Welcome back to 4 on 4! Four prominent hockey writers; John Hoven of The Mayor's Manor, Bryan Reynolds and Nathan Eide of Hockey Wilderness, Derek Tanabe of Fear the Fin, and Thomas Drance and Jeff Angus of Canucks Army preview Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Give your own predictions in the comments.
Red Wings (7) vs Ducks (2) -
Despite a playoff match-up that has a lot of history over the past decade, things have a different feel this time around. The Ducks still have Getzlaf and Perry, while the Wings still feature Datsyuk and Zetterberg, but the surrounding cast of characters have changed significantly. On paper, one of the most surprising aspect of this series is that the Ducks come in as the second seed. Long one of the dominate teams in the Western Conference, it was Detroit who scrapped until the final day of the season, just making the post-season as the seventh seed. Yet, as we all know, once the playoffs start, it's a whole new season. So, how much of a factor will their regular season series (which the Wings actually won, 2-1) mean here? Anaheim went 8-9-2 after their hot start to the season, meanwhile Detroit won their last four games and went 5-2-3 over their last ten games. Like most playoff match-ups, it usually comes down to defense and goaltending. Detroit's defense is starting to gel at the right time, and outside of Beauchemin, Anaheim's defensive core is starting to show some cracks. Anaheim scored more goals in the regular season (134 to 122). But, Detroit was fourth best in the league - and second best in the NHL - with only 110 goals allowed. Anaheim was also 26th in the league in faceoffs, a key stat come playoff time. It's not uncommon to see an upset in a 2 vs. 7 match-up, and this series has all the makings of another one. Jimmy Howard and Mike Babcock will be the difference here. Take the Wings in six games.
Bruins (4) vs Maple Leafs (5) -
Even though all Original Six teams made it, this is the only match-up in the first round featuring two teams from that group. Some have argued that if they played a full 82-game schedule this year, Toronto would've probably fallen out of a playoff spot. So be it. They made it. Despite having the worst shot differential in the NHL, here they are against the Bruins. Boston certainly didn't end the season on a high note either, having dropped their final game and losing the Division title to Montreal. Still, don't expect that to impact this series. The Bruins finished the year with the best faceoff percentage in the NHL (56.4%) and gave up the third fewest goals (106). Overall, Tukka Rask should have an advantage over James Reimer, who would need to steal a few games for the Leafs to even think about an upset. The Bruins also have an advantage on the blueline and with a deep core of forwards. Toronto will likely try to play a little bit of Old Time Hockey, having led the entire NHL will 1,626 hits. They also racked up more penalty minutes than any other team. But, Brian Burke didn't want to 'just make the playoffs,' so it's probably a good thing he's not in Toronto anymore. It will take seven games and Boston will defeat the Leafs.
Sharks (6) vs Canucks (3)
The Sharks and Canucks should be a fun match up to watch. Two teams that can't seem to tie their skates on right in the playoffs should put to rest the myth that the first round is always exciting.
To be fair, the Sharks are basically made up of cast offs from the Minnesota Wild with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau thrown in for good measure. The Sharks gave up a mint for Brent Burns and converted him from an offensive minded defenseman with range who sometimes gets in over his head to a top line power forward, something the great Jacques Lemaire was unable to do. The Sharks then traded for Martin Havlat and transformed him from a defensively lazy forward with no mind for back checking into a defensively lazy forward with no mind for back checking who also hurts himself jumping the boards. Then there is the Sharks' Masterton candidate in James Sheppard, whose NHL pedigree includes ruining his one shot at a real NHL career by running into a street sign on an ATV.
Mind you, it seems the Sharks have enough pieces around to compensate for the presence of Havlat and Sheppard. Thornton and Marleau are absolute beasts, right up until the pressure is on. Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski almost make you forget that Raffi Torres is also on this team. If the Canucks get into Antti Niemi’s head, this one is over quickly.
On the Canucks’ side of things… well, Kings fan are intimately aware of what the Canucks bring to the table. Elite scoring from the braineaters in Henrik and Daniel Sedin, two guys who would sooner bite your knee caps than focus on the game in Alex Burrows and Maxim Lapierre, and who can forget “Former third overall pick behind Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin” Cam Barker. They did bring in Derek Roy from Buffalo, and they have that one guy that’s really good on defense… you know… the one who did that thing?
The Canucks goaltending situation will be fun to watch. Roberto Luongo and Cory Scheider are infinitely likeable as people and hate-able as hockey players. Luongo is constantly billed as a big game goalie, yet the only thing he has ever really won is a… oh yeah… gold medal. Dang it. That doesn’t fit the narrative. Oh well. Schneider has been knighted with the starting spot in Vancouver after the Canucks GM / former agent gave Luongo the most absurd contract in the Western Confernece. Yes, this from the guy who covers Ryan Suter and Zach Parise. Schneider is the lesser of the two netminders, struggling all season to a 17-9-4 record with a terrible… 2.11 GAA and .927 save percentage.
These goalies really don’t work in my story line. Forget them.
The Canucks are an easy team to hate, and hate the Kings. The Sharks are completely forgettable and are hated by Kings fans. If you are Kings fan, you may want to cheer for the meteor in this one.
Prediction: Canucks in 6.
Senators (7) vs Canadiens (2)
The who and the what now? I'm sorry, do they play hockey east of Detroit?
I know that Dany Heatley used to play in Ottawa and they hate him because he hated it there. I know that violent Ottawa fans started the Wild equipment truck on fire a few seasons ago (this isn't actually proven). I know that Erik Karlsson ruined the greatest episode of CSI: RCMP by coming back early and Senators fans hate Matt Cooke. So one out of four ain't bad.
Montreal has P.K. Subban and a bunch of guys that don't matter because they're not as awesome as P.K. Subban. Don't believe me? Just ask him.
Montreal some how ended up with the #2 seed in the East. Seriously. They did. And they still have a bunch of tiny guys nobody has heard of. Oh, and P.K. Subban. Did I mention him?
Ottawa has ..... Erik Karlsson's achilles tendon?
Fine, I'll try to take this seriously. This will be a battle for supremacy of Eastern Canada (for the week). The eyes of the Canadian (francophone) media will be on this series (because since Toronto is in the playoffs, nobody else will matter). It's a battle of an impressively balanced offensive attack (the depth in Montreal is impressive) versus a stingy defense. It's also a battle of a healthy team in Montreal versus an Ottawa team decimated by injury all season. Jason Spezza, Milan Michaelek, Erik Karlsson, Jared Cowen and Craig Anderson all missed serious time this season, and Spezza is still out. This is a team that, with all players healthy, would have been a home-ice squad, not a 7th seed. But alas, injuries are part of the game and Ottawa was able to hang on and get into the playoffs.
Yes, the teams have some veteran leadership, but the focus should be on the youth. Ottawa's Mika Zibanejad, Cory Conacher and Jakob Silfverberg versus Montreal's Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher. Both teams have relied upon their rookies to carry the load and play huge minutes. Which team's youth movement will wilt under the heat of the playoffs?
Frankly, it comes down to whether or not Carey Price actually performs or pulls a Dan Cloutier, circa 2003. If he's on, Montreal has the depth and talent to make a deep run. If he's mediocre, he'll still beat Ottawa. If he's off, they'll cart his lifeless body down Rue St. Catherine.
Prediction: Montreal in 6.
Kings (5) vs Blues (4)
Presumably, the entire Western Conference breathed a collective sigh of relief when the Kings held on to defeat the Sharks 3-2 on Saturday night to clinch the fifth seed and a first-round date with the St. Louis Blues. After Chicago, these are not only the two best teams in the West but they're similarly built, ferociously physical juggernauts. And yet one of them will be on a golf course two weeks from now and the other will be beaten and bloodied heading into the second round. This really seems more like it should be a Conference Final series rather than one in the opening round; it's just too close to call. Los Angeles is an elite even-strength puck possession team but the Blues are no slouches in that department either. St. Louis has a slight edge on special teams while both clubs suffered through atrocious goaltending throughout the regular season; the difference is that while Brian Elliott is legitimately bad at hockey and Jaroslav Halak is perpetually injured, Jonathan Quick has something of a track record as you might recall. There's also the matter of the Kings having won their last eight meetings with St. Louis, four of which came in their sweep of the Blues during last spring's semifinals; they're one of the few teams in the league capable of effectively and routinely countering Ken Hitchcock's forecheck. I highly doubt this series will be as easy for L.A. as last postseason's was but with more high-end forward talent, greater territorial dominance and a recent history of getting it done against this Blues team, I'll pick the Kings in 7.
Penguins (1) vs Islanders (8)
Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold rightfully earned a good deal of derision yesterday for insinuating that, as an eighth seed, the Wild were likely to follow the same trajectory as the occupant of last year's final playoff spot in the West and win the Stanley Cup. That won't happen but the eighth seed that could make far more noise than most are willing to predict is in the Eastern Conference. No, the Islanders aren't this year's Kings but, like Los Angeles was last year, they're an impressive possession team (which tends to come in handy this time of year) with a mobile defense led by a terrific first-line center. This series will likely be billed as John Tavares vs. Sidney Crosby but the real matchup is Marc-Andre Fleury vs. Evgeni Nabokov. Despite Fleury's ring, neither goalie is all that great; whichever one screws up the least is likely leading his team to victory. Once a dominant territorial club, the Penguins have struggled to control play for much of this year in the absence of Jordan Staal and following injuries to Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. Malkin and Letang are back, Crosby has resumed skating and while Jussi Jokinen will never be mistaken for a Selke contender, he's a decidedly above-average two-way center who could fill the void left by Staal's trade to Carolina last offseason to a greater degree than Brandon Sutter was able to. I think the Isles have a good chance to pull off an upset here but in a series that features two fairly shaky goaltenders, I'll go with the team that boasts more offensive firepower. Penguins in 6.
Blackhawks (1) vs Wild (8)
The Presidents’ Trophy-winning Chicago Blackhawks are the heavy favourites against the eighth seed Minnesota Wild, and for good reason. Top to bottom, Chicago is better than Minnesota in every area of the game (the goaltending battle is pretty even, though). Minnesota has plenty of motivation in this one, as they will want to avenge the fact that Chicago actually got them to trade Nick Leddy for Cam Barker a few years ago.
Chicago is deep and talented up front, and they have some underrated depth forwards who provide speed, size, and grit (led by Michal Frolik, Viktor Stalberg, and Bryan Bickell). The aforementioned Leddy has developed into a steady two-way defenseman, and Chicago has other defensemen (Johnny Oduya, Niklas Hjalmarsson) outside of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook who have stepped their games up, too. Corey Crawford has been (mostly) good this season, and Chicago’s superstars have all played like superstars this season.
On the other side, the Minnesota Wild are anchored by their top defensive pairing of Ryan Suter and super-rookie Jonas Brodin. Up front the team is led by Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise, and the secondary scoring behind those two has been very inconsistent in 2013. The artist formerly known as Dany Heatley is out for the season with a shoulder injury, and rookie Mikael Granlund has been slow to adjust to the NHL game. Jason Pominville is out for at least the first game of the series (Dustin Brown’s elbow can be thanked for that). Simply put, to have any shot at stealing a few games in this series, Minnesota needs production from the likes of Matt Cullen, PM Bouchard, and Devin Setoguchi.
At the end of the day, this is the case of a great team against a mediocre team. Hawks in 5.
Rangers (6) vs Capitals (3)
In the East I'm generally thinking that chalk will rule the day in the first round, but this first round matchup between the Rangers and the Capitals could be the exception. The Rangers are, quite simply, the better club at even-strength and as good as Braden Holtby has been this season, I'd give them the edge between the pipes as well. Washington has been extremely reliant on their power-play this season and I tend to think at least some of their effectiveness at five-on-four is luck based (the Capitals scored one one of every five shots they took at five-on-four this past season, a number that is about as sustainable as a Regehr's partnership with Drew Doughty). The Rangers aren't particularly good at suppressing shots on the penalty-kill or anything, but because they have the edge at even-strength and because I don't buy that Washington is as good on the power-play as they've looked this season, I'd give them an edge in the series overall.
I'm picking the Rangers to win in six.
John Hoven is the founder and editor of MayorsManor.com - selected as 2012's Best Hockey Blog by Yahoo Sports. As a member of the Professional Hockey Writer's Association, his insights and information have been featured on several well known websites, magazines and in print for the LA Newspaper Group. He can also be heard over the airwaves, as he's a regularly featured guest on sports radio stations across North America. Be sure to follow along at www.twitter.com/MayorNHL for his daily notes and inside scoop.
Bryan Reynolds is the editor of Hockey Wilderness, the SB Nation site covering the Minnesota Wild. He also covers the Minnesota Swarm of the NLL for SB Nation Minnesota and dreams of one day being the Senate confirmed Director of Vengeful Beatings - @hockeywildernes.
Nathan Eide is the managing editor of Hockey Wilderness, a Minnesota Wild fan community. Nathan likes long walks on the beach, spending time with his family and enjoys the schadenfreude surrounding the Edmonton Oilers.
Derek Tanabe is currently the managing editor for Fear The Fin, a Sharks blog with up-to-date news and analysis concerning California's only team still chasing the Stanley Cup. You can follow him on twitter at @fearthefin.
Thomas Drance is a Vancouver native currently based in Toronto. He works at MThrty communications , is the managing editor of canucksarmy.com, and a contributing writer at Pass it to Bulis (the Vancouver Sun). Works for Engagementlabs. He's an avid singer who swims everyday in the summer, and eats food that is too spicy for normal human persons. You can follow him on twitter at @CanucksArmy.