When Patrick Kane's bad-ass racing-stripe mullet returns, it can only mean one thing: the NHL playoffs are here. The upsets, triple-overtime thrillers, ridiculous comebacks, and of course, the untamed playoff beards and mullets are all back and just part of what makes the NHL postseason my favorite pro sports playoffs year after year. For those of you who haven’t been paying attention through the regular season but are hopping on your respective teams' bandwagons now, here’s a list of a few things to watch for in this year’s run to the Stanley Cup.
Can the Capitals or Sharks Finally Break Through?
Over the past four seasons, both Washington and San Jose have enjoyed their share of regular-season success: Both teams have won their division for four straight years, including this season, and each have won a Presidents’ Trophy as the league's best regular season team. However, that has been the extent of their success. Despite entering the playoffs no lower than a 3-seed over this four-year span, neither team has managed to make the Stanley Cup and only the Sharks have made it to their Conference Finals (a 4-0 sweep at the hands of the Blackhawks last year). Even worse, both teams lost in the 1st round to the 8-seed the year they won the Presidents' Cup. This year, both teams will be looking hard to put years of disappointment behind them and finally make a long run to the Cup.
Of the eight series that make up the Conference Quarterfinals, four of them are rematches from the last three playoffs (Capitals vs. Rangers, Canadiens vs. Bruins, Red Wings vs. Coyotes, and Blackhawks vs. Cancucks) and each series has their own storylines from previous years:
The Caps and Rangers met two years ago with the Caps as the heavy favorites. The Rangers managed to take a surprising 3-1 series lead before falling in the final three games. With the memory of last season's 1 vs. 8 upset at the hands of the Canadiens, the Caps won’t be taking this matchup lightly. And they shouldn’t be, considering the Rangers owned them in the regular season, 3 games to 1, by a combined score of 17-6.
The Bruins and Canadiens meet for the third time in four years in what I believe will be the best, most physical series of the first round. Three years ago, the 8th-seeded Bruins pushed the Canadiens to the brink before falling in game 7. But the next year, they got their revenge with a 4-0 first-round sweep. After the fallout of the Zdeno Chara–Max Pacioretty incident, I think these teams would like nothing more than to knock the other out of the playoffs.
The Red Wings and Coyotes meet for the second straight year after the Coyotes nearly shocked the heavily favored Red Wings, taking them to seven games last season. Somehow, this team managed to make the playoffs again with no clear star and rumors of relocation. It would be nice to see Phoenix veterans Shane Doan and Ed Jovanovski get a chance at a deep postseason run before it's too late.
For the third straight year, the Canucks and Blackhawks meet in the playoffs, although for the first time it will be in the Quarterfinals. The hawks have ousted Vancouver two straight years in the semifinals and will look to do the same if they are going to get a shot at defending their title. However, the hawks backed into the playoffs this year, relying on a Dallas Stars loss on the last day of the regular season to make it in, while the Canucks have been on fire this year, finishing with 117 points, 10 more than any other team.
Lower Seeds with Momentum
It seems to happen every year: a team puts together a late charge to make the playoffs and rides that momentum deep through the postseason. This year, there are two lower-seeded teams that stand out and fit this criteria: the Ducks and the Sabres. These teams were playing great hockey down the stretch, going 13-5-0 and 13-3-3, respectively. The Ducks will be playing a tough Predators team that also was strong down the stretch, but have the firepower to blow into the next round. The Ducks had 5 players in the top 30 in scoring, including the MVP frontrunnner Corey Perry. In comparison, there are seven other playoff teams that have no scorers in the top 30. Buffalo will be facing a struggling Flyers team, and with reigning Vezina Trophy–winner Ryan Miller in goal, they can be a dangerous team.
After a grueling 82-game season, there are bound to be some bumps and bruises along the way. And while we all know that hockey players are tough, there are a few guys that won't be playing this postseason and their absences may just be too much to replace. Starting with the most glaring absence, the Penguins are still missing their two main stars, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. Malkin has been shutdown for the season and Crosby has shown no signs of coming back as of now. It's been amazing how this team has competed with out their stud players but I just don’t feel like they can keep it going without both guys. The Rangers were dealt a heavy blow when their workhorse forward Ryan Callahan broke his leg blocking a shot in the final seconds of their comeback win against the Bruins last week. His presence will be missed in many ways as Callahan contributes offensively, defensively, on the powerplay and the penalty kill. The Kings, a team that I felt were ready to make a long playoff run this year, will be without star Anze Kopitar for the rest of the year. The Slovenian sniper is a huge asset to the team and his absence will most likely be too much to overcome. Finally, we have Henrik Zetterberg of the Red Wings whose injured leg will probably keep him out of at least the start of their series against the Coyotes.
#1 Capitals vs. #8 Rangers
If I were a good objective writer, I would probably say here that the Caps couldn’t possibly be swept two years in a row by the #8 seed and they will handle the Rangers in 7 games. However, I am not that writer, so instead I will focus on the fact that the Rangers played the Caps better than any other team this season and the Caps haven’t proved they can win the big series yet. Besides, a #8 seed has upset a #1 seed in three of the last five years... I like those odds.
Rangers in 7
#2 Flyers vs. #7 Sabres
A lot of hockey analysts have been picking this series as their big upset and I can’t blame them. The Flyers come into the playoffs playing the worst hockey of all 16 teams (the only team playing under .500 over the last quarter of the season), costing them the #1 seed. The Sabres went on a tear to go from 9th place, out of the playoffs, to the #7 spot. Yet despite all that, you can’t deny how big of an advantage the experience from last season’s Finals run will be to the Flyers. That, coupled with Ryan Miller not being 100%, makes me think the Flyers will handle this one.
Flyers in 6
#3 Bruins vs. #6 Canadiens
The Bruins haven’t made it past the 2nd round of the Playoffs in nearly 20 years, the longest drought of any Original 6 team. I think this year's team has a chance to do it, and at least in this series, I think they match up very well with the Canadiens. However, we will have to wait and see if Boston can handle the emotional pressure of playing their rivals given the tumultuous season series these teams had.
Bruins in 7
#4 Penguins vs. #5 Lightning
This series is hard to figure out. The Lightning seem so good at times offensively but lack the defense and goaltending that you see from a Cup contender. And the Penguins have managed to do a lot more than stay afloat without their two best players… but can it last? I think the magic runs out here and Tampa moves on.
Lightning in 6
#1 Canucks vs. #8 Blackhawks
Despite how dominating the Canucks were this season, this series is still not a lock for them. They have the build of a cup champion (great scorers and defense, and a stud goalie) but they have to get through the team that knows better than anyone right now how to win a championship and knocked out the Canucks on their way to the Championship last season. But this 'Hawks team is a shell of last season's Cup winners with playoff heroes Niemi and Byfuglien gone, along with much of the supporting cast. It will be a great series but Vancouver will end up being too much.
Canucks in 6
#2 Sharks vs. #7 Kings
At the beginning of season, the Kings were one of the teams I thought would be making a run for the Cup in June. But with the loss of Anze Kopitar, their leading scorer, I don’t think they will be able to keep up with the high-scoring Sharks and one of the best goalies from the 2010 playoffs, Antti Niemi, who closed the season on a 26-5-4 tear.
Sharks in 4
#3 Red Wings vs. #6 Coyotes
As much as I would like to see Phoenix pull off the upset here after everything the team has gone through with management and relocation rumors, you can’t bet against consistency. Detroit has made the playoffs for 20 consecutive seasons, and in only six of the past 19 postseasons have they not made it into the 2nd rounds. But hey, Coyotes, make me eat my words.
Red Wings in 5
#4 Ducks vs. #5 Predators
As I mentioned above, the Ducks come into the playoffs playing some great hockey. But if there is anything that can shut down a high-scoring team, it's a goalie who is on a hot streak. And that's what Nashville has in Pekka Rinne. The Finn was second in the league in Save Percentage and third in Goals Against Average. Having lived in Nashville for four years, I have faith that the Pred's will put up a fight but I don’t know if it will be enough this time.
Ducks in 7