Today, From the Pressbox:
The playoffs begin this week, so we take a look at the series, highlight season series, key players/matchup to watch for and make our predictions for Round 1.
1 Pittsburgh (36-12) vs 8 NY Islanders (24-17-7)
Pens won the season series 4-1, outscoring NYI 17-9
The Penguins cruised to the top of the Eastern Conference despite the extended absences of Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin, which should tell you all you need to know about the depth of their roster. At the present time, Crosby is the only uncertain starter of these three lynchpins, though he's been practicing and may be ready for the series opener on Tuesday.
For their part, the Islanders grabbed on to the final playoff, on the strength of an impressive 6-1-3 push in the final 10 games. This series pits the teams with the two best road records in the East against one another. The Islanders rode the coattails of John Tavares, who rise to the front ranks of NHL players is complete after another solid season, where he racked up 28 goals and 47 points. He has become an imposing presence in the offensive zone, one of the toughest players, whose puck possession skills are almost without equal.
Keys to this series will be the Penguins depth of offensive weapons against the underestimated talent of the Isles., who boast the rare luxury of two offensive minded veteran defensemen in Mark Streit and Lubomir Visnovsky.
The cast of Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Kunitz et al looks to be way too much for the Islanders to cope with and we call the Pens in 5 games.
2 Montreal (29-14-5) vs 7 Ottawa (25-17-6)
Teams spilt season series 2-2, each team winning a game by shootout, and Sens outscored Canadiens, 10-7. This will be the first playoff meeting between these teams in modern version of the rivalry of the teams with the closest geographic proximity in Canada. It also pits two of the most surprising and positive NHL stories of this season against one another.
On one side you have the Canadiens, who have done a 180 degree turn, since finishing at the bottom of the East last season. Buoyed by a new direction, mapped out by a new coach (Michel Therrien) and GM (Marc Bergevin) tandem, this band of smallish, but very skilled players, has conspired to become one of the most opportunistic teams in the league. They also boast one of the league's top goalies in Carey Price, though he has stumbled in the final weeks. Max Pacioretty and Michael Ryder have been their most dangerous forwards in the push toward the post-season, but this team also has no passengers…an impressive team effort got them here. The nagging point that could be their undoing is the poor finish to the regular season by Price, who lost four of his last six starts, posting a 3.50 gaa.
Much the same can be said for Ottawa, a team that was written off early this season, owing to some crippling injuries that they dealt with through most of the season. Again much of the credit for their on-ice success has to go to head coach Paul MacLean, who refused to use those injuries as a crutch. Instead, he infused the Senators lineup with a sense of playing a team oriented defense first approach. Despite missing their top goalie, Craig Anderson (24 games, 1.69 gaa, .941 sv pct) for half of the schedule, the Sens still posted the lowest goals against average (2.05) in the East.
They have Anderson back in the net and, more surprisingly, saw Eric Karlsson, arguably the league's top defenseman, return to the blueline. Those additions should really fire up the Sens for this series.
I look for Ottawa to win this emotion-filled tilt in six games.
3 Washington (27-18-3) vs 6 NY Rangers (26-18-4)
Rangers won two of three, losing a shootout, outscoring the Caps, 8-4
The Capitals regular season was one of consistency that saw them go 13-9-2 in each half season, though their second half was highlighted by the scoring exploits of Alex Ovechkin, who produced 24 goals and 41 points in his final 29 games, after opening with only eight and 15 in his first 19 contests. That kind of productivity, plus the rebirth of Mike Green (12 goals and 26 points), the contribution of power forward Troy Brouwer (19 goals) and the best one two punch, in terms of playmaking centers, Mike Ribeiro (36 assists) and Nicklas Backstrom (40 helpers), round out an explosive offensive core.
The Rangers appeared to abandon a new offensive approach, but reverted to their tight checking, stout defensive tendencies and highlighted their all-star goalie Henrik Lundqvist in a strong second half to earn the sixth seed, when it looked for the longest time, that they would miss the playoffs altogether. Rick Nash has firmly established himself as the straw that stirs this offensive mix. The Rangers do have more quality offensive parts that line up behind Nash to give them a real shot here.
I think solid defense trumps solid offense and that's why I take the Rangers in 6 games.
4 Boston (28-14-6) vs 5 Toronto (26-17-5)
The Bruins won 3 of 4 games, one in a shootout, outscoring the Leafs, 9-7. This is an Original Six matchup that the league hasn't featured since 1974. One of the underlying subtexts of this current matchup is the Phil Kessel for Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton trade from a couple of years ago. In addition, the Bruins had a huge mental advantage, prior to this season when they enjoyed a period of unprecedented success against the Leafs.
The Beantowners had a strong first half season, where they romped to a 17-4-3 record, in a schedule that had more gaps than most other teams enjoyed. The big, bad Bruins, led by heavyweights Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton ran roughshod over all comers. It was a far different story in the second half that saw them stumble to an 11-10-3 finish, marred by injuries, not the least of which were concussions symptoms to frontline players, Patrice Bergeron (32 points) and Brad Marchand (34 points). The trade deadline addition of Jaromir Jagr added some much-needed help to their surprisingly modest offense, which is currently mired in a team-wide slump.
The Leafs are yet another surprise entry into this post-season, and another club that benefitted from a coach (Randy Carlyle) and GM change (Dave Nonis) to propel them to a first playoff appearance in nine years. Goalie James Reimer (2.46 gaa, .924 sv. pct) arrived as a front-line netminder, while the clubs special teams (2nd in PK and 14th on PP) were dramatically improved over recent seasons. Kessel (52 points) produce a second straight top-10 finish in the league scoring race, but he has plenty of scoring help in that area with the likes of Joffrey Lupul, James Van Riemsdyk and the emergence of former top draft pick, Nazem Kadri (44 points).
The Leafs are one of a very few teams that can match the Bruins in the physical department and that's primarily why I will take the Blue and White in 7 games.
1 Chicago (36-7-5) vs 8 Minnesota (26-19-3)
The Hawks won two of three, losing a shootout, outscoring the Wild, 8-5
Chicago dominated the West in an unprecedented way to begin this season and coasted to the West's number one seed. They did so, on the basis of unequaled roster depth through their offensive and defensive positions. If there was any doubt it was in the quality of their goalie tandem. Corey Crawford (1.94 gaa, .926 sv pct) and Ray Emery (1.94 gaa, .922 sv. pct) certainly have answered their critics so far. Some of the Chicago scoring totals look like they come from EA Sports, with Patrick Kane (55 points) and Jonathan Toews (48) leading a list of nine players with more than 20 points. Among a deep and experienced defense corps, only Michael Rozsival missed more than two games this season. They are rough, tough and ready for more.
The Wild probably underachieved this season after making the biggest splash of the off-season in signing Zach Parise (38 points) and Ryan Suter (32 points). Their roster is impacted by injuries that will sideline top-six forwards Dany Heatley and Jason Pominville for at least the first two games of this set. There is more offensive depth here, but missing those ley players will hurt.
That's why I will be surprised if the Hawks lose a game here…Chicago in 4.
2 Anaheim (30-12-6) vs 7 Detroit (24-16-8)
Detroit won two of three, outscoring the Ducks, 9-7.
The Ducks romped to an easy division title, mainly due to the play of a pair of dynamic duos. Newly resigned stars Ryan Getzlaf (49 points) and Corey Perry (36 points) along with ageless veterans Teemu Selanne (24 points) and Sakku Koivu (27 points) anchored this potent offense, while unheralded rookie Viktor Fasth (2.18 gaa, .921 sv.pct) combined with incumbent Jonas Hiller (2.36 gaa, .913 sv. pct) to give the Ducks a rock solid goalie tandem. They also benefitted from the solid play of experienced blueliners Francois Beauchemin (24 points,+19) and Sheldon Souray (17 points, +19). The Ducks play with a physical edge to their game as one of the biggest (size-wise) clubs in the league. That may be their trump card in this series.
As far as the Red Wings, I never counted this team out during this season and fully expected them to rally toward a playoff spot. I could see no way to count out a team led by Henrik Zetterberg (48 points) and Pavel Datsyuk (49 points). Even though, there was a substantial drop off in productivity after them and Johan Franzen (31 points) the Wings did finish the regular season on a high. Along the way they also uncovered another Euro-star in Damien Brunner who chipped in with 26 points and Niklas Kronwall stepped up to anchor a solid, if not highlight-worthy defense corps. They also committed long-term to goalie Jimmy Howard, who repaid them with his best season as a pro (2.13 gaa, .923 pct and 5 sho).
This series will be a close with the Ducks advancing in 7 games.
3 Vancouver (26-15-7) vs 6 San Jose (25-16-7)
The Sharks swept the season series 3-0, winning one in a shootout, outscoring the Canucks, 9-5.
Vancouver grabbed the prize that was the third seed and did sounder the shadow of the season-long controversy over the Roberto Luongo saga. To his credit the former number one goalie did chip in with solid numbers (2.56 gaa, .907 in 20 games) when called upon, but new top dog in the crease, Corey Schneider (2.11 gaa, .927 sv. pct) made his clear case for the role in backstopping the Canucks to the top of the Northwest Division.
Of course, the Sedin twins had plenty to say in this achievement as Henrik (45 points) and Daniel (40) paced the attack once again. The trade deadline acquisition of Derek Roy strengthens the club's depth down the middle in an unprecedented manner, when compared to recent years. Six players reached double digits in goal-scoring and only one was a "minus" player (Chris Higgins, 19 goals, -4) reminding one and all that this team can be competitive at both ends of the rink.
Workhorse Antti Niemi who set career bests, with his 2.16 gaa and .924 sv pct, backstopped the Sharks. in 43 appearances. Just like Vancouver, it was familiar faces that paced the attack. Joe Thornton (40 points), Logan Couture (37), Patrick Marleau (31) and Joe Pavelski (31) led the way on offense. On defense, Dan Boyle and Brent Burns anchored the power play and each reached the 20-point mark.
My belief is that the Sharks have an edge in desire and grit and that season series may have been a revealing set of games…take the Sharks in 6
4 St Louis (29-17-2) vs 5 Los Angeles (27-16-5)
The Kings swept the Blues 3-0, outscoring them 14-7.
The Blues were a dominant team last year, in large part, because of the outstanding work of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott. This year they struggled, even battling injuries, opening the door for rookie Jake Allen to take the reins for 14 starts. None of the three excelled like the tandem did last year, but they still combined for a respectable 2.34 gaa, despite an ordinary .902 save percentage as a team.
Offensively, the Blues slipped a bit, too, as only three players reached double figures in goal scoring. Oddly, it was winger Chris Stewart, leading the team with 18 goals and 36 points, rebounding from a poor 2011-12 campaign. Ten Blues players did reach the 20-point mark and a cornerstone of their possible future success lies in the fact that three were defensemen-Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Jay Bouwmeester.
The Kings started the shortened season with a pedestrian 3-5-2 record, with many observers pointing to a possible Stanley Cup hangover, still dining out in last season's championship. Since that juncture, they have gone 24-11-3 and have been much more engaged, on a game-to-game basis. An experienced quintet of scorers led by Anze Kopitar (42 points) and the solid, all-around defense, led by Drew Doughty (22 points) and Slava Voynov (25 points) provide ample protection for last year's playoff MVP, goalie Jonathan Quick, who had a solid, in not spectacular regular season (2.42 gaa, .902 sv. pct. in 37 games).
The Kings may win this faster than you may think....5 games, I say.
Paul Bruno has been writing about the fantasy sports scene for several years and is an accredited member of the sports media in Toronto for over 20 years. You are invited to send your feedback and you can follow him on Twitter (statsman22).