We'll we've finally made it.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs kick off Wednesday night, along with all the excitement and tension that come with it. Perhaps more than the other professional sports save for the NFL, the entire field is truly alive, and anyone can make a run if the conditions are right.
Ergo, making predictions is an inexact science. But considering we have a couple of days before two of the best months of the year get started, it's time to make some predictions of our own leading into the first round. And while some of these will be common sense, some will also be out there as well. They're not bold predictions for nothing.
So here now are the 25 bold predictions heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Everyone knows about those top six forwards, the ones who get the power play time and have the stars on them.
But the teams that win the cup do so because they're extremely deep, and do so because of the play of their third lines. Perhaps more so than the rest of the year, the third line is one of the more important ones. It's the defensive line, the line usually given the task of shutting down the other team's top line. So it helps to have a strong defensive center who's very good on draws and can also provide some offense to boot. Chicago has Dave Bolland, Detroit has Kris Draper, New Jersey had John Madden.
Whoever can get the most out of their third line is going to win the Cup.
The Flyers have bounced back and forth between the rookie Bobrovsky and the veteran Boucher this season, but neither has really taken the job as his own.
They've both played very well and looked awful at times. So it's a little scary for Flyers fans to see the goaltending be an issue once again. At least according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, NHL&id=3413&line=133723&spln=1" target="_blank">it's sounding like Bobrovsky will be the starter heading into the first round against Buffalo. But remember, Bobrovsky has already shattered his career high for games played in a season.
So with that in mind, don't be surprised to see the Flyers go to Boucher quickly if he struggles.
Jonathan Quick will be the first to tell you that there were a few goals in that six-game loss to Vancouver last season that he would like back.
But as shaky as he looked last season in the postseason, he's been that good this season for the Kings. And especially with Drew Doughty struggling this season and the Kings having an up-and-down year, Quick has been one of the stalwarts. With no Justin Williams and no Anze Kopitar for Los Angeles, goals will be at a premium for the Kings.
Which just means more pressure on Quick. We'll see right away if he's up to the task.
I don't know if it's Barry Trotz' system or just a survival method, but they develop defensemen and goalies in Nashville like few other places in the league.
The Predators have another stud goaltender in Pekka Rinne, who's been around longer than you would think but is having his best season as a pro, finishing the regular season in the top five in both save percentage and goals against. He's definitely a goalie who can shut you out on any given night, which makes the Predators such a scary team in the first round.
Rinne's going to have a phenomenal series. The question will be whether or not the Preds can score enough goals for him.
Like many hockey fans, I'm very much looking forward to the Boston-Montreal series. If it even comes close to the seven-game thriller the two teams had in 2008 and the regular season series, it'll be a classic.
But knowing the bad blood between both of these teams, unfortunately there's going to be a game where it gets out of hand. And considering how nasty and how physical it's expected to be, the law of averages say there will be at least one semi-questionable hit in this series.
I'm not saying that all four lower seeds in the West can't win their respective series, but the East is so wide open right now that anyone can win.
And what makes those bottom four seeds in the East so dangerous is that all four teams have goalies who are capable of stealing a game (or a series) by themselves. If Carey Price can shake his postseason demons, he's been one of the best this season. The 2006 Oilers don't make it to the Stanley Cup Final if Dwayne Roloson doesn't stand on his head. And most hockey fans know the skill level of Ryan Miller and Henrik Lundqvist when they're on.
It's become a scientific fact: Every time Alex Ovechkin has been in a postseason series, it's gone seven games.
Under the Ovechkin-Bruce "Bleepin'" Boudreau regime, the Caps have appeared in four postseason series. All four of those series have gone seven games, all four of those games have been at the Verizon Center, and Washington has lost three of those four games.
Now that's a little misleading, because the three teams that beat the Capitals all went on to at least reach the Eastern Conference Finals. But the Capitals have never been able to gain full control of a series, or when they have, they haven't been able to hold it.
In terms of matchups, the first-round meeting with the Rangers will be tough because of the way the Rangers play on defense and how they played the Capitals in the regular season. But as I wrote earlier today, this will be the first real test for the "New Capitals."
That being said, I like the Rangers in this series.
Any Rangers fan will tell you that there's something different around this team than there has been in years past: hope. There's actual hope that this franchise is finally doing it the right way. Plus the diehards have fallen in love with this group and its work ethic (on most nights, that is).
Plus, a goalie like Henrik Lundqvist can give the Capitals fits and the Rangers gave Washington a huge scare in the first round back in 2009. I mentioned this will be the first test for the "New Capitals." If they are a different team, then they'll find a way to advance.
If not, well, we've seen what's happened before.
Forget about the plus/minus number (an ugly -25), Cam Fowler has been a great find for the Anaheim Ducks.
He's stepped in, played huge minutes, helped quarterback the power play and put up 40 points (10 goals, 30 assists) in 76 games.
And did I mention he was drafted less than a year ago? In the span of 14 months, Fowler's gone from being a star for Team USA at the World Juniors to being a top-15 draft pick to averaging around 20:00 a night for the Ducks. Last year, Drew Doughty used the postseason as his personal coming out party. I'm not sure Fowler will have one on that scale, but he's definitely a secret weapon for the Ducks.
The entire mainstream hockey media is already licking their lips about the Bruins-Canadiens series for a couple of reasons. One, because it could very well be the best series of the first round, but the other reason has to be the one that hasn't been discussed yet.
It'll happen in Game 3, when Zdeno Chara returns to Montreal for the first time since his controversial hit on Max Pacioretty. The atmosphere for a playoff game in Montreal is always electric to start, but the hype leading up to Chara's return and what will occur in Montreal will consume the hockey media for the days leading up to it, especially depending on how the series sits.
Even the Stanley Cup Final might not receive the hype this game will.
Last year, the Red Wings and Coyotes played a seven-game series that wasn't the most exciting to watch, but it was very technically sound hockey between two very good defensive teams.
They'll meet again this season, with the Red Wings holding the home-ice advantage. Once again, the Red Wings will be the favorite and the Coyotes will have to find some offense to keep up with Detroit. But considering the style both of these two teams play, don't be surprised to see the series go seven again with Detroit coming out on top.
And just as a side note, anyone want to give odds on how many times "ownership", "Winnipeg" and "Goldwater Institute" will be mentioned during the series?
Okay, that's not really a bold prediction.
But regardless, Thornton has not been the dynamic player in the postseason that he is in the regular season. The numbers aren't atrocious (15 goals, 50 assists in 91 postseason games) with the exception of that glaring -23 plus/minus.
But when you take into account that he has more career postseason penalty minutes then he does points, the whole "not a playoff player" thing starts to make more sense.
He's been better since he came to San Jose, and he's not the main reason why the Sharks haven't broken through in the postseason. But if the Sharks finally want to realize their potential, Thornton has to show up.
Selanne has had a renaissance this season, either that or he's going out in a blaze of glory (remind me to send the royalties check to Jon Bon Jovi tomorrow night), but regardless Selanne's been amazing the last few weeks.
Heading into the first round series with Nashville, a lot of the focus will be stopping Corey Perry and the Perry-Ryan Getzlaf-Bobby Ryan line. And with that in mind, look for that second line of Selanne, Saku Koivu and Jason Blake to play a big role for the Ducks.
And if Selanne can continue this pace, the Ducks will be hard to beat.
Before everyone goes nuts, I know I said before the Rangers would upset the Caps in the first round. But if we're looking at odds, the Lightning have the best chance to pull an upset against the Penguins.
Remember, the Lightning get to face a Pittsburgh team with no Crosby, no Malkin and no Matt Cooke. And this is a team that has Steven Stamkos, a healthy Simon Gagne and Vincent Lecavalier starting to look like Vincent Lecavalier again.
If Dwayne Roloson can even be half as good as he was for Edmonton in 2006, then they could be a dangerous team in the postseason.
I really don't know how the Nashville Predators do it every year.
Every year, you look at that roster and with the exception of the defense no one really jumps out at you. Still, this team somehow manages to get 100 points and make the playoffs every year. Yet for all that success, the Preds are still looking for their first-ever series win.
I like Anaheim to win the series because of the offensive punch they can throw out there, but I think Nashville's going to come closer than it has ever come to winning a series. As I said before, Pekka Rinne can steal a game or two by himself and if the Predators can get some timely goals, then they have more than a puncher's chance.
But I just don't think there's enough offense there for the Predators to pull the series out.
During his career, Kovalev has been decent in the postseason. Not outstanding, but decent (98 points in 114 career games).
But he's been pretty close to non-existent with the Penguins since being traded to Pittsburgh before the trade deadline, putting up only two goals and seven points in 20 games. With no Crosby and no Malkin, the Penguins need the goals wherever they can get them, and Kovalev was brought in to be a scorer.
His history will suggest that he'll show up for the playoffs, but his performance this season suggests he won't. You can count on him to try and sell at least one penalty in the first round.
The Flyers are a different team with and without Chris Pronger; it's just the way it is.
Pronger brings that edginess and that lead-by-example presence that sparks the Flyers, not to mention quarterbacking the power play and solidifying the entire back end. As we wrote earlier, Pronger's status for the opener and his long-term status is still up in the air.
Still, Philadelphia should be talented enough to get by the Sabres in the first round even without him. But if the Flyers want to make another deep run, they need Pronger back.
In terms of just the entire experience, Boston-Montreal will be the best series. But if you're looking for an exciting series in terms of style of play, then it will be Sharks-Kings out west.
Even without Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams, the Kings like to go up and down and push the play, as does San Jose. There's going to be a lot of star power on the ice, and while Boston-Montreal will be exciting, Sharks-Kings will be wide-open hockey with chances all over the place.
That being said, expect the Sharks to win in six or seven games.
Okay, so that's a long way of saying the Canucks will advance to the second round.
But the President's Trophy winner has been knocked out of the playoffs in the first round in each of the last two seasons, so suffice to say there will be a lot of expectations on the Canucks. It doesn't make it any easier that they're facing the defending champs who also knocked Vancouver out each of the last two seasons.
But while this is a different Chicago team, it's also a different Canucks team, too. It won't be a sweep, but the Canucks take care of business.
The Bruins will have a lot of playoff demons to exorcise, both recent and historic, starting in the first round with the Montreal Canadiens.
That series will set the tone for the entire playoff run, if there is a playoff run for the Bruins. And while the hype of this series will have a big impact on the series, the fact of the matter is that the Bruins are still too talented offensively and too big for the Canadiens to knock off.
Expect Boston to take the series in six.
The Bruins have rebuilt themselves since the lockout, from missing the playoffs two straight season to being a consistent Stanley Cup contender. But despite the great finishes, the Bruins still haven't made the conference finals since 1992.
And considering they went out in game sevens at home in consecutive seasons, eventually that has to fall on coach Claude Julien. It's not all on him—the team has also been hamstrung by cap issues—but he's seen his teams collapse in the second round in back-to-back seasons, and that's not going to sit well in Boston.
If the Bruins finally break through, he's safe. But if the Bruins falter in the second round again, then it might fall on Julien's head.
OK, this isn't an out-there selection.
But considering the pressure there will be in Vancouver and across Canada for the Canucks to do it, it will be a large task. They'll have the target of being the No. 1 overall seed for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, if you will, to boot.
But I mentioned this is a different Vancouver team. They're deeper, they're better equipped, and they're more mentally prepared to play in the postseason than they have been in the past, and I think you'll see that play out. It's not going to be easy, because it never is.
Still, the Canucks time has finally come.
Right now, I'm really not sure if the Bruins are mentally strong enough to run the gauntlet in the East.
But the conference is so wide open that really anything can happen and anyone can come out of it should a team get hot. The Bruins definitely have the goaltending, they have the physicality (when they want to) and they have the players on offense.
The question is can the Bruins clear that mental hurdle? I think they finally can this year.
I continue to like what I see from Ryan Kesler as the years go on. He's become one of the best two-way forwards in the game for what he can do both offensively and defensively, not to mention as a faceoff man and a penalty killer.
The Sedins are going to be a big part of the success for the Canucks, but Kesler will be the guy who will make the difference. If he can continue to score big goals for the Canucks while doing the other things he does and not get suckered in the way he was with Dustin Byfuglien last year, he's going to be the reason why Vancouver gets to the promised land.
OK, the last slide gave away the surprise ending.
And once again, I know having the league's best regular season team winning the Cup isn't exactly bold. But I really like the way this team is constructed compared to some of the teams they've had the last few years. They can beat you a number of different ways and they're a lot deeper than they have been recently.
Very rarely does the best team in the league win it all, but I think this will be one of those years.