Anaheim vs Dallas: (Season series: Stars 2-1)
The Ducks wrapped up the top spot in the West a few days before the end of the season. Their opponent was still up in the air until Dallas was able to overtake the final wildcard spot from the Mike Smithless Phoenix Coyotes.
Anaheim has been among the trio of California teams batting for the top spot in the Pacific Division all season. The Ducks have been one of the league’s best home teams this season, their 29 home wins are good for second best. They do not struggle to score, however they do not have the scoring depth of some of the teams in this year’s playoffs. They will need to get good goaltending from Jonas Hiller if they are to make a deep run this year.
The stars quietly made their way back into the playoffs for the first time since the 07-08 season despite a loss to the Coyotes in the final game of the season. A balanced scoring attack led by Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn is what helped the Stars back to the playoffs. Steady goaltending provided by Kari Lehtonen didn't hurt their chances either. They will need the same performance that they got in his 33 wins to get past the Ducks in the first round.
While I like to think that the Stars have the ability to grind it out with Anaheim’s top two lines, I think that in the end the Ducks will be able to overpower the Stars. I’ll take the Ducks in 6.
Colorado vs Minnesota (Season Series: Avs 4-0-1)
Last season, the Colorado Avalanche were near the bottom of the league in virtually every category. Their only major win was the draft lottery, which provided them with the first overall pick. This season has been a complete change in fortune. The Avs were competing for the top seed in the west up until the last game of the season. While that bid came up short, they were able to pass both the Blues and Blackhawks to claim the Central Division title, landing them a date with the Minnesota Wild in the first round. They keys to success for the Avs were outstanding goaltending from Semyon Varlamov (a team record 41 wins in 63 games played) and unbelievable play from the young stars. They Avs are a threat to score at any point of the game while not sacrificing defense to do so. They speed that the Avs possess doesn't compare to any team I have watched this season.
The Wild put together a nice push at the end of the season to walk away with the top wild card spot. After a quick scare that they might falter like they did to close out the 2012-13 campaign, not counting a lopsided loss to the Predators on the final day of the season, the Wild won their last 4 meaningful games. In that stretch, the wins came against Pittsburgh, Boston, St Louis, and Winnipeg. Healthy goaltenders have been an issue for the Wild this season. 4 goalies have made 10 or more starts, all 4 of them registering at least 5 wins. It appears Ilya Bryzgalov will be the starter for the Wild, though youngster Darcy Kuemper will be ready to go if called upon.
Although I will be rooting for the Wild to win, I have a feeling they have one more year to go before making a playoff run. Qualifying for a second straight year is definitely something to build upon. Overall it’s the speed and goaltending that will allow the Avs to win this series in 5.
San Jose vs Los Angeles (Season Series: Kings 3-1-1)
This battle of California is the series that I am looking forward to watching the most. They Sharks have been sharp all season while battling for the Pacific division title. However, they have struggled this decade (and some of the last) to get their wins when it matters. On paper their team game should be successful, they have a great combination of leadership and youth. They have consistent goaltending which is all that they need when everyone buys in to the system.
The Kings are one of those teams that don’t play their best hockey in the regular season. As long as they are in position to make the playoffs they re content. Their grind it out style game is exactly what is needed for the second season. A healthy Jonathan Quick may be the difference in this series, unless trade deadline Marian Gaborik can shake of his playoff struggles and provide some offensive firepower. If the Kings can start scoring some goals to go along with their team defense, they may become the team to beat in 2014.
Seeing San Jose win this series at home wouldn't surprise me in the least. However, since they have been there before and have proved that they can win, I’ll take the Kings in 6.
St Louis vs Chicago (Season Series: Blues 3-2)
Just two weeks ago, the Blues were looking to knock off the Pacific powerhouses and claim the top spot in the west. Six games, and six losses later, not only did they not get the top spot in the west, they didn't even finish with the top spot in the Central. Ryan Miler has looked average at best, possibly the result of few to many pucks in Buffalo. They Blues haven’t been able to score lately either. They will need both to get back on track to make a run at the Blackhawks, even though the Blues are the higher ranked team.
Chicago might have gotten an odd form of benefit from the injuries to Jonathan Towes and Patrick Kane. Both players are keys to the success of the Blackhawks and were important to their Olympic teams as well. So, given that both return above 90% healthy, the rest could rejuvenate the defending champions. Cory Crawford has been reliable again this season, registering 32 wins.
I don’t know if the Blues can snap out of their slump in time to beat a very talented and experienced Blackhawks team. Chicago in 6 is my pick.
Boston vs Detroit (Season Series: Wings 3-1)
Boston is the most balanced team in the East by a long shot. They can score goals, they have great defense, and their goalie is in the running for the Vezina trophy. The Bruins have been able to take it easy down the stretch, resting a few key players without the threat of being caught by anyone else in the East. The idea that it might have been a bad thing that most of season was played without much competition is concerning for those outside of the Boston locker room. Whether or not they are able to flip the switch to playoff competition will be interested, especially against an opponent like the Wings
The Red Wings simply don’t know how to miss the playoffs. Only a few weeks ago, the possibility of a Detroitless playoffs seemed to be real. As the weeks wound down, the young players took over and the Wings started to get healthy. Datsyuk and Zetterberg returned to the lineup, providing the leadership and experience that was needed to make the playoff push that always seems to happen. They Wings have to like their chances against the Bruins as well given their regular season success against them. They play of Jimmy Howard will be the key to this series. If he can steal a game early, especially on the road, it may swing the momentum enough to change the series.
Of all the wild card teams, I think Detroit has the best chance to move on. However, I think that Boston might just be too good to lose this one. I’ll take the Bruins in 7,
Pittsburgh vs Columbus (Season Series: Penguins 5-0)
Baring another collapse by Marc-Andre Fleury, I believe that this series will be the most lopsided for the first round. The Pens can score with anyone in the league, as long as they are able to stay healthy. While that wasn't the case for most of the year, they are getting most of their key guys back as the playoffs start.
Columbus cannot match the offensive output of the Pens so they will be relying heavily on the services of the Bob. Sergei Bobrovski led the Jacket to 32 wins this year, 5 by shutout, while posting a .923 save percentage. He will need to keep up those numbers just to keep the Blue Jackets in the series.
I think Bobrovski steals one at home but it will be just that. The Jackets get overpowered and the Pens take the series in 5.
Tampa Bay vs Montreal (Season Series: Lightning 3-0-1)
This match-up pairs 2 of the hottest teams in the league headed into the playoffs. Both have registered 7 wins in their last 10. While the season series looks like the Lightning dominated, 3 of the 4 games were decided in a shootout.
Tampa Bay has continued to succeed despite the departure of Marty St Louis. The team play of Ryan Callahan has allowed Steven Stamkos to excel as one as the league’s best players upon his return from injury. Ben Bishop, another potential Vezina candidate, has been important too. An X factor to start the year, his 37 wins kept the Lightning near the top of the division all season.
Montreal has quietly had a good season as well. Olympic goal medalist Carey Price led the Habs to second place in the division. Trade deadline acquisition Thomas Vanek helped solidify a solid offensive group.
I think Carey Price’s career year continues and he leads the Canadians on to the second round in 6 games.
New York vs Philadelphia (Season Series: Tied 2-2)
This match up is arguably the biggest rivalry of the first round on the eastern side, though Detroit and Boston might not be too far behind for long.
The Rangers battled most of this year with the transition between the old and new style that comes with the hiring of a new coach. Now that they have settled in and added experience in Marty St. Louis, the Rangers have become a formidable opponent for anyone in the East. Brad Richards returned to being a 20 goal scorer, along with Rick Nash, while 5 other players got within 3 of the 20 goal mark. If Henrik Lundqvist can find playoff consistency to match his 2.36 regular season goals against average, this team looks mighty dangerous.
Philadelphia is surprise team in these playoffs given their terrible start to the season. A quick pull of the plug and changing of the coach allowed the Flyers to turn their season around and climb back into the playoff hunt. Another surprise this season for the Flyers is the play of Steve Mason. Written off by many, he returned this season and posted 33 wins. Seven, twenty goal scorers is the key for the Flyers. The Rangers might be able to shut down a line or two but if they can get secondary scoring, the Flyers have a chance to make a run.
I feel that the Rangers are going to have a good post season this year. They have the weapons to score goals and Lundqvist is due for a big playoff performance. In what should be a very intense series, I’ll take the Rangers in 6.