Washington Capitals vs. Philadelphia Flyers
Washington comes in as the President’s trophy winner, finishing the season with a whopping 120 points. Other than the Blackhawks 2013 Stanley Cup championship, history has not been kind to President’s trophy winners. There is something different about this Capitals team that for some reason cannot get it done in the playoffs. Additions of Justin Williams and TJ Oshie will really be defining this postseason. Through those guys in the mix with now seven time 50 goal scorer Alex Ovechkin, Niklas Backstrom, and likely Vezina Trophy winner in net Braeden Holtby, it is hard to imagine the Capitals not coming out of the east. But they face a very tough and hot Philadelphia Flyers team, commanded by first year head coach Dave Hakstol. Many thought the Flyers were throwing in the towel when they traded Luke Schenn and Vincent Lecavalier to the Kings. But carried by rookie phenom Shane Gostisbehere and captain Claude Giroux, the Flyers have potential to give the Capitals a run. In the end I think the Capitals will be too much for the Flyers to handle.
Prediction: Washington in 5
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Rangers
One of the best matchups in the first round features two powerhouse teams in the Penguins and Rangers. Both made deadline moves to try and bolster their postseason rosters: the Penguins with Carl Hagelin and Jeff Schultz, the Rangers with Eric Staal. The Penguins have failed to get back to the Stanley Cup Final since they won in 2009. Pre-season addition of Phil Kessel has ignited the team, as has Sidney Crosby’s second half surge and Evgeni Malkin’s consistent play. The big question remains in net with Marc- Andre Fleury battling a concussion, definitely could be a deciding factor in a series going up against Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers. The Rangers come in, with what could be the last run for this core group of guys. There’s no real superstar between the forwards but clutch goal scorer Derek Stepan, and the consistency on defense is key for New York’s success. To me, the Penguins goal scoring gets them through to the next round.
Prediction: Pittsburgh in 6
Florida Panthers vs. New York Islanders
A very intriguing matchup between two teams who have very bright futures. The Panthers perhaps the biggest surprise this season, won the Atlantic Division behind consistent goaltending from Ruberto Luongo, a surging season from Jaromir Jagr, and great play from young guys Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, and Jonathan Hurberdeau. The Panthers are destined for a run deep in the banged up Atlantic division portion of the bracket. The Islanders are led by captain John Tavares having another spectacular season. The Islanders lost in 7 games to the Capitals last year, do they have enough to get over the hump this year? I say no, the Panthers are rolling and have been very good in Sunrise, Florida. Home ice certainly helps and I believe the Panthers get it done.
Prediction: Florida in 6
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Detroit Red Wings
A rematch of the wild first round series from last year. The Lightning came back from 3-1 down to win game 7 at home behind Braydon Coburn’s go ahead goal. This Lightning team that lost in the Stanley Cup Final is much different though. Steven Stamkos is out 1-3 months with blood clots, likely ending his season. The Lightning will have to get it done behind last years standout Tyler Johnson, and 2nd year up-incoming superstar Nikita Kucherov. The Red Wings return to the playoffs for the 25th straight season, simply amazing. First year coach Jeff Blashill took over the reigns from Mike Babcock after last season and guiding the Wings down the stretch into the post-season. Pavel Datsyuk is in his last NHL season and certainly will want to make a run for another Stanley Cup. Rookie standout Dylan Larkin figures to play a big role in this series as does Wings netminder Petr Mrazek. Not having Stamkos is huge, I think Detroit finds a way to make it a real tough series, but having home ice moves the Lightning into the second round.
Prediction: Tampa Bay in 7
Los Angeles Kings vs. San Jose Sharks
The Kings return to the Stanley Cup playoffs after last years surprising absence from the post season. Mid season additions Vincent Lecavalier and Kris Versteeg have paid off immensely for the Kings and they are destined to make a run at their 3rd Stanley Cup in 5 years. Tyler Toffoli had a breakout season, Drew Doughty continues to be one of the best defenseman in the NHL, and goalie Jonathon Quick always steps up to the plate in the playoffs. They go up against a San Jose Sharks team, who many thought what try to break up the core of Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, and Joe Pavelski after last season. They stuck with it, added Martin Jones and James Reimer to the net, and have played well most of the season. Brent Burns will have to have a huge series if San Jose has any chance. I think the Kings will make their way by the Sharks, mainly because they have the experience and the Sharks have struggled at home this year.
Prediction: Los Angeles in 5
Anaheim Ducks vs. Nashville Predators
The Ducks enter the post season, perhaps as the hottest team in the NHL. They started off the season horribly, and many were called for head coach Bruce Bodreau’s job. Anaheim fought through it, acquired David Perron and Jamie McGinn, coasting to a Pacific Division title. Is this the Ducks turn to make back to the Stanley Cup? Ryan Kesler, Corey Perry, and Ryan Getzlaf sure hope so after faltering a 3-2 series lead to Chicago in last years Western Conference Final. They go up against a pesky Nashville team that can adjust to the type of game the Ducks want to play. It starts in net with goaltender Pekka Rinne, followed up by star defenseman Shea Weber and Roman Josi. At forward, addition Ryan Johansen could be the piece the Predators need to push them through in the playoffs. But I think the Ducks are too powerful, and Nashville will fall in the first round again.
Prediction: Anaheim in 5
Dallas Stars vs. Minnesota Wild
The high-scoring Stars roll in to the playoffs winners of the difficult Central Division. Led by star tandem Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, the Stars are poised for a deep run in the post season. The Stars score, and score in bunches. Many teams have a hard time stopping the top line of Benn, Seguin, and Patrick Sharp. Then there is 30 goal scorer Jason Spezza leading the second line. Lindy Ruff very well may win coach of the year. The biggest question for the Stars remains goalie and defense. Antti Niemi is expected to start to begin the post season and rightfully so for the Stanley Cup champion in 2010. But the Dallas netminders have lacked consistently this season, as Kari Lehtonen has had to step in multiple times for the Stars. On defense, the Stars are led by Norris trophy finalist John Klingberg, who is having a spectacular season. The Stars are very solid on defense with the addition of Kris Russell at the trade deadline, but still do not have a real standout star and are prone to being too offensive at times. For the Wild, they return to the postseason yet again, this time without Mike Yeo under the reigns. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter headline the Wild team that crawled its way into the postseason yet again. Do the Wild have enough scoring and firepower to keep up with the Stars? I say no.
Prediction: Dallas in 5
St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks
The most intriguing first round series in my opinion features two Central Division rivals. They met two years ago in the first round with the Blues winning the first two in overtime before the Blackhawks won four in a row to win the series. The Blackhawks lineup looks as good as it ever has been with Jonathon Toews, Marian Hossa, and trade deadline acquisition Andrew Ladd. The top line alone has seven Stanley Cups combined and both Toews and Ladd have been captains for a team for three plus years. The second line, the highest scoring line in the NHL, is led by Art Ross trophy winner Patrick Kane with his spectacular 106 points this season. Add in Russian star, Artemi Panarin, the likely Calder trophy winner, who netted 30 goals this season and 47 assists. Blackhawks coach Joel Quennville has reassembled a 4th line of Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger, and Andrew Desjardins; a line that worked so well in the playoffs last season. The Blackhawks have more depth and consistency on the back end as well as Trevor van Riemsdyk played all 82 games this season. The big key for the Blackhawks is how Corey Crawford will play. Crawford, top 5 in the NHL in wins and goals against average, has been spectacular all year long. The Blackhawks need him to really step up in this series against the Blues. For St. Louis, the team is led by Russian superstar Vladimir Tarasenko. Tarasenko has had a lot of success in his career against the Blackhawks and will need to have a big series if the Blues are to win. The big key for the Blues this year is the consistency they have at center this year with David Backes, Jori Lehtera, Paul Statsny, and Patrik Berglund. The Blues defense is real solid as well led by Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk. The Blues big question is in net. Jake Allen started last season in the playoffs and the Blues lost to the Wild in the first round. This time, Brian Elliot gets the start, a guy who has been very hot down the stretch of the season for St. Louis. Is this the year the Blues get by Chicago? I still won’t believe it until I see it.
Prediction: Chicago in 6