Last season, the Los Angeles Kings entered the NHL playoffs as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference and proceeded to win the Stanley Cup. Will another underdog emerge, or will the top seeds take control? Hockey fans will begin to find out on Tuesday night.
Two of the eight matchups in the opening round are considered toss-ups by the oddsmakers. They feature the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers in the East and the St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings in the West. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks are unsurprisingly the biggest favorites.
Let's examine the odds for each series, courtesy of Bovada.lv, and break down which underdogs have the best chance of pulling off an upset. First, here's a look at the entire bracket heading into the postseason (via NHLPlayoffsBracket.com).
No. 1 Pittsburgh Penguins (-440) vs. No. 8 New York Islanders (+320)
Most teams would be nearing panic mode if their top player was questionable for the start of the playoffs. That's the case with Sidney Crosby for the Penguins (via USA Today), but the team's incredible depth should allow it to succeed even if he's not ready to go right away.
Pittsburgh made its intentions clear leading up to the trade deadline when it added Brenden Morrow, Jarome Iginla and Doug Murray. Inserting them into a lineup that already includes Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Chris Kunitz and eventually Crosby makes the Penguins the Cup favorites.
The only way for the Islanders to make it a tight series is John Tavares putting up monster numbers paired with Evgeni Nabokov stealing a couple games between the pipes. They simply can't match the star power or depth on the other side, which warrants the major underdog status.
No. 2 Montreal Canadiens (-155) vs. No. 7 Ottawa Senators (+135)
The first of two Northeast division battles features a Canadian rivalry between Montreal and Ottawa. The amount of emotion poured into this series by both fanbases will be immense and that's what makes the NHL playoffs special.
Montreal was able to secure the two seed thanks to incredible balance. No player scored more than 15 goals or 40 points, but 10 points topped the 20-point mark. Alex Galchenyuk, one of the league's most talented rookies, and defenseman P.K. Subban are the two players ready to break out on the big stage.
The Senators will counter with a defensive-minded group that ranked second in goals against. Craig Anderson led the league in both goals against average and save percentage. Since an in-form goalie is the most important factor in the playoffs, Ottawa has a great chance to make noise in this series and beyond.
No. 3 Washington Capitals (-110) vs. No. 6 New York Rangers (-110)
The Capitals are always going to attract a lot of attention due to the presence of Alex Ovechkin. The superstar winger put up 56 points in 48 games. Braden Holtby is going to be the difference maker. If he plays as well as he did during the regular season, the Capitals should go a long way.
Goaltending is not a concern for the Rangers, who will lean heavily on Henrik Lundqvist. The Rangers also feature some talented scoring threats, led by Rick Nash. Secondary scoring becomes vital in the playoffs, however, which puts pressure on Derick Brassard and Ryane Clowe to provide it.
It's easy to see why this matchup is considered even. Neither team is lacking in the talent category, but both have questions that need to get answered before becoming true contenders. Nobody would probably be surprised to see this series go the distance.
No. 4 Boston Bruins (-230) vs. No. 5 Toronto Maple Leafs (+190)
The 2010-11 champion Bruins take on the Maple Leafs, who are making their first playoff appearance since the 2003-04 season. To put that in perspective, Toronto hadn't made the postseason since before the previous lockout wiped out an entire season.
Fans in Toronto are happy that didn't happen this time around because now they get to enjoy playoff hockey. Phil Kessel emerged from an early slump to lead the team in scoring, and Nazem Kadri is a star on the rise. But the team's upset potential depends on the untested James Reimer handling the playoff heat between the pipes.
The Bruins have a roster built for postseason success. They don't have a go-to scorer, but have three lines of players capable of finding the net, including star deadline addition Jaromir Jagr. When paired with continued strong play from Tuukka Rask, Boston is the rightful favorite in this series.
No. 1 Chicago Blackhawks (-420) vs. No. 8 Minnesota Wild (+310)
Chicago was the clear Stanley Cup favorite before the Penguins loaded up at the deadline. The Blackhawks earned at least a point in each of their first 24 games, an incredible streak that allowed them to coast to the Presidents' Trophy.
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane led the way with a combined 103 points. Overall, the Hawks were second in the NHL in scoring. But make no mistake, they also have players that understand how to lock opponents down defensively like Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson.
Expectations were high in Minnesota after the high-profile additions of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. While those two stars did their part, the rest of the team failed to provide enough support. Jason Pominville should help, but Chicago holds the clear edge.
No. 2 Anaheim Ducks (-140) vs. No. 7 Detroit Red Wings (+120)
It would be a surprise if the Blackhawks were eliminated in Round 1. The rest of the series, including second-seeded Anaheim's battle with Detroit, are pretty evenly matched. The Red Wings won the season series between the Cup hopefuls, 2-1.
Detroit's rally to secure a playoff spot allowed their playoff streak to reach 22 seasons. The next longest streak is nine seasons (San Jose Sharks). What the team lacks in top-end scorers if offset by strong defensive play and Jimmy Howard in net.
The Ducks are led into the playoffs by the explosive trio of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan. How Bruce Boudreau handles the goaltending situation will be key. Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth split time during the regular season. Finding the hot hand will be the key to a deep run.
No. 3 Vancouver Canucks (-130) vs. No. 6 San Jose Sharks (+110)
This is an interesting matchup because both teams are in similar situations. They have been perennial contenders in recent seasons, but weren't able to get over the playoff hump. One team's postseason disappointment will continue at the end of this series while the other will move closer to the elusive title.
The biggest uncertainty for Vancouver is whether the roster features enough scoring behind the Sedin twins. It's a time where you wonder if the Canucks should have dealt backup Roberto Luongo at some point over the past year for another scorer. Instead, they will hope other players thrive in the spotlight.
San Jose's chances likely rest on which version of Patrick Marleau shows up. He scored 14 points in seven January games, but just 17 points over the final three months (41 games). When he's scoring at an elite level, the Sharks are dangerous. When he's not, they are much less of a threat.
No. 4 St. Louis Blues (-110) vs. No. 5 Los Angeles Kings (-110)
The defending Stanley Cup champions start their repeat journey with a series against the Blues. St. Louis plays a defensive style. That should play right into Los Angeles' hands after being forced to grind out a lot of wins during last year's run.
Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak are the biggest issue for the Blues. Both members of the goalie rotation had lackluster seasons behind the tight defense. Those minor lapses tend to get exposed more during the playoffs than the regular season. Leading goal scorers Chris Stewart and Patrik Berglund must step up to offset it.
While Jonathan Quick had similar problems, his extraordinary play in last year's postseason earns him the benefit of a doubt. It took a perfect storm for the Kings to win it all once, including key play from unsung heroes like Dustin Penner. We'll soon find out if lightning can strike twice for Los Angeles, starting with a very winnable opening series.
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