After a 4 month plus lockout and a shortened 48 game season tonight marks the begin of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Before those series get underway I give my thoughts and predictions for each first round playoff matchup.
(1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (8) New York Islanders
The Pittsburgh Penguins are considered by many to be at least co-favourites to win this seasons Stanley Cup and so they should be. General Manager Ray Shero has made it very clear his Pittsburgh Penguins are all in for this year. In an 11 day span Shero traded for forwards Brendan Morrow, Jarome Iginla and Jussi Jokinen and defenseman Douglas Murray. These moves compliment an already potent Penguins attack lead by stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Meanwhile the New York Islanders have quietly been putting together a solid team built around superstar John Tavares.
I see the Penguins easily rolling through the Islanders in this series. The Pens have too much offensive talent and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is a proven winner who should at least play on par with Nabokov.
Penguins in 5
(2) Montreal Canadiens vs. (7) Ottawa Senators
This is one of the more intriguing first round matchups. On one side you have the Montreal Canadiens who went from 15th in the East a year ago to second this season and on the other side you have the Ottawa Senators who were ravaged by injuries this season to most of their top players and still managed to squeeze into the playoffs.
This series is very interesting in that the Canadiens have struggled down the stretch especially goalie Carey Price, who after a very solid season has looked very ordinary the last few weeks. The Canadiens are going to need Price to be more than ordinary against Craig Anderson who was superb before going down to an ankle injury. While the Senators are starting to get all of their injured players back, missing only Jason Spezza as the playoffs begin.
I see this series being a back and forth battle with speed being the key to the series. Despite the recent struggles the Canadiens have more offensive skill which is a major concern for the Senators and I expect Price to play well enough to beat Anderson in the goaltending battle.
Canadiens in 7
(3) Washington Capitals vs. (6) New York Rangers
Last seasons regular season Eastern Conference champions had to scratch and claw their way into the playoffs this season while the Capitals took advantage of a weak South East division capturing the division title and the East’s third seed in the process.
This marks the third year in a row and fourth time in five years that the Rangers and Capitals meet in the playoffs. The Capitals hold an advantage having won two of the last three playoff meetings but the Rangers won last years battle.
As hot down the stretch as Alex Ovechkin has been he is going to need some help in the playoffs which he traditionally doesn’t have alot of. Like in previous seasons I expect this series to be very competitive. The New York Rangers should be the favourites in this series with the advantage in goal going to Hendrik Lundqvist over Braden Holtby and up front the Rangers have more than enough skill to match-up against Ovechkin, Riberio, Green and Backstrom.
Rangers in 6
(4) Boston Bruins vs. (5) Toronto Maple Leafs
Welcome back to the playoffs Toronto! After a nine year hiatus the Leafs are back in the playoffs. And their prize? A first round meeting with Original 6 and division rival the Boston Bruins.
For a team happy to finally make it back into the playoffs a first round meeting with the Bruins is tough luck. This match-up is a mismatch everywhere. The goaltending battle between James Reimer and Tuukka Rask although a good one, the slight edge goes to Rask. The Leafs are young both up front and on D while the Bruins are bolstered by a roster full of hold overs from their Stanley Cup winning team. Both offense and defense advantage goes to the Bruins as well.
The Leafs are an improving team but are young and need to gain some playoff experience. The Bruins have been here before and should regain some of their Stanley Cup winning form that’s been lost in recent weeks.
Bruins in 5
(1) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (8) Minnesota Wild
The cream of the crop in the NHL all season long, the Chicago Blackhawks come into this yeas playoffs as co-favourites to win their second Stanley Cup in four seasons. With Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane leading the offensive charge and Duncan Keith piloting the blueliners those expectations are warranted. Only concern for the Hawks is goaltender Corey Crawford who is still a relatively unproven goaltender.
The Wild made a huge splash prior to the lockout as they signed both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter on the same day early in the free agency period. Adding those players to a team already set with rookie Jonas Brodin and goaltender Nicklas Backstrom made the Wild significantly better.
Another large mismatch as the Hawks have one of the best offenses in the NHL and have a solid defensive core as well. As mentioned above concern remains in goal where I expect Backstrom to outplay Crawford but it won’t be nearly enough.
Blackhawks in 5
(2) Anaheim Ducks vs. (7) Detroit Red Wings
The Ducks had the misfortune of playing behind the Chicago Blackhawks and the Pittsburgh Penguins all season. Put together the NHL’s third best record and looked very good doing it in a tough division.
The Red Wings missed Tomas Holmstrom and Nicklas Lidstrom this season stuggling for large portions of it being in danger of ending their two-plus decade playoff streak. A late charge helped the Wings sneak into the playoffs.
The Anaheim Ducks are the favourites in this series and for good reason. They looked much better than the Wings this season, have a better goalie and more dynamic offensive skill. For me this series will be won and lost behind the bench where the distinct advantage goes the Mike Babcock over Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau. Although the Ducks should win this series because of skill and goaltending they won’t because Boudreau will be outcoached by Babcock.
Red Wings in 6
(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) San Jose Sharks
Window for the Canucks to win the cup with this core has closed. The Canucks needed to move one of Luongo or Schnieder this season and they need some more youth talent.
The Sharks are another team with a closing window although some of the Sharks are still young including star Logan Couture. Have a Stanley Cup champion in goal but an aging blue line.
Sharks beat the Canucks 4-0 in the season series this year and should beat the Canucks four more times in the playoffs. Goaltending will be a distraction and scoring will be at a premium for this team.
Sharks in 6
(4) St. Louis Blues vs. (5) Los Angeles Kings
The Kings are the defending Stanley Cup champions and come into this playoffs with a high seed then they used to run through the playoffs last year. Jonathan Quick has struggled this season but was at his best last season in the playoffs. Also no turnover for this Kings team leaves them in a great position against a tough first round opponent.
Goaltending has been an issue for the Blues this season although Brian Elliott has somewhat rectified that problem with his play the last month or so. Lack the offensive and defensive weapons that the Kings have but can match-up very well physically against the Kings.
Elliott will have to stand on his head in this series for the Blues to win but he has a great mentor in Jaroslav Halak to help guide him. This will be a tight series but in the end experience wins out.
Kings in 7