After more than six months and 1,230 regular season games we've finally arrived at the best part of the NHL calendar. The 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs begin tonight at 7 p.m. ET when the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning drop the puck at Tampa Bay Times Forum.
There are still roughly two months and four rounds of playoff games to be played before we crown a champion, but as we drop the puck on the postseason, here is my take on the first round:
(1) Boston Bruins vs. (4) Detroit Red Wings
For my money, the Bruins were the best team in the League this season, but it isn't much of a reward to have to play what is probably the best wild-card team to start the playoffs. Saying that, I still think Boston will win. The Bruins are just an awesome club, they're playing great right now and they're pretty healthy, but getting the Red Wings is a tough break.
If the Red Wings are to have a chance, they'll need to play faster than the Bruins offensively and defensively. They're going to need Jimmy Howard to outplay Tuukka Rask and they're going to have to outperform Boston on special teams. Basically, the Wings will need to play perfect hockey against a team that will probably grind and wear them down physically for seven games if it gets that far. Can Detroit do all of that? I don't think so.
(2) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. (3) Montreal Canadiens
This entire series depends on injured Lightning goalie Ben Bishop. If he can play, I think Tampa Bay can win. The Lightning are a sneaky good team and they're underrated in just about every area of the game. They've got one of the top goal-scorers in the game in Steven Stamkos, they have good special teams and Ryan Callahan has been a great fit. Still, it all comes down to Bishop. If he plays the Lightning have a chance to beat Montreal, particularly if they can steal a game in Montreal and get the fans talking, get the press crazy and get the players agitated.
Without Bishop, though, I think this could be a tough series for the Lightning. They play differently when he is in net. They're confident that he can bail them out if they make a mistake and they play more aggressively. If he's not there, I see the Canadiens getting through to the second round.
(1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (4) Columbus Blue Jackets
This is the Marc-Andre Fleury show. We know his history. It's been talked about ad nauseam in hockey circles. Fleury has struggled in the playoffs the last two years and that's what this series is all about. If Columbus can rattle him like the New York Islanders did last year, maybe steal a game in Pittsburgh, all of the sudden it's "here we go again." That's the series as far as I'm concerned. If Fleury can prove to his team that he's the goalie that won the Stanley Cup in 2009, Pittsburgh will win this series easily. If the Blue Jackets can plant some seeds of doubt, then this series gets a lot more interesting.
I do think Pittsburgh will win regardless of Fleury's play. They're just too talented, but Fleury's play determines whether the Penguins win in four or five and get some rest for the next round, or whether they get pushed to six or seven games. We all know what Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or James Neal is going to bring to the table. Fleury is the key.
(2) New York Rangers vs. (3) Philadelphia Flyers
These are two teams that know each other about as well as two teams can. New York knows what Philadelphia is going to do, and the big key for the Rangers will be not letting the Flyers' nasty, tough guys get under their skin. The Rangers have to play big and be strong, but they've also got to stay out of the penalty box. Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi can't be off the ice and Rick Nash has to play a bunch of minutes. Philly is going to be in New York's face and finishing checks, and the Rangers have to respond in kind but do it intelligently. This should be a real nasty series all the way through.
Ultimately, though, I'm falling on goaltending here, and that favors the Rangers. This is why you have a guy like Henrik Lundqvist in net while the Flyers, who are starting Ray Emery, seem to be a bit muddled between the pipes. I like the Rangers, but I do think it'll go six or seven games and probably be a great series.
(1) Colorado Avalanche vs. (4) Minnesota Wild
The Avalanche are certainly a young team, but I think they'll be fine. There's only one way to get experience and that's to play the games. Would Colorado be more prepared if this was its fourth or fifth trip to the playoffs with this group? Of course. But there aren't many guys that know more about the playoffs -- and winning in the playoffs when you're young -- than Patrick Roy. He's going to have this team ready.
Still, there are going to be butterflies and excitement with Colorado and the Wild have a good makeup for the postseason. Minnesota is very solid, Ilya Bryzgalov has been a good addition down the stretch, Ryan Suter is great on defense, Mikael Granlund has shown he's a quality NHL player and Mikko Koivu is always solid. The young kids of Colorado are playing really well, but not having Matt Duchene will hurt them. Minnesota has a little more experience, both in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and on the international stage, and because of that I actually like the Wild to win this. If they do, I don't think I'd really call it an upset.
(2) St. Louis Blues vs. (3) Chicago Blackhawks
On paper, this is the best series of the first round, no question. These two teams hate each other and they go all the way back to their days in the Norris Division. They're also two of the best teams in the NHL, and whoever wins this series might end up winning the Stanley Cup. The big question, though, is if the Blues can snap themselves out of the six-game skid they finished the season with. I think it's good they're playing Chicago, because it's a team they're familiar with and they know how to play. Nothing will catch St. Louis by surprise, and it will be able to settle in and get its feet under it quickly.
Chicago, however, is a group of proven playoff performers with tons of playoff experience, to say nothing of two recent Stanley Cup championships. Playing St. Louis is a tough draw, but if I'm the Blackhawks, I'm thinking we'll probably have to beat the Blues at some point, so we may as well beat them early when they aren't playing that well. I can't believe St. Louis won't get itself back on track and make it a tough series -- I will be very surprised if we don't see six or seven games -- but in the end, I think Chicago, with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews back in the fold, will win it.
(1) Anaheim Ducks vs. (4) Dallas Stars
On the surface this isn't one of the sexier series in the first round, but boy could this be a track meet. There's a lot of speed on the ice here, and I'm not sure there are two more exciting teammates to watch in hockey than Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Dallas can cause problems, and don't forget the Ducks were a high seed last year when they lost in the first round to Detroit. Dallas is a very interesting team, and they can occasionally lay an egg and be inconsistent, but I don't think this will be a cakewalk for Anaheim, and the Ducks probably know it.
Certainly the experience factor weighs in heavily in favor of the Ducks here. This is a team with several Cup winners, to say nothing of the talent it has with Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Teemu Selanne. The Ducks are a confident team and a very good team, and I think that will be enough to carry the day for them. I do respect Dallas, however. I think you have to respect the problems and mismatches the Stars can create, particularly if Seguin and Benn get hot. I still see the Ducks winning, but don't be surprised if Dallas pushes this to six or seven games.
(2) San Jose Sharks vs. (3) Los Angeles Kings
The Kings have an advantage in this series because they've done the thing the Sharks have never been able to do. They've won it all. That doesn't mean the Sharks can't win, of course, but to do it, they're going to have to get dirty. San Jose loves to play a fast game. The Sharks love to play a skilled game, and that's not going to be the case with the Kings. There's going to be close checking, a lot of board play and Antti Niemi has to play as well as Jonathan Quick does. These are two evenly-matched teams but they don't play similar styles, and for the Sharks to advance, they'll need to match the heavy, nasty game the Kings play.
I don't think that will happen. I think if the Sharks win this series it will be good for them not just because they'll advance, but because they'll be battle-tested against a tough team and it will breed confidence. I'm not sure I see it though. I think the Kings are very similar to Boston in that they're tough and built for the playoffs. They know what they're doing. They're a year removed from winning the Stanley Cup, they want to do it again, and they're good enough to do it again.