Opinions regarding the NHL's new playoff system seem to run the gamut, but there is no question that it has led to some intriguing first-round matchups.
In fact, many of the first-round series could easily pass as conference finals, which ensures that there will be plenty of excitement from start to finish during the postseason. Such competitive series also improve the chances of upsets occurring in the first round and beyond.
Here is a look at three first-round underdogs that stand the best chance of knocking off the favored team and advancing to the second round.
*Playoff series odds courtesy of VegasInsider.com.
Los Angeles Kings (+120) vs. San Jose Sharks (-150)
Not only are the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks longtime Pacific Division rivals, but they also happen to be polar opposites in terms of postseason play. The Kings are known for their ability to turn it on when the lights are the brightest, regardless of how they played during the regular season, while the Sharks generally tend to crumble under pressure.
That will be put to the test in the first round when the favored Sharks attempt to stave off elimination. There is no denying the fact that the Sharks are the more explosive team from an offensive perspective with the likes of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski leading the way. With that said, success in the playoffs is often contingent on great defense and goaltending, which L.A. has in spades.
The Kings gave up the least goals in the league this season with 174, and they are anchored by Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy-winning goalie Jonathan Quick. The American star is perfectly capable of stealing games even when his team isn't at its best, and that gives Los Angeles a distinct advantage.
San Jose has a Stanley Cup winner in its own right in the form of Antti Niemi, but his status is in question. Backup Alex Stalock outplayed him down the stretch, and head coach Todd McLellan has remained coy regarding his goaltending situation, according to Kevin Kurz of CSNBayArea.com.
"I'm ready to name him, I'm just not going to name him right now," McLellan said.
While McLellan may feel as though remaining mum will give his team an advantage and keep the Kings off balance, it could just as easily adversely impact the Sharks. Goaltending controversies are rarely a good thing, so McLellan may have been better off squashing controversy talk immediately.
There are no such questions regarding the Kings, and they know how to win come playoff time. Because of that, L.A. will beat the Sharks and provide San Jose with another dose of postseason heartbreak.
St. Louis Blues (-125) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (-105)
Although their point totals don't quite reflect it, it can easily be argued that the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks were the two best teams in the Western Conference this season. The Blues were in Presidents' Trophy position for much of the season before falling off a bit late, and the Blackhawks are an obvious threat, due to the fact that they are the defending Stanley Cup champions.
The new playoff system requires the Blues and Hawks to face each other in the first round, however, since they finished second and third, respectively, in the Western Conference's Central Division. Fans of both teams have a reason to be upset since one of the top Stanley Cup contenders will be out of the picture after just one round.
St. Louis was slightly better over the course of the regular season, but there is some reason for concern. Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews missed action late in the year due to injury, but they are both expected back and healthy for the playoffs, according to Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune:
#Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will "absolutely" be ready for the start of the playoffs.— Chris Kuc (@ChrisKuc) April 12, 2014
That should give the Blackhawks a major shot in the arm. However, Kane and Toews aren't guaranteed to step in and play great immediately. They have to get back in the swing of things, and even Toews admitted that acclimating himself to playoff hockey won't be easy, per Kuc.
For anyone who's been playing right until the end of the season, it's going to be an adjustment with the speed of the playoffs, so everyone's going to have to step it up a little bit. We'll all be excited, especially myself in Game 1. Hopefully, that energy and that excitement can carry me through and get me enough to play my best.
Also, the Blues tied for first in the Western Conference with the Anaheim Ducks in goal differential at plus-57. That is largely due to St. Louis' strong team defense. Goaltending was a question mark for much of the season, but the Blues made a power move by acquiring Ryan Miller from the Buffalo Sabres.
Although Miller's playoff success has been spotty over the years, there is little doubt that he is motivated to thrive now that he has a new lease on life. This promises to be the most entertaining and tightest series of the playoffs, but look for the Blues to ruin the Blackhawks' chances of repeating.
Minnesota Wild (+125) vs. Colorado Avalanche (-155)
It has long been known that the Colorado Avalanche had the potential to be great, but they were unable to put it all together until this season. Young players like Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon came into their own, and the guidance of head coach Patrick Roy was enough to lead the Avs to a shocking division title.
Which team is most likely to pull off a first-round upset?
Colorado will look to continue its dream season by advancing in the playoffs, but the Minnesota Wild won't be a walk in the park by any means. Minnesota played a playoff-esque style all season long in that it didn't score a ton, but it didn't allow many goals either. Because of that, the Wild should be well prepared for postseason hockey.
Minnesota made an under-the-radar move by acquiring goalie Ilya Bryzgalov prior to the trade deadline. There is no question that Bryzgalov can be volatile, but he was absolutely superb prior to struggling in his most recent start, according to Michael Russo of the Star Tribune:
In Ilya Bryzgalov's 10 #mnwild starts (excluding relief appearance), he is 7-0-3 with a 1.65 goals-against average, .929 SV% and 3 shutouts— Michael Russo (@Russostrib) April 9, 2014
If Bryzgalov is on his game, then he could be a major X-factor in a deep Minnesota run through the playoffs. The Avs have more offensive depth than the Wild, but Bryzgalov has the potential to neutralize it.
Also, the Wild aren't exactly incompetent when it comes to putting the puck in the back of the net. They can score when they need to, and the likes of Zach Parise, Jason Pominville and Mikko Koivu will prove difficult for Colorado to handle.
Avalanche fans should be proud of the way that their young team has played this season, but things will come to an abrupt end against Minnesota.
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