2014 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 1 Preview
Here comes the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs with the new format. It’ll be interesting to see how long the new format lasts. This season it worked…. for the most part. It’s kind of dumb that Montreal and Tampa Bay have the 3rd and 4th best records in the Eastern Conference yet they meet in the first round anyway. The West would also be different under the previous format. I understand the need for two divisions but every other sport does the playoff seeding by conference and the NHL should just seed one through eight like they used to.
Now it’s time to take a look at who won’t win the cup by virtue of my favorite stat, goal differential. Since I’m getting lazy with to much else going on, you can read about it in one of my previous posts here. The Kings set the record for the lowest goal differential when they won the Stanley Cup in 2012 with a +15. Columbus, Philadelphia, Detroit and Montreal won’t be winning the Stanley Cup in the East. Although Columbus has a 15 differential. In the West, only Dallas and Minnesota are eliminated. Honestly, any of the top six teams out West could legitimately win it all. There will be two very good teams going home out West in the first round, assuming the top seeds don’t get upset. My prediction is the Boston Bruins vs the Anaheim Ducks in the Stanley Cup Finals. With the Ducks winning to send Teemu Selanne off as a champion one last time. This is the match-up we would have had last season, if it wasn’t for the Ducks drawing the Red Wings in the 1st round. The reason for picking them is simple. They are both extremely deep. Their 3rd and 4th lines are better than some 2nd lines on most teams.
A1 Boston Bruins vs. W2 Detroit Red Wings
Season Series: 3-1 Red Wings
Playoff Series History: 4-3 Bruins, the last time was in 1957
What We Learned: The Red Wings kept their playoff streak intact despite going through a rebuild of sorts. The Bruins won the Presidents Trophy, scored the most goals, gave up the least and were rewarded with the Red Wings. That seems fair.
Stars to Watch: How about Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar? What’s that you say? Those guys aren’t stars. Well they are now. Both have played well in their first full seasons, particularly down the stretch. Nyquist led the Red Wings in goals and was on fire at the end. For the Bruins I’ll have my eye on Jarome Iginla and Torey Krug. Krug rose to prominence last season in the playoffs. I’d like to see what he does for an encore this season. Iginla is doing the Marian Hossa thing. It took Hossa three teams to do it. Iginla is on his second. This time he’ll make it to the Stanley Cup. But will he win it? Better yet what will he do to show how much he wants to win it?
X-Factor: Do the old guys on the Red Wings have anything left? Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk were the catalysts for the upset of the Ducks last season. They will need to be on their best games for the Red Wings to do it again this year.
Goalie Problem: Tuukka Rask is one of the top goalies in the league and he plays pretty good in the playoffs too. Nothing much to say about him. Jimmy Howard had a little bit of a down year but he’s still a quality goalie who plays well in the playoffs. Advantage goes to the Bruins though.
Fun Fact: The Bruins have only missed the playoffs four times the past forty-six years, minus of course the lockout season. Meanwhile the Red Wings are the only team in the playoffs with a negative goal differential (-8).
Prediction: Never count out the Red Wings, that is for sure. But the Bruins are too deep and have played too well to go home early. Let me rephrase that, the Bruins are scary deep. They have 10 players with at least 10 goals and they ran away with the best record. I don’t think the Red Wings have any miracles left. Bruins in 6.
A2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. A3 Montreal Canadiens
Season Series: 3-1 Lightning
Playoff Series History: 1-0 Lightning, their only previous meeting was the year the Lightning won the Stanley Cup.
What We Learned: The Lightning are about a .500 team without Stamkos. The Canadiens are the only Canadian team to make the playoffs this season. Lucky them. No pressure or anything to break that drought.
Stars to Watch: Hard to imagine but this is only the second time Steven Stamkos has been in the playoffs. He played well in 2011 and he’s playing well now. He should make life hard for P.K. Subban. Well as Max Pacioretty goes, so do the Canadiens. If he gets shut down, the Canadiens will have trouble scoring goals. But I don’t see that happening. Expect big things from him.
X-Factor: In 2011 when the Lightning went to the Eastern Conference finals, they had a relative group of unknowns raise their game in the playoffs. This year, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson each had over twenty goals in their first full seasons. Will they raise their game some more or will some other unknown on the team rise to the occasion?
Goalie Problem: The status of Ben Bishop is largely unknown. Not sure if he is injured or Tampa Bay is just keeping it a secret so Montreal will be surprised when he starts Game 1. Anders Lindback is the backup but he hasn’t played well. They did call up Kristers Gudlevskis, the Olympic famous goalie, and he played really well against Columbus. I’d imagine he would get the nod if Bishop can’t go. If the Olympics were any indication, Gudlevskis won’t have problems dealing with the playoff pressure. On the other end Carey Price has been splitting time with Peter Budaj since his injury but he has played well. However, Price has a playoff record of 9-17 but he did win a Gold Medal this year. Give a slight advantage to the Canadiens.
Fun Fact: With Martin St. Louis now gone, the Lighting have no players left from their Stanley Cup team 10 years ago.
Prediction: This is probably the hardest series to predict. You have two fairly evenly matched teams. You could honestly flip a coin. I would lean towards the Lightning but they haven’t made the playoffs in a few seasons and I just think the Canadiens are due for a playoff win. Plus, don’t we all want Bruins vs Canadiens in Round 2? Canadiens in 7.
M1 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. W1 Columbus Blue Jackets
Season Series: 5-0 Penguins, yes that’s not a typo
Playoff Series History: None, because the Blue Jackets have only made the playoffs once
What We Learned: The Penguins had a top star go down to injury, again, but won a division where everyone but them struggled at the beginning. The Blue Jackets literally scrapped and clawed there way into the playoffs for the first time in five years.
Stars to Watch: Ryan Johansen has become the man in Columbus. And it’s good thing too, as that’s what you’d expect someone drafted 4th overall to become. Johansen will need to play well for the Blue Jackets to have any shot. Rather than pick Sidney Crosby, I’m going to go with James Neal. Without Evgeni Malkin, and with defenses zeroing in on Sidney Crosby, Neal will need to be on his snipping best.
X-Factor: Well the biggest X-Factor for the Penguins will always be Marc-Andre Fleury bu that’s for the next paragraph. So the other big question is, how will the defense fare? Kris Letang is just coming back from a long injury. It’ll be interesting to see how rusty he is. Matt Niskanen and Olli Maatta will log the big minutes for the Penguins and will need to play well. I’m excited to see how Maatta plays in his first playoffs.
Goalie Problem: This is the time of the year where we all turn to Marc-Andre Fleury and wonder what we’ll get from him. To say the last few postseasons have been a spectacular failure, would be an understatement. My guess is it’s still going to be an adventure. Buckle your seat belts Penguin fans. Though, in a testament to him, he did have a fairly decent regular season despite what happened last postseason. Sergei Bobrovsky has almost no KHL or NHL playoff experience. However, Bobrovsky has played really well in his two seasons in Columbus and seems comfortable. I expect him to play well. Advantage Blue Jackets.
Fun Fact: The Penguins have the top powerplay (1st in the NHL) and penalty kill (2nd in the NHL) of all the playoff teams.
Prediction: Blue Jackets. Just kidding. Although, just like last season, I don’t think the Penguins will do much in the playoffs against good teams because they didn’t fix any of their problems. However, the Blue Jackets, while decent, aren’t that great and the Penguins shouldn’t have any problems beating them despite whatever Fleury may or may not do. When a defenseman is your second leading scorer, as James Wisniewski is, you can’t be all that great. Penguins in 5.
M2 New York Rangers vs. M3 Philadelphia Flyers
Season Series: 2-2
Playoff Series History: 6-3 Flyers, their last meeting was in 1997.
What We Learned: Both of these teams started 3-7. The Rangers evened up at 14-14 and then went 31-17-5 the rest of the way. The Flyers sunk to 3-9 evened out at 15-15-4 and then went 26-15-5.
Stars to Watch: Claude Giroux makes the Flyers go and he will be key in this series. But Wayne Simmonds might be even more important. Besides being their leading goal scorer, he’s also their leading pest. Expect a heavy dose of Simmonds. Or maybe not, since he’ll probably be in the penalty box a lot. Martin St. Louis is the Rangers biggest scoring threat depsite only playing 19 games with them. The problem is, he has only one goal in those 19 games. He will need to get adjusted quickly for the Rangers to have a shot.
X-Factor: The Rangers play better on the road then the do at home. Unfortunately for them, they have home ice advantage. The Flyers are about a .500 team on the road so games at MSG should be fun. This is also, by far, the shortest travel for a series. Both teams should be well rested.
Goalie Problem: The Flyers have abandoned their playoff goalie carousel the last couple of seasons for a more traditional approach. Steve Mason is their man in net. Unfortunately, there are a few problems with that. Mason injured himself against the Penguins on Sunday and he has an 0-4 playoff record. In Mason’s defense that lone series was against the defending champion Red Wings and Columbus was manhandled. It remains to be seen how he will handle things in always loving Philadelphia. If he can’t go Ray Emery will start in net. Henrik Lundqvist is as solid as they come in the playoffs. He’s the kind of goalie that can steal you some games. Expect the same this postseason. Advantage Rangers.
Fun Fact: The Flyers were 1st in PIM for the second time in three seasons. The other season they finished 2nd.
Prediction: This series will be brutal to watch. Expect lots of hitting, penalties and low scoring games. A tough one but I’m going to go with the Rangers. I have faith that St. Louis will turn it around. The biggest reason I’m going with the the Rangers is they have the edge in net and they played well in their high profile stadium series games. Rangers in 6.
C1 Colorado Avalanche vs. W1 Minnesota Wild
Season Series: 4-1 Avalanche
Playoff Series History: 1-1
What We Learned: Patrick Roy is a pretty good, feisty, coach. The Wild had four goalies start at least 10 games this season. Although not by choice, it’s quite unheard of.
Stars to Watch: It’s still all about Ryan Suter and Zack Parise for the Wild. They were brought over with big contracts and big expectations. They combined for one point against the Blackhawks in the 1st round last year. Not good. They will need to play way better for the Wild to have a chance. I’m also intrigued to see Mikael Granlund continue to develop. For the Avalanche, take your pick really. Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O’Reilly, Nathan MacKinnon and Paul Stastny should all be fun to watch. When the Avalanche win the Stanley Cup in about two or three seasons, you’ll remember it all began here.
X-Factor: Most of the top Avalanche don’t have a lot or any playoff experience. But then again some of the Wild don’t either. However, I’m sure the Wild learn some things from their thrashing by the Blackhawks in the first round last year. Neither team was expected to contend for the Stanley Cup this season, so whoever wants it more will win it.
Goalie Problem: Since coming to the Wild, Ilya Bryzgalov is undefeated in regulation with a 7-0-3 record. Not to shabby for a guy who has been bouncing around like a pinball lately. Bryzgalov has a lot of playoff experience and has played well for the Ducks and not so well for the Coyotes and Flyers recently. I’m not entirely sure what to expect out of him this postseason. He seems to have mellowed later in his career and there isn’t much pressure on him, so he should be much better than his Flyers stint. The Avalanche will go with Semyon Varlamov, who has had quite the ups and downs on and off the ice this season. But I think all of that will make him better prepared in net. He hasn’t played in the playoffs since 2010 though. I think it’s a tie in net.
Fun Fact: This is the 7th playoff series for the Wild and three have now been against the Avalanche.
Prediction: Despite the 4-1 win advantage most of the games, except one, were close. But the Avalanche just have more firepower (11 players have 10 or more goals), a great coach and the home ice advantage. Avalanche in 5.
C2 St. Louis Blues vs. C3 Chicago Blackhawks
Season Series: 3-2 Blues
Playoff Series History: 7-3 Blackhawks
What We Learned: The Blues were almost a lock for the Presidents Trophy and now they don’t even win their own division. My how some teams tumble. The Blackhawks have played really well despite many people not noticing and missing some key stars down the stretch.
Stars to Watch: Alexander Steen flirted with the NHL scoring title and then, as predicted, faded away. He’s the most likely candidate to step up and produce for the Blues. T.J Oshie and David Backes are other candidates to watch. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews get the nod because they are coming back from injuries. It’s like they will return to top form but you never know. If not Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp are there to pick up the slack.
X-Factor: Does the Blues tailspin mean anything? It’s common for teams to have ups and downs so it might not mean anything. Just bad timing really. I just worry about any of them stepping up and leading the team. They did have four games in April in which they were shutout. That’s the biggest concern for this team. If they get shutout early, in this series, it might get in their head. The Blackhawks biggest challenge is their Stanley Cup hangover that happened to them last time they won. Although they didn’t lose nearly as many players this time around.
Goalie Problem: Although I thought it obvious Corey Crawford was a talented goalie, minus his Coyotes 1st round debacle, he proved it to everybody when he backstopped the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup last year. Ryan Miller was brought over to lead the Blues to a Stanley Cup. Not an easy situation to be brought into, for Miller or the Blues. But Miller has done well in the playoffs before despite playing with a lot less in front of him in Buffalo. Both are quality goalies and I think it’s a tie in net.
Fun Fact: The Blues have only made it to three Stanley Cups. Ironically they were their first three seasons of existence.
Prediction: Well if Kane and Toews weren’t coming back I would give a slight advantage to the Blues, despite their recent struggles. But the Blackhawks should be fully healthy and it’s hard to imagine them not taking advantage of a struggling team with really high expectations. Blackhawks in 6 or 7.
P1 Anaheim Ducks vs. W2 Dallas Stars
Season Series: 2-1 Stars
Playoff Series History: 1-1
What We Learned: The Stars rebuild is ahead of schedule and they are the only wildcard playing in another division.
Stars to Watch: Tyler Seguin played well in his first playoffs the year the Bruins won the Stanley Cup. The next two playoffs not so much. This is his first postseason with the Stars. He will need to play well for them to have a chance. For the Ducks I’m going to go with Teemu Selanne. Just because this is his final playoffs. I’m hoping he gets a chance to play on the top line with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. His abilities make that line even more dangerous.
X-Factor: The Ducks are one of the deepest teams in the league. The Stars on the other hand are a two man team. If the Ducks can shut down Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin and nobody else on the Stars steps up, this could be a really short series. What kind of scoring depth the Stars can get will determine the series.
Goalie Problem: The Ducks had a great run of goaltending this season where any guy they put in net would post amazing numbers but that wore off at the end of the season. Frederik Andersen has been injured on and off and Jonas Hiller has not played well. However, young top prospect John Gibson has stepped in and played nicely. I’m not entirely sure who will be the starting goalie in Game 1. I would imagine it would be Hiller because of his extensive playoff experience. If he struggles, Hiller will be pulled. Kari Lehtonen is the man in the net for the Stars. Lehtonen has played well but he hasn’t played in the playoffs in seven seasons and that was only for two games. Tim Thomas has a more polished playoff resume but he’s struggled a lot this season. Advantage Ducks even with Hiller’s recent struggles.
Fun Fact: The Stars are the only team in the playoffs without at least a .500 road record.
Prediction: All signs to the Ducks atoning for their early round exit against the Red Wings last season. The Stars are in the playoff growing pains stage of a young team. Most young teams don’t win a playoff series their first time in. Plus the Ducks are really deep. They have 9 players with at least 10 goals. It would have been 11, if the next closest players had played full seasons. Ducks in 5.
P2 San Jose Sharks vs. P3 Los Angeles Kings
Season Series: 3-2 Kings
Playoff Series History: 1-1, last meeting was last season.
What We Learned: California teams are pretty good but one will go home early. The Kings have been locked into the 3rd seed in the Pacific for quite sometime. Which is why I favor the seed by conference instead so you don’t feel stuck when the season is three quarters of the way over.
Stars to Watch: How will Dustin Brown play? Brown was tenth on the team in scoring and had his lowest point total in his career. He even scored more in the strike shortened season. Brown usually elevates his game come playoff time and he excels at the blue collar/no glory stuff that is twice as important during playoff time. Drew Doughty also elevates his game come playoff time and he will have his hands full or maybe it’s stick full. It’s playoff time for the Sharks, which means it’s Joe Pavelski time. He will be key as usual. I’m also excited to see Logan Couture continue his development in his second postseason.
X-Factor: Home ice is critical in this series. The fact that the Sharks have it, is a huge advantage. Otherwise these teams are pretty evenly matched. Except the Kings have actually won a Stanley Cup. I had to say it Shark fans
Goalie Problem: I’m not sure what to make of Antti Niemi. He’s only had two great games in the past month and the rest have been pretty bad. He is 2-2 against the Kings this season with both wins coming at home. He generally plays well in the playoffs and should be able to break out of his funk and continue that trend. The Kings have a string of great goalies and Jonathan Quick leads the group. Quick has regained his top form and always manages to raise his game to an even higher level in the playoffs. A slight advantage goes to the Kings.
Fun Fact: These two met last postseason in which the home team won every game and five of the games were decided by one goal. However, only one went into overtime.
Prediction: This series could really go either way and it should be another stellar series. I’m going with the Sharks only because of the home ice advantage. Los Angeles could still pull it out but San Jose has been more consistent this season. The Sharks also score considerably more and have four guys (Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau) that have scored at least 20 or more goals. The Kings only have two (Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar), although Justin Williams is only one off. Sharks in 7 in a dandy.