The 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs are upon us. After a grueling regular season, a new format to playoffs has come about, but 16 teams are set to begin the second season this week. At the start of the playoffs, each team has the same goal of lifting the Stanley Cup, but only one team can do it.
The Stanley Cup, to quote most hockey players in the NHL, is the most difficult trophy you can win. It takes four wins four times over a grueling best of seven series to win the Holy Grail in hockey. As happened over last several years, the final spots and match-ups were determined on the final days of the regular season.
1) Boston Bruins vs. 4) Detroit Red Wings
After three decades of being in the Western Conference, the Detroit Red Wings moved to the Eastern Conference, and their reward was making the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 23rd consecutive season. However, the Red Wings are facing the class of the Eastern Conference in the Boston Bruins. The Bruins have represented the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final in two of the past three seasons, and won the Presidents’ Trophy for the time since 1989-90. Boston is the favorite to represent the East again this season, but the Red Wings did win the three of the five meetings against Boston in the regular season, so anything can happen when it comes to the playoffs.
The Bruins play a mean and physical style that could give the Red Wings trouble. They roll four lines that not only get physical, but can score. The Bruins added Jarome Iginla and he has fit in very nicely. Iginla’s style suggests he could have been playing for the Bruins his whole career. Iginla replaced the departing Nathan Horton on the top line with Milan Lucic and David Krejci and they have never missed a beat. Goals will be at a premier for Detroit, as they will have to beat Tuukka Rask. Rask has been stellar for the B’s this season and should be a candidate for the Vezina Trophy. Barring any unforeseen injuries or slumps Boston should be able to get by Detroit.
The Red Wings are led by their young stars in Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist, who filled in nicely when stars Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datysuk went down with injuries. In order for the Red Wings to have success in the players, Tatar and Nyqvist must continue to excel in pressure situation. The Red Wings are getting healthy at the right time as Datysuk has come back into the lineup for the Wings. If Zetterberg can return from his back injury at some point, that would provide a shot of adrenaline through the lineup. Jimmy Howard has given the Red Wings stability in net and if he can continue to play well, the Red Wings will have a shot at upsetting the Bruins.
2) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. 3) Montreal Canadiens
The Canadiens and Lightning do not share a rich or storied history in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The two teams have met once before in the playoffs, back in 2004 in the second round, as Tampa Bay won its only Stanley Cup. The Lightning won three of the four games in the regular season, but the series could be much closer than that. Three of the four games were tied after regulation time, so based on this logic this will be a close, low scoring series.
Led by one the best in the NHL in Steven Stamkos, the Lightning boast a group that is deep, young, and fast. Stamkos has only played in 37 games this season because of a broken leg at the beginning of the season, so he should be well rested heading into the playoffs. Stamkos has been here before, but fell to the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, so he wants to go further than that. He will need help from Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, each a candidate for the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year. If they can continue their stellar play and get depth scoring from players like Ryan Callahan and Valterri Flippula the Lightning will go far. They will also need to get great goaltending; however, the question mark will be Ben Bishop as he was injured towards the end of the regular season. If Anders Lindback has to be the go to guy, the Lightning are in pretty good hands. However, the Lightning has a better chance of winning if Bishop is in net.
The Canadiens have been scary good on offense since their acquisition of Thomas Vanek. Since being put with Max Pacorietty and David Desharnais, they have formed one of the hottest lines in the NHL. If they keep up their hot streak and get scoring from players like Tomas Plekanec, Brian Gionta, Brendan Gallagher, and others the Canadiens are deadly on offense. They will have Brandon Prust back in the lineup for Game 1 who adds a physical presence the Canadiens lack. Let’s not forget about PK Subban on defense and he can very dynamic on the ice, but if he continues to make poor decisions he will be in Michel Therrien’s doghouse. The goaltender battle will favor the Canadiens if Bishop can’t go as they have Olympic gold medalist Carey Price in net. If Price can continue his great play, look the Canadiens to book a date in the second round.
Metropolitan Divisional Playoffs:
1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 4) Columbus Blue Jackets
The Columbus Blue Jackets are back in the playoffs for the first time since the 2008-2009 season after making the transition from the Western Conference to the East. The playoffs were not too kind for the Jackets last time as they were swept out of the playoffs by the Detroit Red Wings. The draw for Columbus does not get any easier as they face off against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins won the season series 5-0, but Columbus has the tools to pull the upset.
If you look at this matchup on paper, the Penguins should win this series in four games. They have more weapons on offense with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and James Neal leading the way. Their defense got a boost with Kris Letang and Paul Martin coming back from injuries, but the one question that remains constant is can they protect leads especially in the playoffs. Another x-factor more Pittsburgh is Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury has played well this season, but since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, he has not had great playoffs. If he plays well, the special teams are good, they avoid injuries to key players, and they get depth scoring, the Penguins have a chance to go far. If he starts letting in weak goals, head coach Dan Byslma’s may have to go to his backup and that could disastrous for Pittsburgh.
Columbus on the other hand really does not have household names on offense, but they are led by their centers in Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Johansen, who put together a career year, and RJ Umberger. They are also getting secondary scoring from Artem Anisimo, Cam Atkinson, and Boone Jenner. Jenner could give the Penguins top forwards trouble as he likes to play a more physical game, something that has bothered Pittsburgh in playoffs past. Injuries to Nathan Horton, Nick Foligno, and Umberger could hurt the Blue Jackets chances of winning. The x-factor on their end is goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. He has been stellar all season for Columbus and could steal this series single-handedly. For Columbus to win, they need their defense, which is led by Jack Johnson to play well, have one star show up each night, get secondary scoring, and just play their aggressive fore checking style that led them to this point to have success.
2) New York Rangers vs. 3) Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers and Rangers have met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs a total of 10, but it has been 17 years since their last playoff meeting in 1997 that these two bitter rivals met in the playoffs. That will all change when these two teams finally meet again. The Rangers and Flyers split their regular season series 2-2, with the home team winning each of the games. The Flyers have won three in a row against the Rangers at Wells Fargo Center, and the Rangers have won seven in a row against the Flyers at Madison Square Garden.
This series is one of the more exciting matchups to watch in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Rangers are well balanced team under new head coach Alain Vigneault. They intend to roll four forward lines and three defensive pairings, so everyone will be counted on to play a role and stick to the game plan. While times were tough at the beginning of the year, the team finally started to click and find themselves as the second seed in the Metro Division. They added Martin St Louis at the trade deadline. St. Louis and Brad Richards won a Stanley Cup as members as the Tampa Bay Lightning and have the leadership and experience to show the younger players what it will take to get there. Don’t forget about goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who is one of the best goalies in the NHL, and always gives the Rangers a chance to win.
After a rocky start, the Flyers find themselves in the playoffs. Philadelphia is at their best when they play a smart, but physical game of hockey. Philadelphia was one of the most aggressive teams in the NHL, and their big, strong forwards are responsible in getting pucks deep in the zone and being physical on the opposing defenseman. Though the Flyers were one of the most penalized teams in the NHL, their strong penalty play offset all the penalties. But, spending too much time shorthanded is a recipe for disaster against the Rangers and could lead to an early playoff exit. Head coach Craig Berube has stressed smart, physical play, and if his players play their game, they should advance. The goaltending situation is interesting one, because Steve Mason is the number one guy in Philly, but if can’t go they have Ray Emery. Emery was a part of the Blackhawks Championship team from a year ago, and led the Senators to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007. Emery also has a record of 7-1 lifetime versus the Rangers, so if he gets the call he is more than capable of handling the load.