Here are my predictions for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Please add yours in the comments section.
- Boston Bruins def. Detroit Red Wings (6 Games): Boston is one of the most complete and balanced teams in the league. They have scoring, size, grit, experience, depth down the middle, and an elite goaltender. They have a good power play (21.7%, 3rd in the NHL), a good penalty kill (83.6%, 8th), and they're great at even strength (54.1 %, 4th in Fenwick Close). If there's one weakness, it's their defensive depth after Zdeno Chara. The loss of Dennis Seidenberg and Andrew Ference have thrust younger players like Dougie Hamilton and Torey Krug into bigger roles, and the late-season addition of Andrej Meszaros hasn't significantly altered the situation. Detroit overcame a lot of injuries to reach the postseason, and they could cause the Bruins some headaches if Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are healthy. While I think they'll push the Bruins pretty hard, I don't see them pulling off the upset.
- Tampa Bay Lightning def. Montreal Canadiens (6 Games): What John Cooper has done with the . . . fuck me, it even hurts to write it. . . Lightning this year is impressive. He has them playing strong at even strength (51.7%, 10th in FenClose), and they had a decent power play, despite lacking Steven Stamkos for much of the season. If there's a weakness, it's on the PK and in goal if Ben Bishop can't play. Montreal had pretty poor possession stats this year (48.4%, 22nd in FenClose) and benefited from some outstanding (or lucky) goaltending by Carey Price (.927 Sv %). Adding Thomas Vanek (15 points in 18 games since going to Montreal) gives them some more firepower, but I don't see him our the Habs' outstanding PK (4th overall) being difference makers.
- Pittsburgh Penguins def. Columbus Blue Jackets (5 Games): Like many folks on Japers' Rink, I'll be rooting for #Lumbus, but I don't think it's meant to be. The Penguins are too good at the key positions, and their excellent special teams (PP 1st, 23.4%, PK 5th, 85%) compensate for middling ES puck possession (16th, 50.2%). The Pens are getting healthier at the right time, with Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, and Tomas Vokoun back in the lineup. The latter is particularly important, because if the Pens have a weakness, it's Marc-Andre Fleury's play in the playoffs. When they won the Cup in 2009, he put up middling stats of .908 Sv % and 2.61 GAA, and last year he was an absolute wreck, at .883 and 3.52, respectively. Vokoun gives them a viable backup (.933 Sv% filling in for Fleury in last year's playoffs) if Fleury gets a case of beach-ball-itis. Columbus has a solid mix of hard working young players such as former Portland Winterhawks Ryan Johansen and Brandon Dubinsky, and if they get Vezina-caliber goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky, they might be able to pull off the upset. More likely, however, is that Pittsburgh's star players have their way with an inexperienced team that relies a little too heavily on defensemen such as Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski.
- New York Rangers def. Philadelphia Flyers (7 Games): This is a close call, but I think the Rangers' superior depth and goaltending carry the day. Both teams are pretty evenly matched on special teams, with the Rangers better on the penalty kill (85.3%, 3rd overall for NYR vs. 84.8%, 7th for PHI), and the Flyers better on the power play (19.7%, 8th overall for PHI vs. 18.2%, 15th for NYR). The Rangers have the clear advantage in even strength play, posting the league's 6th-best FenClose at 53.6%, while the Flyers were mired under 50% at 22nd overall in the league (48.2%). I'm willing to give the Flyers a small pass on that stat, however, as they started out poorly under Peter Laviolette and improved somewhat under Craig Berube. On the face of it, the Rangers should dominate this series, but two things make me think this one goes the distance. First, the Rangers have historically been less than the sum of their parts in the playoffs; they look so good on paper, but it never seems to come together for them. Second, the Flyers could turn this into a very physical series, something the Rangers (with guys like Brad Richards, Martin St Louis, and Mats Zuccarello) aren't exactly built for. Third, neither Madison Square Garden nor the Wells Fargo Center are renowned for having great ice surfaces. If spring-like weather returns (please), the slower, choppier ice could favor the slower, choppier Flyers.
Western Conference (I'll be the first to admit that, outside of the Avs, I don't watch nearly enough western-conference hockey.)
- Anaheim Ducks def. Dallas Stars (5 Games): The Ducks may have some flaws - their even strength puck possession is middling, and it declined as the season went on, and their goaltending situation seems unsettled - but they're still going to beat the Stars. Neither team has a concerted special-teams advantage and, as mentioned, the Stars have the superior puck-possession stats (9th in FenClose at 51.9% vs. Anaheim's 50.2%, good for 15th). These teams mirror each other in many ways - both have top-heavy scoring from a center-wing pair (Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf for Anaheim, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn for Dallas), and both have relatively inexperienced defensive corps that rely heavily on young puck movers (Cam Fowler and Hampus Lindholm for Anaheim, Alex Goligoski for Dallas). The differences are in the details, however. The Ducks have more experience (particularly Stanley Cup experience) and, at least at this stage in their careers, Perry-Getzlaf are better than Seguin-Benn. The wild card could be the experience behind the bench, as Lindy Ruff has seen more playoff success in his career than Bruce Boudreau. In the end, though, Anaheim's relatively superior depth (Cody Eakin is Dallas' 4th-leading scorer with 35 points, for example) will win out.
- Colorado Avalanche def. Minnesota Wild (6 Games): This one will be closer than the seedings suggest. Colorado was one of the puck-luckiest teams in the league this year, with the league's third-highest PDO. Sure, Semyon Varlamov playing lights-out under the tutelage of Patrick Roy and Francois Allaire had something to do with that, but puck-luck is a fickle mistress. When it came to puck possession, the Avs were terrible, putting up the league's 27th-ranked FenClose at 46.8%. This is less disconcerting given that the Avs are playing the Wild, which only come in at 21st in FenClose, just a couple percentage points ahead of the Avs at 48.6%. Colorado, with the 5th-ranked PP (19.8%), is likely to win the special-teams battle, despite its mediocre PK (24th overall at 80.7%). That's because Minnesota is mediocre on the power play and atrocious on the penalty kill, coming in at 16th a man up (17.9%), and 27th a man down (78.8%). That's a shocking number for a team led by Ryan Suter, but it reflects the Wild's unsettled situation in net, as their PK Sv% was also 27th in the league (86.1%, vs. Colorado's 89.8%). Both teams have solid depth up front, with Colorado having the slight edge if they can get Matt Duchene back in the lineup. Minnesota has the clear advantage on defense though, with Suter, Jonas Brodin, and Jared Spurgeon being much better than Erik Johnson, Jan Hejda, and Tyson Barrie. The Avs' "luck" will need to continue, and it probably will, since the goaltending duel is between likely Vezina-winner Varlamov and cosmonaut Ilya Bryzgalov. (Once the Avs run into a good puck-possession team that isn't backed by a sieve of a goalie, however...)
- Chicago Blackhawks def. St Louis Blues (6 Games): This will likely be a very close series, as both teams have frighteningly good rosters on paper, which have translated into mostly excellent results on the ice over the last several seasons. Both the Blackhawks and the Blues excel at puck possession, with the Blackhawks coming in 2nd overall in FenClose (55.2%), with the Blues close behind in 7th (53.1%). Both teams are deep where it matters, with the Blackhawks having the edge in skilled depth up front with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, Kris Versteeg, and Marcus Kruger, while the Blues having the edge in depth on the blueline with Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Barrett Jackman, Roman Polak, Ian Cole, and Carlo Colaiacovo. The Blues have the edge in special teams, with a slightly better power play (19.8%, 7th overall for STL vs. 19.5%, 10th for CHI), and a much better penalty kill (2nd at 85.7% for STL vs. 81.4%, 19th for CHI). After their trade to acquire Ryan Miller, the Blues should also have the edge in goal over Chicago's Corey Crawford. So why am I picking the Blackhawks? First, the Blues are badly banged up heading into the playoffs, with many of their forwards nursing injuries. Second, partly as a result of these injuries, the Blues collapsed down the stretch, first falling out of contention for the President's Trophy, then losing the division to the Avalanche. Third, Chicago has more high-end skill. Alex Steen had a hot stick this year, and TJ Oshie put on a show at the Olympics, but Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, and Marian Hossa are all elite offensive players. Chicago's coach Joel Quenneville can drive his opposite number insane trying to match up his defensemen with two "number one" lines. Finally, Chicago has the experience and the confidence that comes from having won Cups, whereas the Blues look like a mess right now.
- Los Angeles Kings def. San Jose Sharks (7 Games): There will be blood. This will probably be the most brutal series in the first round, and whichever team comes out alive is likely going to be battered and bruised. These are two big, physical teams that hound the puck. Los Angeles is probably stronger in terms of puck pursuit and shutting down the neutral zone, but San Jose is probably better at moving the puck with possession through all three zones. They both have outstanding puck possession metrics, with LA 1st overall in FenClose at 56.7%, and SJS 3rd overall 54.6%. San Jose has the edge on special teams, with the 20th ranked power play (17.2%) and the 6th ranked penalty kill (84.9%). LA comes in at 27th (15.1%) and 11th (83.1%), respectively. But this series is likely to be decided at even strength, and it's there that the Kings have their edge. As good as San Jose is at moving the puck, LA is phenomenal at choking off skating and passing lanes. They play almost every game as though it's a playoff game in terms of style and intensity. San Jose has the scoring edge on paper, but LA has the advantage in net with Quick. Much as is the case with the Chicago-St Louis series, this is a contest between two very evenly matched teams, and I give the slight edge to the team that has the experience and confidence that comes with winning a Cup.