2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 1 Preview
The 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs figures to be one of the most open in years. We have five Canadian teams in, with at least two guaranteed to be in the 2nd round. O Canada indeed. The Senators and Wild worked their butts off to make it into the playoffs. Them and the Rangers are the three hottest teams entering into the playoffs. The Ducks were actually the most consistent team. As they started out the best team and ended with the 2nd best overall record.
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 too much else going on, you can read about it in one of my previous posts. The Kings set the record for the lowest goal differential when they won the Stanley Cup in 2012 with a +15. Lately, the teams with the highest goal differential haven’t been winning the Stanley Cup. Only the Red Wings, Penguins and Ducks have under 15. So either they won’t win it or we will set a new record. We’ve had the 2009 Penguins and 2012 Kings lower the bar in just the past few years.
In the Eastern Conference, my top three choices when I started the season were the Lightning, Bruins and Islanders. Sadly, the Bruins didn’t make it but I still have two teams left. I’m going with the Lightning because the Islanders struggled too much down the stretch and are more inexperienced. In the Western Conference, I firmly believe Anaheim has the easiest road. Even though the Blackhawks have been pretty erratic, I find out unlikely anyone in the Central could beat them in seven games. I think the Ducks will beat them in the Conference Finals and then beat the Lighting to win the Stanley Cup. If they don’t do it this year, they never will with this group.
A1 Montreal Canadiens vs. W1 Ottawa Senators
Season Series: 3-1 Senators
Playoff Series History: 1-0 Senators in their current incarnation
What We Learned: The Senators got a new goalie and got hot, powered by a rookie named Mark Stone. The Canadiens were very business like the whole season and Carey Price lead most of the top goalie categories.
Stars to Watch: P.K Subban always raises his game come playoff time. Max Pacioretty usually doesn’t. He will need to produce big time if the Canadiens are to solve Hammond. Mark Stone will need to continue to play hot for the Senators. He was one of the hottest players down the stretch. If he doesn’t that will be a huge problem. It’ll be interesting to see what Bobby Ryan does, after a down season, in his first playoff go around with the Senators.
X-Factor: The key is whether the Senators can continue their run. The Canadiens only beat the Senators in their first meeting and then lost the rest of them. The Senators are still the underdog, while the Canadiens have more pressure on them.
Goalie Problem: Andre Hammond and Carey Price are at the top of their games. Hammond, if he had qualified, would have bested Price in the SV% category. In a season where Carey Price is being considered for the Hart Trophy, it’s strange that Hammond has been even better. I’m guessing Craig Anderson won’t be playing much. Both goalies will need to continue their stellar play. The one that’s hotter, will probably lead their team to the series win.
Fun Fact: Both teams are very similar offensively. Neither team had anyone produce 70 points. They each had three players in the sixties and one in the fifties.
Prediction: The games will be played in front of raucous Canadian crowds. The cities are pretty close to each other, so who knows how many fans of the other team will creep in. It’s hard to pick against the Senators considering how hot they have been. And part of me wants to pick them. But all rides must come to an end. For the Canadiens, they’ve been mostly successful lately in the playoffs and I’m sure they are still stinging from the Senators upsetting them in the 1st round in 2013. I think the Canadiens will get their revenge in 7.
A2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. A3 Detroit Red Wings
Season Series: 3-1 Lightning
Playoff Series History: This is their first meeting ever
What We Learned: The Lightning continue to play well in the regular season but never get a very good seeding. They are actually healthy unlike last year’s playoff team though. The Red Wings made the playoffs for the 24th straight time with an interesting blend of young and old.
Stars to Watch: Although Steve Stamkos is always a good one to watch I’m going to have my eye on Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov. Both are young and had great seasons. Johnson played in all four playoff games last season but Kuchrov played in only two. For the Red Wings, Tomas Tatar was their leading goal scorer this season. In last year’s playoffs he produced no points in five games. Gustav Nyquist also had a goose egg in five games. If the Red Wings have any hope of upsetting the Lighting, they will both need to produce.
X-Factor: Steve Yzerman goes against his former club. But he isn’t the coach or a player so that shouldn’t have any effect on the game. Both of these teams didn’t play well last playoffs so getting off to a good start is paramount for both. The team that struggles early probably won’t snap out of it.
Goalie Problem: I’m was guessing Jimmy Howard would start but the Red Wings will actually start Petr Mrazek in Game 1, which is interesting. Howard has pretty much declined the last couple of seasons but he usually plays better in the playoffs. But Mrazek had a few notable bad plays in his last few starts. It should be an interesting adventure in net for the Red Wings. I expect Howard to play at least one game. Ben Bishop is making his first playoff appearance, after an injury sidelined him last year. Although his numbers are slightly down from last season, he’s one of the reasons the Lighting have been consistently good lately and you can tell how bad they were when he wasn’t there in last year’s playoffs.
Fun Fact: The Red Wings have only not made it out of the 1st round five times in the last 20 years. They have never gone two years in a row not making it to the 2nd round at least. Last year, of course, they lost in the 1st round.
Prediction: The Red Wings didn’t do much last playoffs and this team really isn’t much different than that one. The Lightning are one of the top teams in the NHL. It stands to reason the Lightning should win the series. The Lightning scored the most goals in the NHL this season so it’ll be hard for the Red Wings shaky goaltending to stop them. Lightning in 6.
M1 New York Rangers vs. W2 Pittsburgh Penguins
Season Series: 3-0-1 Rangers
Playoff Series History: 3-1 Penguins
What We Learned: The Penguins shouldn’t even be in the playoffs but they are, simply because they played a lot better in the beginning of the year. It’s hard to imagine they were leading the division at the halfway point of the season. The Rangers were in one of the bottom playoff spots and then just blew up to take the President’s trophy.
Stars to Watch: Whoever wants to play defense for the Penguins is who I’m watching. Kris Letang isn’t coming back and neither is Olli Maatta and their defense was always extra atrocious in the playoffs. Derrick Pouliot might come back but I don’t expect him to do much. The Penguins gave up the 2nd most shorthanded goals this season. Rick Nash should be healthy enough to go for the Rangers. He had a career high in goals this season but only has five in 41 games in the playoffs, yikes. He doesn’t need to score in this round but he will in the second. I’d like to see if he can shake off his playoff demons.
X-Factor: How much of the slump and frustration is in the Penguins head? Let’s face it, if the Penguins drew a real team, instead of the Sabres, they wouldn’t have won their last game and they wouldn’t be here. Now they get the team with the best record. And even though they are the lowest seed, they still have tons of pressure because they have two of the best players in the world on their team.
Goalie Problem: Henrik Lundqvist returns in what should be another impressive playoff run. On the other end, Marc- Andre Fleury had his best season and lead the league in the shutouts. The problem is he started to trail off at the end of the season. Which is troublesome, as he always plays terrible in the playoffs. Despite his great season, the Penguins downward spiral will probably add to his playoff pressure and make him play as bad as usual.
Fun Fact: Surprisingly, the Penguins are the 2nd lowest scoring team in the playoffs. The Rangers are the 3rd highest scoring team in the NHL. The Rangers are also the 3rd stingiest team in the NHL.
Prediction: I can’t see any scenario in which the Penguins will beat the Rangers. The couldn’t beat them last year and they were a better team then. I suppose if Crosby and Malkin get really hot it’s possible. But even then they have to get the pucks past Lundqvist with Fleury, more than likely, not stopping them on the other end. The only thing going against the Rangers is they are starting to creep into Los Angeles Kings territory with the amount of extra games they’ve played the last few seasons. But that won’t be a factor this early. Rangers in 5.
M2 Washington Capitals vs. M3 New York Islanders
Season Series: 2-0-2 tied
Playoff Series History: 4-1 Islanders, last time in 1987
What We Learned: The Capitals turned things around with new coach Barry Trotz quickly. This looks like the most complete team in some time. Ovechkin can also score as many goals as normal when he actually plays defense. The Islanders survived their late season stumble, in which they were in 1st most of the way, and almost got home ice, if it wasn’t for Halak.
Stars to Watch: Mr. Everything for the Islanders John Tavares enters into only his 2nd playoffs in his 6th season. He will go head to head with Nicklas Backstrom in an intriguing match-up. Kyle Okpsoso will also have to elevate his game. He scored three goals in six games in his only playoff appearance. Then there’s always the guy who led the league in goals again, Alex Ovechkin. Joel Ward usually has a few great playoff moments and clutch goals so keep an eye on him.
X-Factor: Can you say pressure? The Capitals haven’t done much in the playoffs in the past and they haven’t been there much lately. The Islanders have only been to the playoffs once recently and lost in the 1st round. They are also want to leave their old building in style. Somebody’s going to lose again in the 1st round. Who wants to not be it more?
Goalie Problem: Jaroslav Halak had a fairly decent first season with the Islanders. But playoffs is where Halak really shines. This will be his third time in the playoffs where he will start/play significant minutes. Ironically, it’s also with his third different team. He played his best game against these, mostly, same Capitals. It’ll be interesting to see if he can do it again. Braden Holtby was phenomenal in his first playoff appearance and his second was fairly decent. He should be able to return to form after his best regular season yet. Both of these goalies can shut down an opposing team and single-handily win a game so this should be a fun match-up.
Fun Fact: The Islanders last made it into the 2nd round in 1993. The Islanders also had the most hits this season.
Prediction: This is probably the hardest series to predict between two teams who have a lot to prove. Last year I said that for one series and it was the only one in which we got a sweep (Canadiens vs Lightning). I can’t see that happening here. I definitely think it’ll go seven and I think Halak will end up stoning the Capitals again. However, Holtby is no slouch, so it could definitely go either way. The Capitals are so much improved but I think, in the final season on the island, the Islanders are destined to play the Rangers in the playoffs. In either case, the winner has a chance to go all the way. Islanders in 7.
C1 St. Louis Blues vs. W1 Minnesota Wild
Season Series: 2-2 tied
Playoff Series History: This is their first meeting ever
What We Learned: The Blues finally won the division, a year later, and the Wild picked up a goalie nobody else wanted and they went on the most incredible run West of Ottawa. The Blues top scorer, Vladimir Tarasenko, has had injuries as of late so that will be something to keep an eye on. Zach Parise is always good to keep an eye on and he will deliver. Mikael Granlund seems to not be progressing. He played decent in last years playoff so it’ll be interesting to see what he does.
Stars to Watch: Paul Stastny has been a pretty big disappointment in his first season as a Blue. But he has 18 points in 22 career playoff games which is pretty good. I expect him to play a more integral role in the playoffs.
X-Factor: The Blues now have the added pressure of being a division winner with the pressure they had already going for them. The problem is they are playing a team that’s hard to predict. A team that also upset the Central Division winner last year. This series is the best chance for an upset.
Goalie Problem: Devan Dubnyk hopes to continue his magic run into the playoffs. He’s had the best run of a goalie, once again, West of Ottawa. He’s hard to gauge since his play currently is so different from what he normally does. He also has no playoff experience. I think he can keep it going though. The Blues haven’t named their starter but it should be Brian Elliott. Elliott gets all the blame when things go wrong but none of the credit when they go right. Lucky him. Elliott didn’t play at all in last year’s playoffs and he was only somewhat decent in his previous games as a Blue. He’ll need to play strong to counter Dubnyk. It’s possible Jake Allen will get a few games but I think that would do more harm than good.
Fun Fact: Dubnyk has played in almost 200 NHL games with four different teams but has never played in a playoff game.
Prediction: The problem for the Blues is this team isn’t much different from the team that lost last season in the first round. They do actually have a starting goalie that cares now, though. If Dubnyk can stay hot, I don’t see any reason the Wild can’t pull an upset again. If he doesn’t, then the Wild’s chances are significantly reduced. I think he will stay hot. Wild in 7.
C2 Nashville Predators vs. C3 Chicago Blackhawks
Season Series: 3-1 Blackhawks
Playoff Series History: 1-0 Blackhawks
What We Learned: The Blackhawks don’t really care what place they finish and the Predators led the division the whole way through, only to end up in 2nd place. The Blues did the same exact thing last season and then lost to the Blackhawks, hmmm.
Stars to Watch: Rookie Filip Forsberg is one of the lone offensive threats the Predators have. He cooled a bit down the stretch but he still played well. James Neal could be a factor but he doesn’t generally play well in the playoffs. Brandon Saad elevated his game last playoffs, will he do it again this year? Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and the defenseman round out the usual bunch in Chicago.
X-Factor: Patrick Kane is cleared for contact. So will the Blackhawks play him? It’s entirely possible or they might wait one or two games. Needless to say he will play in the series. He hasn’t played in six weeks though, so one wonders how rusty he is. Stars usually knock off the rust quickly, however.
Goalie Problem: Corey Crawford always plays excellent in the playoffs, minus that series against the Phoenix Coyotes, and there’s no reason for it not to continue here. Especially after he shared winning the William Jennings Trophy with Carey Price for giving up the fewest goals. Pekka Rinne bounced back from injury for one of his best seasons. He plays well in the playoffs too so this will be an interesting goalie duel of guys that don’t buckle under pressure.
Fun Fact: These teams are very disciplined as they both were in the top five for fewest penalty minutes.
Prediction: The Predators lost their last three games even though they needed them to win the division. Never a good sign. The Blackhawks lost their last four games, which is worse, but it was a long shot for them to win the division and something tells me they didn’t really care. The Predators remind a lot of the Blues last year, which means I don’t think they are going to win. They are a balanced team though and it won’t matter if anyone struggles. The Blackhawks are actually deeper though and they have gobs of playoff experience. Blackhawks in 7.
P1 Anaheim Ducks vs. W2 Winnipeg Jets
Season Series: 3-0 Ducks
Playoff Series History: This is their first ever meeting
What We Learned: The Jets are the only team playing in another division but they are just happy to be in the playoffs. In would have been awesome if Teemu Selanne got to play a playoff game in Winnipeg but, sadly, he is retired. The Ducks, for the first time ever, played consistent the whole season.
Stars to Watch: Tyler Myers has played well in his fresh start with the Jets. He will log a lot of ice time on defense. Dustin Byfuglien hasn’t been in the playoffs in awhile but he’s a force in them. Blake Wheeler and Andrew Ladd led the teams in points but haven’t done that much in the playoffs previously. Of course they had smaller roles on those teams. Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf will be up to their usual selves but I’m more interested to see if Jakob Silfverberg can have a better playoffs than he normally does. Sami Vatanen is a threat from the blueline as well.
X-Factor: The Ducks trouble me in that they probably have the lowest goal differential for a division winner ever. They do have the best one goal game record but it’s troubling that they’ve been in so many close games. However, playoff games are usually tighter so it should help them. They’re also terrible in 2nd periods so it will be key for them to not dig too deep of a hole in that period.
Goalie Problem: The Ducks chose not to play Jonas Hiller last season the whole way and I think that hurt them. They haven’t named the starter but word is John Gibson has a minor injury so Frederik Andersen should be the starter. Michael Hutchinson and Ondrej Pavelec basically split the playing time this season. Hutchinson was hot in the middle of the season, Pavelec at the end. Pavelec should get the starting nod but I don’t trust him. He also has no playoff experience. This series probably features the most shaky and inexperienced goaltending.
Fun Fact: Bruce Boudreau is 1-5 in Game 7’s. This is the first playoff appearance for this Winnipeg Jets team. The previous Jets were 2-11 in their 13 playoff series. Both of these teams were at the top of the NHL in shorthanded goals.
Prediction: As I mentioned before if the Ducks don’t do it this season, it’s not happening. The Jets are just happy to be there with no expectations which is good but, while a decent team, they aren’t the greatest team in the world. They also don’t have that much experience. The Ducks just have a deeper, more talented team. The Ducks in 5.
P2 Vancouver Canucks vs. P3 Calgary Flames
Season Series: 2-2 tied
Playoff Series History: 4-2, Flames
What We Learned: The Canucks rebounded nicely from their lost John Tortorella season. The Calgary Flames are the definition of overachievers.
Stars to Watch: The Sedin twins always produce but they are known to be soft. In their last two playoff appearances combined they have only two goals. Both of those from Henrik in 2012. The Sedins are due for a better performance. Radim Vrbata was the only player on the Canucks to have more than 20 goals so he will need to stay sharp. Johnny Hockey Gaudreau makes his playoff debut for the Flames as does Sean Monahan. They along with Jiri Hudler led the team in scoring. Hudler doesn’t normally scream offense when you think of him. But he did produce some points with the Red Wings in what seems like a decade ago.
X-Factor: Although we haven’t gotten there yet, I think goaltending is the biggest unknown. Hiller can steal a series on his own but he usually only plays that well at an international level. The Canucks, traditionally, always have a mixed bag in net. The goalie play will swing the series.
Goalie Problem: Jonas Hiller had only one shutout all season but he has a lot of playoff and international experience. His last playoff stint wasn’t so hot but he didn’t get much of a chance to get into a groove. I think he’ll preform better this time, when there’s less pressure. For the Canucks, Ryan Miller is back but Eddie Lack should get the starting nod. I don’t think Ryan Miller should start after his debacle last season. Lack doesn’t have much of a track record to go on but he should play decent.
Fun Fact: Calgary had the most takeaways but they also gave it away the 3rd most this season. Vancouver had the 2nd worst face-off percentage.
Prediction: The Flames and the Penguins are the only teams that don’t really belong in the playoffs. Although that’s harsh considering the Flames played well down the stretch and they beat the Kings in their most important game all season. Having said that, the Canucks just have way more playoff experience, which really does matter. The Flames will make it interesting though. Canucks in 6.
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.