It’s one of the best times of the year, Stanley Cup Playoffs time! It’s nine weeks of hard-hitting, fast-paced hockey action as 16 teams vie for hockey’s Holy Grail. There’s a lot of intrigue this year since both conferences are extremely competitive. While some teams are early favorites, there’s really no consensus Cup Final this year. Who do I have hoisting Lord Stanley in June? Let’s pick ’em! (Note: team with home-ice advantage is listed first in matchups)
Eastern Conference First Round
- Boston Bruins vs Detroit Red Wings
- Breakdown: The President’s Cup-winning Bruins must have been a bit disappointed when they saw that Detroit, not Columbus, would be their first-round opponent. After all, the Red Wings have much more playoff experience than the Blue Jackets, along with more star-power and one of the best home-ice advantages in the NHL. Despite this, Boston is still going to take the series. Detroit will win a game, but the Bruins have the best offense and defense in the Eastern Conference, while Detroit’s banged-up group has been towards the bottom in both. Henrik Zetterberg won’t be playing unless the series goes deep, while Pavel Datsyuk and Justin Abdelkader have returned from injury but have not gotten back into form. This would be a great series if the Wings were healthy, but either way the black and gold will come out victorious.
- Prediction: Bruins in 5
- Tampa Bay Lightning vs Montreal Canadiens
- Breakdown: It’s the youngsters in Tampa against the veterans in Montreal. The Lightning had a very interesting regular season, trading away the heart and soul of their franchise in Martin St. Louis and dealing with a big injury to their captain and primary goal-scorer, Steven Stamkos. They overcame all of that and still posted a stellar record, which is enough to give them confidence with Stamkos back at full strength. The Canadiens enjoyed a breakout season by Max Pacioretty (39 goals, 21 assists) and another stellar goaltending job by Carey Price and had their best season since 2007-2008. The Lightning have the size advantage, but the Canadiens have the experience advantage. The X-Factor? It just may be Lightning center Alex Killorn. The 24-year-old Killorn is about to play in his first postseason, and his season proves he is ready for the task. He scored 17 goals and 24 assists in his first full NHL season and knows how to handle a power play. Look for Killorn to be patient, mix it up with the Montreal players when needed, and help Tampa win a tight series.
- Prediction: Lightning in 6
- Pittsburgh Penguins vs Columbus Blue Jackets
- Breakdown: The Blue Jackets should be excited that playoff hockey is back in Columbus; they battled hard and earned their way into the postseason for the second time in franchise history. However, this is going to be the most lopsided series of the 2014 Playoffs. It’s like David vs Goliath, and David isn’t going to win a best-of-7 series. Crosby and Malkin know they were a disappointment in last year’s Conference Finals, and will try their best to get back to hockey’s Final Four. Columbus is a mere stepping stone in their way. Marc Andre-Fleury will do his job in net, Sidney Crosby will take over this series and the Penguins will win in a walk.
- Prediction: Penguins sweep in 4
- New York Rangers vs Philadelphia Flyers
- Breakdown: One thing is guaranteed about this series: it will be ugly. There is no love between New York and Philly, and there will be plenty of fights in this bloodbath. These teams’ differences lie on opposite sides of the ice. The Rangers have an issue with lack of firepower at forward. After Rick Nash, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis, they’re rather thin offensively. As for the Flyers, the defense has a lack of depth. After Mark Streit, this is not a Cup-winning back end, and they are lucky that their offense has the juice to make up for it. Who will make up for their weakness the most? It figures to be the Rangers, mainly because of their all-world goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist. King Henrik only needs a few Ranger goals a game to do his job, and in what should be a gritty series, that will be enough.
- Prediction: Rangers in 7
Western Conference First Round
- Anaheim Ducks vs Dallas Stars
- Breakdown: Like the Bruins-Red Wings matchup, this is no typical 1 vs 8 series. The Stars beat Anaheim two games out of three in the regular season and have plenty of playoff experience on their roster. Tyler Seguin has had a fantastic first year in Dallas, while Jamie Benn had career highs in goals and assists, using his Olympic success as a springboard into a stellar second half. Lindy Ruff is one of the best coaches to never win a Cup, and he finally showed what he can do with a talented roster. Just like the Bruins-Red Wings series, however, the one-seed will simply prove to be too much for the eight. The Ducks are finally ready for a deep run in the postseason thanks to the number two offense in the NHL and the great options between the pipes. Jonas Hiller figures to get the start, but if he falters Frederick Andersen or John Gibson can take over. You usually don’t see that goalie depth, but Anaheim has it. Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Nick Bonino will take care of the scoring, and the Ducks should fend off Dallas’s try for the upset.
- Prediction: Ducks in 6
- San Jose Sharks vs Los Angeles Kings
- Breakdown: When these two teams met in last year’s playoffs, the series went seven. This year, the rivalry is renewed, and fans should expect another colossal clash. It’ll be chippy for the whole 60 minutes every single night, with big hits and big fights. That means that while these two have dazzling offenses, the better defensive team will prevail, and that is the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings have proven that they can get to the Finals with grit and toughness, while San Jose has failed in the playoffs year after year. Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton will try their hardest to end the years of postseason agony, but Jonathan Quick will shut the door.
- Prediction: Kings in 7
- Colorado Avalanche vs Minnesota Wild
- Breakdown: Warning: Objects in mirror are further than they appear. While Colorado-Minnesota looks very even, Colorado’s offense is far more powerful than Minnesota’s. Matt Duchene will miss the first few games of the series, but Ryan O’Reilly and Paul Stastny will pick up the slack. Semyon Varlamov dealt with all the distractions this year and still broke Patrick Roy’s single-season wins record, so he’ll be more than ready to deal with the pressures of playoff hockey. Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville are not to be trusted when the stakes are raised, and while Josh Harding is extremely solid in net, his multiple sclerosis worries me when it comes to his performance. While I would like this to be a seven-game classic, the Avalance will take it with minimal trouble.
- Prediction: Avalanche in 5
- St. Louis Blues vs Chicago Blackhawks
- Breakdown: The NHL’s new playoff format is to be blamed for this titanic clash being a first-round series. For a while it looked like this would be the Western Conference Finals, but one team is going to have to have a disappointing early exit. St. Louis is one of the most complete teams in the league, but has been bit by the injury bug. They’ve been decimated by the losses of David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Tarasenko and Brenden Morrow. The question of who will be able to suit up for the Blues is one no coach wants to have, and the only man Ken Hitchcock really knows will be in the starting lineup when this series starts is goaltender Ryan Miller. After that, it’s anyone’s guess. As for the defending champion Blackhawks, they’re injury free and prepared for the battle ahead of them. This will be no cakewalk (St. Louis is tremendously deep), but Kane, Toews, Sharp and Duncan Keith always seem ready. Chicago at full strength is scary no matter what ice they are playing on, and the fact that they will be road warriors against the Blues only means they’ll have to leave the city of St. Louis disappointed in the end.
- Prediction: Blackhawks in 7
Eastern Conference Semifinals
- Boston Bruins vs Tampa Bay Lightning
- Breakdown: The Bruins and Bolts have become quite familiar with one another in recent memory. Everyone remembers the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, where Tampa took Boston to the brink before the Bruins defense shut them out in Game 7. Fast forward to 2014, and these two teams may both be better than they were three seasons ago. In the end, Boston holds the upper hand. They have a better offense, defense, goalie and coaching staff than Tampa. Stamkos, St. Louis and Hedman will give Claude Julien’s team a little bit of trouble, but Boston will advance to the Conference Finals.
- Prediction: Bruins in 6
- Pittsburgh Penguins vs New York Rangers
- Breakdown: The Pens have a better offense, while the Rangers have better defense and goaltending. This series will end up going to seven, where Pittsburgh will use their home-ice advantage and a big series by x-factor Jussi Jokinen to finish setting up the rematch they’ve all been waiting for.
- Prediction: Penguins in 7
Western Conference Semifinals
- Anaheim Ducks vs Los Angeles Kings
- Breakdown: Corey Perry is going to be the one to beat Jonathan Quick and take over this series. The LA offense looks feeble against Anaheim’s, and Perry is finally ready to make the jump from goal-scorer to playoff star. In Game 6, in front of a packed Staples Center, #10 will close out the Kings, with help from the superb supporting cast.
- Prediction: Ducks in 6
- Colorado Avalanche vs Chicago Blackhawks
- Breakdown: Youth, meet experience. The Avs have had an incredible season, far exceeding expectations, but the Blackhawks have a better offense and defense along with rings to back up their playoff experience. Last year Brent Seabrook was the hero in the semis. This year, look for Ben Smith to be a surprise goal-scorer as Chicago makes light work of Colorado.
- Prediction: Blackhawks in 6
Eastern Conference Finals
- Boston Bruins vs Pittsburgh Penguins
- Breakdown: Last year, the Bruins humiliated Pittsburgh in a shocking sweep to advance to the Cup Finals. Another sweep this year is probably not in the cards, simply because there is no way the Penguins’ forwards will fail to produce like that again this time around. I’m still picking Boston to win because not only are they looking more unstoppable than last season, they also have Jarome Iginla on their side this time too. Tuukka Rask (how have I gone 1,770 words without a mention of Tuukka yet?) will bring his A-game, not allowing any soft goals, and Bruins fans will be chanting, “We want the Cup!” again at the end.
- Prediction: Bruins in 6
Western Conference Finals
- Anaheim Ducks vs Chicago Blackhawks
- Breakdown: In what will definitely be a seven-game series, this one will come down to the wire. How close is this matchup? Chicago scored just one more goal than Anaheim in the regular season (267-266) and both teams had just eight overtime losses. Both teams score in bunches, both goalies have the potential to make a difference, and both coaches get the best out of their teams. Who’s the x-factor to tilt the series one way or another? How about Johnny Oduya. Oduya had a very good 2013 playoffs and had another consistent regular season. He sometimes gets buried on the stat sheet, but make no mistake: his presence is certainly felt. Am I really going to be cliche and pick the rematch of last year’s Cup Finals? Yes, because the two teams are just too good in May and June to be stopped short.
- Prediction: Blackhawks in 6
Stanley Cup Finals
- Boston Bruins vs Chicago Blackhawks
- Breakdown: Last year’s Finals was a classic and I fully expect this one to be a classic as well. Do I see three games going into overtime like last year? I do not. Do I see the best defense in the NHL giving up two goals in less than a minute in Game 6 again? I do not. Do I see Jarome Iginla as an x-factor Boston desperately needed in those overtime games last year? I do. In the end, this is Boston’s year. They’re so good as a team that I don’t see them dropping a seven-game series in these playoffs. Tuukka Rask will win Conn Smythe and the Bruins will be champs.
- Prediction: Bruins in 7