2014 Stanley Cup First Round Playoff Match-Up Predictions
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Boston Bruins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
-The Bruins wrapped up the Atlantic Division back in February (or so it seemed like it), and have been playing the best hockey of any team in the league for awhile now. It's not even debatable. They're 17-1-3 since the Olympics ended. Boston is better than any team in the NHL. The only team I can see knocking them off is Montreal, because all bets are off when those two meet. As for Columbus, they'll earn the second wild card spot for the franchise's second ever post-season appearance. Columbus being an improved team this year is not a surprise, but edging out teams like Toronto and Washington for a playoff spot certainly is. This series would provide the best goalie match-up in the East, with reigning Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky taking on this year's likely Vezina winner, Tuukka Rask.
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Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Detroit Red Wings
-Despite a slew of early season injuries and a bumpy month of March, the Penguins dominated enough early in the season to build a comfortable lead in the Metropolitan Division. Star Forward Evgeni Malkin is scheduled to be back in time for the playoffs, and it appears Defenseman Paul Martin will be as well. Sidney Crosby is the most important player on the ice for Pittsburgh, but whether or not top Defenseman Kris Letang can play (currently recovering from a stroke) or not will be a huge X-factor. Injuries have also plagued the Winged Wheel, but their youngsters (especially Gustav Nyquist) have stepped up enough to earn the first Wild Card spot. If dynamic Center Pavel Datysuk can return from injury (knee) in time, and goalie Jimmy Howard can tighten up a bit, Detroit could be a real first round threat.
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Montreal Canadiens vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
-Under the new playoff system, second and third place from each division will face off in the first round. While this series would be overshadowed by the others in the East, this would be the closest match-up. The Lightning were without Steven Stamkos for a good chunk of the season, and were able to remain among the East's top teams. Having a fresher Stamkos would mean trouble for the East if he got rolling. The Habs have also been a model of consistency, remaining among the upper echelon of the East for the bulk of the season. Goaltending would be the deciding factor. In the red corner, the Canadiens have Carey Price, fresh off a gold medal in Sochi. In the blue corner, the Bolts have big Ben Bishop (6' 7"). The former Senators prospect was getting strong consideration to be one of Team USA's three netminders, something no one expected coming in to the season.
(Photo Credit: Seth Wenig - AP Photo)
Philadelphia Flyers vs. New York Rangers
-With the way the Metropolitan Division is shaking out, these two rivals have been on a playoff collision course for the other 2-3 match-up. They're last playoff meeting came in the 1997 Eastern Conference Finals, and there's plenty of history for NBC to hype the hell out of the rivalry angle. Philly has two games in hand over the Blueshirts, so they'll likely earn home ice. The Rangers have a deeper team, but the Flyers would have the best player in the series in Claude Giroux. We all know what New York has between the pipes in Henrik Lundqvist, but the difference in the series lies in the Flyers crease. Steve Mason has found himself on Broad Street, and has played very well all season. The Flyers history of poor playoff goaltending is well documented. If the former Calder winner (rookie of the year) can buck that trend, the Rangers could have a very disappointing trip up I-95.
WORTH MENTIONING: The Maple Leafs completely collapsed down the stretch (going 4-10-1 in March), and it will be another interesting off-season in Toronto. The Washington Capitals just aren't deep enough to get it done (I expect GM George McPhee to get the ax), and the Devils didn't win enough in March to keep pace with the other wild card contenders.
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St. Louis Blues vs. Minnesota Wild
-The Bruins have been the class of the East for most of the season, and the same could be said about the Blues in the West. They can roll four lines, have arguably the best blueline in the league, and acquiring Ryan Miller at the trade deadline gave them the elite goaltender they needed to tie it altogether. On the flipside, goaltending is the reason Minnesota won't make a run this Spring. A month ago, I thought the Wild had a real chance to pull off a first round upset. Despite being without their starting goaltender Josh Harding (multiple sclerosis) since New Year's Eve, rookie Darcy Kuemper filled in admirably. Kuemper's play has recently come back down to earth, and I don't trust Ilya Bryzgalov in the playoffs. While the Wild currently are the first wild card, I think they'll slip to the second wild card spot.
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Anaheim Ducks vs. Dallas Stars
-Before the Blues were the class of the West in 2013-14, it was the Anaheim Ducks who were running roughshod in the Pacific Division. A 3-5-2 stretch out of the Olympics, combined with the surging Sharks, closed that gap, but the Ducks will still walk away with the division. Ryan Getlzaf and Corey Perry are still one of the best top-line cores in the league, and they'll need to produce at their usual high level if Anaheim hopes to make a run. I think the Stars will make a big push in the last two weeks of the season to put themselves in the first wild card spot. Acquiring Tyler Seguin last off-season has put Dallas on the right track to becoming a true contender in the West sooner rather than later. The last NHL regular season game on the schedule is Dallas at Phoenix, and that could very well be a play-in game for one of the last spots in the West.
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Chicago Blackhawks vs. Colorado Avalanche
-The Colorado Avalanche's performance this year has been nothing short of stunning. A rookie head coach (Patrick Roy) and a very young line-up usually doesn't have you ahead of the defending champs in the standings. Not only are the Avs ahead of the Hawks in the Central Division standings, they've also gone 4-1-0 against Chicago head-to-head. Despite the lack of success against Colorado, Chicago has loads of playoff experience, and they're very capable of shifting their play in to a sixth gear. Injuries will play a key part in this series. Chicago is currently without captain Jonathan Toews (his injury isn't serious) and Patrick Kane (he's expected to be back by the playoffs), while Colorado is without their top center, Matt Duchene (he'll be out four weeks, which means he likely wouldn't be back until the second round).
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San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings
-San Jose and LA is the best rivalry in the NHL no one knows about. When they play each other, their games don't start until 10PM Eastern or later, but the hockey junkies who stay up late know how good it is when these two get together. The Kings were downright awful heading in to the Olympics, but came out of the break very strong. San Jose has been consistently great throughout most of the season, and will continue to challenge Anaheim for the Pacific crown down the stretch. The Sharks have a history of underachieving in the playoffs, but they'll need to survive their Southern California rivals first. This series would be the best goal-tending match-up in the West, with both netminders (San Jose's Antti Niemi & Los Angeles' Jonathan Quick) already having their names engraved on the Stanley Cup.
Worth Mentioning: The Phoenix Coyotes would have held off Dallas for the final playoff spot if starting goalie Mike Smith didn't get hurt in late March. I just don't see Thomas Greiss playing well enough to keep Phoenix in the top eight. Vancouver took themselves out of the mix, playing 11-19-4 hockey since the beginning of January. Nashville never really had a chance at the playoffs this season with goalie Pekka Rinne being out most of the season (e. Coli infection in his hip).