It’s the most wonderful time of the year! It’s playoff hockey time and this season looks like it will be the most entertaining playoffs we’ve had in some time. The Bruins and Red Wings re-ignite an Original Six matchup, the Rangers-Flyers are always fun to watch , and the entire Western Conference appears to be a crapshoot. This season truly is shaping up where a surprise team will emerge and captured Lord Stanley.
Although it seems to be wide open, try as I might, here are my predictions for the first round of the playoffs starting with the Eastern Conference.
Boston Bruins vs. Detroit Red Wings
The Boston Bruins are coming off of an incredibly successful regular season where the Bruins clinched the Presidents’ Trophy. Meanwhile, the Detroit Red Wings have been dealing with injuries all season and just barely made it into the playoffs.
So… quick series, right? Wrong.
Detroit has been one of the few teams to dominate the Bruins this season, winning three of four meetings, and with the Wings leaving the door open for a possible return of Henrik Zetterberg, it has all the makings of a first round upset.
The Red Wings are the one wild card team that no one wanted to face and with good reason. Detroit has arguably the best coach in the league in Mike Babcock and what he has done this season is nothing short of miraculous. Babcock is great at getting the most out of what he has, and he has no had much to work with this season. Gustav Nyquist has been a great surprise for Detroit in the second half of the season, coming up huge when his team needed him the most.
Although Detroit has injuries to its veterans, it’s young core of players are the players to watch out for. It was these young players that help propel Detroit into the playoffs and they already know a thing or two about how to win in the playoffs. Six current Red Wings were on the Grand Rapids Griffins squad that captured the Calder Cup last season. I’m not saying that the Calder Cup is the same as the Stanley Cup, but it helps that they know how to win in pressure situations.
The Red Wings might need to be worried about the lack of depth on their defensive corps. Niklas Kronwall is by far the leader of that corps, but after that it is very much in doubt. Danny DeKeyser is a great player who helped the farm team win the Calder Cup last season, but is inexperienced. Jonathan Ericsson’s finger may keep him out longer than expected leaving the Wings gutted on defense and you better believe that Claude Julien will be chomping at the bit.
The Bruins are the most complete team in the playoffs this season. They have great goaltending in Tuukka Rask, outstanding defense with Patrice Bergeron, and a great squad of defensemen led by captain Zdeno Chara. However, the Bruins have been an odd team this season. The Bruins have proven they can beat some top teams this year going 15-1 against teams in the playoffs not named the Red Wings or the Canadiens. Against Detroit and Montreal, Boston is 2-6, only winning one game each against the Habs and Wings.
Detroit is not going to be intimidated by Boston and their Presidents’ Trophy. Why should they? This series is going to be a grueling seven game epic and I think Mike Babcock pulls off his biggest feat yet and knocks off the mighty Bruins.
Red Wings in seven
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Montreal Canadiens
The Lightning did a great job of overcoming an injury to Steven Stamkos when he broke his leg early in the season. Tampa Bay may have to replicate that feat during the most important time of the year for the Bolts.
Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop is still a big question mark in this series as he nurses his injured elbow and there is no telling how good he will be when he comes back. Tampa Bay needs Bishop in this series, he set the franchise record in wins this season with 37 and has been arguably the best goaltender in the league. Bishop’s backup, Anders Lindback, has not had a very good season and if he has to play the entire series, it may just be a quick exit for the Bolts.
Tampa Bay has been perhaps the hottest team entering the playoffs, going 7-3-0 in their last ten games including a four game win streak, and they are a very underrated team that has gone largely unnoticed by the press.
Montreal though could be a surprise team simply because the luck of the draw. The Canadiens look like they may face a Ben Bishop-less Lightning squad and they;ve proven they can beat Boston. First thing first though, they have to get past the Lightning.
The Canadiens have a very talented squad that got even better when they acquired Thomas Vanek from the Islanders for basically nothing. PK Subban is still, well, PK Subban and Carey Price is having a career year. The Canadiens have also been great at killing the power play this season, something the Lightning have struggled with. This series will come down to special teams and the Canadiens just simply have the better team when it comes to special teams.
The Lightning are dealing with a ton right now with Bishop’s injury and Ryan Malone’s DUI arrest, it may just be way too much to ask for the Lightning to defeat the Canadiens. It’s going to be a tough series, but I think Montreal will go on to defeat Tampa Bay and make a run at the Cup.
Canadiens in six
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
The Columbus Blue Jackets are back in the playoffs and their reward is facing the high octane Pittsburgh Penguins. Oof.
What the Blue Jackets have done in two seasons has been remarkable. When Columbus traded Rick Nash to the Rangers, it was assumed that the Jackets were in a rebuilding period, but Columbus narrowly missed the playoffs last year and finally made it this season.
Columbus has a young and talented team, but they go up against the Penguins, a team that won all five games against the Jackets this season, and I don’t see much success this time around for Columbus. The Columbus roster is for the most part inexperienced in the postseason, the only player with a Stanley Cup ring is Nathan Horton. A lot is made about postseason experience
The Blue Jackets may have a leg up in goaltending with Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, put up another solid season and who knows what Marc-Andre Fleury will do this year. Fleury was pulled after a terrible playoff series last year against the upset minded New York Islanders and did not see any more action for the rest of the postseason. If Fleury chokes again, they might not have Tomas Vokoun to fall back on. Granted, Tomas Vokoun is now with the team, but he is just now recovering from surgery to remove a blood clot and there is no telling how effective he will be.
The Penguins are determined to make up for the egg the laid in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals against Boston. They are hungry to avenge that loss and stop being fodder for jokes. Pittsburgh is a hurting team, but they still have Sidney Crosby, who leads the NHL in scoring. Evgeni Malkin is still a question mark with his injured foot and Brooks Orpik and Chris Kunitz are still banged up.
Despite the injuries that Pittsburgh has, the Penguins are still a heavy favorite in this series and I think their experience pays off and they knock off the upstart Blue Jackets in a relatively quick series.
Penguins in five
New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers
This one could be a coin flip. Both the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers are so evenly matched and it proves to be a very physical and heated series. These two teams always have bad blood between each other and the playoffs only magnify that. The Rangers-Flyers series is perhaps the most anticipated first round matchup this year.
For the Flyers, they need to be competitive on the road at Madison Square Garden. Even though the season series was split two game apiece, Philadelphia did not play particularly well at MSG losing by a combined five goals. The Rangers have home ice throughout the series, so if the Flyers want to advance, they have to play better on the road and steal at least one from the Rangers. The Flyers are a great road team, scoring 110 goals on the road, so I see Philadelphia finally breaking through and playing some good hockey in Manhattan.
Steve Mason has been pretty solid in net for the Flyers this season. That’s pretty good for a guy that no one thought would be the number one goalie this year with the signing of Ray Emery. The Flyers are going up against top tier netminder Henrik Lundqvist and Steve Mason much match him shot for shot if they want to have any success against New York.
For the Rangers, newly acquired Martin St. Louis must get going. Since going the Rangers, St. Louis has recorded only one goal and eight points in 14 games. Simply put, St. Louis needs to have a better output than that. He is starting to get back to his old self and the Rangers are hoping he can get it together soon.
New York also has to win the first period against the Flyers. Too many times this season have the Rangers dug themselves into a hole in the first period and quiet the normally raucous Garden crowd. Getting an early goal in the playoffs against the Flyers would surely wake up the crowd and shake the Flyers who have yet to win a game at MSG this season.
The Flyers tend to commit some dumb penalties, but the Ranger power play corps have been inconsistent all season. Just recently they scored two power play goals against the Hurricanes and then fail to capitalize on seven chances in their final two games. If Philadelphia is going to hand the Rangers a power play opportunity, then they have to get it together and put some into the net.
This series is going to be a heavyweight title fight. Every single game will be close and it will go the distance. Like I said earlier I could flip a coin and decide the winner, but I like the Philadelphia Flyers in top the Rangers in a grueling seven game series.
Flyers in seven
What are your predictions for the first round? Comment below or send me a Tweet, @MarkWGraham