By Sean Hartnett
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There will be a new Stanley Cup champion crowned in June. Having missed the playoffs, the defending champion Los Angeles Kings have been dethroned. With the Kings absent from the field, it’s anybody’s game.
Many experts did not foresee the Ottawa Senators, Winnipeg Jets, Vancouver Canucks, and Calgary Flames qualifying for the big dance. All of this adds a twist and makes this year’s Stanley Cup bracket even harder to predict. The Presidents’ Trophy-winning Rangers were kings of the regular season, but will this finally be the year that King Henrik raises Lord Stanley? Read on…
New York Rangers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
After falling just short of lifting Lord Stanley last June, the Rangers come into this year’s playoffs as the team to beat. The Blueshirts have a big target on their back. Having captured the Presidents’ Trophy, they aren’t sneaking up on anyone this time around.
The Rangers are the only team in the NHL that finished in the top three in goals for and goals against. Since Dec. 8, the Rangers are 42-12-3.
Pittsburgh has remained a top-heavy team. General manager Jim Rutherford hasn’t surrounded superstar centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with the talent required to make a run at the Cup. That combined with a tough bill of health really hurts the Pens’ chances. Winger Pascal Dupuis and defensemen Kris Letang, Christian Ehrhoff and Olli Maatta are all unavailable.
Rutherford’s most notable addition, David Perron, went ice-cold in his final 12 regular-season games, collecting just one assist over that stretch. The Penguins need Perron to find his game if they’re to have any chance in this series.
On the other hand, the Rangers’ scoring runs three lines deep. The Rangers boast three talented playmakers down the middle in Derick Brassard, Derek Stepan and Kevin Hayes. Their deep group of defensemen — notably Dan Girardi, captain Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal — have frustrated Crosby and Malkin in recent playoff campaigns.
Two key additions to this year’s squad, Keith Yandle and Dan Boyle, are capable of providing the creativity needed to steer clear of the power-play outage suffered by the Rangers in last year’s playoffs.
You’re going to take a healthy Henrik Lundqvist over the perennially playoff-shaky Marc-Andre Fleury 99 times out of 100.
PREDICTION: RANGERS IN FIVE GAMES
Montreal Canadiens vs. Ottawa Senators
There is one big worry when it comes to the Habs. Out of all the Eastern Conference playoff teams, Montreal is the worst possession team. Many experts view the Habs as vulnerable, having been matched up against a nothing-to-lose, everything-to-gain Sens team that is riding a wave of momentum into the playoffs.
The Sens wouldn’t be here if not for the otherworldly goaltending of Andrew “Hamburglar” Hammond and hotshot rookie Mark Stone. Ottawa finished the regular season 21-3-3 to sneak into the playoffs.
That being said, Norris Trophy favorite Erik Karlsson is Ottawa’s deadliest weapon. Both he and Canadiens superstar P.K. Subban are poised to be difference-makers in this series because of their incredible puck-moving abilities and cannon shots. The health of Montreal winger Max Pacioretty could be a big factor in this series. Pacioretty suffered a late-season upper-body injury when he slammed into the boards against the Florida Panthers on Apr. 5. The Habs are hoping their leading point-getter will be ready for Game 1.
Hart Trophy candidate Carey Price has what it takes to carry the Canadiens on his back to a deep playoff run. While Hammond raised his game to ridiculous levels down the stretch, expect Price to outduel the Hamburglar and lead Montreal to a series victory.
PREDICTION: CANADIENS IN SIX GAMES
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Detroit Red Wings
The Lightning were tipped by many as a hot preseason pick to become genuine Stanley Cup contenders. Tampa Bay was the league’s best offensive team at 3.16 goals per game. Steven Stamkos and Co. are a deadly bunch. GM Steve Yzerman has done an excellent job of meshing together a roster that has the right mix of experienced veterans and an abundance of talented youngsters.
The Red Wings were plagued by shoddy goaltending down the stretch. Head coach Mike Babcock has given Petr Mrazek the nod over experienced netminder Jimmy Howard. Tampa has a clear goaltending edge with Ben Bishop standing between the pipes.
Detroit finished second in the league with a 23.8 power-play percentage. It’s going to need star tandem Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg to come up big. The Lightning have the league’s ninth best penalty-killing unit.
You get the feeling that these are two franchises going in opposite directions. While the window appears to be closing for the Wings, the Bolts are a team on the rise.
PREDICTION: LIGHTNING IN FIVE GAMES
Washington Capitals vs. New York Islanders
Alex Ovechkin vs. John Tavares – you couldn’t ask for a more mouth-watering matchup of Hart Trophy-caliber offensive forces. Both captains are capable of dominating a series.
Ovechkin has become a true 200-foot player under the watchful eye of head coach Barry Trotz, while Tavares finally has a genuine surrounding cast after GM Garth Snow did a superb job solidifying the Isles during the offseason and through successful recent drafts.
The Isles are deeper than the Caps across four lines, but their 26th-ranked penalty kill going up against the Caps’ league-best 25.3 percent power play is cause for concern. As is the shaky play of goaltender Jaroslav Halak down the stretch. The uncertain health of defensive leader Travis Hamonic is a big worry.
This has all the makings of a grind-it-out, physically draining series. Trotz has the Caps playing tight, hard-nosed hockey. Give the edge to the Ovi and the Caps. This isn’t the Isles’ year to make a serious run at the Cup, but their youthful core has a chance to become real contenders in the not so distant future.
PREDICTION: CAPS IN SIX GAMES
Anaheim Ducks vs. Winnipeg Jets
The Pacific Division-winning Ducks and the wild-card Jets are surprisingly evenly matched in even-strength, on the power play and in penalty-killing situations. This is a tough series to call – it’s basically down to whether you prefer the Ducks’ experience or a Jets team that meshed together at the right time to grab the final Western Conference playoff berth over the much-favored Kings.
If the Jets are to succeed, they’re going to have to handle Anaheim’s one-two punch of elite centers in Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler. The Ducks also have plenty of good puck-moving defensemen, most notably Cam Fowler and Sami Vatanen. They also have the advantage of having a clear-cut No. 1 goalie in Frederik Andersen.
The city of Winnipeg hasn’t hosted a playoff game since 1996. That’s a big factor. You know that these fans are going to bring a ton of energy with the whiteout. The Jets might not have household names, but GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has the magic touch — acquiring Jay Harrison, Tyler Myers, Drew Stafford, Jiri Tlusty and Lee Stempniak. All of his moves have paid off.
Winnipeg is an underrated group. Everyone knows “Big Buff,” but the likes of Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele and Co. do not get enough attention. Underestimate the Jets at your peril.
PREDICTION: JETS IN SIX
St. Louis Blues vs. Minnesota Wild
There might not be a team that’s built better from top to bottom than the Blues. They can be physically dominant or beat opponents through pure skill.
The Blues have a different look this season. They’re playing a more uptempo brand of hockey and led the Western Conference with 239 goals. Youthful duo Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz have blossomed into two of the league’s brightest young talents, adding to a well-oiled machine led by excellent two-way players including captain David Backes, Alex Steen, Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo.
Hoping to stop them is a surging Minnesota Wild team that put together the league’s best second-half record (26-8-2). You know stars like Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Thomas Vanek, but much of the Wild’s success comes from being a disciplined team that allows few clear-cut scoring chances.
Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk caught fire after being acquired from the Arizona Coyotes on Jan 15. Since joining the Wild, Dubnyk has gone 27-9-2 with a 1.78 goals-against average and a 1.78 save percentage. Minnesota recorded the league’s best penalty-kill percentage at 86.3 percent.
Hitchcock is yet to name his No. 1 goalie. Jake Allen is likely to get the nod. He played in four of the Blues’ final six regular-season games.
PREDICTION: BLUES IN SIX GAMES
Nashville Predators vs. Chicago Blackhawks
The health of Blackhawks ace Patrick Kane could swing this series in either direction. Kane missed the final 21 games of the regular season with a broken collarbone. Head coach Joel Quenneville is yet to indicate whether Kane will be able to suit up for Game 1.
Both teams are possession-dominant and have each played like realistic Stanley Cup contenders at varying points of the season. There isn’t much separating the Hawks and Preds on special teams, though Chicago has a top-10 penalty kill and their underperforming power play is certainly capable of getting its act together in the playoffs.
The Preds boast an impressive group of blue liners in Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Seth Jones, Cody Franson, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm. Josi has flown under the radar for too long. He’s an excellent, responsible puck-mover.
This series might come down to which goaltender is hotter. The Preds have an advantage in net, as Pekka Rinne will be a Vezina Trophy finalist.
PREDICTION: PREDS IN SEVEN
Vancouver Canucks vs. Calgary Flames
The Flames’ mettle was tested when captain Mark Giordano suffered a torn biceps tendon in late February. Calgary responded by going 12-6-3 after losing their inspirational leader and Norris-caliber defenseman.
This team really competes. Calgary led the NHL in third-period goals and in blocked shots. Johnny Gaudreau is the favorite to win the Calder Trophy and Sean Monahan is another electrifying youngster.
Of course, Vancouver has the Sedins. Daniel and Henrik predictably enjoyed bounce-back years after being freed from former head coach John Tortorella’s defensively obsessed system.
Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins is yet to name a starting goaltender, though all signs point to Eddie Lack getting the nod over veteran netminder Ryan Miller. The Flames also haven’t named a starting goalie, though Jonas Hiller started 44 games and Karri Ramo is listed as day-to-day.
It’s possible that Giordano could return late in the playoffs, provided Calgary goes on a deep run.
Vancouver’s defense is somewhat leaky, but oddly its penalty kill finished the regular season second overall. The Flames have more shutdown players at their disposal. They’ll gut their way to a series victory.
PREDICTION: FLAMES IN SIX
ROUND TWO: Rangers over Caps in six, Canadiens over Lightning in seven. Blues over Predators in seven, Jets over Flames in six.
CONFERENCE FINALS: Rangers over Canadiens in six, Blues over Jets in six.
STANLEY CUP CHAMPION: Rangers over Blues in seven. This is finally King Henrik’s year. Lundqvist will capture the Conn Smythe and lead the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup championship since 1994. Head coach Alain Vigneault is the best coach in the business and he’ll demonstrate his outstanding on-the-fly decisions throughout the Rangers’ run.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.