It's time for the Stanley Cup playoffs, folks—get excited.
Is your playoff beard growing? Are you ready for some toothless smiles? I hope so, because the regular season may have been shortened, but the playoffs will retain their usual format. Let the battles begin.
Below, I've offered a quick preview and prediction for every first-round series. Let the playoffs begin!
No. 1 Chicago Blackhawks vs. No. 8 Minnesota Wild
Every year, it seems at least one lower seed makes a run through the NHL playoffs, shocking everyone. I'm here to tell you that the Wild won't be that team this year.
Maybe it's the fact that the Blackhawks finished the season as the league's top team with 77 points in 48 games. Maybe it's that the team started the season with a 24-game unbeaten streak. It could be that the Blackhawks won the season series, 2-0-1.
Or maybe it's that the Blackhawks scored the NHL's second-most goals (155) and allowed the fewest (102).
With stars like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa leading a dangerous attack and a solid defensive unit, the Blackhawks are arguably the league's most complete team.
Prediction: Chicago wins this series in five games.
No. 2 Anaheim Ducks vs. No. 7 Detroit Red Wings
This is a really intriguing series between two teams moving in opposite directions as the season came to a close. While the Ducks raced to a torrid start this season, they struggled in April, finishing 7-5-1 in the month.
Meanwhile, the Red Wings finally got their blueliners healthy and head into the playoffs having won four games in a row. Detroit also won two of the three games in the season series.
For me, this will come down to the play of goalkeeper Jimmy Howard. If he can steal a game or two, the Red Wings will advance. If he struggles like he has in the past, the Ducks should move on.
Prediction: In my first shocker, I'm predicting the Red Wings to win this series in seven games.
No. 3 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 6 San Jose Sharks
The Sharks won all three meetings in the regular season. The team is extremely tough to beat at home, finishing 17-2-5 in San Jose this season, meaning the Sharks could elongate this series simply by winning at home, which they normally do.
And with a talented group of forwards, a nasty power play and a goalie (Antti Niemi) capable of stealing a few wins, I think you can see where I'm going with this pick.
Prediction: Vancouver is talented, no doubt, but the Sedin twins won't be able to prevent the Sharks from winning in six.
No. 4 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 5 Los Angeles Kings
For my money, this is the most intriguing first-round matchup in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
On one hand, the Kings have won eight straight games against the Blues, dating back to last year's playoffs. They have a goalie in Jonathan Quick who proved last year that he can carry this team to the Cup. And unlike last year, the Kings don't struggle to score and have a deep, talented group of forwards.
But St. Louis is not to be underestimated. The team went 11-2-0 in April and enters the playoffs as one of the NHL's hottest teams. Plus, the defense is one of the strongest in the NHL, led by youngsters Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk.
Still, I like the Kings. This team doesn't really have a weakness, is top 10 in both the power play and penalty kill and, oh yeah, that Quick guy is likely worth a few wins. You could argue this Kings team is much better than the one that won the Cup last year.
Prediction: The Kings win in seven.
No. 1 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 8 New York Islanders
If the Islanders managed to beat the Penguins in the first round, it would be one of the most shocking upsets I can remember.
The Penguins won four of five games between these teams in the playoffs. The team dramatically improved at the trade deadline, adding Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray. Often beset by injuries this year, the team is healthy and could even have Sidney Crosby for Game 1.
Prediction: I just don't see the league's most devastating offense falling to an Islanders team that barely made the playoffs. Expect the Penguins to sweep.
No. 2 Montreal Canadiens vs. No. 7 Ottawa Senators
There are two main reasons I think the Senators are going to pull off the upset—the late-season returns of blue-liner Erik Karlsson and goaltender Craig Anderson makes the Senators an entirely different team, and the Canadiens really limped down the stretch, finishing 4-6-0.
What concerns me about Montreal is that the defense was shaky at the end of the season and goalie Carey Price really struggled late. He's allowed 27 goals in the past seven games—that's not good, folks.
This Senators team isn't going to win with flash, but they play solid defense, are excellent on the penalty kill, get top-notch goalkeeping from Anderson and have forwards that will grind and do the little things needed to win.
Prediction: The Canadiens offense and power play will win them a few games, but I like the Senators to take this series in seven.
No. 3 Washington Capitals at No. 6 New York Rangers
Two of the hottest NHL teams meet in what could be an instant classic. The Capitals went 15-2-2 down the stretch, while the Rangers were hot in the midst of a playoff push, going 10-3-1 in April.
The Capitals are led by Alex Ovechkin, who led the NHL with 32 goals, and a goalie in Braden Holtby who finished the season strong. With Mike Green scoring from the blue line and the best power play in the league by a long shot, this is a truly scary Capitals squad.
But the Rangers are led by one of the league's best goalies, Henrik Lundqvist, have a solid defensive core and a stable of talented forwards. They also took the season series, 2-1-0.
You want a prediction? Flip a coin.
Prediction: Okay, okay, I'll make an actual prediction. No team is hotter than the Capitals, and no player has been more dangerous than Ovechkin. In a series that will go seven games, home-ice advantage will be the decider. The Capitals win in seven.
No. 4 Boston Bruins vs. No. 5 Toronto Maple Leafs
The Maple Leafs haven't reached the playoffs since 2004. Their prize for ending that streak is a matchup against a tough Bruins squad that won the season series, 3-1-0.
The Bruins have one of the deepest groups of forwards in the league, a solid stable of blueliners and an excellent goalie in Tuukka Rask. With the league's fourth-best penalty kill, the Bruins are not an easy team to score against.
Quite frankly, if the Maple Leafs don't score consistently on the power play and goalie James Reimer doesn't steal a game or two, the first playoff series since 2004 in Toronto will be a short one.
Prediction: Boston wins in five.
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