It’s Finally Here! NHL Playoff Preview: Round One

With just days before the Stanley Cup playoffs begin, we must take a step back and embrace the fact that, unquestionably the best time of year is upon us. Here at Hit the Cut we are adamant that the NHL playoffs are without a doubt the most exciting and intense playoffs of all the major North American sports (NFL, MLB, NBA). And don’t assume we’re just a baseball blog, we share a deeply entrenched love for hockey and every emotion that is brought with it.

It’s unexplainable as to why the game changes so drastically from the regular season to the playoff season. Every second of every shift is treated with such an amount of respect and care as to a parent with a newborn child. Nothing is taken for granted. Now, you could say, oh it’s the playoffs so obviously it’s more important so the players will care more. But there’s just not that same separation in the other professional sport leagues. The speed, intensity, grit, physicality, and passion is lifted to a level that is so satisfying to the viewer, one can’t help to get emotionally vested in any game on the television, whether your favourite team is playing or not.

Now, I’m not going to state to you that the NHL playoffs are the toughest to win because: 1) I have not experienced playing in any professional leagues playoffs, obviously and 2) it would be unfair to make an assessment like that when I am not an impartial party; I love, live, and breathe hockey. I will say however, that those 16 wins needed to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup look extremely difficult, treacherous and rigorous.

Having said all this, I present our preview and predictions for the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, enjoy.

Eastern Conference:

Metropolitan 1 – New York Rangers               vs               Wildcard 1 – Pittsburgh Penguins

53-22-7 = 113 PTS                                                                     43-27-12= 98 PTS

Season Series:

Pittsburgh Penguins
Record: 1-2-1
Goals For: 8; Goals Against: 16
Powerplay: 1/9; Penalty Kill: 15/18
New York Rangers
Record: 3-1
Goals For: 16; Goals Against: 8
Powerplay: 3/18; Penalty Kill: 8/9

Outlook: The President’s Trophy winner and 2014 Stanley Cup runners-up Rangers come into the 2015 playoff with massive expectations. Utterly dominating the Eastern Conference for the majority of the year, the Rangers find themselves matched up with the very team they knocked out last playoffs. Even with the likes of Crosby and Malkin, the Rangers have the advantage upfront. A potent crop of forwards including 40-goal scorer Rick Nash, rising stars Derick Brassard, Derek Stepan, and Chris Kreider, and veteran Marty St. Louis, these Rangers can score a bunch. A big red flag for the Penguins will be their lack of depth on their blueline due to injuries. Kris Letang and Olli Maatta are done for the season (most likely) and they are also missing Christian Ehrhoff and Derrick Pouliot. Meanwhile, the Rangers boast a loaded defensive core led by captain Ryan McDonagh. The acquisition of Keith Yandle gives them an abundance of options and weapons, also factoring in Dan Boyle and Dan Girardi. In between the pipes, you find two magnificent goaltenders in Henrik Lundqvist and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Prediction: Pittsburgh has fire power, but injuries will be too much to overcome.
Rangers in 5

Atlantic 1 – Montreal Canadiens               vs                Wildcard 1 – Ottawa Senators

50-22-10 = 110 PTS                                                             43-26-13 = 99 PTS

Season Series:

Ottawa Senators
Record: 3-1
Goals For: 14; Goals Against: 9
Powerplay: 2/13; Penalty Kill: 13/15
Montreal Canadiens
Record: 1-3
Goals For: 9; Goals Against: 14
Powerplay: 2/15; Penalty Kill: 11/13

Outlook: This is an intriguing matchup. The pesky Sens come into the playoffs with a record of 23-4-4 since February to vault themselves into a wildcard position. Also, they defeated Montreal three out of their four meetings this year. Meanwhile, the Canadiens enjoyed their best season in 25 years and won the Atlantic division. Veterans Max Pacioretty and Thomas Plekanec are the catalysts upfront who scored 37 and 26 goals respectively, however Pacioretty is nursing a concussion and is questionable for the start of the series. The Sens are led by Norris Trophy candidate Erik Karlsson and rookie sensation (no pun intended) Mark Stone who potentially could win the Calder. In net, both teams have an amazing story manning their crease; Carey Price led the league in just about every major goaltending stat and is a true Hart nominee. Andrew Hammond on the other hand is the “feel good story” of the year, getting called due to some injuries and reeling off an unheard of 20-1-2 record down the stretch and becoming an MVP in his own way, to his own team. This all for a guy who almost quit hockey all together. Look for this series to be back and forth and end-to-end in every game as both teams are gifted with great speed.

Prediction: Montreal’s experience proves too much for a red-hot Sens team.
Montreal in 7

Metropolitan 2 – Washington Capitals               vs             Metropolitan 3 – New York Islanders

45-26-11 = 101 PTS                                                                     47-28-7 = 101 PTS

Season Series:

New York Islanders
Record: 2-1-1
Goals For: 11; Goals Against: 13
Powerplay: 3/9; Penalty Kill: 9/13
Washington Capitals
Record: 2-0-2
Goals For: 13; Goals Against: 11
Powerplay: 4/13; Penalty Kill: 6/9

Outlook: The Capitals and Islanders ended up in a tie with 101 points, but Washington ended up getting home ice advantage due to head-to-head points. This should be a high scoring series as both teams rank in the top 10 in goals per game (Islanders are 4th, Capitals are 6th). Washington, of course, has Rocket Richard winner Alex Ovechkin who amassed 53 goals, 25 on the powerplay and 11 of the game winning variety, all league leaders. Ovechkin, along side NHL assist leader Nick Backstrom, form a lethal duo. Washington also has the top ranked powerplay in the NHL (25.3%) and is among the best in goals against per game (7th). In net, Braden Holtby had his most successful season as an NHLer, ranking in the top 10 in all four major goaltender stats (GAA, SV%, SO, W). As for New York, they are in the playoffs for the second time in three years. Hart nominee John Tavares leads a young, exciting Islanders squad. Tavares finished 2nd in the Art Ross race and was and is by all means the go to guy on New York. The defense core however causes some concern; off season signings Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk both had solid season but are the leaders of a defense group that really lacks an NHL quality number one pairing.

Prediction: Caps are too balanced and dominant the specialty teams battle.
Capitals in 6

Atlantic 2 – Tampa Bay Lightning              vs               Atlantic 3 – Detroit Red Wings

50-24-8 = 108 PTS                                                               43-25-14 = 100 PTS

Season Series:

Detroit Red Wings
Record: 1-2-1
Goals For: 9; Goals Against: 12
Powerplay: 3/13; Penalty Kill: 14/16
Tampa Bay Lightning
Record: 3-1
Goals For: 12; Goals Against: 9
Powerplay: 2/16; Penalty Kill: 10/13

Outlook: The NHL’s highest scoring team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, come into the playoffs with a major hit of the injury bug. Their defense corps has been decimated, as regulars Andrej Sustr, Brayden Coburn and Jason Garrison are all (as of today) out with injuries. This could bode problematic as they are not an experienced team as it is, the opposite of playoff-regulars Detroit. Tampa Bay of course has electrifying forwards; Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat are some of the most intriguing players in the entire NHL. However, the Wings have experience unlike any other team. 24 straight appearances in the playoffs for Detroit, and this lineup (unfortunately for the Lightning) has the magician, Pavel Datsyuk and workhorse Henrik Zetterberg. Detroit has the 10th hightest goals for per game and the 2nd ranked powerplay, so goals are not an issue. But even with veterans Nicklas Kronwall and Marek Zidlicky on the back end, goals against was a problem. Despite being the middle of the pack in GA/G the Wings have major goaltending issues. Jimmy Howard has seemed to have lost all confidence and Petr Mrazek has barely any NHL time and definitely no playoff experience. It will be a huge question as to who gets the start in this series. Ben Bishop had another solid season and is capable of backstopping a contender.

Prediction: Goaltending questions overwhelm injury problems.
Lightning in 5

Western Conference:

Central 1 – St. Louis Blues               vs               Wildcard 1 – Minnesota Wild

51-24-7 = 109 PTS                                                  46-28-8 = 100 PTS

Season Series:

Minnesota Wild
Record: 2-1-1
Goals For: 13; Goals Against: 11
Powerplay: 1/9; Penalty Kill: 15/18
St. Louis Blues
Record: 2-2
Goals For: 11; Goals Against: 13
Powerplay: 3/18; Penalty Kill: 8/9

Outlook: If there’s a “series to watch,” this one just might be it. Two teams, both built for the long haul, locking horns, this could be the most intense series of them all. Central division champions St. Louis come into the playoffs being in the top 10 in goals for per game, goals against per game, power play % and penalty kill %. Minnesota holds the top penalty kill in the league and are a stingy team on the defensive side of the puck. St. Louis enjoyed breakout years from Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz to go along with solid campaigns from veterans David Backes and T.J Oshie. Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk star on defense, for this big, strong, and rugged Blues team. Minnesota is built in a similar way. Up front they’re smaller than the Blues, but can they ever skate. Also, they boast the best depth at forward of any Western Conference team. Shutdown defenseman Ryan Suter is a shoe-in to give over 30 minutes a night this series. The ultimate factor lies, in my opinion, in net. Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk (like Andrew Hammond) is another remarkable story. Bouncing around in the minors, Dubnyk got a shot in Minnesota due to injuries and is a Vezina candidate (36-14-4 .929 SV% 2.07 GAA 6 SO). Over in the Blues crease is where questions arise. Who will play? Jake Allen and Brian Elliott both have looked outstanding and suspect at times this year and come playoff time, you need a rock in net.

Prediction: Blues unable to muster enough offensive against tight checking Wild in a very tight series.
Wild in 6

 

Pacific 1 – Anaheim Ducks                vs                Wildcard 2 – Winnipeg Jets

51-24-7 = 109 PTS                                                     43-26-13 = 99 PTS

Season Series:

Winnipeg Jets
Record: 0-1-2
Goals For: 8; Goals Against: 13
Powerplay: 3/16; Penalty Kill: 11/16
Anaheim Ducks
Record: 3-0
Goals For: 13; Goals Against: 8
Powerplay: 5/16; Penalty Kill: 13/16

Outlook: For the first time since the 95-96 season, playoff hockey is coming to Winnipeg. The Jets outlasted defending Stanley Cup champions Los Angeles Kings for the final wildcard spot. They’ll meet up with conference champions Anaheim. This series should be a physical one to say the least. Both teams are very fast, and hit a ton. The Ducks swept the season series and dominated on the powerplay (5/16). Winnipeg will lean heavily on captain Andrew Ladd and speedy winger Blake Wheeler for the bulk of their offense. The Ducks are graced with having two of the premier power forwards, not only on their team, but on the same line, in Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. The most important player for the Jets will be Dustin Byfuglien; when his head is in the right place, he can single-handedly will his team to victory. Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec is on an incredible hot streak and will get the nod in net for Winnipeg. However, the Ducks themselves have so many weapons. Young dynamos Cam Fowler and Sami Vatanen headline the defense core and quarterback a powerplay (despite struggling and finishing 28th in the NHL) that has the potential to be dangerous. Frederik Andersen, who did have his fair share of problems in the 2014 playoffs, will be the go-to goalie for the Ducks.

Prediction: Jets put up a good fight but succumb to experienced Ducks team.
Ducks in 6

Central 2 – Nashville Predators               vs               Central 3 – Chicago Blackhawks

47-25-10 = 104 PTS                                                           48-28-6 = 102 PTS

Season Series:

Chicago Blackhawks
Record: 3-1
Goals For: 12; Goals Against: 9
Powerplay: 1/13; Penalty Kill: 10/12
Nashville Predators
Record: 1-1-2
Goals For: 9; Goals Against: 12
Powerplay: 2/12; Penalty Kill: 12/13

Outlook: Another glorious Western Conference matchup sees the surprising Preds and the playoff regular Blackhawks. The Hawks are stacked with talent, with Patrick Kane (probable for Game 1), Marian Hossa, Brandon Saad, Duncan Keith and Patrick Sharp (just to name a few). Corey Crawford had a sparkling regular season, and has already backstopped this Blackhawks team to a Stanley Cup two years ago. If experience is what you’re looking for in a contender, Chicago’s got boatloads of it. Nashville had a bounce back year after missing out on the playoffs last season. They rely on goaltender Pekka Rinne significantly, who hasn’t disappointed this year (41-17-6 .923 SV% 2.18 GAA 4 SO) and are built around him, along with sturdy defensemen Shea Weber, Roman Josi and Seth Jones. Nashville was basically unbeatable at Bridgestone Arena this year, carrying the top home record in the conference (28-9-4). Expect a low scoring series with both teams having struggled to score goals in their season series, and faltering on powerplay chances.

With Kane back, Chicago stays hot in the playoffs and outlast Nashville.
Prediction: Blackhawks in 6

Pacific 2 – Vancouver Canucks               vs               Pacific 3 – Calgary Flames

48-29-5 = 101 PTS                                                          45-30-7 = 97 PTS

Season Series:

Calgary Flames
Record: 2-1-1
Goals For: 8; Goals Against: 9
Powerplay: 0/11; Penalty Kill: 6/8
Vancouver Canucks
Record: 2-2
Goals For: 9; Goals Against: 8
Powerplay: 2/8; Penalty Kill: 11/11

Outlook: An old rivalry will be renewed as Vancouver and Calgary meet for the first time in the playoffs since 2004. The past two winners of their series (Canucks in 1994; Flames in 2004) advanced to the Stanley Cup (just saying). Calgary is back in off of a 5 year absence, the Canucks, a 1 year absence. Vancouver rode the hot hand of Eddie Lack into the playoffs (because of Ryan Miller’s injury) and will most surely stick with him. The Canucks boast one of the best special teams units in the NHL, having the 9th best powerplay and 2nd best penalty kill. They are led by the Sedin twins and Radim Vrbata upfront and Alex Edler on the back end. Calgary has fought through the last quarter of the season without their finest defenseman and captain, Mark Giordano. However, breakthrough seasons for hyped rookie Johnny Gaudreau, sophomore sensation Sean Monahan, and reinvigorated veteran Jiri Hudler have catapulted Calgary into 3rd spot in their division. Jonas Hiller will go for Calgary in net. A few alarming stats in this series though were Vancouver’s inability to get leads in games, and Calgary recording almost 25% of their points for the season while trailing after 2 periods.

Prediction: Special teams loom large for Canucks; Inexperience harms Flames in the end.
Canucks in 5

 

And there you have it for round one of the playoffs. Check back to see how we did and what we think will happen in round two.

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