The NHL playoffs are taking shape and in a few short days we will have our first round match ups. Maybe more than any other sport the NHL playoffs have a history of lower seeded teams pulling upsets, even winning the Stanley Cup. I expect this season to not be different.
Without the exact first round opponents set for the NHL playoffs yet we don’t yet know which higher seeded teams are facing matchup nightmares in the first round. There are so few games left to play though, so I’m going to use the standings going into Sunday’s games and look at one team from each conference that is in trouble before the NHL playoffs start.
The top four teams in the Eastern Conference as of today are the Montreal Canadiens, Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers, and New York Islanders. Of the lower seeded teams I’ve already laid out why I don’t see the Detroit Red Wings lasting very long in the NHL playoffs. They aren’t beating the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The New York Islanders and Washington Capitals are virtually even in the standings thanks to a late season surge from the Caps. I won’t be stunned by the result of this series but I expect the Capitals to pull through. Alex Ovechkin and John Tavares will be fun to watch work in this one. I don’t consider this an upset given how even these teams are.
Are the Canadiens or Rangers really ready for upset? Carey Price has done everything except score goals this season and will run away with the Vezina Trophy. The Rangers have charged to the top of the conference without Henrik Lundqvist, but a great defense in front of Cam Talbot. Both of these teams are a lock to advance, right?
If I had to pick an upset, it’s whomever draws the Pittsburgh Penguins. Much of that depends on the health of Evgeni Malkin and the continued strong season from Marc-Andre Fleury. I would feel better about this with a healthy Kris Letang as well. But I’m not going to underestimate the Penguins. They are a team with NHL playoffs experience to burn and will be ready to face either team.
I don’t trust the health or age of the Boston Bruins. Dougie Hamilton coming back is a must for the B’s to have much hope of getting out of round one. Even with Tukka Rask between the pipes, I would take the Rangers or Canadiens to beat the Bruins in a seven-game series.
Bottom line, I have a very hard time talking myself into an upset. The Penguins give me cause for concern but given the way the NHL playoffs look going into today I expect many, if not all, of the top four seeds to advance through the first round of the NHL playoffs in the Eastern Conference.
I can’t and won’t say the same for the Western Conference. Of the top four seeds (Anaheim Ducks, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues and Vancouver Canucks), the Predators are the only team I feel comfortable picking to advance out of the first round of the NHL playoffs. That’s with the Predators matching up with the Minnesota Wild.
I would have a hard time picking any of the other top three seeds. I know the Chicago Blackhawks have more points than the Canucks, but now they are the third place team in the Central Division and wouldn’t have home-ice advantage. That puts them in the bottom four, but I would expect the Hawks to get through the Blues. With or without Patrick Kane.
The Anaheim Ducks are a team I have not bought in to all season. Despite having the most regulation or overtime wins in the West, I don’t believe their goaltending has enough experience to pull them through the NHL playoffs. On top of that the eight seed looks like either the Winnipeg Jets or the Los Angeles Kings (again!). I don’t’ see either team being an easy go of it for the Ducks, and would pick the Kings to win that series for sure.
Of all the potential first round NHL playoffs match-ups in the first round, I am most comfortable picking against the Vancouver Canucks. Ryan Miller is close to returning but he isn’t going to save the Canucks. The Calgary Flames have traded away players at the deadline, lost Mark Giordano for the year and kept right in the thick of the playoff hunt. They are good enough to get in and would beat the Vancouver Canucks to advance.
If you are looking for surprises in the NHL playoffs this year, don’t look in the East as that is going to go according to plan. Western Conference hockey will be where the upsets happen, and the NHL playoffs won’t disappoint us with how many upsets we see.
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