The days are getting warmer, clothes are getting lighter, and starting Wednesday, news junkies will no longer be able to catch Peter Mansbridge on their local CBC stations: the NHL playoffs are upon us. Eight teams from each conference and their fans begin their bearded quests, praying that they will find that magic elixir called momentum and ride it to glory in June.
Western Conference Preview
The Vancouver Canucks are exactly where everybody expected them to be at the beginning of the season—Presidents’ Trophy winners. Vancouver conquered the league yet again, but don’t expect Johnny Canuck to be chopping wood late into June this time around. With Daniel Sedin on the mend with a concussion, the ‘Nucks don’t match up favourably against the Kings, who will be looking forward to some payback. Corey Schneider better dust off his tire pump; Roberto Luongo is going to have a leak.
Speaking of goaltending, does it get any better than the duo of Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak in St. Louis? Once a castoff from our nation’s capital, Elliott has nestled himself comfortably under the Gateway Arch. Goaltending withstanding, the Blues are a well-rounded team with David Perron, David Backes, and T.J. Oshie leading the way offensively and Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Carlo Colaiacovo keeping the puck out on defence.
How about this for a prediction: the Pheonix Coyotes will represent the West at the Stanley Cup Finals. This team was projected to bottom out in what would be a heartbreaking final season in the desert. Phoenicians can thank Mike Smith and his Vezina-caliber performance for keeping this team afloat, winning its first division title in franchise history.
It seems like the Nashville Predators are everyone’s sleeper team to come out of the west this year. Pekka Rinne has been in beast mode all season long as the Preds are finally garnering the attention they rightfully deserve. All that talk about a lack of scoring is complete nonsense since the team ranks eighth in the entire league in goals. The addition of Alexander Radulov should only improve the Preds’ depth at forward. Music City is going all-in this post-season. Wings fans should be worried.
Once considered the cream of the crop of the west, Detroit doesn’t even have home-ice advantage during the first round this year. How the mighty have fallen. However, nobody should count out a skilled, veteran-filled Wings team. The Wings are post-season warriors and have that ability to crank up the effort level with Lord Stanley on the line. Detroit can easily upend any of these western teams if Jimmy Howard channels his inner Dominik Hasek.
Chi-town has some huge question marks heading into the playoffs. First, how effective will Jonathan Toews be upon his return? Second, will the Hawks get decent goaltending? And lastly, will Patrick Kane suddenly display his goal-scoring prowess? Ultimately, Chicago will put up a good fight, but an early round exit seems likely at this point. This summer, management needs to add a mobile defenceman, like the one they gave up in the Brian Campbell trade to Florida.
Antii Niemi has been too shaky for San Jose’s liking. An early matchup against the well-rounded Blues spells bad news for the Sharks, who are eager to make a deep playoff push or risk seeing its team torn apart in the off-season. Besides Joe Thornton and Logan Couture, the rest of the club’s leaders have been fairly inconsistent and downright maddening at times throughout the season. The Sharks have no bite for playoff contention.
Notwithstanding their eighth seed, the L.A. Kings have the available talent to overthrow the powerhouse Canucks in the first round. Jonathan Quick has been a rock in the net yet again, finally establishing himself as a premier goalie within the league. The trade for Jeff Carter was a shot of adrenaline to the Kings’ anemic offence, as now it has finally awoken from its season-long slumber. Anything less than a first round victory will be deemed a failure in L.A.
Eastern Conference Preview:
Looking at the standings, no one will have more confidence than the first-place New York Rangers. Trying to bring the title back to Broadway for the first time since 1994, the Rangers surpassed expectations by finishing atop the Eastern Conference standings. This is a well-coached group, but it remains to be seen whether they can hang around with more physical teams.
The Boston Bruins enter the playoffs with sights set on becoming the NHL’s first repeat champions in over a decade. Boston is a hard-working team that doesn’t count on any one star (Tyler Seguin led them with only 67 points). The core of last year’s Cup-winning squad remains intact, and last year’s experience should carry them deep into the postseason.
The Florida Panthers are making their first playoff appearance since 2000. With 18 overtime losses, some may question how much the Panthers deserve their seed as division champions, but Florida was the model of consistency, leading the South(l)east for nearly half the season. Florida will rely on forwards Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg tokickstart their offence, while Brian Campbell should continue to provide stability on the back-end.
The fourth-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins excelled even before Sidney Crosby returned to action, and are loaded with tons of game breakers. The Penguins are strong at every position, posting a whopping +61 goal differential and having stormed to within a point of the league’s best record. Pittsburgh will be a popular Stanley Cup pick as long as they can get past their rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Flyers will be a tough out for Pittsburgh and others if they advance, as their top forwards not only can score in bunches but also can physically intimidate opponents. After trading two former faces of the franchise, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, in the off-season, Claude Giroux is the new king in Philly and answered the bell with a Hart Trophy-worthy campaign. Scott Hartnell is the emotional leader, and is one of the best two-way forwards in the league, while also leading the team with 37 goals.
The New Jersey Devils have made their reputation over the year with stifling defence and that will be a major factor if they are to go far in the playoffs. New Jersey’s roster is a mix of old and new as the Devils relied on young guns like Adam Larsson and Adam Henrique along with the seemingly immortal Martin Brodeur to get back into the post-season.
The seventh-ranked Washington Capitals enter the playoffs with their lowest expectations in years. A midseasoncoaching change was emblematic of an incosistent season as the Caps hovered around the playoff line for much of the year. The usual cast of characters are back, but injuries to goaltenders Tomas Vokoun and Michael Neuvirth means that fans in Washington may be disappointed once again.
On the other hand, the fans of the Ottawa Senators are playing with house money. Expected to fight for the first overall draft pick, Ottawa surpassed the expectations of pundits everywhere by putting together a solid season and scoring a ton of goals. The Senators falter when they have trouble keeping the puck out of their net, but with Craig Anderson back from injury, this team has the potential to surprise, having won season series against the Rangers, Panthers, Penguins, and Flyers.