Top NHL Storylines to Follow in 1st Round of 2014-15 Stanley Cup Playoffs
With the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs just a day away, the discussion turns to favorites and underdogs, along with the keys to each series. The 2014-15 season is unique in one important area—all the first-round series are compelling due to the absence of a dominant team.
Every matchup will have a dominant storyline and all series have major issues that will impact the final results. How many favorites will get through to the second round? Is any team safe?
Here are the top storylines for each opening-round playoff series.
Minnesota Wild vs. St. Louis Blues
The Big Story for the Minnesota Wild: Devan Dubnyk's incredible run as a member of the Minnesota Wild delivered the team from the depths of the division. The Wild have a good chance in this series if Dubnyk doesn't falter under the pressure. He was on fire during February and March but slipped a little with a subpar tune-up at the end of the year. Dubnyk's last playoff game came in 2007, when he was a member of the Stockton Thunder of the ECHL.
The Big Story for the St. Louis Blues: Vladimir Tarasenko's impressive offense could be the difference in the series. He scored 37 goals this year—the most in a regular season by a St. Louis Blues player since Brad Boyes scored 43 in 2007-08—and had a major impact on the season. Tarasenko missed some games at the end of the year, but he returned to the lineup and posted two points in the season's final game.
A Story That Could Emerge During the Series: The Blues have Brian Elliott and Jake Allen as their goaltending tandem, and there has to be some worry about their ability to hang with Dubnyk. A subpar performance in net for St. Louis could submarine the team's chances early in the playoff season.
Winnipeg Jets vs. Anaheim Ducks
The Big Story for the Winnipeg Jets: Lack of discipline could be a major item in this series. The team is designed to be big and mean, with penalties being part of the territory. However, the Winnipeg Jets take so many penalties that it can overwhelm the game plan at times. The club finished No. 2 in penalty minutes this year, and it allowed 56 short-handed goals.
The Big Story for the Anaheim Ducks: NHL history doesn't generally reward inexperienced goaltending in the playoffs. The Anaheim Ducks will run with two players who are relatively new to the league, and that could be a major factor. Frederik Andersen is 25 years old and has seven games of playoff experience, while John Gibson is 21 and has four games in the postseason under his belt. The Ducks are a strong team, but young goalies may be an issue.
A Story That Could Emerge During the Series: The Jets have had goaltending issues in the past, but things are going well this season for Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson. Pavelec has rebounded nicely from last season, but the playoffs often see the return of old issues, and Winnipeg's goaltending is a concern.
Chicago Blackhawks vs. Nashville Predators
The Big Story for the Chicago Blackhawks: Patrick Kane played his last game of the season with the Chicago Blackhawks on February 24. NHL.com correspondent Brian Hedger tells us Kane is possible for Game 1 of the series. Kane is a dynamic player who increases the quality and depth of the roster and changes the look of the team entirely. His presence should make a big difference for Chicago.
The Big Story for the Nashville Predators: Filip Forsberg is a very important player this spring for the Nashville Predators. His season was one of the strongest among NHL rookies, and he is poised to be an impact player for years to come. It may be early to put a lot of pressure on him, but, if he can handle it, the Predators could go a long way this spring.
A Story That Could Emerge During the Series: The Blackhawks are not the same team they were one year ago defensively. Last season, Chicago gave up 27.2 shots a game. This year, that total rose to 30.2 shots a game. The Blackhawks are spending more time in their own zone and less time in the offensive zone, making wins more difficult to come by. It could be a factor against Nashville and will be if they roll along in the playoffs.
Calgary Flames vs. Vancouver Canucks
The Big Story for the Calgary Flames: Sean Monahan is developing at breathtaking speed, and this spring's playoffs should allow him to show his skills to a larger audience. The young Calgary Flames center scored 34 points as a rookie and improved that number to 62 in 2014-15. He is a brilliant offensive player in the NHL—who turned 20 in October.
The Big Story for the Vancouver Canucks: There is no goalie controversy, but the Vancouver Canucks do have some decisions to make about who starts for them against Calgary. Eddie Lack has enjoyed a better season than Ryan Miller, who is just coming back from a knee sprain. Cam Tucker of Metro Vancouver writes that Miller felt rusty in the final game of the season, which may impact the decision for the Canucks.
A Story That Could Emerge During the Series: There are two series this year that involve Canadian teams on both sides, meaning that the rivalry possibilities will be high. The media coverage of action outside the game could be more intense than the games themselves.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Rangers
The Big Story for the Pittsburgh Penguins: The incredible career of Sidney Crosby now has 10 seasons in the books. Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins have only one Stanley Cup victory, which is a poor total for one of the game's greats.
The Big Story for the New York Rangers: Henrik Lundqvist is the face of the New York Rangers and has been stoning shooters at Madison Square Garden for a decade. However, he is 33 years old, so the window of opportunity for a Stanley Cup championship will be closing in the next few years. This may be Lundqvist's best chance to win.
A Story That Could Emerge During the Series: Marc-Andre Fleury of the Penguins posted a strong playoff performance last spring. In previous seasons, he was subpar and one of the big postseason question marks for the team. If Fleury rises to the occasion or has difficulty, his performance may be a big story in this series.
Ottawa Senators vs. Montreal Canadiens
The Big Story for the Ottawa Senators: Mark Stone scored seven goals in six April games and was an impact player down the stretch for the Ottawa Senators. Andrew Hammond saved their season with a stunning performance down the stretch and in the final weeks. If they can deliver during this series, Ottawa could win the battle of Eastern Canada.
The Big Story for the Montreal Canadiens: Carey Price is the best goalie in the game and might be the best player at any position at this time. He won eight games in last year's playoffs—halfway—and will look to go deeper and stay healthy this spring.
A Story That Could Emerge During the Series: The Senators are the Cinderella story of this year's regular season, and, if they get early momentum, this could become a major story. The gap between the two teams is not great, so Montreal could be in trouble with a slow start.
Detroit Red Wings vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
The Big Story for the Detroit Red Wings: This could be the final spring that Mike Babcock coaches the Detroit Red Wings. The run has been very successful, but he may be moving on after nine quality seasons—and a Stanley Cup victory.
The Big Story for the Tampa Bay Lightning: Steven Stamkos has been in the NHL for seven seasons, but only two of the previous six campaigns involved a trip to the playoffs. Stamkos is a splendid player, but his Tampa Bay Lightning team needs to make some noise.
A Story That Could Emerge During the Series: Steve Yzerman is a legendary Detroit figure along with being the general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning. He was trained as a manager by current Red Wings GM Ken Holland, so the Red Wings' brilliant machine and that storyline will be prominent during the series.
New York Islanders vs. Washington Capitals
The Big Story for the New York Islanders: John Tavares is an established NHL veteran and an impact player for the New York Islanders. He finished No. 4 in goals and No. 2 in points in the NHL scoring race and appears poised to lead his team deep into the playoffs.
The Big Story for the Washington Capitals: Alexander Ovechkin is scoring goals at his usual rate and has an edge in the possession game, as shown by Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com. Is this the season Ovechkin leads his team to a Stanley Cup?
A Story That Could Emerge During the Series: Washington head coach Barry Trotz has been an NHL coach since the late 1990s and has yet to have any of his teams reach the third round of the playoffs. If the Capitals win this series and gain some traction, Trotz finally reaching the semifinals will be a big story, along with Ovechkin's long-anticipated success.