1. Anaheim Ducks vs. Dallas Stars
The Ducks have been quite mighty this year, scoring the most goals of any NHL team with 266. Nearly thirty percent of those goals came from Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, who combined for 73 on the season. But the Ducks have talent throughout the lineup and will most definitely put the puck in the net against the Stars. Anaheim has put their goaltending hopes in Jonas Hiller, who finished the year with a decent .911 save percentage. Also, with this almost assuredly being Teemu Selanne’s last ride through the playoffs, he has to be excited to have a shot at the Cup.
This season in Dallas has been about one thing, well perhaps two things—the emergence of Tyler Seguin as an outstanding player, and the elevation of Jamie Benn’s game as a result of playing alongside Seguin. Benn finished the season with 79 points (34G/45A), just five points behind Seguin’s 84 (37G/47A). Dallas hasn’t been to the playoffs in a few years, and will be looking to make a statement in the first round. The Stars have a veteran defensive core and a decent goaltending tandem in Kari Lehtonen and Tim Thomas. Thomas has the edge when it comes to playoff experience, having led Boston to the Cup in 2011. So it will be interesting to see how Lindy Ruff organizes the goalie duties.
Who will win: Dallas squeaked into the West’s final wild card spot, edging out Phoenix by two points. They’ll be ready to prove themselves against a talented Anaheim team. Anaheim has home ice, where they went 29-8-4 this season, but Dallas will take it to Game 7, and ultimately win the series at the Pond.
2. Colorado Avalanche vs. Minnesota Wild
Here’s an eye opener: last year Colorado finished almost dead last in the NHL. Only Florida won fewer games in the lockout-shortened season. This season, the Avalanche not only won 52 of 82 games, they took the top spot in the Central Division over the Blues and the defending Cup champion Blackhawks. Patrick Roy has worked his magic in Denver, and stellar play from rookie Nathan MacKinnon (24G/39A) will most likely secure him the Calder Trophy. Led by a mixture of veteran experience and youthful talent, the Avs surprised many when they took off like a shot to start the season, and after a bit of a midseason slump, ended on a 7-1-2 run. They will sorely miss Matt Duchene, who put up 70 points in 71 games, but is likely to miss the entire first round series due to a knee injury. Semyon Varlamov led the league in wins with 41 and is backed up by veteran goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere. The Pepsi Center will be packed for Game 1, and Avs fans have to be ecstatic that playoff hockey has returned to the Mile High City.
Minnesota had the distinct pleasure of playing in the new Central Division with the Avs, Blues, Blackhawks, and Stars: all five teams made the playoffs. But the Wild went 14-12-3 against their divisional opponents and ended the regular season on a 6-3-1 run. The acquisition of Matt Moulson at the trade deadline took a bit of pressure off Zach Parise and Jason Pominville to put the puck in the net. Pominville finished with 60 pts (30G/30A) and should continue to contribute in the postseason. The goalie situation in Minnesota is interesting, five different net minders having played this year. Coach Mike Yeo will have his work cut out for him to decide who will go in Game 1. Ilya Bryzgalov, after coming over from Edmonton, went 7-1 with a 2.12 goals against in twelve games. Darcy Keumper is probably the safest bet, but this is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Who will win: Colorado is very strong in the offensive zone; Minnesota has some strength on the blue line, especially in Keith Ballard and Ryan Suter. But the Avs will find ways to score and wrap things up in five games.
3. St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks
The biggest story for the Blues this season was the acquisition of both Ryan Miller and Steve Ott from Buffalo at the trade deadline. Miller added a wealth of talent in net and Ott is an instigator that can also put the puck in the net. St. Louis’ offensive firepower is found in T.J. Oshie (60 pts – 21G/39A) and David Backes (57 pts – 27G/30A). Oshie became an instant celebrity in places that aren’t St. Louis after he undressed Sergei Bobrovsky in the shootout between the USA and Russia in Sochi. Captain Backes is hoping to propel the Blues to their first Cup Finals appearance since Bobby Orr sent them packing in 1970. The pieces seem to be in place for St. Louis, they just have to play like they really want it.
The defending champs had a few questions coming into the postseason, namely the health of stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Both have been out since March, but it seems that they’ll be ready to go come Game 1. Coach Joel Quennville has the luxury of mixing some lines around and fans may have to watch closely to see who’s on the ice. Chicago was third in goals against for the season, trailing only Los Angeles and Boston, which goes to show that they can shut down opposing forwards. Duncan Keith had a great season, posting 61 points in 79 games, and his blue line partner, Brent Seabrook, put up 41. They can take the puck away from the opponent and move it up the ice quickly. Corey Crawford posted 32 wins in 59 games and finished with a .917 save percentage.
Who will win: This will definitely be the series to watch. St. Louis squeaked out the regular season edge, taking three of the five matchups. This one will go the distance, and St. Louis will advance to the second round.
4. San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings
The Sharks have never made it to the Cup Finals, falling short in the Conference Finals against Calgary in 2004 and Vancouver in 2011. The question has to once again be “Does San Jose have the endurance to push through?” They should have some extra incentive when they meet their in-state rival Kings for round one. The Joes—Thornton and Pavelski—along with Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau, among others, will provide the majority of the Shark’s offense. On the blue line, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Dan Boyle, Scott Hannan and Brad Stuart will continue to make life miserable for opposing forwards. In goal, things have been a bit shaky as of late for Antii Niemi, but you have to think that coach Todd McLellan will still start him in Game 1.
The Kings did a very interesting thing this season; they posted identical home and away records of 23-14-4. So they shouldn’t be too concerned when they head up the I-5 to San Jose for Game 1. They allowed the fewest goals of any team at 174, letting Jonathan Quick collect his first Jennings Trophy. Marian Gaborik was a quality addition at the trade deadline and will add to the offensive power that’s been mostly contributed by Anze Kopitar (70 pts – 29G/41A) and Jeff Carter (50 pts – 27G/23A). The back end is anchored by Willie Mitchell and Robyn Regehr, who will have their hands full with San Jose’s forward lines. After winning the Cup in 2012 and bowing out in the Conference Finals last year to Chicago, LA will want a return to the Cup Finals this year.
Who will win: These two teams do not like each other, which should make for some sparks. It will be grinding, rough hockey. LA will put up a good fight, but San Jose will emerge victorious in six games.
Photo AP/Jae C. Hong