The long grind that is the 82-game regular season schedule is now finished and one of the best playoffs year after year are set to begin tonight. For the first time ever, a Canadian-based team will not be competing for Lord Stanley’s Cup. On the flipside, all three California-based teams qualified for the playoffs. Can the Capitals overcome past playoff demons and finally get a Cup for Alex Ovechkin? Will the Pittsburgh Penguins hot play continue over the next couple of months? Which team will survive the extremely tough Western Conference? Can a team from the East challenge a team from the West? Will Chicago repeat as champs? Only time will tell, so as these playoffs progress, keep your razors in the cabinet, as playoff beards are a must this time of year and especially for this sport. Now, the new seeding format is a bit wacky, but, hey, at least it’s the playoffs, where the regular season is a thing of the past, to an extent.
I break down each first-round matchup and predict who will take one step closer to capturing Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Washington Capitals vs Philadelphia Flyers – Washington won the regular season series 2-0-2
WAS: 56-18-8, 1st in Metropolitan Division PHI: 41-27-14, Wild Card spot
The Capitals are out to prove the naysayers wrong and finally win a Stanley Cup. They ran rough shod over the NHL all season long, but that was the regular season and now it matters even more. Alex Ovechkin, who won the Art Ross trophy after scoring 50 goals on the season, is not going to rest until he wins that elusive Cup. It could be a case of now or never for the Caps, as this is the best team they have had since Ovechkin entered the league. Philly gritted their way to the playoffs in impressive fashion, finishing 6-3-1 and winning their last regular season game to get in. On paper, this looks like a cake walk for the Caps, but Philly will be tough. In the end, Braden Holtby – who tied Martin Broduer’s NHL single-season record for wins with 48 won’t allow Philly to the team that takes down the Caps. Washington is too tough and will continue their dominance. After all, they’ve had the Presidents’ Trophy wrapped up for the last two weeks.
Prediction: Capitals in 5 Game 1: Thursday in Washington
Pittsburgh Penguins vs New York Rangers – Pittsburgh won the regular season series 3-0-1
PIT: 48-26-8, 2nd in Metropolitan Division NYR: 49-27-9, 3rd in Metropolitan Division
The Penguins got off to a horrid start, but after a coaching change and the resurrection of superstar Sidney Crosby, this team is the hottest going into the playoffs. The biggest question mark for the Pens is the health of starting net minder Marc-Andre Fleury, who missed the last five games with a concussion. If he is able to get cleared, this series won’t last overly long. What will keep New York in the series is if their star net minder, Henrik Lundqvist, can keep the Pittsburgh offense at bay. If he is successful in this, the Rangers will make things plenty interesting. The Penguins have continued their hot play, despite not having Evgeni Malkin, who has been out since mid-March with an upper body injury and will miss a couple more weeks, at least. That won’t stop this team.
Prediction: Penguins in 6 Game 1: Wednesday in Pittsburgh
Florida Panthers vs New York Islanders – Florida won the regular season series 2-1-0
FLA: 47-26-9, 1st in Atlantic Division NYI: 45-27-10, 4th in Metropolitan Division
What an incredible season for the Florida Panthers, led by 44-year old, yes you read that correctly, Jaromir Jagr, who scored 27 goals and looks like he’s in his mid-20s. Roberto Luongo has been huge between the pipes. The Panthers will handle the Islanders – who will be good in a few years – and make up for not making the playoffs in 13 of the last 14 seasons.
Prediction: Panthers in 5 Game 1: Thursday in Florida
Tampa Bay Lightning vs Detroit Red Wings – Teams tied regular season series 2-2-0
TB: 46-31-5, 2nd in Atlantic Division, DET: 41-30-11, 3rd in Atlantic Division, Wild Card spot
The Red Wings are the San Antonio Spurs of the NHL after making the playoffs for a 25th-consecutive season. It might not have been pretty, but you don’t make the playoffs by looking the best. As long as you get in, which Detroit has obviously done, then that’s what really matters. Tampa Bay is hampered by injuries as their superstar player Steven Stamkos is out due to a blood clot and defensemen Anton Stralman, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman are all either injured or banged up. What this series will come down to is goaltender play. If Jimmy Howard can be better than Ben Bishop, which will be no easy task, Detroit will advance. The team with the better goaltending will move on.
Prediction: Red Wings in 7 Game 1: Wednesday in Tampa Bay
Dallas Stars vs Minnesota Wild – Stars won the regular season 4-1-0
DAL: 50-23-9, 1st in Central Division and Western Conference MIN: 38-33-11, 5th in Central Division
Dallas is the leader of the pack in the Western Conference and in the scoring department. This team had no problems with Minnesota all season long, so don’t look for that trend to change. This might be the most unappealing first-round matchup. It will be very ugly for the Wild.
Prediction: Stars in 4 Game 1: Thursday in Dallas
St. Louis Blues vs Chicago Blackhawks – St. Louis won regular seasons series 3-2-0
STL: 49-24-9, 2nd in Central Division and Western Conference CHI: 47-26-9, 3rd in Central Division and Western Conference
This will be the best series of the opening round of this year’s playoffs. Two high-powered team will duke it out to try and survive and advance right off the bat. You have to love that. St. Louis has been bounced from the playoffs in the first round in each of the last three seasons. The Blackhawks will look to make that a fourth straight year and attempt to win back-to-back Stanley Cups and their fourth since 2010. The Blackhawks are led by Patrick Kane, who won the Art Ross Trophy this season after leading the NHL in points with 106. This will be an absolute slugfest, but in the end, Chicago is too powerful and will live to defend their title to the second round. Sorry, St. Louis. Maybe next year?
Prediction: Blackhawks in 7 Game 1: Wednesday in St. Louis
Anaheim Ducks vs Nashville Predators – Nashville won the regular season series 2-1-0
ANA: 46-25-11, 1st in Pacific Division NAS: 41-27-14, 4th in Central Division, Wild Card Spot
Bad start? A thing of the past for the Ducks. They will make quick work of the Predators, who aren’t quite ready for playoff success. Anaheim leads the league in goals against average (2.32), power play percentage (23.4%) and penalty kill percentage (87.7). Too good for Nashville, who will steal one game and one alone.
Prediction: Ducks in 5 Game 1: Friday in Anaheim
Los Angeles Kings vs San Jose Sharks – San Jose won the regular season series 2-1-0
LA: 48-28-6, 2nd in Pacific Division, SJ: 46-30-6, 3rd in Pacific Division
A California battle to try and advance in the playoffs. Los Angeles is looking to make up for not qualifying for the playoffs a season ago. San Jose is looking to prove they are a legitimate contender to the Cup and not just a paper contender. This will be another slugfest between two Western Conference power houses. The Sharks will put their 2.89 goals per game average to the test against the Kings, who were third in goals against average, allowing 2.34 per contest. These two teams don’t like each other and that makes this series even better. In the end, I’m smelling an “upset.”
Prediction: Sharks in 7 Game 1: Thursday in Los Angeles