NHL Playoffs 2014: 5 Underdog Teams to Bet on in First Round
Just one week removed from the thrill of the 2014 NCAA men's basketball tournament, hockey fans will scramble to fill out a new set of brackets with the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs just days away.
The end of the regular season brought plenty of drama, and the new playoff format has allowed for some excellent first-round matchups.
It can be difficult to choose a Stanley Cup champion, let alone a winner in the first round.
With so many excellent first-round matchups, here are the top-five underdog teams to bet on in the first round.
No. 5 Minnesota Wild
The Minnesota Wild quietly finished the regular season with 98 points as a wild card and drew the West's 1B seed, the Colorado Avalanche, in the first round.
The Avalanche will be highly favored over Minnesota, at 40-1. In five meetings between the teams in the regular season, Colorado dominated, going 4-0-1, with two of the wins coming via the shootout.
Perhaps no other team in the league was hampered by injuries to their starting netminders more so than the Wild.
Minnesota brought in veteran goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov early in March via a trade with Edmonton, and the 33-year-old Russian responded, going 7-1-3 in 12 games for his new team with a 2.12 goals against average.
The Wild and Avalanche did not play during that stretch, so it will be a new-look Minnesota team Thursday when the first round begins.
The Avalanche are a solid, balanced team, with five players registering 60-plus points this season. Matt Duchene lead the team with 70 including a team-high 47 assists, but the young playmaker is still sidelined with a knee injury he took roughly two weeks ago.
His return for the first-round matchup against the Wild is doubtful, as the timetable to return has always been at four weeks, meaning he will likely miss most, if not all, of this series.
Why the Wild Can Win
Neither Bryzgalov nor Avalanche starting goaltender Semyon Varlamov have been stellar in past postseasons, but the latter has finally found consistency and is a big reason why the Avs won the Central Division this season.
With that being said, they'll need to rely on him heavily this round as the Wild boast a number of players who've made deep playoff runs before.
Chief among them is captain Zach Parise, who played in the Stanley Cup Final with the New Jersey Devils just two years ago and could be a huge X-Factor in this series. Duchene's absence is crucial, as is getting to Varlamov early and often.
No. 4 Phildelphia Flyers
In what looks like one of the premier matchups in the first round, the ageless Philadelphia-New York rivalry will begin anew for the first time in the second season since 1997.
The teams split their four-game regular season series 2-2, with both teams taking care of business and winning twice on home ice.
The Flyers will be considered the underdog in the first round for a variety of reasons; they're the lower seed, playing against a New York team that also employs Henrik Lundqvist.
The Great Giroux
Flyers captain Claude Giroux, playing in his fifth full NHL season, had one to remember. He finished third in the league in scoring with 86 points, the second time in his career he's finished a season at a point-per-game or better.
Superior Supporting Class
In what expects to be a grind-it-out, bad-blood, physical series, scoring might be at a premium, but Philadelphia has a wealth of offensive depth, much more so than the Rangers.
The Flyers boast seven players who scored 20 goals or more this season. If Vincent Lecavalier remains as the fourth-line center, Philadelphia will have at least one of those 20-goal scorers on each of their lines.
The Rangers have just three—Rick Nash, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis, who had 30 on the season but only one with the Rangers (29 with the Lightning in 62 games for Tampa Bay).
With Flyers starting goaltender Steve Mason's health a slight concern going into the series, should he be called upon, backup Ray Emery has a wealth of experience and was the backup last season to Corey Crawford when the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. Emery is also 7-2-0 lifetime against the Rangers with a 1.87 GAA and a .936 save percentage.
Why the Flyers Can Win
Philadelphia is the more physical and battle-tested team, a Stanley Cup finalist as recently as 2010. A breakout season from Wayne Simmonds (29 goals, 60 points) could spell trouble if his play continues over to the postseason.
Philadelphia finished two points behind the Rangers in the standings, but outscored them by 18 goals. In a series that looks like it could come down to which team wins on the road first, the team that scores more often looks like a safe bet.
No. 3 Los Angeles Kings
The Los Angeles Kings will be just a slight underdog to their rival San Jose Sharks, who come in as the No. 2 seed in their bracket.
The Kings finished the season with 100 points, while San Jose tallied 111. Los Angeles won the five-game season series, going 3-1-1 against the Sharks.
We've seen this movie before; a woefully offensive team relies on its incredible goaltending to make an unlikely playoff berth before getting red-hot and going on to win the Stanley Cup. If that sounds familiar, it's because the Kings did just that two seasons ago to take down their first Cup in franchise history.
The 2014 team is built in largely the same fashion as the 2012 squad, and once again, netminder Jonathan Quick has been stellar for a severely offensive-deprived team.
The Kings were 26th in the league in scoring with just 2.4 goals per game but first in goals against, giving up just 2.0 per night. Quick and backup Martin Jones narrowly won the William M. Jennings trophy this season, with the Kings giving up a league-low 174 goals against.
The Sharks for years have been one of the West's top contenders, and for years, they have come up short of making it to the Stanley Cup Final. In 2010, they were swept by the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Final, then lost to the Vancouver Canucks 4-1 in the same series in 2011.
In 2012, they were dispatched in five games by the St. Louis Blues in the first round, then fell to the Kings in a grueling seven-game series last year.
Why the Kings Can Win
This is one of the best rivalries in hockey, and Quick has been dominant in the postseason the last few years. The Kings will ride him out as far as he can take them again this season.
While both he and his counterpart Antti Niemi have won the Cup within the past four years, the Kings are the more defensively sound team. Containing Sharks forward Joe Pavelski, who surpassed the 40-goal mark for the first time in his career this season, will be key to L.A. advancing.
No. 2 Chicago Blackhawks
When the Detroit Red Wings moved to the Eastern Conference following the 2013 season, the St. Louis Blues became the main division rival for the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Blues won the season series 3-2-0, but both teams took six points as two of St. Louis' wins came via the shootout. Neither team played particularly well down the stretch with both hampered by a number of injuries, but the Blues should still be favored in this series.
Both of these teams had been Stanley Cup favorites throughout the season. Both had been Central Division leaders for a healthy amount of time. Both suffered through a myriad of injuries late in the season to star players, and both come into the playoffs playing mediocre hockey.
Yet, the Blues have tumbled much worse than their rivals in the Second City. St. Louis was still a favorite to win, not only the Central, but the West outright, and possibly, the Presidents' Trophy just two weeks ago.
Six straight losses to end the season changed that, as they plummeted to the second seed in the Central and drew a surprising first-round matchup against Chicago.
St. Louis has been struck by a ridiculous amount of injuries late in the season, essentially skating without half of their top-12 forwards. David Backes, Vladimir Sobotka, T.J. Oshie, Brenden Morrow, Patrik Berglund and Barret Jackman have all been added to the IR within the past five days, joining teammate Vladimir Tarasenko.
The Blackhawks have been without their two best players, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, for the past few weeks.
Why the Blackhawks Can Win
The defending Stanley Cup champions still feel they have a lot to prove, and coach Joel Quenneville made it perfectly clear both Toews and Kane will be ready to go for Game 1 on Thursday.
The Blues are a wounded team right now, and while it's likely all of their injured players save Berglund, Morrow and Tarasenko will be ready to play in Game 1, the Hawks have been the better team lately.
They've won both of the prior meetings between the two teams since March 19, and under Joel Quenneville, have been lethal in both staving off elimination and putting away teams. It would not be surprising at all if the Hawks have become the favorite by Thursday's Game 1 given St. Louis' recent play and their injury situation.
No. 1 Detroit Red Wings
The Detroit Red Wings capitalized on the collective and total failure of the Toronto Maple Leafs down the stretch to continue their historic playoff run, which stretched to 23 straight seasons.
They made the playoffs with 93 points as the East's second wild card and drew the Presidents' Trophy winners, the Boston Bruins, in the first round.
The Red Wings won three of the four meetings between the two in the regular season.
The Red Wings have been one of the most victimized teams this season by injuries, and several key players—including captain Henrik Zetterberg—are still on IR.
They've relied heavily all season on the young and talented farm system from the Grand Rapids Griffins, the 2013 Calder Cup winners. Pavel Datysuk is back and healthy and could present major problems for the Bruins, but Daniel Cleary, Mikael Samuelsson and Stephen Weiss are all done until next season.
Zetterberg, who underwent successful back surgery in February, has skated on his own but is unlikely to come back for the first round as well, per general manager Ken Holland.
The numerous injuries have forced the Wings to look to their farm system, and the results have been outstanding.
Gustav Nyquist has been one of the top players in the entire NHL since getting called up, tallying 48 points including 28 goals in just 55 games for Detroit. Tomas Tatar has 19 goals and 37 points, while fellow rookies Riley Sheahan and Luke Glendening have been major contributors as well.
Why the Red Wings Can Win
Boston, led by a fantastic season from netminder Tuukka Rask, will be the overwhelming favorite. But no one should want to play Detroit right now.
A healthy Datysuk is enough to cause major problems for any team and can be lethal on the power play. If Zetterberg is somehow able to lace up this series, the mix of youth and veteran talent could be very, very potent.
Zetterberg is currently third among active players with 55 postseason goals; his teammate Daniel Alfredsson has 51. Detroit is one of the fastest skating teams in the league and comes in with a chip on its shoulder after eliminating one of the best teams in the league last year in the Anaheim Ducks before pushing the eventual Cup champion Blackhawks to the brink in a seven-game series.
Their move to the East this year will only serve as further motivation to prove they are still one of the elite teams in the NHL.
All stats provided from NHL.com