EDITOR'S NOTE: Rob Mixer of BlueJackets.com will provide his take on this year's first-round series in the Stanley Cup playoffs. You can follow him on Twitter (@RobMixer) and read his work on the CBJ Today.
ROUND 1 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS SCHEDULE
PLAYOFF PICTURE: ROUND 1 MATCHUPS
This is the best time of year in the National Hockey League, but I'd be lying if I said the Blue Jackets just missing out makes it a little bittersweet.
One of the best aspects of the Stanley Cup playoff tournament is that we see different heroes for different teams on a nightly basis: some are expected and others come way out of left field, pulling teams together making for some of the most compelling action in sports. It just reinforces my belief that this is the best tournament in sport.
And adding to the drama were down-to-the-wire races for the final playoff berths in both the East and West, with a handful of clubs vying for spots down the stretch up until the final hours of the regular season. Right now, it doesn't matter how you got into the playoffs - it just matters that you're in and have just as good a chance as the teams around you to hoist the Stanley Cup.
On this opening night of the playoffs, I'm going to break down the three series which will lead off the festivities and make my predictions (for a refresher, I'm the definition of hit-or-miss with these) on who advances to the next round. We'll do this again for series which begin the following two nights, as well, and you will be able to find those right here on BlueJackets.com.
Without further ado, let's get started.
#1 CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS VS. #8 MINNESOTA WILD
PREDICTION: CHICAGO IN FIVE
MIXER'S TAKE: Selfishly, I wouldn't mind seeing the Wild lose in three (I'm kidding) for preventing the Blue Jackets from getting into the playoffs. But in all seriousness, we've seen the relentless firepower that the Blackhawks possess and how they can take over a game even when they don't have their best. They have a goaltender playing very well in Corey Crawford but won't have Ray Emery early in the series due to injury, which could be an issue if Crawford doesn't have it early on - but I don't think that's enough of a deterrent to Chicago's path. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and the playoff X-factor named Dave Bolland are enough for any team to handle, and I just don't see the Wild being able to keep pace. The only chance Minnesota has in this series is if Chicago gets undisciplined and gives their top-notch power play more chances than it needs; otherwise, this should be a short series win for the Blackhawks.
#4 ST. LOUIS BLUES VS. #5 LOS ANGELES KINGS
PREDICTION: ST. LOUIS IN SIX
MIXER'S TAKE: Blues coach Ken Hitchcock had some interesting things to say this morning as his team prepared for another playoff series against the Kings. He said the Kings don't know much about this version of the Blues, who evolved over the course of the 2012-13 season and became an even more aggressive and physical team than the Kings saw earlier in the year. If that's any indication, this should be one heck of a first-round series between two teams that really don't like each other, and two teams that play very similar styles. For my money, the Blues are the one team that others should be concerned about because they are completely bought-in on doing whatever it takes to win and are committed to their style of play. I also think Brian Elliot is more than capable of keeping them in games and helping the Blues squeeze through the first round, but it will be an entertaining battle against the defending champions. If the Blues have championship aspirations, there's no better opening test than the team that did it a year ago - and I think they have what it takes to move on.
#2 ANAHEIM DUCKS VS. #7 DETROIT RED WINGS
PREDICTION: DETROIT IN SIX
MIXER'S TAKE: I know it's not a popular pick, but did you see the Red Wings in the final two weeks of the regular season? That's a team figuring itself out in short order and eliminating all distractions for the purpose of zeroing in on its only goal: getting into the postseason for a 22nd consecutive year (that's still ridiculous to think about). Watching the Blue Jackets play each of these teams multiple times this year, you can see one team escalating while the other kind of stayed flat. Detroit found another gear in the last month of the season and won its last four games just to get into the playoffs, while the Ducks haven't played a meaningful game in quite some time - which will be a huge challenge for them to get up for right off the bat. I do expect Anaheim's top players to play a major role in the series one way or the other; if Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Teemu Selanne and Bobby Ryan get involved early and start scoring goals, my prediction could be washed out quickly. But if the Red Wings can take them out of the game and force the Ducks' secondary scorers to make an impact, I think Detroit's in the driver's seat. I expect the battle-tested Red Wings to start this series on the right note tonight at Honda Center and eventually close it out on home ice at Joe Louis Arena.