NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 1st Round Preview
Well start growing your hockey beards it’s that time of year. Let’s take a look at the match-ups and try and break it down. In the East, Washington and Pittsburgh are the same seeds they were last year and Philadelphia and Boston flipped their seeds but are still in the same seeding match-up. Also of note is that 5 of the 8 season series between the teams are tied.
If you are curious last year I predicted:
“As for Stanley Cup Final prediction I say Washington/Pittsburgh winner against Chicago. I’m not sure who I would pick and I know it’s a cop out not to pick a winner and not to pick between Pittsburgh and Washington but it really depends on how the goaltending for Washington and Chicago fair in order to pick. Part of me wants Chicago to lose in the finals so that Marion Hossa can be on the losing side three years in a row. The hilarity that would ensue for everyone but him, I know Schadenfreude, I’m a bad person.”
1 Washington Capitals vs. 8 New York Rangers
Season Series: 3-1 Rangers
Playoff Series History: 3-2 Capitals
Star to Watch: Alexander Semin, again, because he mustered up a whopping zero goals last year in seven games. If the Capitals hope to go anywhere, he needs to produce something. Marion Gaborik on the other hand has had a fairly disappointing season. He has sometimes been hot but he has also been cold. With Callahan gone, Gaborik will need to step it up.
X-Factor: Deja Vu? The Capitals never make things easy for themselves in the playoffs. In fact their last 4 playoffs series have gone 7 games each. Everyone remembers last season’s collapse. They also went the distance against the Rangers two years ago. How they prepare mentally for this series will determine how far they go.
Goalie Problem: The Capitals said they plan on rotating between Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth. Sound familiar? It should. Last season they planned on rotating between Jose Theodore and Semyon Varlamov. I think they really ought to go with Varlamov. He had slightly better numbers and he has more experience. As for the Rangers will it’s not a problem when you have Lundqvist and his league leading 11 shutouts.
Fun Fact: The Rangers actually scored more goals than the Capitals, if you can believe it, and they had a better goal differential.
Prediction: The Rangers are just lucky to be in the playoffs this year, of course last year they were just as unlucky to not make it; losing in the shootout in the final game of the season. Washington has tried a new defensive approach this season. While it didn’t seem to be working at certain stretches, the Capitals found themselves back as the top seed. I think the Capitals have found the right balance of what works. Capitals in five or six.
2 Philadelphia Flyers vs. 7 Buffalo Sabres
Season Series: tied 2-2
Playoff Series History: 5-3 Flyers
Star to Watch: Thomas Vanek because he is the Sabres most potent offensive threat. He is also a streaky player and is currently fairly hot. He will need to produce for the Sabres to have a chance. The postseason means it’s Danny Briere time. Watch for him to blow your mind a few times.
X-Factor: Can you say different directions? The Sabres went on a tear down the stretch to make the playoffs and where arguably the hottest team the last month. The Flyers went in the opposite direction… off a cliff and almost cost themselves the division crown. This series will truly dictate if momentum matters.
Goalie Problem: The Flyers goalie situation reminds of a lot of last years, very cloudy. A lot of options but no real good one. They will probably trot out their three headed monster clearly not what they had in mind and a stark contrast from earlier in the the year when Bobrovsky looked to be the guy. What the goaltending produces will determine the Flyers fate. I think it will be either Leighton or Boucher between the pipes. The Sabres counter with Ryan Miller. You might have heard of him. He should be 100% recovered for the series.
Fun Fact: Neither team had any player score over 80 points. They each had only one score over 70 points. Nothing new at all for the Sabres but kind of surprising for the Flyers.
Prediction: Despite the momentum being in the Sabres favor, I’m going to have to go with the Flyers. Though the Sabres clearly have the goaltending advantage, making me somewhat regret my decision. I think the Flyers overwhelming experience advantage will help. Flyers in seven.
3 Boston Bruins vs. 6 Montreal Canadiens
Season Series: Montreal 4-2
Playoff Series History: These teams have never met in the playoffs… jk ;). 24-8 Montreal. They last met two seasons ago when the Bruins swept them in the 1st round.
Star to Watch: Michael Cammalleri had a down season after an exceptional postseason. How will he do this year. Also the legend of P.K Subban was born last postseason. He has been brilliant at times this season and also played so poorly he was benched. How will he handle himself? He tends to let his emotions get the best of him.
X-Factor: I think these two teams might not like each other. The media in Montreal I’m sure will be at a fevered pitch. While the Canadiens took the season series, they came up flat in their “revenge” game. It should be interesting to see how each team controls their emotions.
Goalie Problem: The Bruins boast the best goalie duo and Tim Thomas should wrap up the Vezina this season. I see no reason why Thomas won’t continue his exceptional level of play. Although Thomas has actually posted some of his worst numbers against the Canadiens this year (3.22 GAA, .907 SV%). As for the Habs well lets just say that Carey Price has some big shoes to fill, as if he needed any additional pressure (See Halak circa last year). I seriously hope that if the Habs lose he plays well, so that he might be spared.
Fun Fact: This is actually the most played match-up between two teams in the NHL. The Bruins had 12 players score 10 goals or more, tops in the league. Both teams are tied for last in winning games after trailing in the 1st period.
Prediction: Really tough to say but I think it’s Boston’s turn to have the kind of run the Canadiens had last year. I think the Bruins just have a better all around team. Plus the Bruins have something to prove after being embarrassed in last year’s playoffs. Bruins in 7.
4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 5 Tampa Bay Lightning
Season Series: tied 2-2
Playoff History: Zilch
Star to Watch: I’m going to have to say Tyler Kennedy and Steven Stamkos. Stamkos is making his first playoff appearance. He was also pretty cold in the last month of the season. It will be interesting to see how performs. With no Malkin or Crosby, Kennedy has taken advantage of his opportunity and he had a breakout year. He will need to continue to carry the Pens offensive load with Jordan Staal. Those two will need to step up their game for the Pens to advance.
X-Factor: There’s a guy named Sidney Crosby that may or may not play. If he does play, advantage Pittsburgh. Of course there’s always the question of how will he play if he does come back? I think he probably won’t play until the 2nd round if the Pens advance. Strange how he lead the team in scoring when he only played half the season.
Goalie Problem: Mac-Andre Fleury proved me wrong and had a great season. He usually posts worse numbers in the playoffs but he finds a way to win tthe big games, except of course in Game 7 last year against the Canadiens. I’m really not sold on Dwayne Roloson being a playoff caliber goalie but apparently the Lightning are. He has only been to the postseason three previous times. The last time was five years ago with the Sabres.
Fun Fact: The Penguins have no wins when trailing after two periods, with a 0-19-1 record this season. The Penguins led the league in hits and the Lightning had the 2nd fewest.
Prediction: I have to give the edge to Pittsburgh in what should be a widely entertaining series. It could go either way really. But I can’t help but feel that the Penguins didn’t overcome all of those injuries and almost get 2nd place to lose in the 1st round. It just wouldn’t seem right. Penguins in seven.
1 Vancouver Canucks vs. 8 Chicago Blackhawks
Season Series: tied 2-2
Playoff Series History: 3-1 Blackhawks, including the last two seasons in which the Hawks bounced the Canucks in the 2nd round both times
Star to Watch: Toews and Kane had great long playoff runs last season. The question is what will they do for an encore? They find themselves in new territory in being the hunted as opposed to the hunter.
X-Factor: Dustin Byfuglien…. wait what? He isn’t on the Blackhawks anymore. That’s precisely the problem. The Blackhawks will find out exactly why they needed to keep him in this series. He was able to effectively get in Luongo’s head and knock him off his game. The Blackhawks don’t have anyone to do that anymore.
Goalie Problem: Both of these teams feature goalies that have something to prove. Luongo has to prove that he can actually deliver in the postseason. Having great regular seasons, he is coming off arguably his best season ever, is nice but it really only matters what you do in the playoffs. Crawford, while just a rookie, will be under some pressure to duplicate Niemi’s success who Chicago let go. The front office will probably get a lot of slack if the Hawks don’t do well in the playoffs and rightfully so.
Fun Fact: The Sedins are the first brother combo to win the Art Ross trophy back to back. They may also add the Hart trophy to that list. Speaking of back to backs, the Blackhawks hope to do what no other 8th seed has ever done, win the Stanley Cup.
Prediction: Truly one of the more compelling series because of the Hawks just making the playoffs and trying to defend their cup. Through in their recent history and the Sedins claiming more hardware and you have watch should be an awesome match-up. This is the year the Canucks revenge their past losses against the Blackhawks. It will be made all the more sweeter because they are knocking out the defending champions in the 1st round. Canucks in six. (Just to stick it to Chelsea Dagger)
2 San Jose Sharks vs. 7 Los Angeles Kings
Season Series: tied 3-3
Playoff Series History: Zilch
Star to Watch: Drew Doughty was simply sensational against the Canucks last postseason but he had a pretty average regular season. He will need to regain his form to help shut down the Sharks top line. Dustin Penner is also on the watch list for the sheer fact that he needs to do something.
X-Factor: The injury bug rears its ugly head. I can’t help but think that the Kings would be slightly higher if it wasn’t for all their injuries down the stretch. But such is life. Losing your top two scorers is never easy but the Penguins have been able to deal with it, so now it’s the Kings turn. Justin Williams should be coming back to play in the 1st round though. Getting by without Kopitar won’t be easy however.
Goalie Problem: Antti Niemi is back in the postseason just wearing a different jersey. He has turned out to be a great pickup and was red hot down the stretch. He will now use his experience to further propel the Sharks. On the flip-side Jonathan Quick will need to rebound from a fairly poor playoff performance last year. He should be more comfortable having a postseason under his belt.
Fun Fact: The Sharks are playing their 7th different team in as many series. In fact the Sharks have now played every team in the playoffs in the West except for the Wild, Canucks and Blue Jackets.
Prediction: The Sharks top line produced less that last year and in the postseason they don’t always produce at their best. The Sharks are a deep experienced team though, that has seven players with at least 20 goals. The Kings are still getting their feet acclimated to the post season and I don’t think they are mentally where they need to be. Still it should make for an interesting series. Sharks in six or seven.
3 Detroit Red Wings vs. 6 Phoenix Coyotes
Season Series: tied 2-2
Playoff Series History: 2-0 Detroit
Star to Watch: With Zetterberg out it will be Datsyuk’s job to carry the Wings scoring load. He will be matched up with Norris trophy candidate Keith Yandle.
X-Factor: Probably how the Coyotes as a group handle themselves mentally. Here’s a team that rarely makes the playoffs and now they find themselves in on back to back trips. They are also seeking revenge against the team that knocked them out of a hard fought series last postseason. They also might be moving, again.
Goalie Problem: Jimmy Howard now has a year of playoff experience under his belt and Ilya Bryzgalov now has three. Bryzgalov didn’t play all that well last year and he will need to play better for the Coyotes to have a chance. Howard had a down year this year and will need to pick up his game as well.
Fun Fact: Detroit has been to the playoffs the past twenty seasons and 56 times (not including their days as Cougers or Flacons) and Phoenix now seven times including two in a row. The Coyotes have never made it to the 2nd round. I think the Red Wings may have made it out… a few times.
Prediction: This is a match-up between two of the lower hitting teams in the league. I think we will have a repeat of last season, a close wild affair that goes the distance. The Red Wings are all a year older and that isn’t something working in their favor but I think they will prevail anyway. Red Wings in seven.
4 Anaheim Ducks vs. 5 Nashville Predators
Season Series: Nashville 3-1
Playoff Series History: Zilch
Star to Watch: Teemu Selanne has generally been lukewarm at best in the playoffs. This possibly being his last season, again, it will be interesting to see how he plays. The Ducks will need to have the 2nd line continuing to score and Selanne was hot down the stretch.
X-Factor: It will be interesting to watch Shea Weber battle against quick wingers in Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry. This battle will go a long way in determining who wins the series. The Ducks’ playoff experience also outweighs the Predators’ by a considerable margin.
Goalie Problem: Pekka Rinne was probably the best kept goalie secret of the season. If it wasn’t for Tim Thomas he would have gotten more recognition but since he played in Nashville probably not. He should get a Vezina nod for his production. On the other side Jonas Hiller was having one of his best seasons before he got vertigo and well that’s been pretty much it. The Ducks have relied on pickups of Dan Ellis and Ray Emery to backstop them this far. Ellis will probably get the bulk of the load with Emery still recovering from his injury. Ellis has only been in the playoffs one other time as a member of the Predators. He was on their team for a few other postseason appearances but he never played in any of those games.
Fun Fact: The Ducks have the 2nd best power play and the Predators have the 5th worst. The Ducks have the 5th most penalty minutes and the Predators have the 2nd fewest. Both of these teams are tied for 4th in wins when leading after the 1st.
Prediction: The Predators are 0-5 in getting out of the 1st round and I don’t see that changing. The Ducks are red hot and they are loaded with prime time players that excel in the playoffs. Still I think it’s likely all the home teams will win. Ducks in seven.
My Stanley Cup prediction is Washington over Vancouver. Washington will probably play Boston in the conference finals and assuming Vancouver can beat Chicago, I really only see San Jose and Anaheim as threats. It’s highly unlikely it will be 1 vs 1 but you never know.
Author: Alex Mueller
Alex Mueller graduated from Temple University with a minor in journalism over a decade ago. He’s been writing about NHL hockey, on and off, since the Fall of 2009. He’s written for Pucking Awesome, the Checking Line and now Hockey Recaps. He played goalie at San Diego Ice Arena. His first novel, Bobby Sterling vs Truth, is available on Amazon now.