Today, From the Press Box:
We take a look at the first round of NHL Playoff matchups. If upsets are going to happen, they are more likely to happen in the next two weeks. In addition, we want to remind you to have a plan when compiling your own fantasy owners.
The recommended strategy for playoff pools is two-fold. You need to focus on the four teams that you think will reach the Conference Finals, meaning that you will get at least three rounds of play out of your picks. In playoff pools you really need to get at least three of your "final four" team picks correct. In addition, you can feel confident about drafting from the top two forward lines and top two defense pairs from those teams.
Boston vs. Detroit
These two Original Six franchises meet in the playoffs for the first time since 1957. The Bruins ran away from all comers to take the President's Trophy with the best regular season record. Their reward should have been a relative easy opponent from the ranks of the wild card spots. The Red Wings were expected to compete for the top seeds in the East, but instead their roster was ravaged by injuries and only a late-season push, led by some unexpected players, earned the Wings a playoff spot.
The Bruins are led by a deep group of forwards who can wear teams down with their relentless physical and checking abilities. They do have plenty of skill up front, too. David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron are two of the best playmaking centers in these playoffs. They are surrounded by a pack of scoring grinders in Milan Lucic, Jarome Iginla, Brad Marchand and a host of other depth forwards who will chip in offensively. On defense, they will count on Zdeno Chara to play almost 30- minutes a night. They also expect to get offensive production from Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton. Johnnie Boychuk will play a key role on the penalty kill and as a shutdown defender. In goal, Tuukka Rask has seen his playing time reduced to ensure that he is not overworked and he should be ready to deliver quality netminding.
Detroit would like to rely on the tandem of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk to lead them as usual, but both have seen their seasons derailed by injury. Datsyuk made it back in time to score four points in the last four regular season games and looks like he is ready to be a force. Zetterberg has been out since February 8 and is not expected to start this series. In fact he is only expected to begin practicing with Wings on Thursday. The Wings still have a veteran presence which is rich I playoff experience. The play of Daniel Alfredsson, Johan Franzen and Todd Bertuzzi will ensure that this series will not be a walkover for Boston. Breakout performer Gustav Nyquist is going to have to continue to produce as well. Tomas Tatar is another relative newcomer who will have to chip in on offense. On defense, Niklas Kronwall anchors the special teams. Danny DeKeyser, an offensive talent, Brendan Smith and Jakub Kindl will get the biggest minutes. The Wings leaned heavily on Jimmy Howard to get to the post-season, overcoming his own injuries, and he will get the nod in goal.
Boston will prevail, but it will take them six games, in a series that will be more competitive than their fans might like.
Tampa vs. Montreal
The Lightning wrote one of the more compelling storylines because they overcame the injury to Steve Stamkos and the turmoil around the trade of fan favorite, Martin St. Louis, to hold on to a second place finish to earn home ice advantage over the Canadiens. In the last week of the season the Bolts were dealt yet another obstacle, when starting goalie Ben Bishop went down with a left arm injury. The duration of his absence due to this injury is not yet known, but Tampa has confirmed that his backup Anders Lindback will start Game 1 of this series. Lindback (8-12-3) for the year showed that he was up for this challenge by earning the league's first star honors for his play in the final week of the season.
Up front, Stamkos has been back and in top gear down the stretch and is now joined by a pair of high scoring rookies in Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, who have both earned top-six positions among the Tampa forwards. Valtteri Filppula was a key leader in Stamkos' absence and continued to pace this attack all year long. Ryan Callahan, who came over in exchange for St.Louis, is an experienced playoff-type player and may play a key role in this series. Victor Hedman blossomed into a top scoring defenseman this year and will anchor the Tampa power play, along with Sami Salo. Radko Gudas, a real physical presence will try to intimidate Montreal forwards.
The Canadiens will hope to get strong work out of goalie Carey Price, to give them an edge over his unproven counterpart. Price has all the tools to excel and is overdue for a signature playoff effort after a couple of stumbles in recent years. Montreal will employ their strong skating style and checking game to try to insulate him. Their defense has high-end offensive skill in Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban, but both have struggled at times in their own end. Alexei Emelin and Josh Gorges will be relied upon to play sound defense and provide most of the team toughness. Up front, Max Pacioretty has finished off a fine career-best campaign, sparked with a quick chemistry with late-season addition, Thomas Vanek, to igniter the Canadiens attack. David Desharnais has the plum assignment, centering this top line. Depth scoring will come from Tomas Plekanec, Brendan Gallagher and Brian Gionta. Daniel Briere is a veteran who has saved many of his best efforts for the post-season.
Tampa showed great resilience all year long and will ride that wave of newfound confidence to a six-game win over Montreal.
Pittsburgh vs. Columbus
The Penguins coasted to the Metropolitan Division title despite losing as many as their top four defensemen during parts of this season. While those trials afforded young Olli Maatta and Matt Niskanen to be productive and take on big roles, the Pens are thrilled to look for Paul Martin and Kris Letang to take back their leading roles on the Pittsburgh blueline. Of course, Sidney Crosby and his strong offensive supporting cast rightly get most of the headlines here. Evgeni Malkin missed the last three weeks of the regular season with a foot injury, but he is skating with the team and pronounced himself fit to start this series. Lee Stempniak has fit in nicely on Crosby's line, matching the skating ability of his opposite winger Chris Kunitz. James Neal and Jussi Jokinen are expected to be other key scoring contributors. The Pens are holding their breath in the hope that Marc Andre Fleury's strong regular season will parlay into a successful playoff run, unlike the last two playoff disasters in Pittsburgh.
Columbus punctuated their Eastern Conference debut with a successful late-season playoff push. In goal, Sergei Bobrovsky fell only a bit short of last year's Vezina-winning form, establishing himself as one of the league's most consistent puck-stoppers once again. The Blue Jackets head into this series with a few injuries on offense. Nathan Horton (abdomen) and R.J. Umberger (upper-body) are two veterans who may miss this entire series. Nick Foligno (lower body) is a third experienced offensive weapon who may only play a little later in this series. In their absence, the Jackets have leaned heavily on their top three centers, Ryan Johansen, Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov to pace the offense. Cam Atkinson (21 goals) is their top scoring threat on the wings. James Wisniewski will be the top threat and power play quarterback on defense. Jack Johnson, Ryan Murray and Fedor Tyutin round out a solid two-way defense contingent.
Pittsburgh could not have picked a more favorable matchup and barring another shocking "folderoo" by Fleury, should dispatch Columbus in five games.
NY Rangers vs. Philadelphia
This looks like the most compelling matchup in the East, just because of the intensity of their rivalry and because the Rangers earned only two more points over the regular season.
The Flyers overcame a slow start, to easily qualify for the post-season, largely on the strength of a potent offence that ranked fourth in the Eastern Conference. Claude Giroux, whose season mirrored his team's fortunes, wound up with 68 points in his last 56 games played, after tallying only 18 in his first 26 outings. Big physical wingers Wayne Simmonds and Scott Hartnell were two of the other six Flyers to reach the 20-goal plateau. Mark Streit and Kimmo Timonen are long-time expert puck-moving blueliners whose best work is in the offensive end, too. Brayden Coburn and Luke Schenn will have to hold things up against Ranger forwards.
Steve Mason suffered a late-season head injury, which closed out a fine regular season (2.50 gaa in 61 appearances), and his status is doubtful for starting in goal. As a result, Ray Emery, the combative veteran backup may get the series starting assignment.
The Rangers will lean heavily on their team speed to offset the Flyers brawn. Smallish forwards Marty St Louis and Mats Zuccarello have excelled in the heavy going all year long. Speedster Carl Hagelin has also become a more consistent offensive threat. Rick Nash and Brian Boyle are at least as big and nasty as any Flyers if the going gets tough. We can't forget about Brad Richards who has been a playoff MVP, either. Ryan McDonagh is the power play director here and the top-scoring defenseman for the Rangers and will return to the lineup after missing the last two weeks with an arm injury. Dan Girardi and Marc Staal will draw the assignment against the top scoring options of the Flyers, while Rafael Diaz is another option to spark the Ranger attack. Henrik Lundquist has been without equal in the current calendar year and seems poised to be a difference-maker again.
King Henrik will help the Rangers survive a tough seven-game series.
Anaheim vs. Dallas
At a first glance, this may look like a mismatch, but the Stars did take two of three regular season meetings between these teams this season. The Ducks are a deep offensive squad that is still capably led by Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, one of he most imposing dynamic duos in the NHL. This year, in addition to the veteran support of Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu, the Ducks got important secondary scoring efforts from Andrew Cogliano and Nick Bonino. This team is very good in playing at full strength, with a dozen players posting at least a +10 rating. That offense is bolstered by Cam Fowler and Hampus Lindholm as their top-scoring defenders. Francois Beauchemin and Ben Lovejoy are very good at limiting top opposition as a shutdown defense. In a bit of a surprise, Frederick Andersen looks like he will get the start over season-long number one goalie Jonas Hiller.
The Dallas Stars rode the strong second half production of their top forward line composed of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Valeri Nichushkin to a playoff spot. Unfortunately for them, there is a large drop off in offense after this trio. Only Ryan Garbutt and Eric Cole even top the 15-goal plateau. Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley are the top offensive defensemen here. Again, there is a significant drop off to the next level, where Sergei Gonchar is strictly a one-way (offense) player. Kari Lehtonen is a front-line goalie who can swing a series all by himself. He will have to be that good for the Stars to have any chance.
I think Anaheim's depth will carry them to a series win in five games.
San Jose vs. Los Angeles
It is really a shame that these two teams are meeting so early in the playoffs. That means one very good team will be eliminated very soon. They are both built along the same template. They each feature experience and size up front, possess similar top end talent on defense and are ultimately blessed with two of the league's top goalies.
So, we look to a couple of intangibles to be the difference.
The Sharks are motivated by the fact that their front line offense is built around a pair of 34-year olds in Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau up front and 37-year old Dan Boyle, one of the league's top scoring defensemen in the past 10 years. It may be difficult to expect this trio to be as productive next year or beyond. The rest of this team is rallying around this leadership and will be giving their all to reward them with a long overdue playoff run.
The Kings are still basking in the fact that they have a recent Cup win that a number of their current players won together. Knowing how to win is a rare skill at this level. Players like Drew Doughty, Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards and Jonathan Quick all know how to get the job done.
This series looks like it could be the most hotly contested of all first round matchups and I am siding with my pre-season Stanley Cup pick, the San Jose Sharks to win this round in seven games.
Colorado vs. Minnesota
Every year, the NHL seems to boast at least one Cinderella story and this year that tale has been written in Colorado. The Avalanche went from a non-playoff team last year, to second place in the deep Western Conference this season. They meshed a group of young offensive stars under rookie Head Coach Patrick Roy much quicker than anyone could have expected. Roy knows how to win and has obviously done a great job in translating that message.
Their top four scorers - Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O'Reilly and Nathan McKinnon - are all under 24 years of age, and they all scored more than 60 points this year. Paul Stastny is a fifth player to reach that plateau, giving the Avs unmatched high-end scoring depth. Erik Johnson and Tyson Barrie make up a top-scoring defense tandem, too. The most pleasant surprise is the development of goalie Semyon Varlamov, who ranked among league leaders with his 41 wins, .927 save pct., and a 2.41 gaa.
The Minnesota Wild is an underappreciated entry in this post-season. They look like they have the requisite pieces to do well in the playoffs. They have a nice blend of skill and experience up front, led by Jason Pominville, Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu. Matt Moulson is another proven scorer whom they added at the trade deadline. Ryan Suter remains one of the best all-around defensemen in the league. Beyond them, Dany Heatley and Matt Cooke are notable players who could have an impact. The key to their fortunes rest with Ilya Bryzgalov, who is the last man standing, aside from three other Minnesota goalies who are currently on the injured list.
The volatility of Bryzgalov prevents me from giving Minnesota much of a chance here. I am taking Colorado in six games.
St. Louis vs. Chicago
A couple of weeks ago, I would have said that this figured to be the toughest series to call.
The Blues were at the top of the league standings for much of this season, riding the ability to roll four good two-way lines and buoyed by a deep defense. The arrival of starting goalie Ryan Miller and top-checking line pivot Steve Ott seemed to be more than enough talent to ensure a deep playoff run. A rash of six injuries in the last two weeks, including TJ Oshie, David Backes and Brendan Morrow has eroded some of the team's confidence as the Blues ended the regular season in a six-game losing streak that ultimately cost them a division title and drew this tough first-round matchup.
The Hawks had their own struggles, going 5-5 in their last 10 games, but a big advantage for them will be the return of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who both missed all of the Hawks April games. They may actual benefit from this opportunity to have rested up in anticipation of the post-season. Chicago has done a nice job of injecting fresh faces into key roles this year, as Brendan Saad and Andrew Shaw became key contributors among the forward lines.
The Hawks may also boast the deepest defense corps of any team in the league, offsetting another St. Louis strength. Corey Crawford, who has overcome injuries, in an otherwise solid campaign, should be ready for a heavy workload.
I like Chicago's playoff experience to trump the Blues in a hard-fought seven games.
Let's drop the puck on another exciting playoff tournament!