Wednesday marks the start of the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, which are being revamped under a brand-new format that should translate to as much excitement as ever.
Traditionally, the league had simplistic seeding— one through eight for each conference—but the layout looks a little different this time around. Here is a look at the bracket, courtesy of the NHL's Communications Department:
Professional hockey is doing all it can to stand out, and creating a tighter bracket is a good move for marketability.
There is plenty of TV coverage to look forward to in the first round of the playoffs. The chase for the Stanley Cup is among the most heated, impassioned pursuits in sports, and this year's action should be no exception.
Let's take a look at the complete television coverage for Round 1 as it stands, followed by extended analysis of series from each conference that should both come down to the wire.
|Complete 2014 NHL Playoffs First-Round Schedule|
|Friday, April 18||7:30 p.m.||Detroit at Boston|
|Sunday, April 20||3 p.m.||Detroit at Boston|
|Tuesday, April 22||7:30 p.m.||Boston at Detroit|
|Thursday, April 24||8 p.m.||Boston at Detroit|
|*Saturday, April 26||3 p.m.||Detroit at Boston|
|*Monday, April 28||TBD||Boston at Detroit|
|*Wednesday, April 30||TBD||Detroit at Boston|
|Wednesday, April 16||7 p.m.||Montreal at Tampa Bay|
|Friday, April 18||7 p.m.||Montreal at Tampa Bay|
|Sunday, April 20||7 p.m.||Tampa Bay at Montreal|
|Tuesday, April 22||7 p.m.||Tampa Bay at Montreal|
|*Thursday, April 24||7 p.m.||Montreal at Tampa Bay|
|*Sunday, April 27||TBD||Tampa Bay at Montreal|
|Tuesday, April 29||TBD||Montreal at Tampa Bay|
|Wednesday, April 16||7:30 p.m.||Columbus at Pittsburgh|
|Saturday, April 19||7 p.m.||Columbus at Pittsburgh|
|Monday, April 21||7 p.m.||Pittsburgh at Columbus|
|Wednesday, April 23||7 p.m.||Pittsburgh at Columbus|
|*Saturday, April 26||TBD||Columbus at Pittsburgh|
|*Monday, April 28||TBD||Pittsburgh at Columbus|
|*Wednesday, April 30||TBD||Columbus at Pittsburgh|
|Thursday, April 17||7 p.m.||Philadelphia at NY Rangers|
|Sunday, April 20||Noon||Philadelphia at NY Rangers|
|Tuesday, April 22||8 p.m.||NY Rangers at Philadelphia|
|Friday, April 25||7 p.m.||NY Rangers at Philadelphia|
|*Sunday, April 27||Noon||Philadelphia at NY Rangers|
|*Tuesday, April 29||TBD||NY Rangers at Philadelphia|
|*Wednesday, April 30||TBD||Philadelphia at NY Rangers|
|Thursday, April 17||9:30 p.m.||Minnesota at Colorado|
|Saturday, April 19||9:30 p.m.||Minnesota at Colorado|
|Monday, April 21||7 p.m.||Colorado at Minnesota|
|Thursday, April 24||9:30 p.m.||Colorado at Minnesota|
|*Saturday, April 26||TBD||Minnesota at Colorado|
|*Monday, April 28||TBD||Colorado at Minnesota|
|*Wednesday, April 30||TBD||Minnesota at Colorado|
|Thursday, April 17||8 p.m.||Chicago at St. Louis|
|Saturday, April 19||3 p.m.||Chicago at St. Louis|
|Monday, April 21||8:30 p.m.||St. Louis at Chicago|
|Wednesday, April 23||9:30 p.m.||St. Louis at Chicago|
|*Friday, April 25||8 p.m.||Chicago at St. Louis|
|*Sunday, April 27||3 p.m.||St. Louis at Chicago|
|*Tuesday, April 29||TBD||Chicago at St. Louis|
|Wednesday, April 16||10 p.m.||Dallas at Anaheim|
|Friday, April 18||10 p.m.||Dallas at Anaheim|
|Monday, April 21||9:30 p.m.||Anaheim at Dallas|
|Wednesday, April 23||8 p.m.||Anaheim at Dallas|
|*Friday, April 25||10:30 p.m.||Dallas at Anaheim|
|*Sunday, April 27||TBD||Anaheim at Dallas|
|*Tuesday, April 29||TBD||Dallas at Anaheim|
|Thursday, April 17||10:30 p.m.||Los Angeles at San Jose|
|Sunday, April 20||10 p.m.||Los Angeles at San Jose|
|Tuesday, April 22||10 p.m.||San Jose at Los Angeles|
|Thursday, April 24||10:30 p.m.||San Jose at Los Angeles|
|*Saturday, April 26||TBD||Los Angeles at San Jose|
|*Monday, April 28||TBD||San Jose at Los Angeles|
|*Wednesday, April 30||TBD||Los Angeles at San Jose|
|Source: NHL.com. (*if necessary) TV Info for extra games released as determined.|
Analyzing Marquee Matchups
West: St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks
As the regular season bounded toward its conclusion, Chicago had injury scares to both of its biggest stars in Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Both have been instrumental in the defending Stanley Cup champions' success in recent years.
The Blackhawks lost Toews for the rest of the regular season when he was hit by Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik in a March 30 game. Toews' teammates responded by rattling off four victories over current playoff teams—including St. Louis—showing off their depth and ability to step up in their captain's absence.
Tracey Myers of CSN Chicago reports how Toews isn't concerned about turning it on for the postseason:
Kane was placed on the long-term IR and missed the last 12 games of the season. In lieu of his stick-handling brilliance and playmaking, veteran forward Marian Hossa played a high level, while leading scorer Patrick Sharp has continually enjoyed a career year.
As ESPN Stats & Info highlights, even scoring the most goals of any NHL club doesn't guarantee the Blackhawks will retain Lord Stanley's Cup:
The Blues are sure to be a significant challenge, as they topped Chicago in the first three meetings of the 2013-14 campaign. However, they must figure out a way to bounce back after being dominated in the final two encounters 4-0 and 4-2 respectively.
With a top-notch penalty kill (85.7 percent) to go with a high powered offense of its own and a strong coach in Ken Hitchcock, St. Louis will give the Blackhawks all they can handle.
This update from Monday should have fans in the Windy City ecstatic:
Chicago is still going to be the favorite with the postseason pedigree of its most important players and how much the returns of Toews and Kane will energize the team and the fanbase.
Entering the playoffs on a six-game losing streak is not a good sign for the Blues, who should put up a strong fight but fall in six games.
Predictions Blackhawks in six.
East: New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers
One of the boldest trade deadline deals in recent NHL history occurred when the Rangers swapped captains with the Tampa Bay Lightning, shipping off Ryan Callahan in exchange for Martin St. Louis.
The 38-year-old veteran took some time to acclimate to his new environment, but St. Louis has made New York look brilliant despite his advanced age.
Although St. Louis has been more of a scorer in the past, he's elected to defer to others in notching just one goal and seven assists in 19 games with the Rangers.
Pete Jensen of NHL.com weighed on how this is a positive development in the Big Apple:
Tal Pinchevsky of NHL.com notes that St. Louis is looking forward to playing a postseason in the spotlight:
New York will need star scorer Rick Nash to come up big, and this is another chance for him to do so after years of losing to start his career in Columbus. It also helps to have precocious defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who is offensively inclined (43 points) and can generate scoring chances.
Goals may come in bunches for the Blueshirts in light of the Flyers' precarious goaltending situation.
Steve Mason has been solid between the pipes, but his health is in question just days away from Game 1, per the Flyers' official Twitter account:
In his only previous playoff experience as a member of the Blue Jackets, Mason went 0-4 with a 4.26 GAA. No matter who Philadelphia deploys to mind the net between Ray Emery or Mason, Rangers Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist gives New York a big edge at goalie.
This heated rivalry should log another epic chapter, but the Rangers will prove that they are the slightly superior club and take this series in seven games.
Prediction: Rangers in seven.
There should be plenty of other enticing showdowns between the other series, and big upsets can happen at any time. The Detroit Red Wings, a seventh seed, defeated Anaheim in Round 1 last year, and in 2012 the Los Angeles Kings captured the Stanley Cup as the No. 8 seed in the West.
Those days are gone, but now the newly labeled fourth seeds have a chance to make a new brand of history this postseason. Excellent goaltending can give any team a big edge, but it's all about scoring goals. That's why depth at this late juncture is so crucial and often decides who takes home pro hockey's ultimate accolade.
Stakes are as high as can be, and the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs promises to be the usual pulse-pounding rush of adrenaline from the first round to the grand finale.