Sports

NHL Preview: Predictions, Assumptions, and Bold Calls for the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Full disclosure, right up front: my preseason Stanley Cup picks were the San Jose Sharks and the Detroit Red Wings.

Why did I pick them?

Because picking the defending Stanley Cup champions – the Chicago Blackhawks – is boring, and I really didn't want to pick the Boston Bruins, either. Plus, you'd be wise to avoid favourites in an 82-game + Playoff season, especially when it's one of the world's most physically demanding sports. Only that weird wrestling San Francisco's sea lions do demands more out of you every day for a calendar year than NHL hockey.

It's exhausting, and year-by-year the odds-on favourites disappear come April.

Last year, the Pittsburgh Penguins were the Vegas darlings. The Vancouver Canucks the two years before, as well as the Boston Bruins in their honeymoon campaign of 2012, when they lost to a sort-of soft Washington Capitals team in Round 1.

So I picked a Red Wings team that I thought would transition from a vastly superior Western Conference to the East, where they would clean up other teams' plates, like a Dad who didn't get enough and sees that Portobello mushroom sitting in front of his son. And I gave San Jose the benefit of the doubt, because everyone picks them at least once and I haven't done that yet.

I'm not as confident as I was in September – with either of these picks – but I thought you should know before you read the following...

EASTERN CONFERENCE - STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS

Atlantic Division

Detroit Red Wings vs Boston Bruins

1. Boston Bruins vs 4. Detroit Red Wings

My resolve is tested, right away. No biggie.

I won't be the only one to pick Detroit... and yes, I'm picking Detroit. It's not just that the Red Wings are on fire or that I've been super impressed by Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, and every other one of this city's sporting band-aids, and it's not just because Mike Babcock is the best coach in the NHL.

I mean, all of those are true, yes.

But the Wings look like a team that believes in themselves in a different, more humble way than they have since... basically ever.

Remember when they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final and every old-timer wearing the Winged Wheel bi*ched and moaned about how Sid took too long to come and shake Nicklas Lidstrom's hand? Those Red Wings are full of themselves. They couldn't let the first-timers enjoy the ecstasy of the moment – they expected the younger Penguins to act like they would have, only several of those Red Wings had already won four Stanley Cups.

Well, this Wings team is an odd mix of new and old toys, almost like when Woody and Buzz met the Cowgirl in the sequel, or that mean pink stuffed bear in the threquel (mean pink stuffed bear applies to this series, too). Nyquist and Tatar are thriving in their arrival, while the veterans like Nicklas Kronwall, Henrik Zetterberg (still injured), and Pavel Datsyuk aren't really the type to put themselves above their teammates.

This is a fluid, fun-loving group in the Motor City, and there's no coach who can put together a team in a pinch – and for a seven-game series – like Mike Babcock.

Logic suggests that, even if you think Detroit can push Boston to the brink, this thing will still be won by the Bruins on home ice in seven. But I'll leave logic for the guy whose predictions you've already read.

The Bruins have been to three straight Game 7s in their past three first rounds – against Montreal, then against Washington (loss), and then against the Toronto Maple Leafs last year.

I expect the same this season, and I don't think Boston will be able to knock off the Wings like they knocked off those lacklustre Leafs.

Prediction: Detroit wins in 7 games

**********

Tampa Bay Lightning vs Montreal Canadiens

2. Tampa Bay Lightning vs 3. Montreal Canadiens

Injuries will play a whole lot into this, as will the test Tampa faces now that the second season is upon them – they've gotten along just fine without Martin St. Louis, but will they miss him in the playoffs?

Goalie Ben Bishop is out for the Lightning, replaced by a more-than-capable backup in Anders Lindback. But he's still not Bishop, and we know these opening rounds come down to one or two defining moments – often, one or two defining saves – so Lindback only has to be less-than-Bishop once for that injury to hamper Tampa.

Steven Stamkos is Steven Stamkos, so that's all fine. Ryan Callahan, Valtteri Filppula, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and even Mr. Glug-Glug-Snort – Ryan Malone – make up a wildly underrated forward corps, not unlike the one that shocked Pittsburgh and Washington in 2011. But can they outlast and outscore Montreal's formidable forwards, especially with the Habs trying to prove themselves after they were bounced quite easily by a seventh-seeded Ottawa Senators team last season?

Max Pacioretty is the star, flanked by Thomas Vanek and David Desharnais, and joined up front by Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher, Rene Bourque, Danny Briere, Brian Gionta, and Tomas Plekanec, of course.

Carey Price can point to his Sochi performance as proof of his assured eliteness. And the defensive matchup here is as intriguing as a long look in a Coen Brothers film: P.K. Subban and Victor Hedman are the same vintage and the same awesomeness. Andrei Markov and Sami Salo can share a cheap platter at IHOP after a lawn bowling match. And I'm just excited to watch the Lightning in blue taking on the Habs in the Bell Centre, where the colours of everything are heightened by the noise, and where I'd love to see Steven Stamkos take on all of Quebec by himself.

Montreal is better than last year, which will lead to a sense of belief and optimism exuding from the tobacco-lined pores of those in La Bella Province.

But Tampa Bay is better, too. It's a toss-up. A completely annoying, absolutely toss-up.

And I'll take Carey Price over Stamkos.

Prediction: Montreal wins in 6 games

**********

Metropolitan Division

(*I think I'm the only with an IP address who likes that division name. It's actually my second-favourite, behind the Pacific. Why? I dunno, because it makes me think of depressing, tall buildings in the 1980s with white Lambos and some Bangles song. I dig that.)

Columbus Blue Jackets vs Pittsburgh Penguins

1. Pittsburgh Penguins vs 4. Columbus Blue Jackets

It's pretty easy to say, "Well, the Penguins drew the weakest team in the Eastern Conference" with this playoff matchup. You know why it's easy? Because it's true.

Now, I'm not that high on Pittsburgh – they lost with a thud and a Marc-Andre Fleury whiff to the Boston Bruins last year, getting swept in four games like they were actually worse than Toronto or something. And I do like Columbus... a lot. Who doesn't like Columbus? They're new, they're excited about it, their goalie is named BOB-ROV-SKY (he sounds like a Hillbilly Communist), and they have probably the best nickname in the National Hockey League – the Blue Jackets gets its name from the colours of the American Union during the Civil War. At least, that's what they're pretending now that they got rid of that weird green bug logo they started with.

And the Jackets have Ryan Johansen, one of the best young centres in the game, who found another gear this year and deserves a lot more consideration for major awards like the Hart, at least somewhere on the list, than he's likely to get. Johansen – with 33 goals this season, and a 3rd star in April – has played himself into CAN'T TRADE status, which is more than even Rick Nash did while he was in Ohio, clearly.

But this lines up perfectly for the Penguins, just like the Islanders matched up perfectly for them in last year's playoffs. John Tavares and his New York team gave the Quakers everything they could – and they got some help from the gaping black hole of poorly timed self-destruction that is Marc-Andre Fleury – and they still couldn't get out of their own building in Game 6.

Columbus will want to beat Pittsburgh real bad. I'm not just they'll know how.

Prediction: Pittsburgh wins in 5 games

**********

Philadelphia Flyers vs New York Rangers

2. New York Rangers vs 3. Philadelphia Flyers

Transport yourself back to 2012. Claude Giroux is the best player on the planet not named Sidney Crosby. The Flyers are retro-cool once again. They hate the New York Rangers and the Rangers hate them. New York is young and hungry. The Flyers have unproven goaltenders, one of whom is more likely to spent as much time in another universe/the penalty box as he is in his crease.

Okay, now replaces the coaches with Alain Vigneault (Rangers) and Craig Berube (Flyers) and voila... you've got this series.

It's a phenomenal matchup that completely cuts out any advantage either New York or Philly would have over another team. I'd take the Flyers running normally, but I do think my old buddy AV has figured something out with his new club, and the Rangers seem to have found their groove under him. The overpriced Broadway blueshirts have been replaced by a (still overpaid) team led by young legs, with Chris Kreider, Carl Hagelin, and Derek Stepan riding shotgun alongside Brad Richards and Rick Nash. (By the way, are there two players who are more AV's style than Nash and Richards? Whatta damn fit.)

Meanwhile, the Flyers have – like the Rangers – found their game after a tar sands start, and I think Claude Giroux is quite comfortably the second-best player in the NHL. He might be the best, on his own. Steve Mason's injury – the starter will miss Game 1 and former headcase Ray Emery will take the reins – is troublesome... until, of course, you realize that Philadelphia's No. 1 is actually Steve Mason and they've been dealing with a shooter tutor behind them all season.

The Flyers will win. Why? Because Giroux won't let them lose, and I'm still not convinced Vigneault has any say in his team's April performance.

Prediction: Flyers win in 7

**********

WESTERN CONFERENCE – STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS

Central Division

Colorado Avalanche vs Minnesota Wild

1. Colorado Avalanche vs 4. Minnesota Wild

Remember how the Avalanche started October off in flames – running away to the league's best record before they first lost in regulation – and everyone said, "Yeah well, they'll fall back to earth soon... just like the Minnesota Wild always do!"

Well, guess what... they didn't, and Minnesota didn't either, even though they have that unflattering FOUR stamped next to them like an expired month on a milk carton.

I'm pretty sure everyone has Colorado winning this series. I mean, I know not everyone does, but it's hard to pick Minnesota... it's not that you can't see them winning this series. It's that you can't see them winning another one after it, and so you think, "Ah, what's the point of picking them? I'm not going to get anything out of it."

But the first round is a springboard for a lot of clubs, and if Minnesota can get through Colorado, they'll find themselves lockjaw'd into a matchup against either Chicago or St. Louis in Round 2. That doesn't sound like a let-up, but it's better than facing one of the California teams on the other side.

Minnesota's a tough team to play against, and they can score if you give them a chance, not unlike Finland every Olympics. Jason Pominville led the way this season with 60 points, followed by Zach Parise with 56. Captain Mikko Koivu put up 54 in just 65 contests, and hasn't rediscovered the net much since his injury. (Keep an eye on Charlie Coyle, too. He only had 30 points this season, but he's Minnesota's X-Factor, kind of like their version of Brent Burns.)

On defence, Ryan Suter anchors a stable line, but it's the rotunda of ponies behind the defence that causes the most worry for pundits – is Ilya Bryzgalov gonna be the guy? He certainly can be, if he plays like he did in Phoenix. Can Darcy Kuemper handle the load, if it's placed on him? (Of course, if Kuemper is subbing in for Bryzgalov by Game 2 or 3 or 4, chances are Minny is already out of it.)

Colorado, though, is secure on every front. Their goalie will win the Vezina Trophy. Nathan MacKinnon will win the Calder, and the Avs – led by captain Gabriel Landeskog and Paul Stastny – haven't missed a step without the injured Matt Duchene, who's expect back for Game 3.

Colorado's defence has been one of the NHL's best stories this season, as has Ryan O'Reilly – the big power forward not only had 28 goals and 64 points this season, but he also only had two penalty minutes.

It's inconceivable to pick against Colorado in this one.

Prediction: Colorado wins in 5 games

**********

St Louis Blues vs Chicago Blackhawks

2. Chicago Blackhawks vs 3. St. Louis Blues

You've probably heard a lot about how the Blues are in a free-fall... you're also probably inclined to believe this, even though I'd bet you haven't watched St. Louis once during their collapse. (I know this because I haven't watched them, either.)

St. Louis is banged up, with its star Americans David Backes and T.J. Oshie missing time post-Olympics, as well as their big Swede Patrick Berglund.

But this is a criticism wrapped in smoke, not fire. Backes still suited up for 74 games this year, Berglund 78, and Oshie (who played 79) is practicing to get back for Game 1 with Brendan Morrow. ("The cavalry's coming," the former Stars captain told the Associated Press.)

Call out the Blues for their play lately, and that's fine. But blaming it on injuries? Are you doing that to wrap St. Louis in an analytical storm of issues, or are you making excuses for them?

And Chicago has had the same bug, with both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane coming in cold and coming off their own injuries. Are the Cup champions refreshed or stale? We know what the Blackhawks will bring – shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots. Everybody. Their offence is always in gear, and even when Toews or Kane aren't scoring – which they weren't, for the majority of last year's successful Cup run – their cast is. Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa are as dangerous as anyone in the NHL, while Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook command the sturdiest defence in the game. And Corey Crawford has a Cup you can't take away from him.

This seems like a matchup of big, midwest teams, and it is. But it's also a series beset by intangibles. When that happens, I just fall back and take the deeper squad.

Prediction: St. Louis wins in 6 games

**********

Pacific Division

Anaheim Ducks vs Dallas Stars

1. Anaheim Ducks vs 4. Dallas Stars

Watching Jamie Benn go up against Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry used to be like seeing Mankind get double-teamed by Kevin Nash and Scott Hall. Until Rey Mysterio Jr. (Tyler Seguin) showed up and turned the turnbuckle into an artform.

The Stars' twosome was maybe the league's best this year – sure, Getzlaf and Perry finished second and fifth in NHL scoring, but Benn and Seguin put up their points like Selanne and Kariya used to put up theirs, with a string on each other's belt loop and a hug pending.

Dallas surged to eighth down the stretch, because they had to. At one time, all of Vancouver, Nashville, Phoenix, and Winnipeg were gunning for that final spot, and Dallas kept their inside line the whole time. Kari Lehtonen is one of the game's most underrated netminder, and he has been for a while.

If you think Dallas will beat Anaheim, you're probably banking on their enthusiasm outweighing their green-ness – both in their jersey and in their ripeness.

The gap is also tightened between these teams, as it is for almost all underdogs this year, because they play in the same division. There's little the uber-talented Ducks will do that could surprise the Stars, and you can bet that Dallas doesn't see themselves as an underdog.

Benn is as stoic as Seguin is rabid, and Lindy Ruff has looked like the perfect boss in Big D.

But on the other side of the aisle is a team that's just too crafted, too experienced, and too focused to turn away. Aside from Getzlaf and Perry, Nick Bonino and Andrew Cogliano have come along nicely in the Souther California system, each of them posting 40-plus points this season. Cam Fowler and Hampus Lindholm will blow you away, if you haven't seen them yet.

But the goaltending is an issue in Anaheim. If Jonas Hiller can't do it, can the Ducks lean on rookie Frederik Andersen?

It hasn't been a problem yet, but 82 games is a much cooler iron than a seven-game playoff series.

This one will be closer than the seeding suggests, but Dallas will have to score an awful lot to pluck Orange County's ducks.

Prediction: Ducks win in 7 games

**********

LA Kings vs San Jose Sharks

2. San Jose Sharks vs 3. Los Angeles Kings

I'll be quick this with one.

This is a titans-only showdown, nice and early before breakfast is even ready. Get ready to see Godzilla vs King Kong. Get ready to go back to last year's series, when the Sharks were the low seed and L.A. got to take Game 7 on their home ice... get ready to hear a whole lot about California, and especially prepare yourself to hear the phrase "BEAT EACH OTHER UP" every time you turn on TSN. (The thinking always is that teams out West beat each other up en route to the Stanley Cup Final, meaning that this year's California triangle of Anaheim, San Jose, and Los Angeles will destroy each other before the finish line like Ross, Chandler, and Joey fighting over a girl in a 90's skirt, leaving the scraps for a half-a-carnivore like Boston or Pittsburgh.)

San Jose's loss to Los Angeles last year was heartbreaking, probably, for those concentrated hockey fans in Silicon Valley. Their teams gave the defending Cup champs everything they had, but they ended up sucking exhaust. The Kings were just too good to go down in seven, especially at the blacked-out Staples Centre.

Are things any different, 12 months later?

Well, the Sharks have had a much more consistent offseason and their scoring has been spread among the fleet – Joe Pavelski leads the way, again with Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, and Logan Couture giving San Jose the best (healthy) top four in the league outside of Chicago. But Antti Niemi has struggled, and the Sharks have never been a sure thing come postseason.

Meanwhile, the L.A. Kings like to joke about L.A. Kings hockey – low scoring, lots of skating, the Darryl Sutter way.

But there's nothing to laugh about here. The Kings won a Cup only two years ago, and they've gotten better since then. Jonathan Quick is an all-world goaltender who finds his purest form in win-or-go-home games, Drew Doughty's career easily has another two or three Cups in it, and Anze Kopitar is one of the West's best all-around players. And Dustin Brown is the captain any club could use. The Kings also add sneaky shooters like Justin Williams, the recently acquired Marian Gaborik, and Trevor Lewis.

I haven't even mentioned the toxic twins, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, who are laughing all the way to their trophy closest after Philadelphia swept them aside in 2011.

Los Angeles will win this series, and I'm bailing on my bold preseason prediction. I can't go against logic twice.

(Although, there's a good chance I picked the wrong one to stick to.)

Prediction: Kings win in 7 games

 

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