My thoughts on the upcoming opening round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Enjoy!
St. Louis Blues vs Minnesota Wild. Congratulations, St. Louis Blues, you get to take on one of the NHL’s hottest teams over the second half of the regular season. If you love tight-checking defensive playoff hockey, this series could be for you. The Blues come into this one carrying the baggage of a poor playoff record in recent years, while the Wild hope to turn their second-half momentum into a deep playoff run. This one could come down to goaltending. The Blues hope Jake Allen or Brian Elliott can succeed where Jaroslav Halak and Ryan Miller failed in the recent past, while the Wild look to Devan Dubnyk to continue his impressive second-half performance into the postseason. Allen and Elliott have limited playoff experience, while this is Dubnyk’s first trip to the big dance. This could be too close to call, but perhaps this is the year the Blues avoid another early postseason departure.
Anaheim Ducks vs Winnipeg Jets. Expect this one to be physical. The Jets are one of the most punishing teams in the league, but the Ducks can hold their own in the physical department. Goaltending will be an intriguing storyline. The Ducks’ Frederik Andersen has yet to fully establish himself as a playoff starter, but he has more experience than Winnipeg’s tandem of Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson. The Ducks have plenty of playoff experience under their belts, led by Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, who helped bring a Stanley Cup to Anaheim in 2007. However, the Jets also have championship know-how in captain Andrew Ladd and top defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, who were part of Chicago’s 2010 Cup run. The Jets could get a lift from raucous Winnipeg fans primed to enjoy their first NHL playoff experience since 1996. Still, the Ducks could have the depth and leadership to win this one.
Nashville Predators vs Chicago Blackhawks. This will be an interesting tilt between two clubs that struggled over the final weeks of the regular season. There’s pressure for both teams. The Predators want to go deep in the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. The Blackhawks hope to stage one last championship run before salary-cap constraints breaks up the current roster. The Predators go into this series with captain Shea Weber not at his peak offensively, while the Blackhawks could get a boost from the surprisingly early return of 2013 playoff MVP Patrick Kane from a broken clavicle. This series could see an interesting goalie duel between Nashville’s Pekka Rinne and Chicago’s Corey Crawford. Both were among this season’s top netminders. The Blackhawks’ experience should give them the edge in this series, but one shouldn’t be too dismissive of the Predators.
Vancouver Canucks vs Calgary Flames. The last time these two teams met in the playoffs was 2004, when their makeup was very different and they were led by different stars. Both are rebuilding teams that confounded the experts to reach the playoffs. On paper, the Canucks have the depth in experience – led by the Sedin Twins, Kevin Bieksa and Ryan Miller – to win this series. However, the Flames have spent the entire season proving the experts wrong. Their first line of Jiri Hudler, Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau was among the NHL’s best down the stretch. Miller is also just returning from injury and looked rusty in his first game back, a 6-5 win over the lowly Edmonton Oilers. If Miller struggles, the Canucks can turn to Eddie Lack. Given how both teams battled against the odds this season, it’s a shame one of them will be eliminated. Like so many, I expected the Flames to collapse and they didn’t. I’ve got a feeling they won’t be easy pickings in this one.
New York Rangers vs Pittsburgh Penguins: This series appears to be a mismatch. The Rangers won the President’s Trophy with the NHL’s top record this season. The Penguins, meanwhile, struggled through injuries and barely made the playoffs. The odds seem to favor the Blueshirts, who enter this series with a reasonably-healthy lineup. They also won three of four games against the Penguins during their season series. The Penguins come in with a banged-up blueline missing top d-man Kris Letang. Their defense will get a boost from call-ups Brian Dumoulin and Scott Harrington. Despite the presence of superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Pens haven’t enjoyed much playoff success in recent years. The Rangers won’t take this series lightly, but it’ll take a mammoth effort from the Penguins to pull off the upset here.
Montreal Canadiens vs Ottawa Senators: At first glimpse, this should also be a mismatch. The Canadiens are among this season’s top teams, led by dominant goalie Carey Price, superstar blueliner P.K. Subban and sniper Max Pacioretty. However, the Habs puck-possession, offensive and defensive numbers are among this season’s worst. Yes, the Senators were carried into playoffs by a strong goalie in Andrew Hammond and their numbers also weren’t the best, but they’ve been red hot since mid-February and won three of the four games in the regular-season series between the two clubs. The Sens also have a number of players who were part of their 2013 first-round upset of the Canadiens. Several of their young forwards (Mark Stone, Kyle Turris, Mika Zibanejad and Mike Hoffman) are blossoming into scorers. The Canadiens have the depth in experience to win this series, but the Senators could be primed to pull off another first-round upset.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs Detroit Red Wings: The Lightning were swept from the first round of the 2014 playoffs by Montreal while the Wings were bounced by Boston in five games. One of these teams faces another early playoff exit. Here’s a hint: it won’t be Tampa Bay. Wings goaltenders Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek are struggling behind a shaky defense has been shaky and inconsistent offense. The Lightning, meanwhile, have the reliable Ben Bishop between the pipes this year and a healthy Steven Stamkos to lead their offense. The Bolts also possess considerable depth in swift offensive forwards, especially their second line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov. Expect the Lightning to emerge triumphant from this one.
Washington Capitals vs New York Islanders: This series features two teams going in opposite directions down the stretch. The Capitals won six of their last ten regular-season games, whilst the Islanders struggled through the final six weeks of the schedule. The focus of this series will be upon Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin and the Islanders’ John Tavares. The superstar captains hope to lead their clubs deep into the postseason. Goaltending could be the deciding factor in this series. The Capitals’ Braden Holtby was among this season’s top netminders. The Islanders Jaroslav Halak played well for much of the season but faded down the stretch. If Holtby continues his dominant play and Halak keeps struggling, the Capitals will make short work of the Isles.