Your Guide through the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs
The 2014 NHL Playoffs are unlike any before it. That’s because the new playoff format which is confusing as hell pits division rivals against each other in the first two rounds, guaranteeing exciting and physical hockey early on. As of this writing (through 1 full week of the playoffs) every first round series has completed either three games or four games, leaving hockey fans with an idea of how the rest of the playoffs will shape up. If you need a refresher as to how the bracket is laid out … click here (its ok, use it, it helps).
Before we go into the outlook for the rest of the playoffs, I will fully disclose that I am an avid Penguins fan and a former goaltender, so if you’re looking for biases, there you go.
WESTERN CONFERENCE – Pacific Division
Anaheim Ducks/Dallas Stars & San Jose Sharks/Los Angeles Kings
Let’s start with the Pacific Division bracket, which was the only division to send 3 teams to the playoffs (the other 3 divisions sent at least 4). The Dallas Stars are thrown in the bracket with the 3 Pacific juggernauts by way of the new wildcard system (see link above), and get to play the number one seed in the West, the Anaheim Ducks. After going down 2-0, the Stars took it back to Dallas having set the tone that the series was going to be physical until the bitter end. Goaltender Kari Lehtonen has given the Stars a chance to win every game, and coach Lindy Ruff has used his team’s toughness and physicality to throw the Ducks off their gameplan. Big time offensive efforts from Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Shawn Horcoff and others have proved that the Stars are more than just a scrappy team and have some real, young, talented firepower up front.
Anaheim’s goaltending situation was a question mark coming into the playoffs, as incumbent starter Jonas Hiller saw a dramatic dip in form after the Socchi Olympics, allowing Frederik Andersen to take the job in the playoffs. Andersen has played well, but with hardly any experience, the Ducks might be in trouble even if they get past the gritty Stars. With the series at 2 games a piece going back to Anaheim, the Ducks need a solid start out of either Andersen or Hiller, especially if captain Ryan Getzlaf is expected to miss more time. I predict the Ducks edge past the Stars in 7 games but Dallas will not go down without a fight (literally).
The Sharks and Kings meet each other in the playoffs for the 3rd time in 4 years. This is a great rivalry with both teams looking like Cup contenders heading into the post-season. Since his Conn Smythe-winning Cup run in 2012, Kings’ goalie Jonathan Quick has become the most feared money-goaltender in the league, and his ability to steal games combined with the King’s top-ranked possession statistics (Fenwick) had covered the major blemish that was the team’s inability to score all season. But heading into the playoffs, trade deadline acquisition Marian Gaborik, along with Jeff Carter and Anze Kopitar, were expected to score key goals in big moments to relive the glory of 2012.
Unfortunately for the Kings, the San Jose Sharks have the goods to contend with any team in the league, and have throttled L.A. thus far in the series, taking a commanding 3-0 lead heading into game 4 in Los Angeles on Thursday night. Sharks’ goaltender Antti Niemi has a Cup ring, and has played with the consistency to backstop this juggernaut of an offense that has scored a jaw-dropping 16 goals in the first 3 games against Quick. The Sharks are a top-three possession team, top 10 in goals-per-game, and have massive talent coming from both veteran leadership (Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski, Stuart, Boyle), and young legs (Couture, Hertl). If the Sharks keep getting this kind of production from their entire lineup, they will be in for a long playoff run. While I love the Kings’ intangibles and experience, it has become very clear that Quick has had too much to deal with this season (a serious groin injury and the Olympics) to make up for any lack of goal scoring. I love the combinations the Sharks are using offensively, as they can keep getting performances from their top 3 lines and support from the blue line with Boyle, Vlasic, and Brad Stuart. I predict the Sharks win in 5 or 6 games (the Kings take game 4 in L.A.) on their way to a nice break before playing a beaten-up Ducks (or Stars) team, on their way to a birth in the Western Conference Final.
WESTERN CONFERENCE – Central Division
Colorado Avalanche/Minnesota Wild & Chicago Blackhawks/St. Louis Blues
Colorado won the stacked Central Division after everyone wrote them off as being too young and still a year away from making a playoff push. Bringing in former Avalanche greats Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic to coach and run the front office respectively seems to have been a brilliant move, as the Avalanche have defied the odds (and every stathead that is waiting for the Avalanche to regress based on unsustainable advanced metric luck) and used their young guns to charge their way to the playoffs and to a 2-1 series lead over the Wild. To me, Colorado has represented the best of what hockey has to offer all season. Aves’ captain Paul Stastny, sure-fire rookie of the year Nathan Mackinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O’Reilly, PA Parenteau, and Jamie McGinn represent some of the most offensively explosive talent in the league. Goaltender (and Washington Capitals cast away) Semyon Varlamov has continued his Vezina-caliber play into the playoffs. In game 3, Wild goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov was replaced with Darcy Kuemper, in an attempt to shake things up for the Wild at home in Minnesota. It worked, with Kuemper shutting out the Aves as the Wild won in OT.
While Minnesota does have plenty of talent, the pieces don’t quite complete the puzzle. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter give the team some (high-priced) leadership, but the chemistry tends to be lacking for the Wild to be a real threat here. Ultimately, the Aves will not be held goalless for much longer and should be able to close out the series in 5 or 6. I like the Aves, but not against either the Blackhawks or Blues in the next round; both of those teams bring too much experience to the table to lose a best-of-seven series to Roy’s young squad. Even so, this Colorado team is an experienced, reliable defenseman away from being a very serious cup contender next year.
The Chicago/St. Louis series winner is my pick to come out of the west and it has been incredibly close between these two teams. With the series tied at 2-2, and 3 of the first 4 games having gone into overtime, these two teams are as evenly talented and as tough as we thought they would be. This series looks destined to go 7 games, with Chicago coach Joel “Crotchgrab” Quenneville and Ken Hitchcock matching lines and tactics, and both the St. Louis and Chicago crowds matching intensity to boost their teams at home. After the Blues acquired Ryan Miller at the trade deadline to pair an established clutch goalie with a dynamic blue line, the Blues looked like the best team in hockey. The Blues were a top-10 puck-possession team and a top 10 goal-scoring team this season. Yet, with a plague of injuries to T.J. Oshie, Alex Pietrangelo, and Vladimir Tarasenko to deal with, and a 6 game losing streak entering the playoffs, confidence in St. Louis was a bit shaken.
The defending Cup champion Blackhawks never lack confidence. After getting captain Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane back from injury, Chicago also seem poised for a long run in the playoffs. While the Blues took the first two games at home in overtime (the first in a triple OT nail-biter), the series took a turn when Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook was suspended for 3 games following this hit on David Backes in game 2. Heading back to Chicago, the Hawks took care of business at home, with the series almost too close to call.
Both teams have looked strong defensively, both have proven winners in goal, and both have every advanced metric working in their favor to indicate they are the real deal. Ultimately, I view the Blues much like I do the Sharks; the team has great chemistry with a good mix of veteran leaders and young legs. I predict the Blues win two more close games to win the series on their way to a birth in the Stanley Cup finals, after surviving a 7 game war with Chicago, getting through the Avalanche in another close series, and outlasting the Sharks in the Western Conference Final, the Blues might not have anything left for the Cup Finals. If they are to do all of this, Miller will need to be every bit as good as he was in the Olympics in 2010.
EASTERN CONFERENCE – Metropolitan Division
Pittsburgh Penguins/Columbus Blue Jackets & New York Rangers/ Philadelphia Flyers
The Penguins have two of the best players in the league (Crosby and Malkin), offensively gifted and highly productive wingers (Kunitz, Neal, & Jokinen), a Cup-winning, Vezina-caliber goaltender (Marc-Andre Fleury), and, despite being utterly decimated by injuries, a team with real Stanley Cup aspirations heading into the playoffs. When the Pens drew the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round, it seemed they had dodged the bullet/sleeping giant that was the underachieving Detroit Red Wings. Instead, “CBJ” (as they are cheered on at Nationwide Arena in Columbus) have given Pittsburgh all it can handle in the first 4 games of the series, now tied at 2-2. The Blue Jackets came in with a strong team of players that had success elsewhere, but never fit into a gameplan until now. President of Hockey Operations, John Davidson, is building a team the right way in Columbus and is taking the necessary steps to be a playoff team for years to come.
Starting with a Vezina-winning goaltender in Sergei BOBROVSKY! (ex-Flyer), the Blue Jackets have the depth and young talent (especially in Jenner, Calvert and Cam Atkinson) to challenge anyone in the league, despite having a distinct lack of playoff experience as a franchise (having only one playoff appearance, losing 4 straight to Detroit in 2009). This series has been strange so far. Every game has seen two-goal leads disappear. Spotty, yet incredible goaltending out of both Fleury and Bobrovsky have left both sides asking questions of what to do in net (more so of Fleury, but this has as much to do with his reputation of choking in the playoffs recently as it is his play). The biggest surprise has to be that neither Crosby nor Malkin have a goal yet. While Niskanen and Martin have both been elite playmakers from the blue line, the leaders must do more if the Penguins are going to win this series. Ultimately, I predict the Pens take the series in 7, but not without another scare from CBJ. If they do get past the Jackets, I see the Pens winning the next round without as much trouble, before losing to either the Canadiens or Bruins in the East Finals.
The Rangers are up 2-1 on the Flyers because their best players have been showing up. Goaltending dreamboat Henrik Lundqvist has been solid, and Marty St. Louis, Brad Richards, Rick Nash, and Derek Stepan have all produced thus far. The Rangers are a solid possession team and coach Alain Vigneault knows how to take a talented team with a solid goalie through the playoffs. But the Flyers present a unique challenge with their toughness and leadership (Claude Giroux is one of the best players in the game).
Unfortunately for the Flyers, they have an Achilles heel in goal. Ray Emery has been shaky at best and it’s unclear whether Steve Mason (who played well all season) will be ready to play game 4 in Philly. This is the only series that I think can actually be a pure difference in goaltending. The Flyers have a lot of offensive talent and toughness in guys like Hartnell, Voracek, and the Schenns to match the Rangers, but Lundqvist is better and more experienced than either Emery or Mason. The way Lundqvist and the Rangers’ blue line is playing right now, it is tough to see the Flyers get more than 1 more game from this series, as the Rangers win in 6. I still think the Rangers or Flyers will lose to the Pens in a best-of-seven purely because the Pens can out-talent just about any team not named the Bruins.
EASTERN CONFERENCE – Atlantic Division
Montreal Canadiens/Tampa Bay Lightning & Boston Bruins/Detroit Red Wings
R.I.P. the 2013-14 Lightning season. The Habs swept the Lightning in 4 straight games and will go on to play the winner of the Boston/Detroit series. There’s not a ton to say about this series because we didn’t get to see the Tampa Bay we saw all season; with their sure-fire Vezina-nominee goaltender Ben Bishop, who suffered a shoulder injury before the playoffs started. Montreal torched replacement goalie Anders Lindback. Canadien forwards Tomas Plekanec, Thomas Vanek, Max Pacioretty, Daniel Briere, and Rene Bourque are dangerous scoring threats and 24-year-old Canadian Olympian, P.K. Subban, looked nothing short of the 2006 version of Chris Pronger – an elite defenseman with puck-moving skills who can run a powerplay effectively. Carey Price was good in net for the Habs but his real test will come in the next round, when his team needs him to steal a game or two. This Montreal team got the job done, but it is impossible to predict how well they can actually perform in the playoffs because of the injury to Bishop. The Habs will sit back and hope the Bruins/Wings series goes 7 games, but I don’t see them getting past either of those teams in the next round.
The Bruins are everyone’s pick to come out of the East for good reason: they did so last season, and they have only improved since then. Essentially, swapping out Jagr for Iginla and Tyler Seguin for Loui Eriksson, the Bruins have skill and toughness up and down the lineup. With Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic, and David Krejci leading the offense, Zdeno Chara on the blue line, and Tuukka Rask in goal, there is no reason why Boston should not be able to truly contend for a Cup season after season. The advanced metric stats back it up, as the Bruins are a top-4 puck possession team who were second only to Anaheim in goals-per-game this year. Pair that with Selke-nominee Bergeron, Norris-winner Chara, and Vezina-nominee Rask, and you have an elite team on both sides of the ice.
The Red Wings limped into the playoffs with captain Henrik Zetterberg on the injured list. Although offensive dynamo Pavel Datsyuk was able to come back (and score the game winner in game 1), the Red Wings have scored a paltry two goals on Rask in the first three games, which is why they are lucky to only be down 2-1 in the series. Without serious contributions from cup-chasers Alfredsson and Legwand, and young-gun Gustav Nyquist, Detroit won’t win another game, even with Jimmy Howard continuing to play well in net. I predict the Bruins take this one in 5 or 6. This will continue to be a physical series, but nothing Boston hasn’t already seen before. The way the Bruins are playing with the defensive personnel they have created, I see them marching to the Cup Finals and getting the ring that eluded them last year.
 http://www.matchsticksandgasoline.com/2011/7/29/2290643/understanding-advanced-stats-part-one-corsi-fenwick; http://stats.hockeyanalysis.com/teamstats.php?disp=1&db=201314&sit=5v5close&sort=FFPCT&sortdir=DESC – Yay advanced hockey statistics! All Fenwick references are to 5v5, close.  Not THE MOST inspiring job in net for the Blackhawks team that won it all in 2010, but still, that experience is invaluable to any team looking to contend.  Sorry Wild fans (and Blues/Hawks fans), but I CANNOT WAIT for Matt Duchene to come back in the next round. Duchene, O’Reilly, and Parenteau were scintillating to watch this season and a real treat for fans who love speed, skill and one-touch passing.  Not unrelated to the excitement surrounding the Aves, check out the ages of some of these guys: Varlamov (25), McGinn (25) O’Reilly (23), Duchene (23), Landeskog (21), Mackinnon (18) …..wait…. 18! 18!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! like, as in, he was born in 1995! Are you serious?! It was a questionable hit to the head and Backes probably suffered a concussion. The loss of both players is devastating to both teams going forward. Tacticly, Seabrook and Keith represented arguably the best defensive pairing in the league, eating up minutes and comfortably playing against any top line in the league. Backes, a US Olympian who has shown the leadership, toughness, and offensive skill necessary to lead a team deep into the playoffs, is the Blues’ captain. For me, I also likened Backes to Zach Parise, Ryan Callahan, and Dustin Brown; other Americans who lead their teams with the “C” on their sweater with lunch pail efforts every time they step on the ice. While the Blues might have enough offense to get by without him now, they will need him back on the ice if they want to do anything of value going forward.  Corey Crawford was excellent in goal last year but is still not an elite netminder. Miller gets all the credit he deserves for his 2010 Olympic silver medal, but has played for the sorry Buffalo Sabres for so long that it is tough to see how he will perform for a true Cup contender in the playoffs.  See, you think to yourself, “wait, did they actually name a division ‘Metropolitan’?” And then you remember who runs the league. And then you remember why we boo him when he awards the Stanley Cup every year. (Even if Bettman isn’t actually a bad commissioner, its wayyy more fun to pretend he’s awful so we can create memes and boo… it’s just more fun).  Here’s a good place to add that the Columbus fans (as Pierre McGuire so obsessively reminds us) have been amazing and give them a real home ice advantage. Columbus, canons, fans standing the entire game, loud as hell … who knew? Jack Johnson (ex-King), Brandon Dubinsky (ex-Ranger), Blake Comeau (ex-Islander), Mark Letestu (ex-Penguin), Fedor Tyutin (ex-Ranger), James Wisniewski (ex-Duck, among others), Nathan Horton (ex-Bruin), Artem Anisimov (ex-Ranger) – I might be missing a few, but all these guys played at a pretty high level for their former teams. Davidson needs to be given a ton of credit for getting guys to buy in to a team that has had such little previous playoff success and just lost their best player in franchise history, Rick Nash (ex-Blue Jacket).  When the Rangers traded their captain, Ryan Callahan, midway through the season, for Marty St. Louis, I hated the move. Callahan was the heart and soul of a Rangers squad that seemed like they could break through with the right performances out of Lundqvist and Nash. Dumping their 29-year-old American captain for a guy (I love St. Louis, but so do everyone) who is about to turn 39 and was just left off the Canadian Olympic roster seemed silly to me. Even if the Rangers make a run and win with St. Louis contributing on a nightly basis this year, they gave up another 10 years of a guy with the intangibles you can’t really ever replace.  Either way we get another Original 6 matchup in the next round. Whenever there is one, or the potential for one, hockey fans are obligated to announce this.
(Image by Truello – http://www.flickr.com/photos/61081531@N00/3630296101 – No endorsement.)