After 1,230 regular-season games, the best part of the year is here. The 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs begin Wednesday, and while there are certainly favorites -- I'm looking at you, New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks -- the field is as wide open as ever. Most first-round series are tough to read and I wouldn't be surprised if all four in the Western Conference went seven games.
The best part about the playoffs, though, is that no one really knows how it's going to shake out, including me, but I'm going to take my best stab at it anyway. Here are my picks for the first round of the 2015 postseason.
Ottawa Senators over Montreal Canadiens -- I always talk about how the way you're playing is more important than where you finish, and no one on this planet is hotter than the Senators right now. Andrew Hammond is playing great, they're getting goals from a lot of different guys, Erik Karlsson has been great and they've just got that youthful exuberance that can be so dangerous come playoff time. Montreal is capable of beating anybody with Carey Price in net, but if Price struggles the tables can turn fast. Don't forget, Max Pacioretty's status will have a huge impact in this series. If he's not 100 percent, that's a huge issue for the Canadiens. Even if he is, it may not be enough to stop Ottawa from achieving the upset. The Senators just have one of those auras about them right now.
Tampa Bay Lightning over Detroit Red Wings --
The Lightning were ushered out of the playoffs quickly a year ago, but if Ben Bishop
didn't get hurt, it would have been a different story. The Lightning score a ton of goals, have good special teams, and with Bishop healthy the goaltending is there. The Red Wings are getting long in the tooth, but they always find a way to get in. They don't have the consistency in goal the Lightning do, though. Petr Mrazek
will get the start in Game 1, but you have to think he's on a short leash. Neither he nor Jimmy Howard
have done their part to take over the top job, and I can't really see one of them doing it now. Goaltending has been Detroit's Achilles heel the last month of the season. Unless things change, they won't be surprising the Lightning.
New York Rangers over Pittsburgh Penguins -- The Penguins just held onto a spot in the playoffs and their reward is to play the Presidents' Trophy winners. The Rangers are playing great, finished strong despite a busy closing schedule and are pretty healthy. They're better and bigger than last season, the defense is better with Keith Yandle and the Penguins are playing about as bad as you can going into the playoffs. Pittsburgh probably won't have Kris Letang in this series and the Rangers don't take a ton of penalties, which means the Penguins won't get as many chances to generate offense from their power play. It would be a huge upset if Pittsburgh wins this series, and with the way the Penguins are playing right now, they may struggle just to win a game.
Washington Capitals over New York Islanders -- After stumbling down the stretch, the Islanders have played better in their past few games and they've got a proven playoff goaltender in Jaroslav Halak. That will help New York make this a hard-fought series, but I think with the way the Capitals are playing, they might be the second-best team in the East right now. I love this team's makeup and think it might be the most well-rounded group the Capitals have had since Alex Ovechkin came into the NHL. They're big, they can skate, and they've got the best power play in the League. This should go six or seven games, but I think Washington will be moving on.
St. Louis Blues over Minnesota Wild -- The Blues worked their butts off to finish high in the standings and win the Central Division this season, and now they get to play the Wild, who are hotter than a firecracker. Seems a little unfair, doesn't it? This is going to be an awesome series and I think the Blues will have to play great to beat a Minnesota team that has been among the best in the League over the second half of the season. The difference to me is that St. Louis will have the depth to outlast the Wild. A year ago the Blues young kids weren't really factors. Guys like Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko were still getting their feet wet. Now those guys are a big part of the Blues offense and it makes St. Louis that much deeper. The Blues will have to play well, but I think they'll play well enough.
Chicago Blackhawks over Nashville Predators -- The Blackhawks haven't looked exactly like the team we've come to know over the past five seasons, though when Patrick Kane comes back for Game 1 on Wednesday they might, but I just have a hard time picking against them at playoff time. They've won two championships, they have Jonathan Toews, they have Marian Hossa and Bryan Bickell becomes a different player this time of year. The talent and experience is all still there. The Predators are a better team than they were a year ago and Filip Forsberg has changed their offensive dynamic, but I just think Pekka Rinne will have to stand on his head to beat the Blackhawks. Chicago is a proven playoff performer, and it's never given me a reason to pick against it. I don't think Chicago will start now.
Anaheim Ducks over Winnipeg Jets -- I know I'm picking the Ducks, but don't be surprised if the Jets pull off a surprise. I've talked to guys that played the Jets and they say after those games they are using by far the most ice bags. The Jets are a tough, gigantic team that has had pretty solid goaltending. The Ducks are usually the bigger team when they play. Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler can have their way with a lot of defensemen, but that's not the case here, and the Jets can skate with the Ducks too. The noise before Game 3 at MTS Centre should also be something to witness, but even with all that going in the Jets favor, I'm still sticking with the Ducks. They have the experience and the leadership to settle players down in the face of the Winnipeg atmosphere and I just think their skill-level, in the end, will be enough. This might be a series that wears the Ducks down so much that they struggle in the second round, but when push comes to shove I think the Ducks will get the job done.
Calgary Flames over Vancouver Canucks -- This is a tough series to read in a lot of ways. The Canucks and Flames each overachieved. A lot of people didn't think either would be in the playoffs and it really wouldn't be too strange to see either of them advancing, but I like Calgary. I think the way the Flames play and the passion they've shown is reason enough to go with them. Calgary lost its captain and best player in Mark Giordano and just kept winning. The Flames won every big game they played down the stretch, including that massive win against the Los Angeles Kings, and I just think those are signs of a team that will be tough to beat right now. For Vancouver to win, it will need great goaltending from Ryan Miller or Eddie Lack, but I'm not sure it will be good enough to stop a team that just has every break going its way right now.