The Stanley Cup playoffs begin on April 16 and run for approximately two months, providing fervent hockey fans with some of the most exciting postseason action in all of pro sports. But before the grooming of playoff beards can begin, it is important to understand the NHL's new format this offseason.
Here is a preview of the schedule and structure of the NHL playoffs, plus a rundown of three matchups that fans want to see with predictions for each.
Under the new divisions, the format for making the postseason has changed again. Now there is a wild-card format, which is slightly complicated, per NHL.com:
The top three teams in each division will make up the first 12 teams in the playoffs. The remaining four spots will be filled by the next two highest-placed finishers in each conference, based on regular-season record and regardless of division. It is possible for one division in each conference to send five teams to the postseason while the other sends just three.
With this system, the third-place team in one division could conceivably make the playoffs with a worse record than the sixth-place team in the other division, thereby denying a squad with more points a postseason berth due to a lack of wild-card spots.
Moreover, the matchups are decided with the division winners playing the wild cards and the second- and third-place teams from each division facing one another.
Because five teams from one division can crack the postseason, it could potentially create a scenario where the top seed from a division would have to play a wild-card team with a better record than the third-place or even second-place team from the weaker division.
All these kinks and scenarios will play out, but the format is ironclad for the time being. Now all that's left is to decide the outcomes of the games on the ice.
Showdown Between Trade Partners
The Columbus Blue Jacket look to have a wild-card spot sewn up, but they only trail the Philadelphia Flyers by two points entering April 8. If the Blue Jackets nip Philly over the final four games of the regular season, it would vault them into third place in the Metropolitan Division and set up a series with the second-place New York Rangers.
Those two teams met at the trading post in July of 2012, when the Rangers acquired Columbus captain Rick Nash in exchange for Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov, among other pieces. Nash leading the Rangers against his former team would provide plenty of drama, as would a matchup of starting Olympic netminders and last year's Vezina Trophy finalists in Henrik Lundqvist and Sergei Bobrovsky.
The Rangers have plenty more firepower than the Blue Jackets, and the team has finally cohered under new coach Alain Vigneault's system. Adding Chris Kreider to Nash's line has proved a potent move, and New York would handle Columbus without too much difficulty.
Prediction: Rangers in five.
First-Round Reprisal of Stanley Cup Final
Also in the East, the Detroit Red Wings appear to have fourth place all sewn up in the Atlantic Division despite not being located anywhere near the Atlantic Ocean.
In their first year in the Eastern Conference after the shuffling of the divisions, the Red Wings are headed for a potential first-round clash with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
If they do face each other, it would be an extremely rare rematch of the 2008 and 2009 Stanley Cup Final series. Detroit took the title in six games in 2008, and Pittsburgh claimed it after seven games in 2009.
The matchup would not bode well for the Red Wings, who have a minus-11 goal differential that pales in comparison to the Penguins' plus-43. It would almost certainly be a series victory for Pittsburgh, but the novelty of such a meeting in the first round would be worth watching.
Prediction: Penguins in five.
There is one team in each conference that has so utterly dominated opponents that the goal differential is in another stratosphere compared to the competition beneath. The teams also have the most points in their respective conferences.
The Boston Bruins have ground down opponents like crushed ice again this season. They lead the conference in goals scored and boast the fewest goals allowed for an absurd plus-84 differential. The Penguins are second best at plus-43, miles away from Boston.
Unlike the Bruins, who represented the East in the Cup Final last season, the St. Louis Blues will be looking for redemption after an early exit from the 2013 playoffs. After earning the fourth seed in a lockout-shortened season, they claimed a 2-0 series lead over the Los Angeles Kings before losing the next four games.
The Blues have been bolstered by the midseason trade that landed them goaltender Ryan Miller, and with him in net—plus the scoring of Alexander Steen, T.J. Oshie and David Backes—St. Louis is a legitimate threat to hoist the Cup.
Facing Tuukka Rask in net, with Jarome Iginla, Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara in front of him to decide the Stanley Cup would be a great final showdown. While it might not be a ratings darling, few matchups are in the NHL. It would pit the two best teams against each other, with Boston looking to avenge last season's letdown.
The Bruins lost both games to St. Louis this season, both by a 3-2 score—one in overtime and the other in a shootout. Brad Marchand called the second loss on Feb. 6 "disappointing," but he praised a defense that played without Chara, who was in Russia for early Olympics obligations.
After the game, Marchand discussed the Bruins blueliners, per Amalie Benjamin of the Boston Globe: "(It was) a big test for them. (The Blues) came really hard at us. They’ve got a lot of big guys who battle, and they’re physical down low. They handled themselves great."
A meeting in the finals would surely be a prolonged, physical series, but Boston has proven itself the more domineering team this season and possesses the size and strength to control even the toughest opponent. Between Chara and Rask, the Bruins will etch their names on Lord Stanley's chalice once again.
Prediction: Bruins in six.
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