The 2014 NHL season has been a special one for hockey fans, with close division battles, some fresh blood in the postseason race, and two weeks of thrilling Olympic action squeezed in the middle, but the best part is yet to come—the NHL playoffs.
Fanbases across the country will be sitting on the edge of their seats from April through June, and playoff beards will grace the faces of the game’s biggest stars. The action all starts on Wednesday, April 16.
Before delving into a couple of potential first-round showdowns, it is worth reiterating that the playoffs will look a bit different this season thanks to the new wild-card format.
The top three teams in each division compose 12 of the squads in the postseason. After that, the two highest-placed finishers in each respective conference fill out the remaining four spots. It is important to note that divisions do not matter for the wild cards, so it is conceivable for one division in a conference to send five teams into the playoffs while the other only sends three.
Once the playoffs arrive, the division winners play the wild cards, and the second- and third-place teams from the divisions make up the rest of the matchups.
Now that we at least have some semblance of an idea of what the playoff system is, let’s look at a couple potential first-round showdowns.
Western Conference: Chicago Blackhawks vs. St. Louis Blues
The Chicago Blackhawks may be the defending Stanley Cup champions, but they would certainly have their hands full in the first round in a matchup with the St. Louis Blues.
Of course, if we look at it from the other side, getting the Blackhawks in Round 1 isn’t exactly much of a reward for the Blues after an impressive season. St. Louis does lead the season series 3-2, although it was Chicago that won the most recent pair of matchups to bring that season series much closer.
The overarching storyline in these contests would be the health of Chicago’s Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.
Kane is dealing with a knee injury, while Toews is trying to fight off a troublesome upper-body flu. Both are expected back by the first game of the playoffs, but Kane discussed the notion that he would have preferred to shake off the rust during the end of the regular season, via Jon Greenberg of ESPN Chicago:
"Yeah, it would've been nice to play some games before the playoffs, but it didn't work out that way due to the length of the injury and how long they wanted me to rest it. There's nothing you can do about it."
While St. Louis has been excellent throughout the season, the fact that Chicago will be getting its two stars back in time for the playoffs and has the Stanley Cup experience from last year under its belt is enough to tilt this series the Blackhawks’ way.
Prediction: Blackhawks in six
Eastern Conference: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Don’t adjust your television sets when the playoffs begin—the Columbus Blue Jackets are going to be playing postseason hockey for just the second time in franchise history and the first since 2009.
Columbus player Jack Johnson urged the fans to support the team during the playoffs:
The Blue Jackets have been playing excellent hockey as of late, winning four of the past five to clinch a spot in the postseason. The primary reason why has been the stifling play of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who has absolutely carried his team down the stretch.
The star power in a matchup between him and Sidney Crosby is enticing for NHL fans.
Looking forward, while the season has been a great one for Columbus, this may be a case where the Blue Jackets are simply outmatched by a more talented squad.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have beaten Columbus in all five games they have played this year, outscoring the Blue Jackets 16-7 in the process. The one saving grace for Columbus fans looking for optimism, though, is the fact that a hot goaltender can certainly flip the script in the postseason.
Bobrovsky would have to do just that if the Blue Jackets were to have any hope of advancing against the formidable Penguins. It simply won’t be enough against Crosby and company.
Prediction: Penguins in five
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