All right, folks. After 720 regular season games, it's finally time for what we've all been waiting for -- the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs. There were some surprises as for who made it to the postseason this year, but the one thing that won't surprise me is how much fun the next two months are going to be. There are some tremendous first-round matchups this spring, and as the playoffs move forward it's sure to only get better.
In the Eastern Conference we've got some great physical matchups like the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs and some exciting rematches like the New York Rangers against the Washington Capitals, and the Western Conference has some doozies as well. I won't waste any of your time here, though. Let's get to what you're all waiting for.
Here are my picks for the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
I like Pittsburgh. They're the best team, they're the most talented team, there's a good chance Sidney Crosby will be back soon, and even without Crosby they're unbelievable. The Islanders are young, their best years are ahead of them, they can definitely score and their power play moves the puck well, but this is really a mismatch any way you look at it. Depth-wise, skill-wise -- the Penguins are one of the most talented teams we've seen in the NHL in a long time. If Evgeni Nabokov is fantastic, maybe the Islanders can work some magic, but I just don't see it happening.
Ottawa, like the Islanders, is a young, exciting team, but they've also got some experience and an easier matchup. Ottawa's defense has been very good lately, Craig Anderson has been sharp in net and Erik Karlsson coming back changes everything. Montreal, on the other hand, has had a great season, but they haven't played well down the stretch. The Canadiens looked good in a 4-1 win against Toronto on Saturday night, but in general they've struggled and the goaltending hasn't been unbelievable. I think Ottawa's playing better and they've got the skill to compete here, and that might make Montreal's return to the playoffs a short one.
The Rangers are scoring more five-on-five now, which is good news, and they've got Henrik Lundqvist, an experienced veteran goaltender who has played well internationally and in the playoffs. Washington's young goalie, Braden Holtby, doesn't have that resume. But the Capitals are probably playing as well as any team in the NHL heading into the playoffs, and the Rangers didn't look up to snuff in the last week against Florida and Carolina. That worries me. Right now the draw and the way Washington is playing could be setting that team up for a real deep postseason run, and offensively, I just think the Capitals have too much firepower for the Rangers.
Boston is not good right now. They've got a lot of issues, and healthy scratching a top-six forward like Milan Lucic at this point in the season is a really bad sign, particularly when they let a division title that could have been theirs slip away. But Toronto plays a similar, tough style and it could wake Boston up. This is going to be a very physical series between two teams that pride themselves on hitting, finishing every check and being tough to play against. Both of these teams are at their best when they're playing a tough, nasty brand of hockey, and I think that will help Boston get its legs back under, and the Bruins' experience will help carry them through in what should be a good, tough series.
We all know about Chicago and what they can do, but I think Minnesota has just been a tremendous disappointment. The Wild have played the poorest of all 16 teams in the playoffs lately, losing to Calgary and Edmonton while barely beating Colorado with their season on the line. In a conference that is so deep and talented, getting Minnesota right off the bat is a big break for the Blackhawks, who might have been facing a surging Detroit team if things shook out differently. Minnesota, with the talent it has, has not been as good as it should have been lately, and I don't see how that is going to change in a matter of days.
This is what hockey is all about. Do you believe in the record or how well you're playing going into the playoffs? I've always believed that how you're playing is more important, and no one is playing better than the Red Wings right now. Detroit won its last four to earn a playoff berth and Jimmy Howard had two shutouts in that span. The Ducks, of course, are very talented, too. They've got some big bodies they can put in front of the net, they have skill, they have a very good power play and some very good defensemen that can join the rush, but I just like the way the Wings are playing and I love their experience.
The Canucks are back. All you need to do is watch their game from last Monday when they hammered the Blackhawks and beat them up physically. That was a wake-up call for the rest of the West. The goaltending in Vancouver will be interesting, but they Canucks are playing well, Ryan Kesler is back and he really gives them an edge, and they're starting to look like the team that went to the Stanley Cup Final two years ago, despite their performance against Edmonton, which should be thrown out because of who was resting. For the Sharks, this is a chance to show they can win in the playoffs, and they can score and have a goalie who never gets the respect he deserves in Antti Niemi, a guy who has already won the Stanley Cup before, but I just love how the Canucks are playing. This will be a great series, but I see Vancouver moving on.
The Blues are a big, physical team, but I think L.A. is big enough that they can handle the physical play of St. Louis. I also think Jonathan Quick is every bit as good as St. Louis' goaltending, and I like the addition of Robyn Regehr as well as Matt Greene coming back. That will give L.A. two big, physical defensemen that can handle St. Louis' forwards, and I also think the Kings will be able to score more than the Blues can. This will probably be a physical, low-scoring series -- Blues coach Ken Hitchcock loves those -- but I think the Kings will be able to generate more scoring chances. If the series is tight and grinding, it'll favor St. Louis. If it opens up more, that'll favor L.A., and in the end I think the Kings will find a way to stay with the Blues physically and open the game up when they need to.
Pick: Los Angeles
That's how I see it and that's who I'm taking in this opening round, but whether I'm right or wrong I just can't wait to watch it all starting tonight.