With the NHL having realigned its teams and divisions for the 2013-2014 season, lets recap the new playoff format before diving into the meat of the article, shall we?
In each of the four new divisions, the top three teams from each division are automatic qualifiers for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. From there, the next two teams with the most points in the conference earn wildcard spots.
Playoff Format Breakdown
Each of the division winners plays a wild card team in the first round, with the top point-getter within the conference playing the second wild card team (in other words, the team with the least amount of points to qualify for the playoffs, or the loser of any tiebreaker in the case of the two wild card teams finishing with the same amount of points).
The second and third place finishers in each division play each other in the first round as well.
In the second round, the winner of the divisional playoff series (the 2nd and 3rd place teams from each division) then play the winner of the series featuring that team’s division winner (for example: the winner of the Flyers-Rangers series will play the winner of Pittsburgh-Columbus by virtue of the Penguins winning the Metropolitan).
Obviously from there it’s business as usual. But it certainly is a different feel now that the teams in each conference won’t be re-seeded after the first round.
So with the explanation of the new playoff format out of the way, allow me to expound on just why I feel the Pittsburgh Penguins could very well win the Eastern Conference and play for the Stanley Cup come late May.
Oh those tricky matchups. Its the one thing that most every coach in the NHL (save for the Pens own “Disco” Dan Byslma) tries to exploit on a nightly basis.
I’m going to focus on the two teams in the East who have been the Penguins’ boogeyman in each of the past two postseasons. First up: the Boston Bruins.
After the Columbus Blue Jackets’ 3-2 win in Florida on Saturday night, the Eastern Conference’s first round was all set. The top seeded – and President’s Trophy winning – Bruins will play the Detroit Red Wings with Boston holding home ice advantage. Anyone care to bet AGAINST Detroit here? I didn’t think so.
I’m not saying that the Wings will definitely pull the upset, but there are many good reasons why most Penguins’ fans did not want to face Detroit in the first round.
For starters, they’re a very well-coached team. Mike Babcock has been around the block in his career and knows how to get the most out of his young, up-and-coming squad. This Red Wings’ team could be just about the perfect mix of youth and veterans. Guys like Pavel Datsyuk, Niklas Kronwall, Johan Franzen, and Daniel Alfredsson are the undisputed leaders of this team, with youngsters like Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist adding much needed firepower to a potent lineup.
Should the B’s survive Detroit in the opening round, they could potentially run into their arch-nemesis in the 2nd round: the Montreal Canadiens.
The Bruins and Habs have a long-standing rivalry that includes 33 postseason meetings for a total of 170 games. Of those 33 series, eight saw a Game Seven.
On paper, Montreal doesn’t really match up well against the big, bad Bruins. The Canadiens are a small bunch, but they are quick. Unfortunately in these playoffs, things usually get pretty physical, and that plays right into Boston’s hands. Yet in their four meetings this season, Montreal went 3-1 (with one win via shootout), scoring a total of nine goals while giving up seven. Bottom line, if these two face each other for a 34th time in postseason play, it will be a battle no matter what.
So Boston’s road to the Conference Final is certainly not paved in gold, and is most definitely NOT without some potholes along the way.
Now for the Penguins’ kryptonite; the Philadelphia Flyers.
Philly will face the New York Rangers in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season. Each team won a pair of games against the other during the regular season, with the Rangers outscoring the Flyers in the season series ten goals to eight.
While the Rangers aren’t quite as physical as Philadelphia, New York has the one great equalizer: Henrik Lundqvuist. The Rangers also went 12-5-3 since acquiring Martin St. Louis at the trade deadline from the Lightning.
And there is a leadership aspect here for the NYR that can’t be overlooked. Guys like Brad Richards, Rick Nash, Marc Staal, the aforementioned St. Louis and of course, King Henrik are all playoff tested veterans who will know what its going to take to help their team advance to the second round.
The Penguins ultimately may not end up having to overcome their two biggest roadblocks en route to a return dance date with Lord Stanley.
Both first round series; Rangers-Flyers and Bruins-Red Wings, are likely to go no less than five games each. In fact I’d be quite surprised if neither series went the full seven games. Even if Philly survives New York (the Rangers have home ice, coincidentally), they’ll be quite banged up, not to mention physically and emotionally drained. Certainly more so than a Penguins team facing the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not necessarily predicting the Rangers and Red Wings to win their first-round playoff series respectively (I’ll get to that on Monday), but I am saying that it’s not outside the realm of possibilities.
Finally, after a season that put the Pittsburgh Penguins in the history books with the third-most man-games lost due to injury, they are getting healthy.
After suffering a stroke in late-January, Kris Letang returned to the ice for the Pens this past Wednesday night against Detroit. Paul Martin, having dealt with a broken hand suffered during the Olympics, returned about ten days ago to give the Penguins back their two best puck-moving defensemen.
Evgeni Malkin is on track to return to the lineup in one of the first two playoff games this week, presumably. And I don’t care what anyone says; when 71 and 87 are in the lineup together, they pose a matchup nightmare for any coach.
Marcel Goc and Joe Vitale could also return during the first round series against Columbus. Sure, they’re bottom-six forwards, but depth at this time of year is invaluable. Not to mention they are both excellent face-off guys and penalty killers.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs are right around the corner.
Maybe, just maybe; this could be the Penguins’ year.
Keep an eye out for the Postseason/Post-Regular Season mailbag coming this Wednesday. If you’ve got a question that you want to see answered here on The Hockey Writers, submit it to my inbox at TDTorraoTHW@Gmail.com or find me on Twitter: