By Sean Hartnett
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The beauty of the Stanley Cup playoffs is its unpredictable nature. Any goalie can catch fire and carry a team to glory, one key injury can suddenly decimate the hopes of a legitimate Cup contender and an unheralded player can step forward and have the series of his life.
Here’s how the race to the Cup might play out:
1) Boston Bruins vs. 4) Detroit Red Wings
Jarome Iginla was a misfit during his short stint with the Penguins. Now, the 36-year-old has fit like a glove in his first season with the Bruins. The B’s boast an incredible amount of scoring depth and Iginla is thriving in Claude Julien’s puck-possession system. GM Peter Chiarelli made the right calls in the offseason by signing Iginla to a one-year, $6 million contract and completing a seven-player deal that brought Loui Eriksson to Boston.
Eriksson was hampered by injuries during his first season in Boston, but he’s extremely effective as a playmaker, sniper and in puck possession. Having a player of Eriksson’s caliber on a third line proves just how stacked the Bruins are across four forward lines.
What could be concerning for the Bruins is the loss of key defenseman Dennis Seidenberg for the rest of the season due to an ACL/MCL injury. Despite their youth on the blue line, the Bruins should be able to compensate for Seidenberg’s absence. As a whole, the Bruins have done an excellent job of limiting Vezina Trophy favorite Tuukka Rask’s workload.
The health of star forward Henrik Zetterberg is paramount to the Wings’ chances. Zetterberg hasn’t played since February 8. Whether he returns for Game 1 or later in the series, it’s a tough scenario to throw him into the fire against the bruising Bruins.
Gustav Nyquist’s sensational second-half play was one of the biggest storylines of the season. Nyquist is one of a number of youngsters making a big impact in Hockeytown, but veterans Pavel Datsyuk and Daniel Alfredsson will have to do a lot of heavy lifting if Zetterberg remains sidelined.
The Red Wings will push the Bruins hard with their speed, youth and athleticism, but will ultimately fall short of a first-round upset. Detroit does not have the depth on the blue line to handle Boston’s impressive forward depth.
Prediction: Bruins in six games
2) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. 3) Montreal Canadiens
The biggest difference between these two teams is Tampa’s uncertain situation in net due to Ben Bishop’s upper-body injury and the stability that Carey Price brings to the Canadiens.
The Canadiens ranked fourth overall with a penalty-kill percentage of 85.1, and Price was sensational all year long with a .927 save percentage. One concern for Habs fans was that their power play finished the season on an 0-for-23 drought. Yet, reigning Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban is able to dominate with his puck-carrying abilities and rocket shot. American winger Max Pacioretty led the NHL with 11 game-winning goals.
Although Alex Galchenyuk will miss the entire series, trade deadline acquisition Tomas Vanek has allowed head coach Michel Therrien to better balance his forward lines.
Martin St. Louis is gone and this is the time of year when it’s really going to hurt the Lightning. Former Rangers captain Ryan Callahan has fit in well with the Bolts, but St. Louis is the kind of guy who directs teammates on the bench, while Callahan tends to lead by example.
As impressive as rookie duo Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat have been, they’ve never experienced an atmosphere like the unrivaled noise of Bell Centre during the playoffs. Can they handle the pressure? The Lightning will need all-world center Steven Stamkos and Callahan to lead the way as many of the young Bolts lack playoff experience.
Whether or not Bishop plays, Price gives the Habs a clear edge between the pipes. That’s why Montreal should advance to round two.
Prediction: Canadiens in six games
1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 4) Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets are young and inexperienced, but they are certainly capable of pulling off a major upset over the star-studded Penguins.
That’s because Marc-Andre Fleury has a tendency to fold under the playoff pressure. Fleury has posted an unsightly 4.11 goals-against average and .857 save percentage in his 11 appearances during his two most recent playoffs.
On the other hand, reigning Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky has the ability to raise his game when the Blue Jackets need him the most. “Officer Bobrovsky” will be tested with waves of enemy fire on the penalty kill as the Pens boast the league’s best power play at 23.4 percent.
That being said, the Penguins will need to prove that their scoring runs deeper than their top two lines of Kunitz-Crosby-Bennett and Jokinen-Malkin-Neal. Rookie defenseman Olli Maatta will need to continue his sensational performances into the playoffs.
Blue Jackets center Ryan Johansen is a player to watch once the playoffs get underway. The 21-year-old had a breakthrough season with 33 goals and 30 assists. He packs a quick shot and possesses unteachable instincts.
Even though Nathan Horton will be missing, the Blue Jackets are deeper than the Pens in all areas. They’re a team that wins because of their collective talent coming together, rather than relying on big-name stars. Bobrovsky will be excellent and Columbus will pull off an upset that will rock the hockey world.
Prediction: Blue Jackets in seven games
2) New York Rangers vs. 3) Philadelphia Flyers
Steve Mason has been tremendous down the stretch, but he will certainly be the busier of the two goaltenders due to the Flyers’ tendency to take costly penalties and their lack of athleticism on the blue line.
Meanwhile, the Rangers boast multiple shutdown defensemen in Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein. Their penalty kill was third-best in the league and elite netminder Henrik Lundqvist is riding a hot streak into the playoffs.
The big issue for the Rangers is whether they can find consistency on the power play. Although the Pouliot-Brassard-Zuccarello line has been outstanding, star forwards Rick Nash and St. Louis will need to find their best game. In all likelihood, Chris Kreider will miss the series, and the Rangers could use his size and aggression against the Broad Street Bullies’ physicality.
You get the feeling that the likes of Zac Rinaldo, Wayne Simmonds, Steve Downie or Scott Hartnell could take a bad penalty at the wrong time. It’s vital that Flyers head coach Craig Berbube makes sure his aggressive troops play with a controlled fire.
Lundqvist will outshine Mason in a physically demanding, powder keg of a series.
Prediction: Rangers in six games
1) Colorado Avalanche vs. 4) Minnesota Wild
Rookie head coach Patrick Roy has changed the culture in Colorado. Roy is the favorite to win the Jack Adams Award because he’s allowed the Avs to play exciting, uptempo hockey that resulted in Colorado surprising everyone to win the Central Division.
Nathan MacKinnon has been as good as advertised, and is the favorite to win the Calder Trophy. The scary thing for the Wild is that MacKinnon has gotten better as the season has progressed. He has an abundance of natural ability and is still only 18. The future of the Avs is in good hands with the combination of Roy and MacKinnon.
The Wild boast two, experienced big-game players in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, but Minnesota’s woeful 78.8 penalty-kill percentage could be their undoing when matched against Colorado’s top-five power play.
Minnesota hasn’t adequately filled the pieces around stars Parise, Suter, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville. Their lack of depth is a major issue. In addition, goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov is a complete wild card in this series. He can either have the series of his life or fall apart like a house of cards.
Avs goalie Semyon Varlamov had such a good year that he broke Roy’s franchise record, posting 41 wins.
At best, Colorado center Matt Duchene could be available late in the series. Once he returns, the Avs will be that much more solidified and ready for a deep playoff run.
Prediction: Avalanche in five games
2) St. Louis Blues vs. 3) Chicago Blackhawks
Injuries have hit the Blues hard and goaltender Ryan Miller has slumped down the stretch. High hopes for this Blues team to finally make good on their promise and reach the Stanley Cup finals have been replaced with skepticism.
The Blues will need Miller to recapture his best play between the pipes. Everyone knows he’s capable of rising to the occasion given his big-game track record, but it’s also been three years since Miller has been tested under the playoff spotlight.
Captain David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Tarasenko, Derek Roy, Brenden Morrow and Vladimir Sobotka are all dealing with various injuries. St. Louis’ impressive depth could take a hit if any number of their forwards end up missing Game 1, and Alex Steen must recapture his goal-scoring touch.
When healthy, both of these teams boast impressive depth down the lineup at forward and on defense. Fortunately for Blackhawks fans, the defending champs appear to be the healthier of the two. Goaltender Corey Crawford proved his doubters wrong by himself as a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender.
Franchise icons Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews contended with late-season injuries. Now that they’re fully healthy, they’ll combine with goal-scorers Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa to test the Blues’ dominant penalty kill that ranked second overall.
The Blues thrive in the shutdown game, but the Blackhawks’ star power will be too much for St. Louis to handle.
Prediction: Blackhawks in six games
1) Anaheim Ducks vs. 4) Dallas Stars
Led by Hart Trophy candidate Ryan Getzlaf and goal-scorer extraordinaire Corey Perry, the Ducks are a high-octane team that lead the league in scoring with 263 goals. Meanwhile, the Stars scored 231 goals in 2013-14.
This has all the makings of a high-scoring series. Strangely, the Ducks ranked 22nd overall on the power play at 16.0 percent. That’s unusual, but expect Anaheim’s power play to find life in the playoffs. Offensive-defenseman Cam Fowler has established himself as growing force by registering 36 points in 70 games.
The offseason mega-trade that sent Eriksson to Boston and Seguin to the Stars has worked out well for both teams. Seguin scored a remarkable 84 points in 80 games in his first season in “Big D.”
Rookies Valeri Nichushkin and Alex Chiasson are two exciting players destined to do big things, but this Stars team is very young. Their time probably isn’t now. This Ducks team is desperate to give retiring legend Teemu Selanne one last serious run at Lord Stanley in his final NHL season.
Prediction: Ducks in five games
2) San Jose Sharks vs. 3) Los Angeles Kings
This is gong to be a true, grind-it-out kind of series. It’s the West Coast equivalent of Flyers-Rangers since both teams truly hate each other. You should make some coffee and stay up late to watch these two California rivals battle it out.
Every year critics say it’s the same story for the Sharks. They’re loaded with star power, but ultimately fall short of reaching the Stanley Cup finals. You know what? This could be their year.
The Kings struggled to find goals and were 27th overall on the power play. Marian Gaborik was able to produce 16 points in 19 games for the Kings following his arrival, but he can’t do it all. Los Angeles needs to find clutch goals beyond Justin Williams’ playoff magic.
Sharks goalie Antii Niemi needs to match the play of Kings netminder Jonathan Quick. Niemi’s play will be absolutely key because this series could be low-scoring.
San Jose is going to need its power play to step up. 17.2 percent is far below its usual power-play conversion rate. Even at 37, defenseman Dan Boyle is still a great skater and a dangerous man on the power play. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is excellent in transition and is often overlooked among top two-way defensemen. Overall, the Sharks are a high-scoring team with enough secondary scoring beyond the likes of Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau and Logan Coture.
This is the year the Sharks could take the next step. They’re equally adept at playing fast as they are playing physically. San Jose has an excellent shot of reaching the Stanley Cup finals if Niemi holds.
Prediction: Sharks in six games
Bruins over Canadiens in five games, Rangers over Blue Jackets in six games
Avalanche over Blackhawks in six games, Sharks over Ducks in seven games
Bruins over Rangers in seven games, Sharks over Avalanche in six games
STANLEY CUP FINAL:
Bruins over Sharks in six games.
WHY THE BRUINS WILL LIFT THE CUP:
Last year’s group pushed the Blackhawks to a sixth game before their Stanley Cup finals elimination. This year’s edition of the Bruins is deeper thanks to the additions of Eriksson and Iginla. The big, bad Bruins are an absolute powerhouse, led by the intelligent play of Selke Trophy lock Patrice Bergeron, freight-train hitter Milan Lucic and the inspiration and shot of captain Zdeno Chara. The only thing that could prevent the Bruins from lifting the Cup would be a long-term injury to Rask.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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