2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs: First Round Preview / Predictions
And just like that, the 2013 NHL season is over with. Quick, right? I know, but that’s what you get when a lockout threatens to cancel another season under the reign of commissioner Gary Bettman. But alas, there was a season played after all consisting of 48 games and after all the hubbub and chaos, the first round playoff match-ups are set. There are some good ones and of course there are some that will end horribly, and I am here to straighten them out for you and get you informed heading into the postseason. Let’s get to it…
Wait, a fun fact before we get started: This is the first time all “Original Six” teams qualified for the playoffs in the same season since a long time ago.
(1) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (8) Minnesota Wild
The Blackhawks enter the playoffs as President’s Trophy winners after finishing with the highest point total through the season. They are a dangerous folk top-to-bottom with great players in all areas and have showed it throughout the year. They started off 21-0-3 and though they kind of went through a rough patch through the middle of the season, they regained their composure and come into the playoffs as the favorites to win it all.
Meanwhile, the Wild are one of those teams you look at and say “What is going on?” They acquired the two biggest prizes on the free agent market this past off season in forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, they have a solid goaltender (Niklas Backstrom) and have a bunch of other talented pieces that should have made them a title favorite. But alas, they were as inconsistent as any playoff team in recent memory and limp into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth. They are not a confident group right now in my eyes and are staggering.
While both of these teams were prohibitive favorites entering the season, only one appears to be gelling at the right time and that’s Chicago. They score at will and shut down opposing teams with a ruthless defense, and those are bad signs for slumping Minnesota.
• WINNER: Blackhawks in 5
(2) Anaheim Ducks vs. (7) Detroit Red Wings
Anaheim skates into the postseason with a Pacific Division championship in tow after getting off to a hot start and remaining very consistent throughout the season. Sure, they may have taken advantage of a weaker division than in year’s past, but you can only play the games that are put in front of you. Talented, fast, and sneakily good defensively, they are a fun team to watch and a hard team to play against. Of course their “Big 3” forwards of Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, and Bobby Ryan are tough for any coach to strategize against, but other players like Andrew Cogliano, Saku Koivu, and the ageless wonder Teemu Selanne make it just as tough. Not to mention the goaltending of Jonas Hiller and Viktor Rasth, with the latter being one of the surprises of the league this year.
But, if there’s any coach that knows how to game plan against tough opposition, it’s Mike Babcock, who guides his Red Wings into their 22nd straight playoff appearance. But, unlike the past, this Red Wings team is a bit different. No longer are they the dominant force that they have been. They aren’t a team that another squad sees on the schedule and says “Oh ****!”. Sure, they still have a good core with guys like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, but a lot of turnover from previous years has taken its toll on the chemistry and familiarity with the group as a whole. And in this shortened season, that lack of continuity was damaging, but not enough to keep them out of the playoffs as they won their final four games to ensure their spot.
I think this will be a very entertaining series with Anaheim’s ability and Detroit’s experience, but the Ducks are a more consistent and fresher team and have home ice advantage. But, don’t expect the Red Wings to just sit back and get run over.
• WINNER: Ducks in 6
(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) San Jose Sharks
Once again, the Canucks are Northwest Division champions. Seems like a broken record, right? Nevertheless, they are once again a No. 3 seed and are equipped to make another run to the Stanley Cup, despite their penchant for flaming out in big-time scenarios. They have been especially solid down the stretch, finally settling their goaltending issues by going with Cory Schneider in net, who has been stellar the second half of the season. And then of course, Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin are a great 1-2 punch offensively and a healthy Ryan Kesler along with an improved defense corps should provide some stability to the Canucks.
The San Jose Sharks are a talented unit themselves, and have been for the past few seasons. Much like the Canucks, they also have a reputation to not living up to expectations but this year, those expectations aren’t as high because of their seeding. Loaded with talent up front including Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, and Patrick Marleau, scoring is rarely an issue for the Sharks, but their defense is another story. That could be the backbreaker for them in this series and has been an issue for some parts of the season. They are also a below average team on the road and having to go to Vancouver for the first two games could put them in early hole.
Based on the Canucks having home ice, I just feel that they have the edge in this series. They have the offense to take advantage of San Jose’s suspect blue line and Schneider has been lights out in goal.
• WINNER: Canucks in 5
(4) St. Louis Blues vs. (5) Los Angeles Kings
For the second straight year, the Blues are back in the playoffs and once again have home ice advantage in the first round. Though they are only the No. 4 seed this year, they have surged through the latter part of the year to get to where they are. Brian Elliot has finally figured out in goal, the offense has picked up thanks to a burgeoning Chris Stewart and David Backes, and the defense is as smothering as ever. They are a simple, hardworking team, a style that thrives in the playoffs but their lack of big names could hurt them in the long haul, no matter how much effort they put forward.
On the other hand, the defending Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings find themselves a higher seed than last year and have a couple of pitfalls to deal with. Nobody wants a team to repeat, so the target is on their back. They are not going to sneak up on anybody either like they did in the playoffs last year. Truthfully, they are a very similar team to last season, with not much roster turnover and the same style being played. Also, even though they are a Pacific Division team, I don’t like to talk about them much because they are the rival to my Phoenix Coyotes…and there is some animosity between the teams and their fans.
As far as this series go, it is a rematch from last year’s Western Conference Semifinals but this time, I believe the Blues will get the better of the Kings this year. I think they are on a better roll and have the offense to finally counter the Kings punch. It will be a long series though and a hard-fought win for whoever does emerge victorious.
• WINNER: Blues in 7.
(1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (8) New York Islanders
Holy mother of everything, the Penguins are a dangerous team. Probably the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference, they are rounding into shape and getting healthy at the right time. Of course, they have arguably the best hockey player on the planet in Sidney Crosby, who should be ready to go for the playoffs after suffering a broken jaw a few weeks back. Then, they come right back at you with Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Pascal Dupuis, and many more. They won the Cup back in 2009 and a good portion of that team is still intact, including goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and coach Dan Bylsma. This team can run you ragged and frustrate you with their ability. They also never lost a game in overtime this year and in the postseason, when every possession is critical and many games often go into extra time, that experience will be helpful.
Meanwhile, the Islanders are finally back in the playoffs after being one of the laughingstocks of the league for the past few seasons. Led by MVP-candidate John Tavares, something has clicked right for this team after so many years of futility and hopelessness. They finished the season 6-1-3 in their final 10 games and surprisingly enough, are better on the road than at their home, Nassau Coliseum. But, they have the least amount of regulation or overtime wins of the East playoff teams with 20 (San Jose has the least of all playoff teams with 17), so finishing off opponents in that fashion could be trouble. And plus, the lack of experience in big time games will be killer.
All in all, this series is very easy to predict. It is just a matter of how many games it will take. I like the Islanders plug and determination, but this is easily the Penguins’ series to lose. It is just too easy.
• WINNER: Penguins in 4
(2) Montreal Canadiens vs. (7) Ottawa Senators
Ah yes, the Canadiens are Northwest Division champions, but had to wait until the very last day of the season to celebrate their win. They are a very complete team, with good pieces at the forward position such as Mac Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec, and Lars Eller along with defensemen Andrei Markov and PK Subban. Carey Price’s goaltending can be a bit suspect at times, but he still a very solid net minder. The Habs were very impressive this season after missing the playoffs last year, surging through the middle part of the schedule to claim the division crown. They can win at home and on the road. They are a very solid hockey team, folks, and could make a surprising run if teams don’t take them seriously.
Their opponent, the Senators, have had an up-and-down season to this point. Constantly plagued by injuries, it was hard for them to ever truly find a rhythm and allow all the talent they have to gel and win games consistently. Then, they took a huge hit when their star defenseman, Erik Karlsson, suffered a gruesome Achilles injury that held him out of action for months. But now, Karlsson is back and looks just as good as when he was sidelined, showing no ill effects of the injury and giving a big time spark to the Senators. This is a team that when actually healthy, is one of the most dangerous teams in the East.
These two squads match up fairly well on paper and when there are no major injury bugs. The key test to each side will be the men in the crease and how they play. With that in mind, Senators’ goalie Craig Anderson has been fantastic this year and will backstop his team to a series win.
• WINNER: Senators in 6
(3) Washington Capitals vs. (6) New York Rangers
In what seems like another broken record, the Capitals once again won their division, spearheaded by the play of another MVP-candidate in Alexander Ovechkin. The star winger finished with the league lead in goals (32) and finished third in total points (56), carrying his team to another Southeast crown. That isn’t to say he wasn’t helped out by guys like Mike Ribiero, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson and Troy Brouwer, but when Ovechkin has seasons like these, its hard to top. Just imagine if he had a full season to work with, those numbers would be insane. However, we know they can score and the question with the Capitals has always been their defense and goaltending. They gave up 130 goals this year and in a division that didn’t put another team into the playoffs, that is worrisome. And with Braden Holtby in net, there are some issues there though he has been solid this season. It is definitely something to keep an eye on.
In the Big Apple, the Rangers were finally able to ramp it up towards the end of the season and get back into the playoffs again. Many had them pegged as Cup favorites before the season with the acquisition of Rick Nash to play alongside Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik (before the trade to Columbus), and the ever-improving Derek Stepan. Not to mention the continuing stellar play in goal by Henrik Lundqvist and a solid blue line. But, things weren’t so rosy throughout the season and there were some bad stretches that saw them drop in the standings, seemingly out of the picture. But, they found a way and are now facing the Capitals in the postseason for the fourth time in the past five years.
These teams know each other very well through their regular season and playoff histories. This will be an entertaining series to say the least and if either team gets hot, look out.
• WINNER: Capitals in 7
(4) Boston Bruins vs. (5) Toronto Maple Leafs
The Bruins just missed out on claiming the Northwest Division title after losing in the final game of the year. They are also scuffling as well, losing seven of their last nine to practically give away the division crown and settle for the No. 4 seed. They have struggled a lot this season offensively, despite having guys like Tyler Seguin, Nathan Horton, Milan Lucic, and adding Jaromir Jagr at the trade deadline. Sure, they play with a lot of grit and determination and rely on their defense, but that can’t always get you everywhere, even if the playoffs are more gritty.
The Maple Leafs come into the playoffs as one of the surprises of the league after not making the playoffs since the last season before the 2004-05 lockout. That is seven years (eight if you include the canceled ‘04-’05 season) since playoff appearances — doesn’t say a whole lot about experience in these types of games. But, the Leafs are a dynamic bunch offensively and have gotten a solid season out of young goalie James Reimer, which has been the key ingredient for Toronto’s success this season. If he plays well, expect Toronto to be in this series right to the end.
In truth, this might be the hardest series for me to make a prediction on because on one hand if the Bruins don’t get it together fast, they’ll be buried. On the other, the Leafs don’t have experience and Boston won the Cup in 2011 and are a team tailor-made for the playoffs.
• WINNER: Bruins in 6
Well there you have it. The puck drops on the postseason on Tuesday, April 30. It’s time to get nasty, gritty, and jacked up. Why? Because It’s The Cup.