EDITOR'S NOTE: BlueJackets.com's Rob Mixer is notorious for his terrible playoff predictions, so he's back to drop them once again. Let him know how bad they are by tweeting him at @RobMixer.
LIGHTNING VS. RED WINGS
I could be the 4,000th person to call this series "The Steve Yzerman Bowl" but I won't. I just made the reference, but I won't.
Tampa Bay has carried the "contender" label around a few times with one Stanley Cup championship on the franchise's resume (2004), but this year feels different. It feels like this young, dynamic team - under the tutelage of a young, dynamic coach in Jon Cooper - is ready to make a big leap this postseason after a disappointing four-game sweep at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens last spring. Unlike 2014, the Lightning has its No. 1 goalie between the pipes this time around and Ben Bishop has been a consistent, solid performer all season long, and many think he's the reason Tampa will make a run.
Helping the Lightning's cause is a healthy and mega-productive Steven Stamkos, a strong supporting cast with the likes of Valtteri Filppula, 2015 All-Star Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, Ryan Callahan and several others that round out one of the NHL's most balanced forward groups. On defense, the Lightning are solid and added veteran Braydon Coburn at the deadline but will be without a key veteran in Jason Garrison, who's believed to be on the verge of returning at some point in this series.
They're facing an opponent that's got the playoff pedigree (the Red Wings are making their 24th consecutive postseason appearance), strong veteran leadership in Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall and Pavel Datsyuk, one of the game's best coaches in Mike Babcock, and a bit of a surprise starter in goal: Petr Mrazek. Detroit has all the tools to make a deep run and it should be no surprise if the Red Wings are hanging around into late May or early June, but I have a feeling this Lightning team is ready to let loose and challenge for a championship.
PREDICTION: Lightning in 7
RANGERS VS. PENGUINS
Congratulations to the top-seeded New York Rangers, this year's Presidents' Trophy winners/regular season champions: you get to face Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby in the first round of the playoffs.
It's been a weird year for the Penguins, who have been up and down under first-year coach Mike Johnston and have been hit with numerous injuries, particularly on their blue line. They'll be without Kris Letang, Christian Ehrhoff and Derrick Pouliot to begin the series against the Rangers, requiring a big-time effort from guys like Ben Lovejoy, Paul Martin, Ian Cole (a solid addition at the deadline from St. Louis) and Rob Scuderi. Perhaps the Penguins' greatest asset as they had into the playoffs is in goal with Marc-Andre Fleury, who was one of the league's best during the regular season and had a career year despite the Penguins limping into the playoffs on the season's final day.
Could Pittsburgh be better suited as the 'underdog' in this series, without the expectations and pressure that come along with a division title or sparkling run through the regular season? It's a definite possibility. The Penguins are up against a Stanley Cup favorite, a Rangers team that's fast, skilled, plays as a five-man unit, and has a serious feeling of belief in its dressing room that this is their year. They're motivated by last season's disappointment and coming so close to a championship before bowing out in a six-game Final, and they've got Henrik Lundqvist back and approaching top form at just the right time.
The Rangers have to defend home ice early in this series, because they don't need to be in a desperate situation coming back home for a potential Game 5. The Garden will be rocking, the team will be focused...and if the Rangers play their game and impose their style on the Penguins, they'll be awfully tough to beat.
PREDICTION: Rangers in 6
BLUES VS. WILD
At first glance, I was pretty convinced the Blues were a solid pick for this series. But the more I think about it, I'm leaning toward the Wild.
I like Minnesota at the important positions: skill (the Wild are a deep team that plays with speed), defense (the Blues' blue line is darn good, too) and mostly, the goaltending. Devan Dubnyk strikes me as one of the potential heroes of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs, and he could lead the Wild deep into the spring if he's as good as he was late in the regular season. Mike Yeo certainly hopes so, and they will need Dubnyk to be great against a Blues squad that's got all the makings of a contender in the West. Their early knock-out last spring is sure to be a motivator, and the St. Louis defense is even better than it was a year ago with the addition of Zbynek Michalek at the deadline. Up front, the Blues have gotten a huge offensive jolt from Vladimir Tarasenko, who's just electric every time he gets the puck and has the individual skill to break down a defense. Captain David Backes loves this time of year and Paul Stastny joined the Blues as a free agent for this reason -- to compete for a championship in a place he knows quite well.
Can the Wild steal one at Scottrade Center? That could go a long way toward determining how this series plays out, and I'm feeling a Game 1 or 2 win for Minnesota as their late-season wave of momentum keeps rolling. The Blues are going to come out hard and fast, and their style can overwhelm opponents if they aren't ready for it, so that's another thing to keep an eye on if you're the Wild. They also need a valiant effort from Jake Allen in goal, who's slated to start Game 1 for St. Louis. In the end, I think the combination of Dubnyk and a supremely confident Minnesota team (up and down the lineup) is enough to get the Wild through to the next round for the second year in a row.
PREDICTION: Wild in 6
DUCKS VS. JETS
The difficult thing for the Winnipeg Jets (ok, maybe it's just me getting ahead of myself here) is to focus on these first two games in Anaheim and not look forward to what should be the most incredible postseason atmosphere at MTS Centre.
Anaheim has credentials and its core players (Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry) have championships on their resumes, so they know a thing or two about this playoff hockey thing. The Ducks can play a fast-paced, physical game that's tough for opponents to match, but if there's one that can take the punches and counter even harder, I think the Jets are that team. There's no leeway for Anaheim to take the Jets lightly, and you can bet Bruce Boudreau will have his team ready to go -- but the same can be said for Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice, who has done a tremendous job in his first full season. The Jets are big, they're fast and they play a maintenance-free style that has brought them a lot of success, hanging around the top of the Central Division for part of the season before succumbing to injuries to key players and a suspension to Dustin Byfuglien down the stretch.
Goaltending (you don't say!) is crucial in this series, too; the Ducks are going with Frederik Andersen and despite his solid season, they've experimented with some different options in goal including youngster John Gibson, who's currently sidelined with an injury. Ondrej Pavelec, often scrutinized in his career, is the Game 1 starter for the Jets and he fought off Michael Hutchinson to earn the series-opening starting job. To summarize: the Ducks have experience, the Jets have confidence and a terrific home crowd, but I'm going with Anaheim to advance.
PREDICTION: Ducks in 6