2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoff Preview and Predictions
WESTERN CONFERENCE ROUND ONE
Minnesota Wild vs St Louis Blues: Blues in 7
These might be the two deepest teams in the league at forward, to go along with Chicago and Ottawa, but St Louis’ blue-line is a lot better than Minnesota’s. Since the trade for Dubnyk, you have to give Minnesota a big edge in goal, but is Devan Dubnyk, the same guy that was terrible just a year ago, enough of a reason to cancel out that discrepancy in blue-line talent?
Maybe! The hell if I know. Every goaltender Sean Burke gets his hands on seems to become superman for at least a good 12 months before the magic pixie dust wears off. But I have to go St Louis here. St Louis gives me long pause about whether they’re the best team in the NHL, in fact, so I have to go with them.
Possible Wild X-factors and breakout candidates: Sean Bergenheim, Erik Haula, Jason Zucker.
Possible Blues X-factors and breakout candidates: Jori Lehtera, Patrick Berglund
Nashville Predators vs Chicago Blackhawks: Blackhawks in 6
Another extremely difficult pick. Both teams have struggled over their last 10, but I feel the Preds have dropped off for a much longer period than that, ever since trading half of their centers away for, ultimately, nothing. They could still very well beat the Blackhawks, and I almost picked this going 7, but the Blackhawks are so skilled, deep at every position but goaltending, and experienced, I had to lean Chicago. With Kane and Richards returning, I see reason for them to return to past form. With the Predators, I don’t have as much of a reason to think that will happen, although Fisher’s return will help. Just not as much as Kane and Richards’. The Preds do have one advantage, and it happens to be at the position of Chicago’s biggest Achilles heel: goaltending. Crawford has always been shaky, even if he’s improved the last two seasons, and Rinne is elite. Nashville’s defense is also elite, but their top line center is Mike Ribeiro, while Chicago’s is Jonathan Toews. Chicago’s elite forwards, elite defense, and average goaltender beat Nashville’s elite defense, elite goaltender, and deep, but lacking in as much elite talent as Chicago, forward group. How’s that for an awful sentence. Hopefully this series will be better.
Possible Preds X-factors and breakout candidates: Matt Cullen, Carl Jarnkrok, Mike Santorelli, (obviously Colin Wilson).
Possible Blackhawks X-factors and breakout candidates: Teuvu Teravainen, Joakim Nordstrom, Saad/Bickell of course.
Winnipeg Jets vs Anaheim Ducks: Jets in 7
It’s the Mathieu Perreault series, the be all and end all. The Ducks problem after losing half their forwards in the summer is they simply don’t have enough better than average, or above average, players left on their roster. Perry and Getzlaf are elite. Kesler, Vatanen, Lindholm, and maybe Fowler and Wisniewski are good. That’s about it. Bob Murray made a late scramble at the trade deadline to fix the hole he dug himself last offseason, but bringing in the young Sekac, the declining Fleischmann, and James Wisniewski just wasn’t enough. This team needed some additions with elite attributes like Jaromir Jagr, for example, because right now most of its forwards are either skilled but too small, or big but not skilled enough. Guys like Patrick Maroon, Matt Beleskey, Kyle Palmieri, Emerson Etem, Jacob Silfverberg, Andrew Cogliano, and so on are just too close to being average players for this to be an elite team.
Winnipeg, while also lacking a plethora of elite stars, did make it a point to add some players with both size and skill at the deadline. Tyler Myers is the definition of elite attributes. Drew Stafford has a combination of good size and good skill. Anaheim’s best deadline additions at forward, Jiri Sekac and Tomas Fleischmann, were pretty equivalent to Winnipeg’s least significant addition, Jiri Tlusty.
But enough with the trade deadline analysis. Perry and Wheeler are close to a wash, Getzlaf is better than any center the Jets have, but after that, the Jets just have more good hockey players, much more size and just as much skill up front, and everyone knows they’ve built an insanely talented defense. Goaltending is a wash to me as long as Pavelec is in net, so I have to go Winnipeg here. The Ducks are still a good team though, and Winnipeg is very good, not elite, so I have this going 7 games.
Possible Jets X-factors and breakout candidates: Adam Lowry, Mathieu Perreault, Mark Schiefele.
Possible Ducks X-factors and breakout candidates: Jiri Sekac, Tomas Fleischmann, Rickard Rakell.
Calgary Flames vs Vancouver Canucks: Flames in 7
This is a coin flip series, possibly the toughest to call of them all. A smarter person would probably go with the seasoned Canucks here, since not only do they have the experience edge, but their top defenseman is not injured like the Flames’ is, and they’re probably slightly more talented overall. However, I like the Flames transition game, and with their top line with Gaudreau, Hudler, and Monahan and overall team speed, they remind me of the Montreal Canadiens team a few years ago led by Plekanec and Mike Cammalleri that went to the Western Conference final by playing a fast, precise counter-attacking game. I’m not sure you can trust the Canucks, or many teams for that matter, to hold leads against this skilled Flames team, and I think Jonas Hiller has a higher ceiling in net than Eddie Lack. Now, if Ryan Miller gets put in that, that’s a whole different story, as Miller is still one of the best goaltenders in the NHL, in my opinion.
I have the pesky Flames beating the Canucks in 7 games, led by the young legs of their stars Monahan and Gaudreau, as well as the young legs of their underrated depth players such as Josh Jooris, Michael Ferland, and Kris Russell. The much maligned Dennis Wideman could also have a big series offensively, and if Sam Bennett plays, he could be another wildcard in the Flames favor. Likewise, Bo Horvat could emerge for the Canucks.
Possible Flames X-factors and breakout candidates: Josh Jooris, Michael Ferland, Paul Byron, Mason Raymond, Joel Colborne.
Possible Canucks X-factors and breakout candidates: Bo Horvat, Shawn Matthias, Zack Kassian, Nick Bonino.
EASTERN CONFERENCE ROUND ONE
Ottawa Senators vs Montreal Canadiens: Senators in 6
With the emergence of all their young guns, the Canadiens are much deeper up front, plus with Cody Ceci and Patrick Wiercoch on the backend to compliment Erik Karlsson, their blue-line is much more comparable to Montreal’s than it used to be. Montreal’s one big advantage over most teams is Cary Price in goal, but goaltending hasn’t exactly been a weakness for the Senators lately, if you haven’t heard. With Pacioretty injured for game one, it just makes this pick seem even more obvious. We’ll find out if it really is or not soon. Senators in 6.
Possible Sens X-factors and breakout candidates: Stone/hoffman, Alex Chiasson, Mika Zibanejad. Curtis Lazar as well but I’m not sure he’s ready to break out yet. One for the future, perhaps.
Possible Canadiens X-factors and breakout candidates: Jacob De La Rose.
Detroit Red Wings vs Tampa Bay Lightning: Lightning in 7
I’ve always contended this group of Red Wings is much better than people realize, and the best Red Wings team since they went to the Stanley Cup final in 2009. That’s why I picked them to finish 1st in the East last year while many expected them to miss the playoffs. Unfortunately they had a bunch of injury issues, but the fact they still made it shows that the talent on the Red Wings is extremely underrated. Thus, this series is very difficult to call. While the Lightning are known for their offensive firepower, the Red Wings forwards with Datsyuk and Zetterberg healthy are extremely comparable to the Lightning’s, if not slightly better. That makes this series very difficult to pick.
Ultimately, I think the Red Wings defense, which has the unfortunate distinction of having Jonathan Ericsson play quality minutes for it, just is not good enough at this point to beat the Lightning. The Lightning’s defense is also problematic, which is why this series is so difficult to call, but it isn’t the nightmare that the Red Wings defense has been at times. Kyle Quincey, like Ericsson, has also played very poorly the last few seasons, and the Red Wings young defensemen like Brenden Smith, while talented offensively, have been known to make more mistakes than even most young defensemen do. I also considered Jimmy Howard one of the most overrated goaltenders in the NHL, while Ben Bishop was fantastic last season. He’s just bigger and more physically talented than Howard. He’s also been more reliable, as in much less likely to give up a soft goal, when I’ve watched him. Ultimately, Tampa’s renovated defense and goaltending will be the difference. Look for Alex Killorn to be the ex-factor up front for them if he’s healthy.
Possible Red Wings X-factors and breakout candidates: Tomas Jurco, Luke Glendening, Teemu Pulkkinen, Riley Sheahan
Possible Lightning X-factors and breakout candidates: Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, Cedric Paquette, Andrej Sustr (had to find a defenseman to include)
Pittsburgh Penguins vs New York Rangers: Rangers in 6
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin provide enough talent, and superior center depth, to win the Penguins two games, but Pittsburgh is outgunned everywhere else, especially with the loss of Kris Letang to injury on the back-end. The Rangers speed on the wing, treasure chest on defense, and King in goal will be the difference. Rangers in 6. Look for Kevin Klein to help them if he returns from injury, as he’s improved drastically in his strength, power skating, and confidence with the puck since his time in Nashville.
Possible Pens X-factors and breakout candidates: Blake Comeau, Steve Downie, Daniel Winnik
Possible Rangers X-factors and breakout candidates: J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes
New York Islanders vs Washington Capitals: Capitals in 7
Another very difficult series to predict. I’m not wild about the Capitals roster, and living off the power-play, as Alex Ovechkin tends to do, can be very unreliable in the postseason, when referees should, in theory, be careful about influencing the game with tick-tack penalties, and when the teams you’re going up against tend to have better penalty kills. Still, with Travis Hamonic apparently out injured, I prefer Washington’s defense to New York’s, as both Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik have played good hockey this year after being signed as free agents in the offseason, while John Carlson and Matt Green can provide a lot of mobility and offense from the back-end as well. Up front each team has a superstar in Ovechkin and John Tavares, respectfully, while the depth of both teams is very similar. In goal, let’s put it this way, when Jaroslav Halak was in St Louis, he consistently dropped the ball in the playoffs, always leading to Brion Elliot replacing him and outplaying him. That same Brian Elliot isn’t even the starter for St Louis this postseason. I think Halak is another one of these overreacted goaltenders, and while Braden Holtby is not a superstar goaltender himself, I like his reflexes and fundamentals much better than Halak’s. In the playoffs it’s all about stopping the ones you’re supposed to stop, and not putting your team behind the eight ball. Holtby brings that calmer, more reliable presence to the net, so I favor Washington there as well. Forwards are too close to call, while defense and goaltending go to Washington. But it’s very close. Caps in 7.
Possible Isles X-factors and breakout candidates: Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, Ryan Strome, Michael Grabner
Possible Caps X-factors and breakout candidates: Evgeni Kuznetsov, Eric Fehr, Andre Burakovsky, possibly Tom Wilson
Round two preview to come later.
Written by Shark Circle