The best time for hockey has arrived, as 16 teams compete for Lord Stanley’s Cup. The 2014 NHL Playoffs are set to get underway on Wednesday with eight intriguing matchups.
While the Boston Bruins are favored to win the Stanley Cup after coming up short against the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013, the field is wide open for plenty potential upsets.
According to the betting website Bodog.net, the Bruins are 7/2 favorites to win the NHL title, followed by the St. Louis Blues (6/1), and the Pittsburgh Penguins (7/1). The Columbus Blue Jackets and Dallas Stars have the weakest chance of taking the Cup (50/1).
Here’s a look at the first-round matchups:
No. 1 Boston Bruins Vs. No.4 Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings won the season series (3-1-0), but the two teams have only played each other once since late November.
Boston played poorly in April, winning just two games, which included a 4-1 victory over the pitiful Buffalo Sabres. The Bruins have perhaps the best forwards in the NHL, and love to play physical. Six players have scored 20 or more goals this season for Claude Julien’s squad. It will be difficult for Detroit to overcome Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug.
Detroit overcame an ugly losing streak in November to turn their season around, and have come on strong in the past few weeks. The Wings rely on hungry young players and have captain Henrik Zetterberg back, nearly eight weeks after back surgery. After being invisible in Sochi, this is goalie Jimmy Howard’s time to shine.
This series has “shocking upset” written all over it.
PREDICTION: Red Wings in six games
No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning Vs. No. 3 Montreal Canadiens
This is a much more interesting matchup than many think because of how they played each other in the regular season.
The Lightning won the season series (3-0-1) in four very tight games, and enter the postseason on a tear. They have won their past four games, and have conceded just four goals in that span. They could use some help from recently acquired winger Ryan Callahan, who hasn’t done much in April.
The Habs have cooled off a bit since their amazing stretch in March where they won eight-of-nine games. There are not many better goalies than Carey Price, who gives Montreal the edge in the series. However, Tampa Bay might be stronger on defense. Eric Brewer, Sami Salo, Victor Hedman, along with Matt Carle and rookie Radko Gudas make up an effective group.
Montreal will likely advance if they can contain superstar Steven Stamkos. Expect a defensive battle in each game.
PREDICTION: Canadiens in six games
No. 1 Pittsburgh Penguins Vs. No. 4 Columbus Blue Jackets
Pittsburgh dominated Columbus in the regular season (5-0-0) and has high hopes of reaching the Stanley Cup, while the Blue Jackets are in the playoffs for just the second time in the team’s history.
The Penguins have good health on their side with Evgeni Malkin back in action. They also have a ton of firepower with left wings Chris Kunitz and James Neal. Kris Letang is back, and so is Paul Martin. Meanwhile, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is in solid form.
The Blue Jackets should not be underestimated. Rising stars Boone Jenner and Ryan Johansen can provide a major boost, but Columbus will need an exceptional series from Sergei Bobrovsky. The Russian has enjoyed another strong season, and will need to be on top of his game against the best player in hockey, Sidney Crosby, as well as consistent scorers like Jussi Jokinen.
The Penguins are due to break out of their first-round funk in recent years.
PREDICTION: Penguins in five games
No. 2 New York Rangers Vs. No. 3 Philadelphia Flyers
If you like physical hockey, this is your series. The Flyers haven’t beaten the Rangers at Madison Square Garden since Feb. 20, 2011, which is noteworthy since home-ice advantage belongs to New York. This should be a low-scoring series. In four games this season between the two rivals, only 18 combined goals were scored.
New York ended the season with nine wins in their final 13 games, and will rely on defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi. Martin St. Louis is due for a breakout series, since he has done little since his arrival. The Rangers could also use more production from Rick Nash, who has just one goal and one assist in April.
Philadelphia center Claude Giroux had a strong season after a sluggish start. The Flyers won’t last long against New York, unless they put a lot of shots on veteran goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Forwards like Jakub Voracek and Scott Hartnell are improved from last season, but will need some more help against a big Rangers defensive unit.
Prepare yourself for some dramatic moments in this series.
PREDICTION: Rangers in seven games
No. 1 Anaheim Ducks Vs. No. 4 Dallas Stars
This is a series of scoring tandems, and don’t be surprised if it is the highest scoring series of the first round.
The Ducks go with the star duo of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, who combined to score 74 goals. This is a big team and their 116-team points and four-game winning streak are no fluke. Head coach Bruce Boudreau has plenty of options in goal, which is a good thing.
Meanwhile, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn offer the Stars the scoring punch they will need to keep this series close. They combined for 71 goals on a squad that lacks another major offensive weapon. The Stars’ success will also depend on whether Kari Lehtonen shows up. The Finnish goalie had a healthy season, but needs to prove he can handle the best offense in hockey in the playoffs.
Too many arrows seem to point in the Ducks' direction. They can’t bow out early after the way they were eliminated in 2012-2013.
PREDICTION: Ducks in five games
No. 2 San Jose Shark Vs. No. 3 Los Angeles Kings
The Sharks are hungry after the Olympic break, but will need to be in top form to beat a Kings team that has been exceptional in recent years and who beat them in the season series, 3-1-1.
The Sharks have a lot riding on two players. Joe Pavelski finished third in the league in goals (41) and second in power-play goals (16). San Jose will also rely on Marc-Edouard Vlasic, a Norris Trophy candidate, who is one of the best two-way players in the league. San Jose will have home ice, and have a dominant record at SAP Center, 29-7-5.
The Kings, who allowed a league-low 168 goals during the regular season, probably have the best big-game goalie in the NHL. However, Jonathan Quick has struggled in recent games, allowing eight goals in his last three contests. Fortunately for Darryl Sutter, the Kings have a veteran group of forwards who might be poised for a big series. Anze Kopitar has been excellent in recent games, and Jeff Carter is one of the best snipers in the league.
Quick might be too good to bet against.
PREDICTION: Kings in six
No. 1 Colorado Avalanche Vs. No. 4 Minnesota Wild
The Avalanche have a trip to the Stanley Cup on their minds, and will be facing a Wild squad that they dominated in the regular season (4-0-1).
Colorado came down to earth following a stellar start in which they won 11 of their first 12 games. Since then, the Avalanche have had little trouble scoring behind their talented forwards Nathan MacKinnon, Ryan O’Reilly, Paul Stastny, and Gabriel Landeskog. Head coach Patrick Roy may not need the scoring of injured center Matt Duchene for the series, because Semyon Varlamov has been fantastic in goal this season.
Minnesota may have the tools to upset Colorado. They ended the season with momentum (6-1-1) and have a pair of hot scorers in Jason Pominville and Zach Parise. There aren’t many defensemen better than Ryan Suter, who was excellent at the Winter Olympics. Ilya Bryzgalov, who has been inconsistent since leaving Edmonton, needs to rebound after allowing a humiliating goal, and an overall awful performance, against Nashville in the season finale.
The Avalanche are very good at power plays (19.8 percent), while the Wild are bad at killing them (78.8 percent). This will likely be a one-sided series.
PREDICTION: Avalanche in a sweep
No. 2 St. Louis Blues Vs. No. 3 Chicago Blackhawks
There is a lot for St. Louis to overcome. The Blues have lost six in a row, and are not healthy, as they face the defending champions.
David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Vladimir Tarasenko, Patrik Berglund and Brendan Morrow are either out or not at 100 percent. Goalie Ryan Miller will need to channel the superstar goalie he once was to lead St. Louis past Chicago. The Blues may need to be very physical to send the Blackhawks a message.
Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are back. But how good will they be? Fortunately for Chicago, they also have plenty of other talent around those players. Patrick Sharp played a full season and proved he is still a star goal scorer, and was exceptional in the playoffs last year.
The two teams played each other on April 6, with Chicago getting the home win, 4-2. If the Blues were healthy, this would be a much, much different series.
PREDICTION: Blackhawks in five games