Minnesota vs. St. Louis
It may have taken until the new year, but the Minnesota Wild found a warm body in net and his name was Devan Dubnyk. It was a definite shock to see a goaltender who was considered one of the worst in hockey last year turn his career around and become one of the most improved. It’s that never ending reminder to don’t predict what happens to goalies from year to year. Meanwhile, Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock has decided to go with young Jake Allen for game one. It’s not like Allen has been significantly better than predecessor Brian Elliott throughout the whole season, but the tables have turned for both netminders by since the New Year and during Allen’s 18 games and Elliott’s 31 appearances.
The goaltending matchup, clearly, is taking away from the fact that this should be one of the better series on paper. What has made St. Louis one of the best teams is the sharing of responsibilities all throughout the lineup. While forwards like Alexander Steen, T.J. Oshie and captain David Backes are the best shutdown guys on the team, the likes of Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz can be freed up to go bananas on the offensive zone and score goals at will. If they need to change things up defensively, Patrick Berglund, Paul Stastny and even Dmitri Jaskin are there to help out.
This series can also be called the “Chris Stewart Series” for the fact that he has played for both teams in the last two years. This time around, he seems to be adapting well with Minnesota as a key piece to a shutdown line with Nino Neiderraiter and Mikko Koivu.That all being said, Thomas Vanek has been a very poor addition to the team from a puck possession standpoint and has been forced to play on a makeshift line of Charlie Coyle and Justin Fontaine for damage control.
That all being said, Minnesota may have the edge in defense as their top four are equally sharing the duties of facing the top opposition. The Marco Scandella-Jared Spurgeon pairing were the discoveries of last year’s playoffs and continue to help out the rest of the team’s deep blue line. For St. Louis, it will be all about how Kevin Shattenkirk fits into a group that has a few new additions since the trade deadline. Both Milan Mihalek and/or Robert Bortuzzo are serviceable in their own right, but Carl Gunnarsson’s Carl Gunnarsson-ness was harming the team, possession-wise and forced Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester to help out too much on the offensive zone. Shattenkirk’s return should help balance the group and help St. Louis into their quest for a first ever Stanley Cup.
Blues in Seven.
Chicago vs. Nashville
We go from one ridiculous Central Division series to another. While Nashville is the best story of the season, they seam to have done so by collecting plenty of lucky charms in the first half of the season and deploying the most hilarious usage chart in the entire NHL. Somewehere, Rob Vollman is calling this the most hilarious punchline.
I mean, how else can you explain Filip Forsberg and Mike Ribeiro going from hockey’s Siberia to becoming the best offensive partnership in the NHL? Also, how on earth is Paul Gaustad being given such a ridiculous assignment. Maybe this is why Peter Laviolette always seems to do so well in his first season on a given team and then gradually get worse until he is given is pink slip.
As for Chicago, there has been a sense since the beginning of the season that this may be their last ride as the best team in the NHL. The likes of Patrick Sharp, Michal Roszival and Marian Hossa are at an age where it’s a matter of time until their production plummets and Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Johnny Oduya are not getting any younger either. There needs to be another forward to join in the ranks of Jonathan Toews and Hossa to form a shutdown line and it will be nice to see Seabrook and Keith unleashed more on the offensive zone, but this is a team that should be able to get their puck luck sorted out. That may all depend on the production of Patrick Kane and Antoine Vermette, who haven’t been that great, from a relative puck possession standpoint, this season.
If Nashville wins this series, it will be because their scoring lines are in full force and Anton Volchenkov can come back to 100 percent and help out the vast depth of the predators blue line. Otherwise, Toews remembers what it’s like to be the best player in postseason hockey and the Blackhawks do Blackhawks things.
Blackhawks in Seven.
Winnipeg vs. Anaheim
To prove the Central Division is so ridiculous, a hockey team from that division is infiltrating the Pacific Division bracket and has a chance to make it to round two.
However, if the Ducks are going to win this series, it will be from the play of the team’s secondary scoring led by shutdown superstar Ryan Kesler. Also, the defensive pairings will have to be set accordingly now that Sami Vatanen is back from his long recovery from a leg injury. James Wisniewski and “Yarp” Despres have performed well in his absense, but is head coach Bruce Boudreau willing to make the horrible over-priced and untalented Clayton Stoner into a healthy scratch?
One thing that shouldn’t go unnoticed is how disgustingly elite Anaheim has become defensively after the trade deadline. The additions of Jiri Sekac have also helped on improving the depth and balance to the team’s forward line combinations and has now allowed Boudreau to allow Rickard Rakell to dominate on the fourth line instead and have Nate Thompson, who is talented in his own right, be a luxury. Frederik Andersen looks to be the starter for this postseason run and he has been looking like a rookie at times this season, but Anaheim’s overall talent should not make him the number one scapegoat if they fail.
For Winnipeg were to continue Anaheim’s postseason failures post-2007, they will have to do it by lighting them up offensively and having their shutdown line led by Mark Scheifle outperform Kesler’s. The Jets also have found ways to upgrade their lineup at the trade deadline, even if swapping Evander Kane for Drew Stafford has been a short-term disaster. Lee Stempniak can be placed anywhere in the bottom six, whether it’s to improve a dysfunctional fourth line or a potentially fantastic third line led by Adam Lowry. The key to their forward depth will be whether or not Mathieu Perrault can play at 100 percent and help out the top six. He has been a fantastic addition to Winnipeg after many years of being one of the most underrated possession forwards in the NHL.
On the blue line, both Ben Chiarot and Dustin Byfuglien return from injury and suspension, respectively. Will they, along with the Tyler Myers-Tobias Enstrom pair be able to handle shutting down Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Either way, Winnipeg will be rocking and the Central Divsision will once again prove their dominance, no matter what the outcome of this series turns out to be.
Oh wait, Ondrej Pavelec is the starting goaltender for the Jets. Let’s just ignore those last 500+ words.
Ducks in Seven.
Calgary vs. Vancouver
It should be commended that Calgary and their league leading penalty differential have performed valiantly to make it to the postseason. However, there is no denying that they will miss defenseman Mark Giordano as the series and future playoff rounds continue. The Dennis Wideman-Kris Russell pairing has been very intriguing since the trade deadline and Rafael Diaz is not a bad seventh defenseman on the roster.
Another welcome addition to the team has been 18-year-old Patrice Bergeron type Sam Bennett if head coach Bob Hartley wants him any of the top nine lines. Even if he wasn’t it could be intriguing to see if he can be a part of a sheltered second line with Mayson Raymond and Joe Colborne. That being said, their top line of Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Jiri Hudler has been tearing everyone apart this whole season with the likes of David Jones and Lance Bouma doing their best to form a (granted, very makeshift) shutdown line. Their fourth line that comprises of Michael Ferland and Matt Stajan have produced very well, possession wise and could be the key to them advancing beyond round one.
That being said, the Chris Tanev-Alex Edler pairing from Vancouver is the best in the series and should be able to go toe to toe with Calgary’s top line. Also, head coach Gabriel Desjardins can utilize a shutdown line of Nick Bonino, Radim Vrbata and Chris Higgins while providing some quality secondary scoring.
There was a little blip in the latter stages of the season, but Vancouver all year has been one of the best penalty killing units of the season. That should bode them well when they have to matchup with Calgary’s arsenal on the penalty kill. They don’t have to necessarily win this category, but considering they are the better team at even strength, they have to put pucks past Jonas Hiller and prevent the Flames from turning this into a penalty box party in order for this series to be a done deal early.
Canucks in Six.
Ottawa vs. Montreal
There is no denying that Ottawa is the hottest team in the NHL right now and it’s not all due to the miracle that is “the Hamburglar”. Dave Cameron has turned the Senators into a juggernaut offensively and it suits their young and fast forwards from Bobby Ryan to Mark Stone.
If Andrew Hammond can sustain his play, the Senators should be able to continue their playoff success against one of the luckiest teams in the NHL in Montreal. However, it can not be stated enough how bad he was in the AHL (0.898 save percentage) this season before he came in as an emergency recall after Robin Lehner and Craig Anderson were out injured. In front of Hammond isn’t the best defense in the world either when you remove Erik Karlsson to the equation.
Montreal will have to pepper Hammond with shots, because their offense hasn’t been able to do it all season long. This will be an even more difficult task now that Max Pacioretty will be missing time due to an upper body injury. The Canadiens do have a top six that can shoot at will, but the bottom six will need to pick up the pace, if only for finding a line that can be used to shutdown Ottawa’s top line. Tomas Plekanec seems like the best player to go toe-to-toe with them, but he doesn’t have anyone that can join him in such an arduous task.
Clearly, goaltending will be the key to this series, as it was for Montreal in their playoff run last year. Carey Price is once again playing at a “best in the world” pace and he has proven that he can get the job done. Montreal has been fortunate to be the healthiest team in the league this season, but now with Pacioretty on the mend, I don’t see how Price can rise to the occasion and the puck luck isn’t so great offensively.
Ottawa in Seven.
Detroit vs. Tampa Bay
Of all the playoff matchups, this one seemed to be set in stone for quite some time. Both teams are the best in the league in shutting the opposition at even strength and comprise of forward line combinations that don’t really have a traditional shutdown line. From here on, that’s where the similarities come to an end.
I really don’t like what’s going on with Detroit considering how bad they have been since the trade deadline (8-10-3) and even with Petr Mrazek now in net for them, I don’t trust that their offense will generate enough shots. I also feel quite sorry for what has happened to Jimmy Howard. Yes, he’s been too mediocre to keep a starting spot the rest of the season, but the evidence is there that Howard hasn’t been the same since wrecking his knee on the January 10th game against Washington.
Add the fact that Justin Abdelkader needs to be cleared by the medical staff to play game one and recent trade acquisition Erik Cole is out for the year to back issues and you have a disaster in your hands.
Tampa, on the other hand, probably have been the most consistent team in the Eastern Conference. However, it does seem like Ben Bishop hasn’t found his groove since coming into the season recovering from a surgically repaired wrist. They could impose the best second line in the league with Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat like nobody’s business, especially if Detroit doesn’t have a proper checking line to match that while trying to shut down the top line led by Steven Stamkos. This all being said, Tampa does have the highest on-ice shooting percentage of any team in the National Hockey League. Since 2008, only the 2009 and 2013 Pittsburgh Penguins have ever accomplished shooting over 9% at even strength and make it beyond the second round of the playoffs. It will be very important for Tampa to have their defense in order if they were to have that number regress to the mean. Jason Garrison doesn’t look like a go for game one while Brayden Coburn is just returning from a lower body injury (let’s not forget he’s broken his foot twice this season, too). Chemistry on the blue line clearly could end up being the crux of Tampa Bay’s season, but that will be up to Detroit being able to have the lucky charms go their way offensively.
Tampa in Five.
Pittsburgh vs. New York Rangers
Speaking of lucky charms, the Rangers have plenty of it thanks to the performance of Cam Talbot this season. Henrik Lundqvist has returned as the starting net minder and this team shouldn’t skip a beat there. However, unless we’re talking about the penalty kill, the defense in front hasn’t been all that great since the turn of the new year. What’s even more incredible is the the extreme lack of shot generation from the offense since the trade deadline. Some will make a snide comment about Keith Yandle being horrible about everything, but remember that Martin St. Louis was hurt for a good portion of that period.
Another thing to watch out for is how much of a buzzkill Derek Stepan might be to this Rangers team. When you consider that the likes of J.T. Miller, Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes will be so important to New York’s playoff run, they need a play-making centerman that can dictate the puck possession and he hasn’t been doing that now for over two years.
So why should the Rangers beat Pittsburgh. Outside of their miserable 4-10-2 finish to the season since March 14th, Their group of defenseman might be out-lapped all series long if Kris Letang, Christian Ehrhoff and Derick Pouliot don’t have a significant impact in this series. While Ian Cole has been decent as a third pairing, Ben Lovejoy (while not super terrible) has been below average and not a serviceable replacement to “Yarp” Despres. Meanwhile, what else is new with Pittsburgh’s depth at forward. Crosby and Hornqvist will continue to be the closest thing to a shutdown line while also trying to score every goal for the team if Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, David Perron and some guy named Blake Comeau can’t. Oh, and Maxim Lapierre, Steve Downie and Craig “Captain Slow” Adams are the most easilly offended hockey players in the world, so it’s guaranteed they’ll commit trillions of penalties or throw some criminal boarding call that all Penguins fans will defend as if their life depends on it. Yeah, I have no regrets on this verdict.
Rangers in Six.
New York Islanders vs. Washington
With all the lucky rabbits in the world, Capitals in Seven.
Enjoy the playoffs everybody!!!