NHL Playoffs 2015: Strengths and Weaknesses of Every Team

Adrian Dater@@adaterNHL National ColumnistApril 12, 2015

NHL Playoffs 2015: Strengths and Weaknesses of Every Team

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Back in the 1970s, some first-round playoff series were, it now seems hard to believe, best-of-three affairs. Starting in 1974-75, the NHL required its eight non-division winners to suffer through what amounted to a coin flip of a series, while the four division titlists sat back in privileged bye status.

    First rounds, therefore, had little buzz. And some terrible teams got in. Consider the 1977-78 Colorado Rockies, who qualified to face the Philadelphia Flyers in a best-of-three first-rounder despite a 19-40-21 record. The Flyers "swept" the series 2-0 (and, yes, one game apiece was played in each city).

    Starting in 1993-94, all playoff series went back to best-of-seven, and nobody got a first-round bye. Gradually, the NHL got the early buzz of its playoffs back, to the impressive status it has today.

    Greater parity, better goaltending and jacked-to-the-rafters, monochrome-colored home crowds have made the NHL's first round the must-see-TV showcase it is now. 

    The first round has become my favorite to watch, across the board. Sure, there are still some mismatches, but rare is the four-game sweep anymore. Everybody is just so darn excited for playoff hockey to have arrived. There is a game on almost every night—usually more than one. 

    It is with great joy that the 16 survivalists of the ice wars are presented here. All players will strive for Phil Robertson-length playoff beards by the time the final game is done, but only the men from two teams will get that chance.

    The strengths, of which there are many of the teams still on hand, are offered, along with their fewer potentially softer underbellies. 

    The slideshow begins with this season's Presidents' Trophy winners, the New York Rangers.

New York Rangers

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Regular-season finish: First in Metropolitan, first in East.

    First-round matchup: vs. Pittsburgh Penguins.

    Strengths

    First off, Blueshirts loyalists, let's all bow and give proper thanks to Cam Talbot for the remarkable job he did in place of Henrik Lundqvist, who missed 25 straight games with a vascular condition. And, as scary as it is to think of not having King Henrik between the pipes for any playoff game, isn't it nicer now knowing there is a guy who could potentially get things done should he go down again?

    Talbot's play best illustrates what made the Rangers so good this season: depth. Not only is there quality up and down the lineup, but, much more importantly, everyone seems to know and like his role on the team.

    This is a tight-knit, speedy group that came within two wins of it all last year and has added nicely around the main core. I mean, how good was rookie Kevin Hayes for coming right out of college with nearly 50 points? How good was that Keith Yandle pickup at the deadline? 

    The Rangers had nine players with 30 points or more, not including Yandle, who would have made it 10 had he played on Broadway all year. So, for starters, New York can score. Entering the final week, only Tampa Bay had more goals as a team. Rick Nash was terrific all year, Martin St. Louis is still a pretty fair version of the old Martin St. Louis, and there is nice quality among the other top-nine forward group. The defense and penalty-killing—usually a strong suit on Alain Vigneault-coached teams—were strong again this year. The Rangers were in the top five in fewest goals against.

    There is a lot—repeat, a lot—to like here. Now it's up to you, New York.

    Weaknesses

    Lundqvist looked fine in the games he played following the long layoff, and a rest might prove to be the best thing that could have happened to him, assuming the Rangers have a long playoff run again.

    Here comes the but... But what if the timing isn't quite there still for Lundqvist when the postseason begins? What if it's hard for him to just flick the switch mentally, from rest and recuperation to "we have to win tonight" mode?

    Look, Henrik Lundqvist is somebody you just normally don't worry about—and I'm not feeling that way about him now. But, hey, it was a long layoff, and goalies thrive on repetition and habits and timing. So, yeah, someone out there wearing a blue shirt is probably just a little worried right now.

    About the power play too: It sat in the lower third of the year as the season wound down. With Yandle on one of the points now, though, he gives everyone more confidence this time of year.

Montreal Canadiens

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Regular-season finish: First in Atlantic, second in East.

    First-round matchup: vs. Ottawa Senators.

    Strengths

    Max Pacioretty's name will still be mentioned first here, because he had a terrific season (37 goals, plus-38). He is one of the best skaters in the game and a team leader. 

    But as a fine Canadiens season drew to a close, all anyone in Montreal could ask was: Will Max play? In Game No. 80 of his season in Florida, Pacioretty tumbled into the boards and hit his head. He didn't play the final two regular-season games, and coach Michel Therrien only said it was a "possibility" Pacioretty might return by Game 1.

    If Pacioretty is out long term, it greatly diminishes any chance of Canada's first Stanley Cup winner since the Habs of 1993 did it. If he is, there is still enough here to go on a long run, though. Carey Price is your prohibitive Vezina Trophy favorite after a marvelous season in which he led or tied in all the major goaltending categories. 

    Weaknesses

    The advanced-analytics crowd likes to point out Montreal's relatively mediocre possession numbers—and if Pacioretty can't play, that won't help matters. Montreal had a Corsi For rate of under 50 percent entering the final week.The Habs still rely too much on Price to carry them, they say. Still, Montreal was ranked 26th last season in Corsi For (46.7 percent) and had a run to the Eastern finals. 

    Montreal's special teams play took a dip in the second half, a big worry as the playoffs approach. 

Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Regular-season finish: Second in Atlantic, third in East.

    First-round matchup: vs. Detroit Red Wings.

    Strengths

    A good puck-possession team, in the top five in even-strength Corsi most of the year, the Lightning are also really, really tough to beat at home. They will have home-ice advantage in the first round, so consider the Bolts a lock to advance in my thinking at least. As astute Bleacher Report readers will know, Tampa Bay was also my pick to come out of the East to play for the Stanley Cup.

    Victor Hedman might be a finalist for the Norris Trophy after a tremendous regular season. The big Swede defender stumbled some after a big buildup in the 2009 draft that saw him go second overall, but he's been all that and a bag of ice chips the last two years. A late-season injury, thankfully, proved not to be serious, and he is my dark-horse pick for a Conn Smythe Trophy. 

    That award almost always goes to the Cup-winning goalie or the team's highest scorer (an award that is flawed somewhat, by the way, by the fact that its selectors must make their picks halfway through the third period of what could be the final game of the series). But Hedman is my dark-horse pick nonetheless.

    There's also a guy named Steven Stamkos who can play a little. Might want to watch out for him if you're an opposition scout. Add in Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat—all players who surpassed 60 points—and you have a lineup that can score. 

    In net, Ben Bishop literally and figuratively stood tall again this year. And, unlike last year entering the postseason, he's healthy.

    Weaknesses

    The road record—barely over .500—is a worry. You wonder if there are enough playoff-savvy veterans on this club still. It's easy to win at home with all those loud Thundersticks rattling through the home air, but a team's true mettle only ever truly shows through in a belly-of-the-beast road win or two.

    The power play—in the lower half of the league entering the final week—needs to be better. Tampa Bay's faceoff-winning percentage was under 50 percent as the playoff neared too.

Washington Capitals

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Regular-season finish: Second in Metropolitan, fourth in East.

    First-round matchup: vs. New York Islanders.

    Strengths

    The man behind the bench can coach a little, eh? Barry Trotz, in his first year in Washington after 16 years in Nashville, molded the Caps into his image. That may not always make for a pretty picture, but it wins. 

    Trotz helped cut Washington's goals-against by about 20 percent over last year, all the while giving superstar Alex Ovechkin just enough leash to surpass 50 goals for the fifth time. A minus-35 last year, Ovechkin was a plus player again, and Trotz admitted that even he was surprised by his commitment as a player.

    Trotz told USA Today:

    I call him fearless. He is not scared of any player in the league. He is not scared of having to play against top players. He is not scared of criticism. He is not scared of accountability. He is not scared of coaching. He is a stand-up guy. He shoulders more of everything than is imaginable. And he does a lot in the community.

    Braden Holtby had a terrific season, silencing skeptics as to whether he was still No. 1 material in net. Based on the numbers, with 40-plus wins, he should be in the conversation for a Vezina. 

    Washington's power play was the best in the league this year too. Nicklas Backstrom on the half-boards is money.

    Weaknesses

    This is a franchise haunted by early playoff failure after even better seasons than this one. Does that make for a tangible weakness of this season's club? Well, no it shouldn't, but...this is the team's 40th year in D.C., and there's still no Cup. It's a jittery fanbase, in other words, and that often is transferred onto players whether they believe it or not—thanks in part to nice media people helpfully reminding them of it all the time.

    You still wonder about four-line depth with the Caps, once you get past Ovechkin and Backstrom and Marcus Johansson. 

New York Islanders

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    Tom Mihalek/Associated Press

    Regular-season finish: Third in Metropolitan, fifth in East.

    First-round matchup: vs. Washington Capitals.

    Strengths

    Let's state up front: It's great to see the Islanders in the playoffs in this, the final year of play in the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. How loud will it get in the old barn of Long Island? We're about to find out.

    Yes, the Islanders stumbled a bit down the stretch. But this team won the big games it needed to procure a golden ticket to Lord Stanley's ball. I view this still as a "We've got nothing to lose" kind of team that should be loose and tough to play against. It's still a fairly young team, led by potential Hart Trophy winner John Tavares.

    The acquisitions of defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy were nice coups for general manager Garth Snow, who has withstood the often brutal—and sometimes deserved—criticism of previous moves to get the Isles back in the postseason. Boychuk added so much leadership to the dressing room, not to mention a steady two-way presence on the ice. Boston's cap-conscious dealing of Boychuk right before the season was a bad blunder by GM Peter Chiarelli.

    The Isles were a top-five Corsi team, so they play with the puck more often than not. That always was a good thing, even before it was better quantified.

    Weaknesses

    You gotta kill penalties in the playoffs to survive, and the Islanders weren't very good at it in the regular season, finishing in the bottom five

    Jaroslav Halak has played just two postseason games since 2009-10, so you wonder about his big-game readiness. His career playoff record is 10-11, but the save percentage (.923) has been good. 

    Quality scoring depth is an issue. Tavares will face increased defensive attention, which puts pressure on a lot of unproven postseason players up front. But youngsters such as Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome all had solid regular seasons, so the promise is there for more.

Detroit Red Wings

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Regular-season finish: Third in Atlantic, sixth in East.

    First-round matchup: Tampa Bay.

    Strengths

    Twenty-four years...and counting. 

    The Red Wings' amazing string of consecutive playoff appearances continued on, despite a sometimes-bumpy second half that saw them dip dangerously close to the cutoff level. The marvelous Russian, Pavel Datsyuk, did not struggle in the second half, however.

    The 36-year-old center was tremendous in the clutch and finished the season with better than a point-per-game average. Injuries have been a worry as the years have worn on, but Datsyuk enters this postseason playing some of his best hockey in a few years.

    Henrik Zetterberg's health has been a bit wobbly the last couple of years too, but when the Swede is feeling good, he's still a true danger to opposing goalies. Whether coach Mike Babcock keeps Zetterberg on a line with Datsyuk entering the playoffs remains a question mark, but they showed late-season chemistry again when it mattered most.

    Tomas Tatar really emerged this season as a goal scorer, and Gustav Nyquist is a dangerous shooter. Youngster Riley Sheahan has worked out nicely lately as the second-line center. The Wings just always seem to find these later-round draft guys you'd never heard of but turn out to be fine players, don't they?

    Weaknesses

    Jimmy Howard appears to be the No. 1 goalie entering the postseason, but his wobbly play at times prompted Babcock to put Petr Mrazek in the net more often. Howard's career playoff record is 21-24 with a 2.53 GAA and .919 save percentage. The fact is, he has yet to prove himself as a big-time, money goalie in the spring.

    The season-ending injury loss of trade-deadline acquisition Erik Cole is a blow to Detroit's forward depth. Defensively, the Wings are not the same caliber group of years past. Entering their game, only the Islanders allowed more goals of the East's eight playoff teams than the Red Wings' 221.

Ottawa Senators

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Regular-season finish: Fourth in Atlantic, seventh in East.

    First-round matchup: vs. Montreal Canadiens.

    Strengths

    What a story, right?

    Dave Cameron, Andrew Hammond—two guys nobody outside the game had ever heard of—and the rest of the Senators capped off a miraculous second half with a playoff-clinching victory Saturday in Philadelphia.

    Hammond, nicknamed the "Hamburglar" is the story of the year in the NHL. A guy who posted a 7-13-2 record, 3.51 GAA and .898 save percentage for Binghamton of the AHL went 20-1-2 as an injury call-up with the Sens, with a 1.76 GAA and .941 SP. Incredible.

    So...the Sens are going into the playoffs with a hot goalie. Can he do it under the bright postseason lights? We'll see, but after his regular-season play, it's hard not to believe anything is possible now for the 27-year-old.

    Under Cameron, who took over for the fired Paul MacLean in December, the Sens went 21-3-3 down the stretch after being 10 points out of a playoff spot in February. Under Cameron, Ottawa went 32-15-8.

    Rookie forward Mark Stone posted 35 points in his final 31 games and figures to have a good shot at the Calder Trophy. Erik Karlsson remains the game's most dynamic player from the back end and should contend again for a Norris Trophy.

    Weaknesses

    Ottawa was in the bottom five of the league in shots against, at 32.2, and had only mediocre Corsi numbers. This was not a very good club in December, so until it can prove anything in the playoffs, many will consider this just a Cinderella story bound to fail when the stakes get higher.

    At 48.2 percent, Ottawa's faceoff-winning proficiency was in the final third of the league. The power play, 16.8 percent, also ranked in the bottom third. 

Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Gary Wiepert/Associated Press

    Regular-season finish: Fourth in Metropolitan, eighth in East.

    First-round matchup: vs. New York Rangers.

    Strengths

    Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang (before he got hurt and done for the season). Seriously, that's about it.

    Somehow, the Penguins have fallen from a model franchise to one that had to win in Buffalo on the final night of the season just to get into the playoffs.

    Things don't seem so good from here. Depth is a real problem now on this team, with the bottom three lines barely ever seeming to be able to contribute on a given night. Crosby seems like the guy he was his first couple of years in the league: still able to put up a point per game but without many brothers in arms to keep up the pace.

    For whatever reason, the Penguins played with little passion in the second half. They were booed off the ice in their final home game, Friday night against the Islanders. And yet, with Crosby and Malkin healthy in a lineup, anything is possible.

    It might be that the Pens rediscover the fire within when the puck drops in Game 1 of a playoff series they beep-beep-beeped their way into.

    For now, that will have to be solace to Pens fans who used to sniff at No. 8 seeds like themselves.

    Weaknesses

    Not much depth here anymore. Get past Crosby and Malkin and Patric Hornqvist and Kris Letang (who had a great year before getting hurt), and you're starting to scramble. By season's end, trade-deadline acquisition Daniel Winnik was playing on the first line with Crosby, which—all the praise in the world to good-guy Winnik—shouldn't be his role on a team hoping for a Stanley Cup.

    Marc-Andre Fleury had a pretty good year for the Pens, but he's had some recent playoff flops, and nobody really goes into a series anymore fully confident in him. He's part of the overall dynamic that now envelops the Pens: He's a good part of the past, but the future with him doesn't seem too bright anymore.

St. Louis Blues

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Regular-season finish: First in Central, second in West.

    First-round matchup: vs. Minnesota Wild.

    Strengths

    The Blues are young, deep, skilled, fast and big. Everything necessary for a Stanley Cup is here. Just like it was last year, or so it seemed.

    Unlike last season, though, when they lost their last six in a row, the Blues go into the postseason playing well. Russian youngster Vladimir Tarasenko had a true breakout season and might have the most pure skill of any Western Conference forward. Jaden Schwartz is not far behind in any skill area. The former Colorado College youngster is relentless on the puck and knows how to put it in the net.

    The late-season return of defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk from a lengthy injury solidifies the back end at both blue lines and the power play. Defensively, it's tough to say anyone has a deeper defense than the Blues one through six. Alex Pietrangelo, who has missed only three games the last three seasons, is the leader of a really good D.

    Weaknesses

    Brian Elliott's career postseason record is 6-10, with an .898 save percentage. He has one playoff-round victory. Until he proves he can win the money games of the spring, people (like me) searching for a weakness of this fine team will continue to half-heartedly point in his direction. Then again, maybe coach Ken Hitchcock will opt for Jake Allen to start the playoffs, as he platooned the two most of the year. 

    But actually, lack of scoring has been the Blues' biggest weakness of recent playoff failures. Teams have been able to zero in on the Blues' top two lines the last two years, and while the forwards are deep with this squad, you still worry at times over the bottom two lines and coach Ken Hitchcock's tendency to play a more conservative style in the playoffs. 

    Paul Stastny's first season in St. Louis was somewhat mediocre for a guy making $7 million a year. He'll need to be better if the Blues want their first Cup.

Anaheim Ducks

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Regular-season finish: First in Pacific, first in West.

    First-round matchup: vs. Winnipeg Jets.

    Strengths

    Can we start with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf? For the third season in a row, they were 1-2 in scoring for the Ducks. These guys have been getting it done consistently in Anaheim for nearly a decade now. No two players have better chemistry together on the ice than these two.

    This is more than a two-man team, though. The addition of Ryan Kesler by GM Bob Murray worked out nicely in the first year. Under coach Bruce Boudreau, the Ducks have never lacked toughness, but at times, they were undisciplined. Only four teams had more than Anaheim's 40 major penalties last season, according to ESPN.com. 

    And while Anaheim remained the sixth-most penalized team in the league entering its final game Saturday, guys such as Kesler gave the Ducks more true toughness. Few players work harder or are more intense than the former Canuck.

    The Ducks had a 3-2 series lead over the Kings in a Western semifinal series last season but just didn't have the depth at center to withstand the 1-2-3 rotation of Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter and Jarrett Stoll, and they dropped the final two games.

    There are no more worries about center depth with Kesler aboard—and if not for an injury, he probably would have won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2011 for the Canucks. In other words, he gets better this time of year.

    At 52.5 percent Corsi-for percentage entering their final game, the Ducks checked in nicely with the advanced stats crowd.

    Weaknesses

    Why was the power play 27th in the league entering the final game? Nobody seems to have a great answer, although it's true the Ducks lack a force on the back end to quarterback the power play. The Ducks have some 30-plus-points guys as defensemen. But the teams that win Cups usually have at least one in the 50-70-point range.

    If the Ducks don't find a way to improve on what was a bad showing on the power play, a Southern California hockey team will not call Southern California home for another year.

Nashville Predators

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Regular-season finish: Second in Central, third in West.

    First-round matchup: vs. Chicago Blackhawks.

    Strengths

    We all knew that Nashville's miss of the playoffs in 2013-14 could, to a great extent, be blamed on the lengthy absence of goalie Pekka Rinne. What we didn't expect, even with Rinne's return, was just how good this Predators team would be in 2014-15.

    Peter Laviolette deserves credit for a lot of it. Just as he was starting to get the reputation as kind of a retread coach, he restored pride in the snarling sabre-toothed tiger on the front of the mustard sweaters.

    Filip Forsberg was something between a nice surprise and a flat-out revivalist revelation for the Preds. After a couple of seasons in which people were starting to think the Capitals were right for shipping him out despite top-12 2012 draft status, Forsberg put it all together in a terrific season for Laviolette. He did struggle a bit down the stretch (four goals in his final 21 games), but overall, it was still a tremendous year for the young Swede.

    Mike Fisher is better in big games, and how about a hand for Mike Ribeiro, who overcame some personal problems to have a fine season. With Shea Weber, Roman Josi and Seth Jones on defense, the Preds have great ability at both ends.

    When all else fails, Rinne—big and dynamic in net—is almost always there.

    Weaknesses

    Only two players—Forsberg and Ribeiro—surpassed 60 points. So, scoring is a worry. It has almost always been a worry in the Music City, since the club joined the NHL in 1998. Nashville just has never had that superstar offensive player—unless you count some who played there later in their careers, such as Peter Forsberg and Paul Kariya. 

    But the Preds did have four guys with 20 or more goals, including the streaky James Neal. 

    Despite Weber and Josi on the points, the Preds finished in the bottom third on the power play.

Chicago Blackhawks

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    Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press

    Regular-season finish: Third in Central, fourth in West.

    First-round matchup: vs. Nashville Predators.

    Strengths

    Let's just assume Patrick Kane will be in the lineup for Game 1. As of Sunday, as this story when to cyber-press, we didn't know if that would happen or not.

    But let's suppose he is: Chicago enters the postseason with one of the game's best back in the lineup, a two-time Stanley Cup winner who no doubt is hungry to not only prove he can still play but for his third ring. No matter what, that's a good thing for the Chicago Blackhawks hockey club.

    A lot of pundits think the Hawks should just keep Kane on the shelf for the first round, take their chances against the Nashville Predators and then insert Kane into the lineup for the second round. Keith Jones of NBC flatly said, "He's not ready" when debating with panelist Mike Milbury Saturday night over whether Kane should play in the first round.

    So now, let's say Kane doesn't play: OK, there's still plenty left to win a first-round series. Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Brent Seabrook, Andrew Shaw, Brandon Saad, Brad Richards, Bryan Bickell, Kris Versteeg—a lot of talent here.

    Every one of those guys just mentioned has won a Stanley Cup, too, so it's talent that knows how to win.

    Weaknesses

    Corey Crawford's numbers were perfectly fine this year. Yet he still doesn't get a ton of respect in the league. He has shown he can win the biggest of games. Yet he still causes Joel Quenneville a gray hair once in a while.

    Other Chicago critics believe the Hawks are too old to win again. Richards is really just an average, at best, player now. Hossa, Michal Rozsival, Keith, Sharp and Antoine Vermette—important players all—are over 30. 

Minnesota Wild

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    Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press

    Regular-season finish: Fourth in Central, sixth in West.

    First-round matchup: vs. St. Louis Blues.

    Strengths

    I picked this team to come out of the West to play for the Cup, and I'll stick with it.

    I really like the Wild's depth 1-18, and I really like the fact that Devan Dubynk is fully realizing his potential as time passes. The acquisition of Dubnyk by GM Chuck Fletcher during the regular season might have been the biggest steal of the year, based on his play afterward. 

    The Wild were a strong team last year and went into the second round, but nobody had any real faith in the goaltending, which at the time was composed of Darcy Kuemper and Ilya Bryzgalov. Everybody feels more comfortable with Dubnyk back there now.

    This team has a really strong top three lines, with Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek Mikael Granlund doing their thing. On the back end, Ryan Suter again led the league in ice time per game, at 29:04. 

    Weaknesses

    Despite a 100-point season, the Wild are still a great source of frustration for their fans. Why did the team have such a mediocre first half again? Why can't Suter score a little more? Why does coach Mike Yeo seem to hurt his club with too conservative a style at times—especially when things are going well? 

    The Wild need to play with real emotion to win it all. Most nights, they bring that. But on occasion, they seem to show little interest in winning a hockey game. The team needs full intensity every night if St. Paul is to have a bigger home address than that belonging to "Prairie Home Companion."

Vancouver Canucks

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Regular-season finish: Second in Pacific, fifth in West.

    First-round matchup:  vs. Calgary Flames.

    Strengths

    Daniel and Henrik Sedin showed they are far from needing to look up retirement pasture in their homeland of Ornskoldsvik, Sweden (where Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund are ready for a hello).

    Both turned back their body clocks some to have great seasons for Vancouver, and new coach Willie Desjardins proved he was worth the big buildup he came with as a first-year coach.

    This was a franchise said to be in total disarray after last season, with years ahead of them to even think about the playoffs again. The postseason is here again, and anyone who takes this team lightly—especially with veteran Ryan Miller in net—could be in for a rude awakening.

    The Twins, along with linemate Radim Vrbata (31 goals), form arguably the toughest line in hockey.

    Weaknesses

    We don't know who will start in goal just yet, but it's starting to look likely that Eddie Lack might get the nod over veteran Ryan ($6 million per season for three years) Miller.

    Miller was supposed to be the guy who would put the St. Louis Blues over the top last year as a trade-deadline acquisition, and he flamed out badly in the first round against Chicago.

    Miller suffered a knee sprain in March, allowing Lack to play most of the way down the stretch. Miller did play in the season finale against Edmonton, however.

    Vancouver's defense is good, but it's certainly not great. Of the eight Western teams, only Anaheim allowed more goals than Vancouver.

    Should Miller be handed the reins, he will need to be great—not just good—if Vancouver is to win its first Stanley Cup.

Winnipeg Jets

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    Regular-season finish: Fifth in Central, seventh in West.

    First-round matchup: vs. Anaheim Ducks.

    Strengths

    After much carping and hand-wringing in the Winnipeg market—which consists of one major league team, the Jets, so all the focus is on them—this team finally is in the playoffs.

    Hats off to GM Kevin Cheveldayoff for what has looked so far to be a masterstroke of a trade with Buffalo that sent Evander Kane to the Sabres and brought Tyler Myers and Drew Stafford to the 'Peg. Both have been very good for Winnipeg since the deal, which is why there was so much joy on Portage Ave. when the Jets clinched a spot Thursday night with a shootout loss in Colorado.

    Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler are the leaders of this club up front, both coming off superb regular seasons. Dustin Byfuglien is coming back from suspension, so he will bring his very big presence with him. Coach Paul Maurice is smart and doesn't appear to have worn out this group yet, as he's been accused of before in previous stops. This won't be an easy team to play, especially back in Winnipeg, where the fans go certifiably bonkers.

    Weaknesses

    Ondrej Pavelec is your odds-on starter over Michael Hutchinson, though their workload was pretty even during the year. 

    Pavelec has yet to play an NHL playoff game, so until he shows he can handle this level of play, we will naturally think goaltending might be the weakness with this group. 

    Winnipeg's power play was in the bottom half of the league. It was also in the bottom third in faceoff-winning percentage. These are big areas in the playoffs, and they need to get better.

Calgary Flames

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Regular-season finish: Third in Pacific, eighth in West.

    First-round matchup: vs. Vancouver Canucks.

    Strengths

    I covered an NCAA playoff game last spring between the University of Denver and Boston College, and I swear not more than two in 10 people at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, New Hampshire, knew who Johnny Gaudreau was.

    Just some skinny kid who had a decent scoring year, was what most people I talked to seemed to say about Gaudreau. I only asked people about him because the Denver coach, Jim Montgomery, had coached him in junior hockey and said he would be, by far, the Pioneers' biggest problem to handle.

    He was right. Gaudreau posted five points in the win over Denver, though BC would lose the next game. So, Calgary drafted Gaudreau in 2011, and in 2014-15, he had himself what might prove to be a Calder Trophy-winning season.

    Gaudreau was a major player in getting the Flames back to the playoffs, along with forwards such as Sean Monahan, Jiri Hudler and David Jones.

    Perhaps the biggest strength of the Flames comes on the back end where, despite the absence of star blueliner Mark Giordano to injury, they were tough to score on in the final third of the year. Dennis Wideman and T.J. Brodie can do it at both ends. 

    Weaknesses

    Not a lot of depth here. Shut down the Flames' first line, and you probably shut this team out of the first round. 

    Jonas Hiller is your likely playoff starter, and he is nobody to disparage. But he is not among the truly elite of the league between the pipes. 

    Too much inexperience here to make a serious run. Well, in the NHL, who knows?

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com and NHL.com.

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