This week the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs begin and for one of the remaining 16 teams this post season, the dream of raising the most unique trophy in all of sports will become a reality. Eleven teams from the United States and the five from Canada make up the field. The playoffs separate the good teams from the bad and the tough from the weak. It is a time when injuries mean more of a headline in the media than a reason to sit out of a game. Hockey is a sport where players consistently play hurt, making that moment when they raise the Stanley Cup even sweeter. It’s a great time to be a hockey fan and we have your first round series breakdown right here.
#2 Montreal Canadiens (50-22-10) vs. #7 Ottawa Senators (43-26-13)
Less than 125 miles separate the two hockey rinks of Montreal and Ottawa and although there has never been a true rivalry between the two franchises, that could change starting Wednesday when the teams open up their first round series at the Bell Centre in Montreal.
The story of this series will be the matchup between the League’s best goaltender, Canadiens’ Corey Hart, and the hottest goalie of the past two months, Senators’ Andrew Hammond. Hart, the front-runner for both the Vezina and Hart Trophy, led the NHL in goals-against average, save percentage and wins. His 44 victories also set a new franchise-high. Across the ice, Hammond will start his first career playoff game on Wednesday and while he is new to the post season, he has been shutting down opposing teams in must-win games since he took over in net. He made his first career start this season against Montreal in winning fashion and never looked back, compiling a 20-1-2 record and 1.79 GAA down the stretch.
While Montreal has long been a team that most others try to avoid in the post-season, the one team who was happy with this match-up was the Senators. They have won the last three regular-season games by a combined score of 13-5. Hammond has won both of his starts in the series, letting in only 4 goals on 73 shots while Price split his two appereances with a 1-1 record, allowing 6 goals on 53 shots.
For Montreal to win this series, they will need to push the play and be physical. Ranked in the bottom half of the League in power-play opportuntites, they cannot afford to give their opposition momentum by killing penalties. They will also need left-winger, and their most consistent offensive threat, Max Pacioretty, to suit up for the series. After sustaining an injury on April 5th, the NHL’s plus-minus leader did not return to the lineup until the two games of the regular season. He has six points in four games against Ottawa this season and is the only one on his team with more than one goal. Defensively, P.K. Subban shuts down opposing scorers. Teamed up with Andrei Markov, the pairing
On the other bench, Erik Karlsson lead’s a team that features five 20-point goal scorers. Rookie Mark Stone tallied 64 points (5 against Montreal) and Bobby Ryan recorded 18 goals. Karlsson has 6 points in 4 games against the Canadiens. has been great all season and should continue that level of play this week. With limited depth on the defensive end of the bench, the Senators will rely on their top two pairings for the majority of the minutes.
Momentum is a real factor in the playoffs and no team has more of it right now than the Ottawa Senators. They have played must-win hockey for over a month and have a red-hot goaltender. In the past, the cup has been won by teams with strong goaltending and this match up features the two best in the game right now. The series will be low scoring but high in intensity and excitement. I believe this series will go seven and it would not surprise me if Ottawa wins a game in Montreal and ultimately advances to the next round. Price may be the better all-around goaltender, but Hammond is the best right now. He could steal the series if his defensemen can show up at all.
#3 Tampa Bay Lighting (50-24-8) vs #6 Detroit Red Wings (43-25-14)
Following the theme of goaltending as the focus in the first round, the Detroit Red Wins have a big decision to make on which tender they suit up for Game-1. Jimmy Howard has started 45 playoff games as the teams #1 goalie the past few seasons, but he enters with a sub-.900 save percentage in his last 21 games. Peter Mrazek started the final regular season contest and shutout the Carolina Hurricanes making 35 saves. He started 6 of the team’s last nine games and had a .936 save percentage in those contests. Head Coach Mike Babcock faces the difficult decision on whether he rides the hot hand in net, even though Mrazek has not started a single post-season game, or if he goes with the proven veteran Howard who has struggled as of late.
For Tampa Bay, injuries will be key for a franchise that set a new record with 108 points. Braydon Coburn missed the last 14 games of the season while Jason Garrison and Andrej Sustr missed the last 6. All three have been skating in practice, but they are still unsure who will play in game one on Thursday. If they can’t play, the Lighting still have a deep rotations on the ice, led by Steven Stamkos, who scored over 40 goals for the fourth time in his career. Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat make up the second line where all three have more than 60 points on the season.
Detroit has some of the most exciting players in the game, led by star Pavel Datsyuk. The forward has been missing time with an injury and if he cannot play, this series will be a major uphill climb. He sat out 19 games and the team missed him in every one. They still have Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist however, and all three will be forced to carry the production up front.
Lighting goaltender Ben Bishop broke his own Franchise record this season, recording 39 wins, but still has no playoff experience. If Detroit can score early, they may be able to rattle the young goaltender. When he plays well, he can be one of the best in the game, but when he doesn’t, he has let up goals in bunches.
This series will come down to Detroit’s production on their first two lines. If Datsyuk can’t play, or the second line is unproductive, Tampa Bay should enjoy a quick series. Where the Red Wings have the advantage is if these games turn into high-scoring contests. If they get to Bishop early and often, their opponents will have trouble keeping up. I see the second scenario being more likely of the two.
#1 New York Rangers (53-22-7) vs #8 Pittsburgh Penguins (43-27-12)
The Pittsburgh Penguins had to fight and claw their way into the playoffs up until the every last shift of the regular season. Their reward for doing so is a first round series with the top team in the Eastern Conference, the New York Rangers and their franchise best 53 wins and 113 points. The Rangers owned the season series, going 3-0-1 and outscoring their opponent 16-7.
Sidney Crosby and the Penguins started the season hot but faltered down the stretch, going 4-9-2 and scoring only 25 goals. They enter the post season without their top defenseman Kris Letang who suffered a season ending concussion on March 28th. His team won only two of their final seven games without him.
The Rangers have not had any problems scoring this season, but now that they are in the playoffs, concerns over team leader Rick Nash, and his career high 42 goals, bring a feeling of uncomfortablilty for fans in the Big Apple. Last year he scored only 3 goals in 25 playoff games to continue his unproductive career playoff drought. Nash does lead the team with seven points and a +5 rating against the Penguins this season.
In net, Henrik Lundgvist allowed less than two goals per game against the Penguins in his four starts. He played solid enough all season that his offense was able to take chances and play a high-speed offensive set. He does run into some of the most creative scorers in the sport in Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but he has shut them down all season. Malkin has 3 points and Crosby only 2 in their four contests against Lundqvist.
The Rangers are clearly the favorite in this match-up and should be able to advance to the second round if they play their style of hockey. For the Penguins, they simply need goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to be outstanding. He has done it before for this team, but never against an offensive juggernaut like he will face this week. He was dominated in the season series, going 1-2 with a terrible 4.21 goals-against average. New York may allow them to steal a win or two, but don’t expect an 8th seeded upset in this series.
#4 Washington Capitals (45-26-11) vs. #5 New York Islanders (47-28-7)
Game 3 will the first home game for the Islanders this post-season, and it will also begin the final stretch of hockey ever played by New York in their long-time home of Nassau Coliseum, as they franchise moves to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn next season. There will be a lot of fan fare and excitement in this series but could that be enough to push the team to a first round victory?
Washington enters with the best power play in the league. Led by Alex Ovechkin (81 points) and Nicklas Backstrom, (78 points) the Capitals have fire power that were among league leaders all season. The line mates were separated for the final seven games of the season and the team responded by going 5-1-1. If they choose to play on separate lines to distribute production, it makes them that much more difficult to defend. Combined they have 11 points in 4 games against New York.
The Islanders have enjoyed good seasons by Ryan Strome (50 points), Brock Nelson (20 goals) and Anders Lee (25 goals) to compliment their top scorer John Tavares who topped the team with five points against Washington this season. He had 38 goals and 86 points to lead the team in both categories. They also feature All-Star goaltender Jaroslav Halak who set a franchise record with 38 wins in 59 starts. Fans remember his 2010 campaign, helping the Canadiens to the Eastern Conference Finals. His .914 save percentage kept the Islanders in position to win games all season long.
For the Islanders to take the series, they will have to find a way to get the puck past Braden Holtby who started 73 games in net this season. While that much time on the ice could be draining on a goaltender as the season progressed, Holtby only got stronger. He finished the stretch with a 12-4-1 record, including a trio of shutouts. No goaltender has won the Cup in a season where he started that many games since the 2003 season when Martin Brodeur did it.
The Capitals will have to score to win this series. Halak however, has been nothing short of dominate in his two starts against them this season, winning both games and allowing only five goals. Backstrom and Ovechkin played well in their four series meetings but will need to do more than that to carry the team to the second round.
It’s a long regular season and no one in the league knows that better than Holtby. The workload could catch up to him, especially facing a team who will pepper him with shots from all over the zone the way New York does. He will need to be near perfect on the penalty kill, but facing such a great power-play line, that may be near impossible. Washington should still find a way win this series by staying out of the penalty box, moving on to the second round while the Islanders move on to Brooklyn.
#2 St. Louis Blues (51-24-7) vs. #7 Minnesota Wild (46-28-8)
The St. Louis Blues won five of their final six regular season games to earn first place in the Central Division. They will face the hottest team in the League over the past three months in the Minnesota Wild who had 100 points on the season, 59 of them coming in that span.
The two teams met in the final regular season game this past weekend and the Blues won 4-2. Brian Elliott started in net for St. Louis and made 23 saves. While the Wild are set between the pipes with goaltender Devan Dubnyk playing exceptional hockey, going 27-9-2 with a .936 save percentage in 39 games, the Blues have yet to determine who will stop shots for them in goal this week. Jake Allen played in crucial games down the stretch of the regular season and only allowed one goal in each of his last four starts. Elliott started two games against the Wild this season and allowed seven goals. He does have 18 playoff games worth of experience, while Allen has none.
Offensively, the Blues have four 20-goal scorers and seven 40-point getters. They were among the top-scoring teams in the league and can increase the tally on the scoreboard in a hurry. Defense is the strong suit for the team still and they may have to be as solid as ever while the coaching staff decides which goaltender to skate with.
The Wild have a very solid line in Mikko Koivu, Chris Stewart and Nino Niederreiter to compliment leaders Zach Parise (62 points) and Thomas Vanek (52 points). Defensively they rank in the top five in goals against per game and shots allowed on net. Led by Ryan Suter, the defensive pairs are tested and confident, especially with the way Dubynk has played behind them.
This match up could come down to special teams play. The Blues rank in the top ten in power play effiecency but the Wild are the best in the League in penalty-killing percentage. The Wild won’t take a lot of penalties, but having such a solid special teams system to fall back on, they can take chances and play more aggressive and physical. If they can shut down the Blues power-play, there is no reason to think Minnesotta won’t be playing next round. For St. Louis, they will need to get to Dubnyk early. He has no playoff experience and logged a lot of minutes at the end of the season, making 39 straight starts, which is the most for any goalie since 2008. St. Louis is the favorite in this match up, but with so much uncertainty in net, this could be Dubynk’s time to shine.
#3 Nashvilel Predators (47-25-10) vs. #4 Chicago Blackhawks (48-28-6)
The Predators are limping into the playoffs, having lost their last six games in which they were outscored 24-14. They still managed to finish with 84 points to earn this position against Chicago.
The Blackhawks make the trip to the postseason without their most dependable player, Patrick Kane, who is still rehabbing his fractured clavicle that he suffered last month. He missed the final 21 regular season games and was targeted to miss 12-weeks. He appears to be ahead of schedule and rumors swirl that he may be available towards the end of the series. Kane had 64 points in 61 games.
Rookie Filio Forsberg (63 points) was one of the best first-year players in the League for the Predators and combined with Mike Ribeiro (62 points) and Colin Wilson (42 points), they have a formidable offensive attack. Forsberg was shut out in his four games against Chicago this season but did have three assists. James Neal was the top scorer in the series with five goals. The top lines will have to be productive for them to take the series, as the next six forwards won’t fill the net with goals. On the blue line they have the hardest slap shot on ice in Shea Webber. All-Star goalie Pekka Rinne spent some time sidelined with a sprained knee this season but appears to have that behind him. When healthy, he is one of the best in the league. He did face his share of difficulty this season against Chicago, facing 112 shots in 3 starts. He went 1-1 in those match ups, only allowing 8 goals. On the season he has 41 wins, four shutouts and a .923 save percentage.
Without Kane, the Blackhawks relied on Jonathan Toews, and his team high 28 goals and 66 points, Brandon Saad (52 points) and Marian Hossa (61 points) to carry the offensive load. Hossa scored a team-high three goals in four games against Nashville this season. They have a deep bench and can run four lines without worry. Defensively they have four solid players, led by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, but have questions on the durability after that. It’s likely that they will rely on the first two pairings for the major minutes. Keith posted a +6 rating this season against the Predators. The Blackhawks have had three solid goaltenders this season, but unless he works himself out of the role with a bad start, Corey Crawford should play the entire series. He led the team in save percentage and earned himself 32 wins as his team allowed the fewest goals in the league this season. He has played brilliantly in his two starts against Nashville this season, winning both of them and stopping 60 of the 65 shots faced.
When healthy, the Blackhawks are a scary team to face in the playoffs. They have size on defense and creative forwards up front, but without Patrick Kane they will need to find scoring throughout the line-up. If they can’t get to Rinne consistently, it could be a quick series. They averaged 38 shots on net against him in the regular season, but scored less than 3 times per game on average. Nashville will need to attack the defense with physical play and a lot of dump and chase activity. Likely to rely heavy minutes from their top four blue-liners, the Blackhawks cannot afford injury or fatigue to any of them. If this series goes the distance, or at least 6 games, look for Nashville to have the advantage.
#1 Anaheim Ducks (51-24-7) vs. #8 Winnipeg Jets (43-26-13)
The Ducks enter the Stanley Cup Playoff as the number seed for the second straight year, while the Jets enter as the 8th seed with a franchise record with 99 points. This could be the best series of the first round and it should be very physical one.
The Ducks have a below average special teams and need consistent scoring at even strength to win games. Ryan Getzlaf had 25 goals and 70 points and Corey Perry notched recorded a 33-goal season. Rayn Kessler chipped in with 20 goals as well. Getzlaf recorded 5 points in the season series against the Jets while Perry was scoreless in his lone appearance. Defensively, they finished at the bottom of the league in goals allowed per game. In net, Frederik Anderson has taken the starting position away from John Gibson and won 35 games in doing so. He will look to continue his dominate play against the Jets, having gone 3-0 with 90 saves against them this season.
Winnipeg counters offensively with Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler. Ladd led the team with 3 points this season against the Ducks, while Little and Wheeler added two a piece. A good sign for the Jets this past weekend was that Dustin Byfuglien played almost 25 minutes in the season finale. They were 9-3-1 without him, but he was the most-used defensemen on the team, and also their top scoring one with 18 goals and 45 points. In net, it seems to be a toss up at this point as to which goaltender coach Paul Maurice will call upon to open the series. Ondrej Pavelec started the season as the number one, but lost the job to rookie Michael Hutchinson mid way through. It’s likely to see Pavelec start. In two games against the Ducks this season, Pavelec allowed 8 goals on 68 shots while Hutchinson went 0-1 and allowed 3 goals on 30 shots. On the season, the two have very similar starts with Pavelec recording a 2.28 GAA and .920 save percentage, and Hutchinson listing a 2.39 GAA and .914 save percentage.
The Jets have allowed five or more power plays in 24 of their 82 games this season. Although the Ducks special teams are below average, they cannot give Getzlaf or Perry that many opportunities with a man advantage. They will capitalize given those chances. If Pavelec is the starter, he could fall apart if he lets in a few quick goals. The Jets however cannot play from behind in this series. If they can stay out of the penalty box, but still play physical hockey, they have a real chance in this series. They will get a big confidence boost with Byfuglien back in the line up as well and with him in the lineup, they have a real shot at the series.
I do see the Ducks offense coming together at the right time, and with Anderson owning the Jets the way he has, it should be a good series for Anaheim.
#5 Vancouver Canucks (48-29-5) vs. #6 Calgary Flames (45-30-7)
It has been a long time since Calgary made the post season, and even longer since their last series win. In 2004 they went all the way to the Finals, where they lost to the Tampa Bay Lighting, but since then it has been nothing but disapointment for their fans.
Vancover is another team that has a question regarding their goaltender. Veteran Ryan Miller suffered a knee injury on February 21st and was been playing great hockey at the time. He played Saturday for the first time since he was hurt and allowed 5 goals on 28 shots. In his absence, Eddie Lack went 12-6-2 and posted a .926 save percentage. It will be tough to take the starting role away from him, but Miller does have 53 games of post-season experience. He also dominated Calgary this season, saving 81 of 87 shots for a .920 save percentage.
Offensively, the Canucks’ play run through the Sedin brothers, Henrik and Daniel. The two played in all 82 games this season and were productive, combining for 149 points. In four meetings against Calgary this season they each had three points. Their linemate Radim Vrbata scored 31 goals to add to one the most productive lines in the league. They have a deep rotation and that should serve the brother’s well, giving them constant rest between shifts. Defense was a struggle through the season but down the stretch Alexander Edler and Dan Hamhuis picked up their play and have solidified a healthy set of pairings. They have playoff experience which also bodes well for their confidence.
Calgary managed to play well in their final 21 contests, going 12-6-3 to earn their spot in the post season. Jiri Hudler, Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreay scored 34% of their team’s goals and had 202 points. Hudler led the Flames this season against Vancouver with four points. Monahan was the only player to score more than one goal against them. After an injury to top defenseman Mark Giordano 61 games into the season, the Flames had to find new power on the blue line, and they did just that in Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman who each set career highs in points. Calgary will send Jonas Hiller to the crease in game one for his 27th playoff start. He started two of the four games against the Canucks this season and went 0-1 with 5 goals against on 64 shots.
This series is all about experience. Vancouver has plenty of it and with the Sedin brothers and Ryan Miller, playoff hockey has been more of a yearly routine than a special trip. They bring confidence and intensity to a match-up where they meet a team with very little post-season history. The Flames have a dozen players who will get big minutes in their first ever playoff series. There seems to be too many questions about injuries and defense for the Flames and they run into a healthy and seasoned Canucks team. If there were any playoff series that could end in a blow out, it’s likely this one
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