 16 assists. He will need to score for the Wild to have a chance to win the series.
The WILD in six. The loss of Matt Duchene will be too much for Avs to overcome. A team that focuses on defense first and loses its top scorer is a team that is missing its identity. I think the Wild will win Game 1 in Colorado and games 3, 4 and 6 at home.
One thing to keep in mind while watching all playoff games is officiating. During the regular season the officiating around the league has been quite suspect. I don’t think this will change at all in the playoffs. The “names” will get the benefit of the doubt whereas players with a bad reputation will always have the worst assumed.
Now let’s drop the puck!!
Peter Ripka is the co-host of the Rambling On podcast. He's a blogger and analyst who specializes in sports, particularly hockey and baseball. Reach him via email or find him on Facebook and Twitter.