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NHL Barometer: An Unlikely Champ?

Jan Levine

Jan Levine

Levine covers baseball, basketball and hockey for RotoWire. In addition to his column writing, he's the master of the MLB and NHL cheatsheets. In his spare time, he roots for the Mets.


Here is the 2014 playoff preview, based on a final four of Montreal-New York and Colorado-San Jose, with a finals of Montreal-Colorado and Stanley Cup champ of Colorado. I will group the first-round match-ups by the divisional brackets, making it easier to show the conference semi-finals.

My rankings, which appear here, are based on games played and expected points per game, PPP, +/- and PIMs by skaters and wins/shutouts by goalies. If your quarters, semis and finals differ, adjust rankings accordingly.

But first, here's how I think that the playoffs will play out.

Quarterfinals

EAST:

Pittsburgh defeats Columbus - 7 games

Pittsburgh was able to overcome several injuries, including ones to their blueline that might have crushed other teams, to win the Metro Division and finish second in the Eastern Conference. Columbus, who proximity wise isn't that far from Pittsburgh, benefited from the move from West to East to earn their second ever playoff berth. During the regular season, the Penguins defeated the Blue Jackets all five times they played, but Sergei Bobrovsky was only in net once and two of those contests were 2-1 scores. For Pittsburgh, Kris Letang returned to action April 9 after being sidelined since January 27 following a stroke. Evgeni Malkin's foot injury could sideline him the first week of the playoffs. For Columbus, Nathan Horton underwent abdominal surgery Friday, sidelining him six weeks, which removes the one player who has won a Cup from the Blue Jackets lineup, though Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov reached the conference finals with the Rangers in 2011-12. This is the series where Ryan Johansen becomes a name even the casual NHL fan knows and Bobrovsky steals a game of two, but Pittsburgh has just enough to hold off Columbus with Marc-Andre Fleury exorcising some playoff demons and advance to round two.


New York defeats Philly - 7 games

Two teams with more than a healthy dislike for one another. Dale Rolfe-Dave Schultz. The 1997 Legion of Doom steamrolling a depleted Rangers squad, though I still think if Sundstrom, Leetch and/or Karpovtsev were healthy, the Rangers win that series. April 11, 2010, when Philly beat NY in a shootout to capture the final seed in the Eastern Conference and used that momentum to advance all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. During the season, the teams split the four games, with each going 1-1 on home ice. In addition, each team rebounded from slow starts. In Philly's case, after Craig Berube replaced Peter Laviolette, Claude Giroux's wrist was healthy and Berube finally put Jakub Voracek back with Giroux. In NY, once the Rangers got healthy and adapted to new coach Alain Vigneault's system they took off. To me, the difference in the series will be on the blue line and between the pipes. Ryan McDonagh, who is reportedly 100% healthy from the hit he took to his shoulder by Alexandre Burrows on April 1 and missed the last five games of the season, and Dan Girardi have show they can bottle up the Hartnell-Giroux-Voracek line. Marc Staal is back to playing as he did years ago while the Blueshirts has solid depth on defense following the acquisitions of Kevin Klein and Raphael Diaz. Andrew MacDonald has helped Philly, but I think their blueline is a notch below NY. Similar between the pipes, where Steve Mason has resurrected his career, but Henrik Lundqvist, after a very slow start, is back to Vezina Trophy form, going 8-2-1 with a 1.89 GAA and .935 SV% his last 11 games and 11-4-1, 1.81 GAA and .939 SV% his last 16. That plus home-ice, as Philly has lost eight straight at MSG, will be just enough for NY to get by the Flyers.

Boston defeats Detroit - 6 games

This is the first match-up between these two Original Six teams since 1957. Boston has run roughshod over the NHL this season to win the President's Trophy and #1 seed in the East. Detroit has weathered an unbelievable amount of injuries, especially upfront, while dealing with inconsistent play for much of the first two-thirds of the season. Yet, somehow they were able to make the playoffs for the 23rd straight season, relying on relative unknowns such as Gutsav Nyqvist, Tomas Tatar and Riley Sheahan to step up and lead while Pavel Datsyuk (sidelined a month with a knee injury), Henrik Zetterberg (out since back surgery on Feb. 21) and Stephen Weiss (out most of the year with a myriad of injuries) were all sidelined. On paper, this should be a whitewash, but Detroit is a proud organization, playoff tested - having beaten Anaheim and taking Chicago to seven games last year - and led by Mike Babcock, possibly the best coach in the league. After a slow start, Jarome Iginla has been everything Boston expected and more, tallying 30 goals, 31 assists and a plus-34 in 78 games while names such as Krejci, Lucic, Bergeron, Chara and Rask have been through the wars many times already. Look for a series much closer than many may think but Boston will prevail.

Montreal defeats Tampa - 7 games

Montreal will be looking to rebound after an embarrassing 4-1 first round loss to Ottawa last season, while Tampa is back in the playoffs for the first time since advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011-12. Jon Cooper has done a phenomenal job with the Lightning, withstanding the absence of Steve Stamkos and indoctrinating Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat into the lineup. Steve Yzerman will get some GM of the year consideration for his signing of Valtteri Filppula, let alone his fleecing of Ben Bishop for Cory Conacher last year and turning a potential nightmarish Martin St. Louis situation into Ryan Callahan and picks. Montreal has really taken off since the acquisition of Thomas Vanek at the deadline, while P.K. Subban has had a very good overall campaign, yet has slumped down the stretch - no goals since March 3 - and may be in coach Michel Therrien's doghouse. Carey Price wasn't as good in the second half as he was the first, yet he still won 11 of his last 14 starts to finish 34-20-5 with a .927 SV%. The big boost has come from David Desharnais, who has been the perfect center for Vanek and Max Pacioretty, with Patches scoring nine goals in eight games, though he went scoreless his last three games. Despite missing more than half-a-season with a broken leg, Stamkos scored 25 goals and added 15 assists in 36 games. Cally gives the Lightning some grit on the second line with Filppula - check status due to LBI - and Palat, while Victor Hedman took that step forward into a top-tier, d-man with 13 goals and 42 assists in 74 games, though he too is day-to-day with an LBI. Tampa also now has the Ryan Malone (arrest for possession of cocaine) to deal with, but after all the adversity, that is just another hurdle to climb. This is another series that could go either way, but Montreal will have just enough to set up a Canadiens-Bruins battle in round 2 with the key factor the possible absence of Ben Bishop due to his elbow injury, switching the goalie edge from minimal at best to broader in favor of Price over Anders Lindback, even though TB has home-ice.

WEST

Colorado defeats Minnesota - 5 games

This matchup pairs one team that seemingly came out of nowhere, against one that overcame injury-after-injury between the pipes to make the playoffs. Colorado was likely not on many radars to make the playoffs let alone win the Central Division. Minnesota saw Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding and Darcy Kuemper go down and needed to rely on Ilya Bryzgalov, an almost, afterthought trade deadline acquisition, in order to make the playoffs. Patrick Roy in his first season as Avalanche coach has been just what Colorado needed behind the bench to nurture and get the most out of a young squad while Ryan Suter-Zach Parise has paid dividends for Minnesota in year 2 after joining the team. Colorado will be without Matt Duchene, who is sidelined with a knee injury that is expected to keep him out to the end of April, but a possible bigger absence is Tyson Barrie, injured on a questionable hit by Jason Demers on Friday and dealing with a UBI. Barrie has been the Avalanche's best d-man the past two months and if he is out, that takes a huge weapon out of the equation for Colorado. Along with Bryzgalov, the Wild added Matt Moulson at the deadline, and he has given Minnesota a scoring second line winger behind Parise with 12 points in 19 games to supplement Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville, Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle. Beyond Suter, the name to know on the Wild blueline is Jonas Brodin while Jared Spurgeon and Christian Folin are big pieces of a young, Minnesota defense. In the end, it will be too much Stastny, O'Reilly and MacKinnon, and while Bryzgalov will show the Universe is humongous, Semyon Varlamov will match him save for save as Colorado advances.

Chicago defeats St. Louis - 5 games

As of two weeks ago, all was right in St. Louis. They looked to be cruising to winning the Central Division and earning the top-seed in the West, A funny think happened on the way to the post-season, as they collapsed. Sunday's loss to Detroit was their sixth in a row. Whether it was the absence of David Backes and then T.J. Oshie, or everyone just went cold at the same time, the offense dried up - just five goals in those six games - the Blues ended the year in ignominious fashion and now face-off against the Blackhawks in round one of the playoffs. Chicago has its own issues. Jonathan Toews has been sidelined since March 30 with an arm injury due to a Brooks Orpik hit and Patrick Kane has been out since March 19 with an LBI. In addition, after sending 10 players to Sochi and winning the Cup last year, fatigue coupled with all the bumps and bruises from that long run could prove to be an issue down the road. That said, they have a solid defense that has depth, scoring and grit along with a balanced roster upfront. Because Toews and Kane are due back fro the start of the playoffs, Chicago will be a tough out. St. Louis was my preseason sleeper pick, as I expected them to get Ryan Miller, and they were looking a pretty good better, especially with Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie scoring along with the Pietrangelo-Shattenkirk-Bouwmeester trio on the blueline. However, with Oshie now dealing with a possible concussion thanks to Mike Rupp and the team on freefall, I am going with Chicago, backstopped by Corey Crawford, who everyone seems to dismiss yet gets the job done, to win this round.

Anaheim defeats Dallas - 6 games

On paper, this looks like a major mismatch. But each team has good offenses, led by their top lines, defenses that are better on ice than on paper but can be a bit questionable, and the Ducks have major questions between the pipes as to who starts. Anaheim rolled for most of the regular season with a minor bobble in mid-March to get the top seed out West. Dallas is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2008, led by Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Kari Lehtonen. For Anaheim, it's been the Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry show this season, but they have been ably supported by Nick Bonino and Mathieu Perreault, as well as lately by Patrick Maroon. On defense, Cam Fowler took that next step forward and returned this past week after missing three weeks with a sprained MCL in his left knee. In addition, Hampus Lindholm showed why he was the sixth overall pick in 2012, posting a plus-29 rating, but it is a defense that the sum of the total is greater than that of the individual parts. For Dallas, Seguin was a godsend after coming over from Boston this past offseason, pairing beautifully with Benn and lately Valeri Nichuskin, the 10th pick in this past year's draft. I think Nichuskin has superstar talent but he hasn't produced well with that duo and could be moved to the second line. Antoine Roussel, Cody Eakin, Ryan Garbutt and Alex Chiasson have all contributed at least 13 goals, though the production has been inconsistent. On defense, after a slow start Alex Goligoski has been what the Stars thought they were getting when they acquired him from Pittsburgh several seasons ago with 42 points while Trevor Daley was hot late. Lehtonen heads into the playoffs on a roll, while the Anaheim netminding situation is in a state of flux. Jonas Hiller is slumping, Frederik Anderson now recovered from a UBI, and John Gibson has shown why he is the future between the pipes for the Ducks. Look for each game to be close and I wouldn't be shocked if Gibson gets the call as Anaheim moves on.

San Jose defeats Los Angeles - 7 games

Many believe that the center of hockey is now on the West Coast. One look at the San Jose-Los Angeles matchup and you can see why. In 2010-11, San Jose beat LA in six, including three victories in OT. In 2011-12, LA rode the hot netminding of Jonathan Quick and production from several forwards, including Jeff Carter, to a surprising Cup win. Last year, SJ and LA met again, with this time LA coming out ahead in seven games. Now, the West Coast rivals meet for the third time in four years, and with the new playoff alignment, an annual meeting wouldn't be shocking. San Jose finished three points shy of Anaheim for first in the conference, led by Joe Pavelski, who had a career-high 41 goals, Joe Thornton, who had 65 assists and 76 points, and Patrick Marleau, who had 33 goals and 37 assists. Add in Logan Couture with 54 points in just 65 games, Brent Burns over his several months slump, and Tomas Hertl, who returned Friday after missing three-plus months with a knee injury suffered on an unpenalized hit by Dustin Brown, and SJ is loaded up front. The blueline is average, though Dan Boyle has been much better of late while Jason Demers probably has been their best defenseman. LA struggled again to score, notching just 206 goals, but a late-season acquisition has helped. The Kings obtained Marian Gaborik on the cheap and he has shown he still has a lot left skating on a line with Anze Kopitar (70 points), while notching 16 points in 19 games. Jeff Carter posted 27 games but slumped down the stretch while Mike Richards and especially Brown have had years to forget. The LA blueline is a major strength, as Slava Voynov has shown signs of life lately and Drew Doughty (check status, UBI) raises his game in big moments. The Kings are backstopped by Jonathan Quick, who finished the year 27-17-5 with a 2.07 GAA and .915 SV%. Quick benefits from that solid defense in front of him, but with a Cup to his resume, he has shown he raises his game in the playoffs. Antti Niemi, like Corey Crawford, is not viewed as elite but he too has a Cup to his resume. Niemi though enters the playoffs slumping, and with Alex Stalock ready to go and on top of his game, coach Todd McLellan may have a quick hook if Niemi has a rough patch. This is a gut feel game and SJ uses home-ice advantage to win a Game 7 in overtime to advance.

Conference Semifinals

New York defeats Pittsburgh - 7 games

In a match-up that many felt was going to occur the past two seasons, the Rangers and Penguins finally meet. Pittsburgh should be fully healthy, as Evgeni Malkin will be back, while there is an outside shot that Chris Kreider is able to return from his left hand surgery sometime during the series. Pittsburgh has the edge up front, while like in the Flyers series, New York should have the edge on the blue line and even between the pipes, despite Fleury's fine campaign. In this match-up, Martin St. Louis shows why New York acquired him, as he steps up to carry the Rangers and take pressure off the Pouliot-Brassard-Zuccarello tro. Sid the Kid has a big series, as expected, but New York has just enough offense and Lundqvist to get past the Penguins.

Montreal defeats Boston - 7 games

In another matchup of two Original Six teams, it will be a veritable war. On paper, this one should go to Boston given their balanced lineup but I am going on a gut feel here. Montreal, bolstered by the return of Brandon Prust from his UBI, and despite the possible continued absence of Alex Galchenyuk, has just enough to get past the defending Eastern Conference champion. Carl Soderberg and Loui Eriksson outplay several of their Boston forwards while Torey Krug relives last year's glory. For Montreal, Daniel Briere did not have a particularly good season with the Canadiens, but part of why they signed him is his 109 points in 108 playoff games. Briere turns back the clock as Price outplays Tuukka Rask by just enough to get Montreal into the Eastern Conference Finals and make them 24-10 lifetime in the playoffs against their division rivals.

Colorado defeats Chicago - 7 games

Too young, too inexperienced, a weak Corsi, yes, all those are true, but also, very talented. Chicago has the experience and the names - Kane, Toews, Sharp, Hossa, Keith, Seabrook, etc. - and the pedigree while Colorado is the upstart crashing the scene. Eventually, all the games the past several seasons and the Olympics catch up to the Blackhawks and it's in this series. Crawford stands on his head, but it's not enough as Duchene returns from his knee injury to help bolster the big boys up front while supporting pieces like Jamie McGinn and P.A. Parenteau help contribute to some key goals as the Avalanche snow under the Blackhawks to go to the Western Conference Finals.

San Jose defeats Anaheim - 6 games

Part two of the California battles for San Jose, who after just getting past LA, now have to face Anaheim. In this series, the Sharks' overall depth proves too much for the Ducks. While Getzlaf and Perry have a hard time, Perreault, Maroon, Silfverberg as well Selanne and Koivu - in their final run - do their best to pick up the slack but it's not enough. The Sharks get solid production from the top-six while Martin Havlat has a key moment or two as Niemi regains his form to lead San Jose to the Western Conference Finals.

Conference Finals

Montreal defeats New York - 7 games

Just like in 1979 and 1986, and unlike 1996, Montreal ruins the Rangers playoff hopes. The Canadiens ride their roll and home-ice advantage in game 7 to beat New York. Lundqvist slightly overcomes his Bell Centre, House of Horrors history, but it's Price to the rescue with a 2-1, Game 7, overtime win on a goal by Brian Gionta to carry Montreal to the Cup Finals for the first time since 1993.

Colorado defeats San Jose - 6 games

San Jose felt that this was their year, but once again they are left at the altar, falling one round short of the Cup Finals. Varlamov outplays Niemi while MacKinnon shows why he should be the Calder Trophy winner with a phenomenal series. The Sharks are a valiant bunch, but Jumbo Joe etc. lacks the foot speed to keep up with their younger counterparts as the Roy/Sakic duo provide enough guidance to get the Avalanche back to the Cup Finals for the first time since 2001.

Stanley Cup Finals

Colorado defeats Montreal - 7 games

The Stanley Cup heads back to Colorado, as Patrick Roy continues to extract revenge on his former organization. Gabriel Landeskog is the hero in the series while Varlamov is the Conn Smythe Winner.
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