Cue the Music: “It’s the most wonderful time of the yeeeeeaaaaaaar!”
Beginning every April, students in University begin to actually study for their final exams and I, for the first time in five years, can finally enjoy NHL playoff hockey without the stress of cramming for exams. This NHL season has been filled with a lot of surprises: a record low for scoring, a dominating performance by goaltenders, the best new nickname in the NHL for Andrew “The Hamburgler” Hammond, and five, yes, FIVE Canadian teams making the playoffs. It is a wonderful time to be a hockey fan. To gear you all up for the next two months of playoff hockey, here are my 1st round predictions for the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs. Make sure to check back at the end of each round for my updated predictions!
(1) New York Rangers v. (WC 2) Pittsburgh Penguins
One of the many surprises of the 2015 season has to be the emergence of the New York Rangers, especially in the last three months. They moved from a mid-range playoff team around the trade deadline into the President’s Trophy winners, accumulating a league-leading 113 points in the regular season. Key to the Rangers’ success has been both Rick Nash’s 42G season along with the excellent play of G Cam Talbot in place of perennial All-Star Henrik Lundqvist while out with an injury. In addition, the Rangers have one of the best bluelines in all of hockey, boasting names such as Yandle, McDonagh and Girardi. Their competition in the first round, the usually predictable Pittsburgh Penguins, needed all 82 games to be able to clinch the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Anchored by G Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins have had problems scoring as of late, despite having both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in their lineup. I would never count out the Penguins, but the Rangers are probably too much of a challenge for the Pens based off their depth through all positions.
Prediction: New York in 6 games.
(1) Montreal Canadiens v. (WC 1) Ottawa Senators
Speaking purely as a Habs fan, I didn’t want to play the Sens. Their improbable run to the Stanley Cup playoffs has been nothing less than remarkable, led by young stars Andrew Hammond and Mark Stone. Despite finishing with 110 points in the regular season and having the best goalie and (eventual) league MVP in Carey Price, Montreal has been an inconsistent team all year. Price has bailed them out countless times and if they’re looking to advance far in the playoffs, they will have to start bailing out Price. Montreal may have more talent on their roster, but Ottawa is playing better than pretty much any other NHL team right now, getting contributions from everyone on their team. A huge factor in the series will be the status of Max Pacioretty who has been out since last Sunday with a suspected concussion. “Patches” scored 17% of Montreal’s goals this season and even more impressively, was on the ice for 44% of Montreal’s goals, finishing with an NHL best +38 rating. If he is out for a long period of time, his absence will hinder the Habs already lacklustre offence. This series is extremely tight and almost too close to call. A lot depends on how the Habs decide to play. If they fail to play defensively sound hockey, there is no hope for them against this strong Senator’s squad. However, if they can play like they are capable of getting secondary scoring from their 3rd and 4th lines along with being defensively smart with the puck, then they should be the favorites in this series.
Prediction: Habs in 7
(2) New York Islanders v. (3) Washington Capitals
In another extremely close series, the Isles and the Capitals match up extremely well with each other. The match-up between captains John Tavares and Alex Ovechkin will be a key one to watch, after their MVP calibre seasons this year. Keys to the success of either team will be their goaltending. The Isles’ Jaroslav Halak will need to step up his game in order to compete with Braden Holtby, who had a successful year in which he racked up nine shutouts, good for T-2nd in the league. I expect this series to be extremely high scoring, so defence (as always) will be important. Luckily for Washington, they have more depth on their blueline than do the Isles, which gives them the edge in this series, in my eyes.
Prediction: Washington in 6
(3) Tampa Bay Lightning v. (3) Detroit Red Wings
For the 24th straight year, and the entirety of my lifetime, the Red Wings yet again somehow pull together a successful run to the playoffs. Anchored by veteran goalie Jimmy Howard, the Red Wings play an exciting brand of hockey that allows them to compete every single night against the NHL’s best. Unfortunately for them, they have to play one of the NHL’s best in Tampa Bay. The depth of the Lightning is frankly unbelievable, anchored by the best 2nd line in hockey made up of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov, who all finished the season in the top 10 for +/- rating. In addition, the Lightning have top 5 player Steven Stamkos and a solid defensive core anchored by Victor Hedman. The playoffs will be much different this time around for the Lightning, as G Ben Bishop will not be injured to start the playoffs as he was a year ago. The Red Wings are excellent team as they prove to be year after year, however, they won’t be able to compete with the depth and scoring power of the Lightning.
Prediction: Lightning in 5
(1) Anaheim Ducks v. (WC 2) Winnipeg Jets
It was one of the best feelings in the world to see, for the first time since their return to Winnipeg, the Jets edging out the defending champion L.A Kings for the final playoff spot. Unfortunately, their playoff joy will be short lived as they’re facing the best in the west, the Anaheim Ducks. The Jets are an extremely hard working team with a lot of depth on the blue line, including up-and-coming D-man, Jacob Trouba and will definitely give the Ducks a huge challenge. However, the Ducks, led by captain Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and the goaltending duo of Frederick Andersen and John Gibson, have a lot of depth through all positions. This series could be a lot closer than what some people think, but regardless, the Ducks are poised to move on to the second round.
Prediction: Anaheim in 5
(1) St. Louis Blues v. (WC 1) Minnesota Wild
Potentially the most boring match-up in the first round of these Stanley Cup playoffs, between two excellent defensive teams. Both the Blues and the Wild match up against each other extremely well. Both have excellent goaltending and depth on defence and offence. The resurgence of G Devan Dubynk has been a story that everyone in Edmonton wishes they could forget, however his impact on the Wild’s success is very real, indeed. This match-up will be extremely close and may prove to be more offensive than what I believe. However, the defensive depth of the Blues and their depth across all four lines will rule them the victor in this 1st round series.
Prediction: St. Louis in 6
(2) Nashville Predators v. (3) Chicago Blackhawks
Led by a favourite for the Jack Adams Award, head coach Peter Laviolette, the Nashville Predators have been able to rebuild in just two short years, anchoring around D-man superstar Shea Weber and Vezina candidate G Pekka Rinne, The Predators have been a force in the West all year. On the opposite side, the Blackhawks have consistently been one of the best teams in the NHL over the past five seasons. Key to the Blackhawks success will be the hopeful return of F Patrick Kane, who before he was injured was the favorite for the Hart and Art Ross trophies. If Kane can return during the series, the Hawks will be too much for the Preds’ defence to handle. However, if Kane misses too much of this series, this could be a lot closer of a match-up.
Prediction: Chicago in 6
(2) Vancouver Canucks v. (3) Calgary Flames
In this improbable all-Canadian match-up, the Flames and Canucks always produce entertaining series in the playoffs. In the six times the Canucks and Flames have met in the playoffs, four times the winner of the series went to the Stanley Cup final. Even though this seems unlikely to happen for a fifth time, you never know. There is probably no harder working team in the NHL than the Calgary Flames, led by the young duo of Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau. The Flames have made incredible progress in such a short amount of time. The Canucks on the flip side have made their own improbable return to the playoffs, making a 16pt turn around between this and last season. The Canucks by far have the most experience in the post-season, having more than 200 games of playoff experience between the Sedin twins and Alex Burrows however, the work ethic and compete level of Calgary is second to none in the NHL. This series will go the distance no matter who is victorious.
Prediction: Calgary in 7
Photo Courtesy of Clyde via creative commons through flickr.com