As we get ready for the 2014 NHL playoffs and the introduction of the new playoff format, I feel this would be a good time to take some time to not only briefly preview the first round match-ups, but also rank the opening series’ by how compelling they appear on their respective ‘covers’.
Predicting who will win a series is something our culture loves (March Madness, anyone?), but ranking the level of interest in match-ups, I feel, is a new idea for a playoff that produces upsets every year (unlike the NBA). Here are the Eastern Conference match-ups…
4. Columbus Blue Jackets @ Pittsburgh Penguins
This may be the least compelling first round series on paper for both conferences, but by no means does that mean you can ink the Penguins into their divisional finals. This is the first year the Blue Jackets have been in the Eastern Conference, and considering their lack of success in their franchise history, this would be the perfect time to make their name with their new rivals.
Sidney Crosby is pretty much a lock to win the Hart trophy this year, but after him some of the Penguins star players have had troubles staying healthy. Chris Letang returned recently after taking a couple of months off from a stroke, and Evgeni Malkin is has been nursing a foot injury and hopes to be good to go for the playoffs. This is a still a team full of talent, so I don’t believe the absence of even a couple of their stars will cause problems for them when facing an inferior Blue Jackets team.
The Blue Jackets have one key way to beat the Penguins: Marc-Andre Fluery. Bruins fans (along with Penguins fans) remember the demise of Fluery in the playoffs last year. Goaltending can win a Stanley Cup, but it can also ruin a highly-talented team like the Penguins. Can Fluery bounce back after a horrendous 2013 playoffs? We will see. He has always been a consistent regular season goalie, but he hasn’t posted a save % higher than .900 or improved his save % in the postseason compared to that regular season since 2007-2008.
Regardless, I’ll take the Penguins in 4 games
3. Philadelphia Flyers @ New York Rangers
If you don’t like the new playoff format, at least you can agree that it has produced some compelling first round match-ups between some bitter rivals. The Flyers started this season slow but have turned it on behind captain Claude Giroux. The Rangers have done the complete opposite, as they traded their captain Ryan Callahan to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Martin St. Louis in order to get their offense going. Their goal scoring was well-distributed throughout the roster, and the emergence of Mats Zuccarello has done wonders for this team.
I expect this series to be physical and potentially nasty like previous series between the Flyers and Penguins. To be honest, I think this will be the only way the Flyers can take control of this series because talent-wise they are outmatched. The Rangers have the best defenseman and goaltender in this series (Ryan McDonagh and Henrik Lundqvist, respectively), and have the better offensive depth. While the Flyers have the better power play, the Rangers put together the 3rd best penalty kill this year. Also, starting goaltender Steve Mason is hurt right now and may miss time in the playoffs for the Flyers. Will we see Ray Emery?
fun note: The Rangers have been marginally better on the road this year (25-14-2 Road; 20-17-4 Home), and the Flyers have been better at home (24-14-3 Home; 18-16-7). The Rangers have home ice advantage.
If the Rangers can avoid being bugged by the Flyers and stick to their game, which I think they will, I’ll take the Rangers in 5.
2. Detroit Red Wings @ Boston Bruins
Congratulations on finishing with the best record in the NHL. Your reward? One of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference who is getting healthy at the right time. The Boston Bruins made a big decision last offseason trading away youngster Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley in return for Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith, and two other players. While Seguin went on this year to put up huge stats, the Bruins two new players have added significant depth to the offense.
What should scare the Bruins going into this series is their history of coming out slow in the first round of the playoffs over the past few years. Over their recent run with this core of players, they have been in 3 straight game 7s in the quarter finals (4 in the past 6 years). It is a team that excels in the playoffs because of their physical intimidation and energy they give in all three zones. Claude Julien has a particular style of play that limits the opposition of generating many offensive chances., but in order to execute you have to exhaust all of your energy, which can take its toll. Can the Bruins make another run to the Stanley Cup Finals after playing so much hockey over the past 2 years?
Yes, it is whole new year and a different team, but this is the best team the Bruins will face in the first round in the last few years, and it all begins with Pavel Datsyuk. He just returned from injury, but don’t expect for him to be a non-factor. Even if he isn’t 100%, he will make a huge impact on both ends of the ice.
The Red Wings roster two of the most successful University of Maine alumni in the NHL right now in Gustav Nyquist and Jimmy Howard. Nyquist only played 57 games this year, but he put up 28 goals and 48 points when Detroit was without their two best forwards. Also, this is the time for Howard to prove his new contract was well-deserved. He will need to be spectacular in this series.
Ultimately, I feel that the Bruins have too much experience and depth to be eliminated by a young Red Wings team. Boston has a dynamic 3rd line this year that has proven this year to be able to carry the offense for a few games. It reminds me of Michael Ryder and co. in the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs, and if Loui Eriksson remains on that line, then their is even more potential than what Ryder produced. I’ll take the Bruins in 6 games.
1. Montreal Canadiens @ Tampa Bay Lightning
No, it’s not your classic rivalry or your original 6 match-up, but this is the one true coin toss in the Eastern Conference because of all of the question marks on both teams.
For the Habs, the addition of Thomas Vanek has done wonders for the offense, especially 5-on-5, as he put up 15 points in 18 games for his new home. He has always been a talented player, but he also has the ability to go quiet instantly (many of the times due to injury), so you proceed with caution. Regardless, this addition has allowed the Habs to shuffle their lines so they can score goals with 3 lines instead of 2. Imagine if Alex Galchenyuk was available for this series…
The Lightning, as mentioned previously, traded away their captain Marin St. Louis for Rangers’ captain Ryan Callahan. Losing the offensive production in St. Louis could hurt them in the long run, but adding a player like Callahan for the playoffs will help their grit, energy, leadership, etc. Pretty much, Callahan brings all of the cliches and intangibles that this team lacked without him.
Who knows how this will go? It really is a question left to if goaltender Ben Bishop can come back for the series and be 100%. He was arguably the MVP for the Lightning this year, along with rookie Ondrej Palat, and if he isn’t healthy it’s hard to have faith in backup Anders Lindback. Then again, Bishop has no playoff experience, so it is no guarantee he can handle the pressure of playoff hockey.
The question marks in the Lightning goaltending gives the slight edge to the Canadiens, so I’ll take the Habs in 7.