Wednesday, April 15, 2015

NHL Playoff Predictions: Round 1

Bracket graphic by bbboz
For the first time in forever, I have no clear idea of what I could predict in the Stanley Cup playoffs this year. All 16 teams are very good and pretty balanced, most of them have question marks in net except the New York Rangers with Henrik Lundqvist (because the Los Angeles Kings didn't make the cut this year), and those who are weaker on paper (Calgary Flames, Ottawa Senators) have just gone through a stretch run for the ages that could either give them tremendous momentum or have killed off their last bit of energy - only watching the games will tell.

Also, there are incredible Finals match-ups I would love to see, like the Nashville Predators versus the Washington Capitals, pitting the Caps' head coach and goaltending consultant (and former Preds key playoff hero Joel Ward) against their former team and the Preds featuring Mike Ribeiro, one of the two best comeback stories this year, against a team that let him go two summers ago.

I'd also like to see Jaroslav Halak and his New York Islanders shaft his former team the St. Louis Blues - or even the Vancouver Canucks, featuring Ryan Miller in net, the guy the Blues acquired to replace Halak for last season's absolutely disappointing and karmically disastrous playoff run.

Any of the four Original Six teams facing off (the Chicago Blackhawks versus any of the Rangers, Montréal Canadiens or Detroit Red Wings) would also be really cool, as would an All-Canadian Finals (5 of the 7 Canadian teams made it to the postseason this year, but at least two will be eliminated in the first round), and all all-youth Finals pitting the Flames and Sens, though a longshot, would be different.

But first things first, Round 1. And there are interesting storylines here as well.

Anaheim Ducks versus Winnipeg Jets:

The Jets, when healthy at forward, boast one of the league's deepest blue lines (enabling Dustin Byfuglien to play defense), featuring possible Norris Trophy nominee Byflugien, but also Tyler Myers, Jacob Trouba, Tobias Enstrom, Grant Clitsome, Paul Postma. Their biggest question mark is between the pipes, where Ondrej Pavelec can be either/both great or awful, and Michael Hutchinson, a rookie, is unproven. Their offense lacks a big-time star to focus on but have two lines of equally-good-if-not-great balanced top six forwards with captain Andrew Ladd, power forward Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little and Mathieu Perreault. Of course, Anaheim can retaliate with superstars Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, but the drop-off after those two is huge, particularly in the wake of Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne retiring. Their defense isn't as stacked as Winnipeg's, but they get the job done, as should their two young netminders. It should be a grind.

Ducks in 7.

St. Louis Blues versus Minnesota Wild:

The Blues were supposed to be heavily favoured but have choked in the past, and goaltending is still causing them worries. On the other end of the ice, Devan Dubnyk has probably been the best goalie (certainly the most impactful) this season, so should his magical run continue, it doesn't matter that the Blues' forwards boast half of Team USA, they won't score on Minnesota's tight defense. And the Wild can retaliate with some star power of their own in Zack Parise, Jason Pomminville, Mikko Koivu, Nino Niedereiter and an overall impressive top12 forwards (now that the easy-to-despise Matt Cooke is sidelined with an injury).

Wild in 5.

Nashville Predators versus Chicago Blackhawks:

Nashville has one of the best goalies in the West in Pekka Rinne. They have the stingiest defesemen in the conference as well, but an aging Mike Fisher who is prone to injury is, unfortunately, a possible question mark in front, or else the fist line of Ribeiro, Filip Forsberg and James Neal is the best trio the team has ever had, talent-wise. The Hawks are the same dynasty as in years past, centered around Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Marian Hossa up from with Patrick Sharp, Brad Richards and Antoine Vermette as a capable supportive cast, and a defense boasting current Norris winner Duncan Keith and his Olympian partner Brent Seabrook, along with my favourite Canadian goalie, Corey Crawford. Logic would suggest ''Hawks in 4'', but with the reigning champs (L.A.) and President's Trophy (Boston Bruins) not even making the cut this year, it could be time for a letdown in Chicago as well. This will be my Big Upset.

Preds in 6.

Calgary Flames versus Vancouver Canucks:

I wish nothing but the best to Alex Burrows - including a Cup. Daniel and Henrik Sedin deserve some postseason success as well, for sure. But I'm not a fan of their goaltending, and it could be their downfall. Also, it's fun to cheer for the Flames, who are balls-out all-effort and no quit. They have guys who could develop into superstars but aren't there yet, so at the moment, their lone ''A'' player is injured captain Mark Giordano, but the rest are all solid ''Bs'', mostly because of their drive and enthusiasm. This one is from the heart.

Flames in 6.

Montréal Canadiens versus Ottawa Senators:

Two teams in the East are built essentially to beat the Habs: the Tampa Bay Lightning and their improve defensive corps, and the Sens. They have that physicality to pound into the Habs' small players, and the speed to catch up to them. Still, #1 seed versus #8 seed, Andrew Hammond's luck is probably about to run out, that's two free games for the Canadiens, which will help Carey Price continue his season for another round.

Habs in 6.

Tampa Bay Lightning versus Detroit Red Wings:

Tampa's GM Steve Yzerman played his entire career with the Wings, captaining the team to two Cups. But Detroit still has the master GM (Ken Holland) and coach (Mike Babcock) to go with a surprisingly deep and never-ending supply of NHLK-ready youngsters coming out of nowhere at all times, particularly come Spring.

Wings in 7.

Pittsburgh Penguins versus New York Rangers:

Lundqvist. An awesome offense. A defense so deep, Keith Yandle is on its third pairing. Versus a five-player team, two of which are injured, missing its top three defensemen. It'll be another short postseason for Sidney Crosby and the Pens.

Rangers in 5.

New York Islanders versus Washington Capitals:

Here again, I wish Alex Ovechkin would win a well-deserved Cup to end the argument that he's not enough of a team player to win a championship. But I never root against Halak. Ever. Halak could play on the Toronto Maple Leafs and be facing my mother, I'd still go for Halak.

Isles in 7.

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