The NHL’s postseason is the most unpredictable of the four major sports, and 2015 should be no different. Sixteen teams will compete in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and there are bound to be a few upsets.
Last year’s Stanley Cup winners aren’t in the postseason, but the team they beat in the final are the favorites to win the title this season. The Los Angeles Kings finished four points behind the Winnipeg Jets for the final wild card berth in the Western Conference, while the New York Rangers led the entire league with 113 points.
Only half of the higher seeded teams advanced to the second round of last year’s playoffs, and a few wild-card teams have a chance to win their series this season.
Below are predictions for the entire first round of the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs.
No. 1 Montreal Canadiens vs. No. 4 Ottawa Senators
The Senators finished fourth in the Atlantic Division, but they might be the most dangerous first-round underdog. Ottawa has gone 6-0-1 in its last seven games, suffering just three losses in regulation over the last two months. Having Carey Price in net and home-ice advantage might help Montreal avoid an upset, but the No. 4 seed has a legitimate chance to advance to the conference semifinals.
Prediction: Montreal in seven.
No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. No. 3 Detroit Red Wings
In no other series is home-ice advantage more important. The Lightning are the NHL’s best home team, recording four more home victories than any other team. They’ve struggled on the road, though, winning fewer games than any of the 16 playoff teams. Tampa Bay led the NHL in goals per game (3.16) and there is no reason to believe it will struggle to score against Detroit. But who starts in goal for the Wings? Petr Mrazek may have a slight edge on Jimmy Howard, but it's still unclear. Detroit's attack will likely make this series interesting despite mixed results in recent weeks.
Prediction: Tampa Bay in seven.
No. 1 New York Rangers vs. No. 4 Pittsburgh Penguins
After winning the Presidents’ Trophy and setting a franchise record for both wins and points in a season, it’s hard to believe that the Rangers won’t advance to the second round. New York has suffered just seven regulation losses since the end of January, and it's led by Henrik Lundqvist, one of the league’s top goaltenders. Pittsburgh might be playing the worst hockey of any playoff team, having lost five of its last six games, and it could be in for a short series.
Prediction: New York in five.
No. 2 Washington Capitals vs. No. 3 New York Islanders
The Islanders were one of the NHL’s best teams for the first two-thirds of the season, but they’ve struggled over the last two months. Going 8-9-7 since they last played Washington, New York has struggled to keep opponents out of the net. Goalie Jaroslav Halak and the Islanders’ defense could have the same issue, facing Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, who combined to score 159 points in the regular season.
Prediction: Washington in six.
No. 1 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 4 Minnesota Wild
The Blues defeated the Wild in the final game of the regular season, and it would be of little surprise if Ken Hitchcock's squad takes the momentum into the postseason. St. Louis ranks in the top seven in goals scored, goals allowed, power play percentage and penalty kill. Minnesota has lost four of its last six games, and its recent struggles to score could carry over into the postseason. Zach Parise, who has been consistent throughout the regular season, may need to have a big series for Minnesota to advance.
Prediction: St. Louis in five.
No. 2 Nashville Predators vs. No. 3 Chicago Blackhawks
Four teams in the West finished the regular season with more points than the Blackhawks, but they remain the favorite to reach the Stanley Cup Final. Chicago has reached the conference final in four of the last six seasons, and Nashville hasn’t played in the postseason since 2012. Nashville has one major weapon standing in Chicago's way: Pekka Rinne. But with Patrick Kane likely to return for Game 1 and the Predators going winless in their last six games, the Blackhawks should have enough to move on.
Prediction: Chicago in six.
No. 1 Anaheim Ducks vs. No. 4 Winnipeg Jets
The Ducks started the season as a Stanley Cup favorite, and the Jets were expected to end the year with a high draft pick. But almost seven months later, Winnipeg could put an end to Anaheim’s championship hopes in the first round as the team nobody wants to face in the playoffs. Goalie Ondrej Pavelec has been outstanding since the All-Star break, allowing 1.98 goals per game and stopping 93.2 percent of the shots he’s faced. The Ducks rank 20th in goals against, and the Jets might not need a lot of offense to win this series.
Prediction: Winnipeg in six.
No. 2 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 3 Calgary Flames
The two teams had very similar regular seasons and can feel good about being in the playoffs at the expense of Los Angeles. Vancouver finished the year with just four more points than Calgary, and both clubs had almost identical records on the road and at home. Calgary actually ranked slightly higher in goals per game and goals allowed, and it has averaged 3.1 goals in its last seven contests. This series can turn out to be a war considering how both clubs missed out on the postseason in 2014 and how the Flames barely outscored the Canucks in the season series, 9-8. Ryan Miller is back in goal, but it may not be enough for Vancouver to advance.
Prediction: Calgary in seven.