By Daniel Friedman
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The Stanley Cup Playoffs begin on April 16, and despite the new format, you can expect the same fast-paced, exciting hockey you crave this time of year.
Sixteen teams are in, but only half of those will move forward over the next few weeks. Here’s how I think the first round will play out:
BOSTON BRUINS vs. DETROIT RED WINGS
The Bruins are the clear favorite in the East, but their road to glory passes through Detroit, and that’s going to be a challenge. The Red Wings are armed and dangerous, especially now that Pavel Datsyuk is back in the lineup.
I’ve been impressed with Gustav Nyquist ever since he made his NHL debut in 2011 and, over the last few months, he’s lived up to all that fanfare. Between Nyquist, Johan Franzen, David Legwand, Daniel Alfredsson, Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheahan, Darren Helm and Tomas Jurco, Detroit’s offense is pretty darn solid. If Henrik Zetterberg returns at some point during this first round, that forward group will be downright scary to play against.
Boston can roll four lines as well. More importantly, the B’s have an edge over Detroit on the blue line and in goal, which is why I expect them to prevail. The Red Wings will make a strong push, but the Bruins will move on to the next round. The Pick: Bruins in 7
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING vs. MONTREAL CANADIENS
Ben Bishop couldn’t have gone down at a worse time. Anders Lindback has been good of late and rookie Kristers Gudlevskis got his first NHL win, but neither can be expected to hold their own against Carey Price over the course of a seven-game series — even though Gudlevskis did in Sochi.
You know Tampa Bay’s offense will show up. Montreal also has talent up front in Thomas Vanek, Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec, Brendan Gallagher and David Desharnais. Alex Galchenyuk is another capable forward, but he will miss the first round with an injury. Having proven postseason scorer Daniel Briere (109 points in 108 playoff games) will probably help.
I think the Canadiens are the better all-around team, and they’ll beat the Lightning. Tampa Bay has a chance, but if Bishop can’t play his Bolts are unlikely to advance. The Pick: Canadiens in 6
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS vs. COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
For a team that went to the Eastern Conference Finals last year, the Penguins don’t come off as a major threat to contend. That’s largely due to the play of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who’s been nothing short of abysmal over the last two postseasons.
The Pens don’t have Tomas Vokoun to save the day this time, either. Should Fleury sputter out of control, Jeff Zatkoff is second-in-command — not exactly the insurance policy you want in these situations.
But Pittsburgh’s issues stem deeper than Fleury. The fact is, speed kills that team. Some of these defensemen — namely Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi — are just not fleet-footed, and opponents who use their speed to generate offense have been able to give the Penguins a lot of trouble. We saw it last year, when the Islanders took them to six games.
Columbus is a fast team, too. I do think the 2013-14 Penguins are in a little better shape defensively, with the addition of Olli Maata, but the Jackets will get their chances to score. Ryan Johansen is emerging into an elite forward, and he leads an unheralded forward group that includes Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Nick Foligno, Cam Atkinson and Boone Jenner, among others.
Then, there’s Sergei Bobrovsky. If he plays at the level we’ve grown accustomed to seeing him at, goals will not come easy for the Penguins. Whether this series ends in four games or seven, the Blue Jackets will likely be tough to play against every night. That said, Pittsburgh should win this series. The Pick: Penguins in 5
NEW YORK RANGERS vs. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
This series has “seven games” and “multiple overtimes” written all over it. The Rangers and Flyers don’t like each other and the two teams were neck and neck, both on the ice and in the standings, for much of this season.
I expect this first-round matchup to be just as close. Philadelphia has the better offense, but the Blueshirts are stronger on defense and in goal. As good as Steve Mason is, he’s not Henrik Lundqvist.
The addition of Martin St. Louis was a smart one, and I think it gives the Rangers just enough firepower to at least win games when they hold their opponents to two or three goals (which they’ve done this season). The Flyers don’t exactly have an outstanding defense, so that shouldn’t be an impenetrable force field — even for a middle-of-the-pack offense.
It’ll be a tight series, but I think that as long as they play their game, New York will win. Should this somehow become a firefight, however, they’re done for. The Pick: Rangers in 7
COLORADO AVALANCHE vs. MINNESOTA WILD
I don’t think the Avalanche is ready for the playoffs. I think it’s going to be a total culture shock for this very young Colorado team. They’ve got a bright future, lots of offensive firepower and they’re pretty steady between the pipes, but the defense is a major concern.
The Avs are already without Matt Duchene, which I think will be a much bigger deal in the playoffs than it was during the regular season. If defenseman Jan Hejda, who averages 22:00 of ice time per game and left Sunday’s tilt with an upper-body injury, misses any amount of time, that too could be a significant blow.
Minnesota’s been playing better hockey of late, rattling off wins against Boston, the Rangers, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Detroit over the last month. I also think this team is just more balanced than the Avalanche is.
Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin will have their hands full with the forward group they’ll be up against, but they should be up to the task. If Ilya Bryzgalov, (7-1-3 with a 2.12 goals-against average and .911 save percentage since joining the Wild) continues his strong play, I think that’ll be enough to turn the tide. The Pick: Wild in 6
ST. LOUIS BLUES vs. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
This is going to be an outstanding matchup between two teams that can’t stand one another. I think St. Louis is better defensively and in goal than the Blackhawks, but Chicago’s arsenal is more potent.
The Blues are likely to start the first round without Vladmir Tarasenko, and TJ Oshie’s status is yet to really be determined, so that could put a dasher on their playoff aspirations. But if Ryan Miller plays like the goalie we know he can be, that — combined with the stellar defensive corps in front of him — might be enough to neutralize the Hawks’ offense.
If the Blues can get healthy, they can beat the Hawks. If they can’t, Chicago will likely advance to the next round. This team is just far too talented to get knocked out by a depleted lineup. Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but I predicted St. Louis would win the Stanley Cup before the season began, and operating under the assumption that Oshie and Tarasenko will return, I’m holding my position. The Pick: Blues in 7
ANAHEIM DUCKS vs. DALLAS STARS
The Ducks had themselves an outstanding season. There’s a lot to like about their team, but the same can be said about their opponents. Despite trading Stephane Robidas to the squad they’ll be facing, the Stars are quite good. I think the two sides are closer than the playoff bracket suggests.
Anaheim’s much-hyped dynamic duo of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry have combined for 169 points. But Dallas’ Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn really aren’t far behind, having racked up 163. Anaheim and Dallas are also fairly similar on special teams. The Ducks are ranked 22nd on the power play, and the Stars are 23rd. Anaheim has killed off 82.2 percent of their penalties, while Dallas has an 81.4 percent success rate on the PK. Anaheim has Cam Fowler, and the Stars have Alex Goligoski.
The Ducks have plenty of depth, but so do the Stars. Valeri Nichushkin, Alex Chiasson and Cody Eakin have emerged as offensive threats, while Jordie Benn and Trevor Daley have become very reliable defensemen. Having proven veterans like Ray Whitney, Erik Cole, Shawn Horcoff and Sergei Gonchar never hurt anyone, either.
Kari Lehtonen could be the difference for the Stars in what figures to be a solid goaltending duel, though we don’t even know who Anaheim might roll in Game 1. It could be Jonas Hiller, Frederik Andersen or John Gibson — all sorts of thoughts and theories have been put out there. It wouldn’t shock me if the Ducks won, but I’m tabbing Dallas to pull off the upset. The Pick: Stars in 7
SAN JOSE SHARKS vs. LOS ANGELES KINGS
Every year, the Sharks appear poised to do significant damage in the playoffs. Every year, they fall short of the mark.
However, that alone is not reason enough to count them out, because you never know when they just might live up to the hype. There was a time when the phrase “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” was applicable to the soon-to-be dynastic Islanders, who went on to win four straight Stanley Cups and 19 consecutive playoff series.
I look at San Jose and I see a team that knows the window could be closing soon. Dan Boyle is 37, and Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are 34. And while the supporting cast (which on other teams might play a bigger role) is younger, the Sharks simply aren’t as much of a force when you take Boyle, Jumbo and Marleau out of that lineup.
But those three are in the lineup, and that “supporting cast” includes the likes of Joe Pavelski (a 40-goal man this year), Logan Couture, Brent Burns and wunderkind Tomas Hertl — who’s just returning from an injury.
The Kings are certainly no slouches, either. They’re well-rounded and dangerous. They also won the Stanley Cup two years ago and have proven that they understand what it takes to compete in the playoffs.
As will be the case more often than not, it’ll come down to goaltending. We know Jonathan Quick will be ready, but Antti Niemi must be prepared to answer him save for save. Despite his recent struggles, I’m not too concerned. It’ll be a tight series and it wouldn’t shock me if either team advanced. That having been said, I’m going with San Jose. The Pick: Sharks in 7
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