The best time of the year is finally here. On Wednesday night, the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs will commence. 16 teams enter with dreams of hoisting the Cup two months from now. But, only one well oiled machine will capture the 16 victories necessary to hoist Lord Stanley’s epic trophy. Below is Skood Sports’ postseason prediction blog. All selections are guaranteed to be unbiased, and equally guaranteed to be dead wrong.
(1-C) Colorado Avalanche vs. (1-WC) Minnesota Wild
The Avalanche enjoyed a banner year following a lockout shortened season in which they finished among the worst teams in hockey. New coach Patrick Roy has instilled a fantastic system, and presses his players to play hard for 60 minutes every night. Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov, meanwhile, has emerged as a Vezina candidate, and he could prove the difference maker in a series against a very sound defensive team in Minnesota.
The Wild, meanwhile, are going to be dragged down a bit by their goaltending situation. Ilya Bryzgalov has emerged as their starter, and every Philadelphia Flyers (and Phoenix Coyotes) fan knows that can spell certain doom come playoff time. Minnesota has high end talent in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. So, I doubt they end up swept in this series. But, the considerable offensive depth that Colorado enjoys will prove too much for “the universe” to handle. Avalanche in 6
(2-C) St. Louis Blues vs. (3-C) Chicago Blackhawks
It was only a week or two ago that St. Louis was considered the frontrunner to win the West. However, a string of 6 consecutive losses by the Blues to end the season cost them the division and forced them into a brutal first round matchup against the defending Cup champions.
St. Louis still boasts impressive defensive depth and a strong goaltending situation with Ryan Miller. But, the injuries that the Blues suffered late in the season are the type that typically spell doom to Cup contending teams.
Meanwhile, the Blackhawks return to the playoffs looking to win their third championship in five years. Chicago is getting Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane back for this series, so their offense should be as potent as ever. Corey Crawford, who won the Cup with the team a year ago, now has more experience and should be a force in this series. Either of these teams could win the Cup. But, only one will even get out of the first round. Something tells me that St. Louis, who has won the second most World Series in history, will continue to wait for their first Stanley Cup. Blackhawks in 7.
(1-P) Anaheim Ducks vs. (2-WC) Dallas Stars
The Ducks are primed to represent the West in the Stanley Cup Finals. That is, if head coach Bruce Boudreau is finally able to get over the playoff hump that he failed to hurdle with Washington. Anaheim boasts high end offensive talent in Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry as well as impressive defensive depth, most of whom are younger than 25. Meanwhile, 24-year old goalie Frederik Andersen looks like the choice between the pipes. The rookie went 20-5 this season with a sparkling .923 save percentage.
Opposing them will be the Dallas Stars, who return to the playoffs for the first time since 2008-09. Dallas is led by their premier offseason acquisition, Tyler Seguin. The former #2 overall draft choice notched a career high 84 points this season. He’ll join Jamie Benn to lead a high powered Dallas offensive attack.
While the Stars do have the offense to knock off the Ducks, I just don’t see their defense holding up over the course of a seven game series. Give this team a few years, though. Ducks in 5.
(2-P) San Jose Sharks vs. (3-P) Los Angeles Kings
Foolish or not, many believe that this is finally the year for San Jose to get over the hump and reach the Stanley Cup Finals. San Jose is still led by Joe Thornton (76 points) and Logan Couture (54 points). But, it’s their further reliance on defense that gives their fanbase added hope. Antti Niemi (who won the Cup with Chicago in ’10) won 39 games this season, and appears primed for the playoffs after stopping 30 of 32 shots in their season finale on Saturday.
The Kings, of course, are never an easy out. Los Angeles possesses a well-rounded roster with two-way players throughout. Back are Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick from their 2012 championship team. Joining that group is Marian Gaborik, who was acquired from Columbus at the deadline. His added offensive skills could be enough to propel the Kings to another Western Conference title. Kings in 7.
(1-M) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (1-WC) Columbus Blue Jackets
The Penguins are back at the top of the playoff bracket, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. It also shouldn’t surprise anyone if they flame out entirely too early. While Pittsburgh does possess high-end offensive talent in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and James Neal; their deficiencies on the defensive end are still far too evident to have confidence in them. Marc-Andre Fleury showed late in the season that he could be in for another postseason flame out, as well.
The Columbus Blue Jackets, on the other hand, are headed to the postseason for just the second time in their history. Their first appearance came five-years ago, when the Jackets were swept by Detroit. Columbus saw Ryan Johansen (63 points) break out in 2014, as the former #3 overall pick led the offense of one of the league’s surprise teams. The Blue Jackets also have one of the best young goalies in the league in Sergei Bobrovsky and an above-average defense in front of him.
The problem, however, is that Columbus hasn’t shown an ability to defeat the much faster Penguins, having lost all five of their games to Pittsburgh this season. I don’t see the Jackets having enough momentum to win four out of seven, though I also don’t see them getting swept for the second time in their short history. Penguins in 6.
(2-M) New York Rangers vs. (3-M) Philadelphia Flyers
Having already discussed this series in a previous blog, I’ll leave this excerpt short-and-sweet. If Philadelphia can get better goaltending from Steve Mason than they have gotten from goalies in the past during the postseason, they’ll have a fighting chance against a Rangers team that has owned the Flyers in recent years. Philadelphia hasn’t won in New York since 2011, so finding a way to take one of the first two at MSG would go a long way to deciding the series.
In the end, I’m not sure that Claude Giroux and the offensive catalysts on Philadelphia are enough to overcome the Rangers’ exceptional defense and the man between the pipes, Henrik Lundqvist. Rangers in 7.
(1-A) Boston Bruins vs. (2-WC) Detroit Red Wings
This is probably the team that Boston least wanted to face in the first round, as they’re the only playoff team that the Bruins didn’t have winning record against this season. Still, the B’s have much greater depth than Detroit, and they also have shown a propensity to rise to the occasion come playoff time.
Detroit is expected to have Pavel Datsyuk back for the series. He instantly becomes the best offensive force on either team. Datsyuk can change a game all by himself, so Boston needs to be wise when he’s on the ice. If Jimmy Howard plays with a chip on his shoulder, Detroit could find themselves pulling off the upset of the year. But, that seems unlikely, as Boston is healthy and ready for a long playoff run. Bruins in 6.
(2-A) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. (3-A) Montreal Canadiens
Tampa Bay earned home-ice advantage in this series with their shootout win on Sunday. But, it’s the Canadiens who may have dodged a bullet. Playing at the Bell Centre, in front of their pressure packed and fickle hometown crowd, can be enough to turn most Canadian Cinderellas into pumpkins. For the Habs, it’s their superiority in net that should prove the difference. Tampa Bay goalie Ben Bishop was phenomenal all season. He was then injured in the year’s final week and will miss at least game one. Without him, Tampa has to rely on Anders Lindback, who is far inferior to Montreal’s Carey Price, who won the Gold medal with Team Canada in Sochi.
When discussing the skaters in this series, it’s very much even between these two clubs. Tampa boasts top end talents like Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan, as well as young phenoms in Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson. They’re led defensively by Victor Hedman, who has emerged as Norris candidate. Montreal possesses phenomenal talent as well, with midseason acquisition Thomas Vanek combining with American Olympian Max Paccioretty to form one of the top scoring lines in hockey. Former Norris winner P.K. Subban promises to have yet another strong playoff for a Montreal team that believes this is their year. Canadiens in 6.
(1-C) Colorado Avalanche vs. (3-C) Chicago Blackhawks
The ‘Hawks have the experience and the coaching to overcome Colorado’s tremendous offensive talent and Varlamov’s skills between the pipes. I wouldn’t count the Avalanche out of this series because I believe that they have the best goalie. But, I also think that Chicago’s defense is miles better, which always makes a difference come the Spring. Blackhawks in 6.
(1-P) Anaheim Ducks vs. (3-P) Los Angeles Kings
The Duck stops here. While I love Anaheim’s offense and their young depth on the blue line, I think that their youth between the pipes and lack of a playoff proven coach will be the death of them. The Kings have all the ingredients necessary to push them back to the Conference Finals for the third consecutive season, and their names are Doughty, Kopitar, and Quick. Kings in 6.
(1-M) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (2-M) New York Rangers
The Penguins have made it a trend of falling apart way too early come playoff time. Will that come prior to the Conference Finals this year, after they were unceremoniously swept by Boston a year ago? Probably. Pittsburgh struggles against physical teams, and while the Rangers haven’t played well against the Penguins in recent years, they have the defense to shut down Crosby and Co. when it matters the most. Rangers in 5.
(1-A) Boston Bruins vs. (3-A) Montreal Canadiens
Everyone and their mother are picking the Bruins to win the East. If you know Skood Sports, we don’t like to conform to society’s demands. I also know that Boston fans hate it when I pick their teams to win, as it almost always results in a loss via the “SkoodSports Curse.”
I expect the Habs, who got under Boston’s skin in a win against the Bruins the last time they played, to continue that trend. If the Bruins can’t keep their cool and end up shorthanded too often, Montreal will pick them apart. This will be Carey Price’s coming out party, as he leads the Canadiens to their biggest series victory in years by shutting out the Bruins at the TD Garden in game seven. Canadiens in 7.
(3-C) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (3-P) Los Angeles Kings
I said it before and I’ll say it again: The Kings have the ingredients to win another Stanley Cup. Despite Chicago’s offensive talent, it’s Los Angeles’ advantage in net that will prove the difference in their advancement to the Final. Kings in 5.
(3-A) Montreal Canadiens vs. (2-M) New York Rangers
Ladies and gents, the Montreal Canadiens are headed to the Stanley Cup for the first time in over 20-years. While New York does have King Henrik, the Canadiens have Prime Minister Price. He may well be on his way to becoming the league’s best goalie with his first trip to the Stanley Cup Final in tow. Canadiens in 6.
Stanley Cup Final
Montreal Canadiens vs. Los Angeles Kings
Both of these teams had identical records during the regular season (46-28-8), though, Montreal’s 40 ROW would earn them home-ice over Los Angeles’ 38. The series would not only be a rematch of the 1993 Final, which saw Wayne Gretzky’s Kings lose to Patrick Roy’s Habs. But, it would also present us with another matchup of the two goalies who took on each other in Sochi, as America’s Jonathan Quick gets another chance at revenge with Canada’s Carey Price.
In the end, it’s the Kings’ experience and defensive stability that will prove the difference, as Los Angeles wins their second Cup in three seasons. Kings in 6.