Chris Stevenson breaks down the NHL playoff picture
The Stanley Cup on display earlier this season in downtown Toronto. (Ernest Doroszuk/Toronto Sun/QMI Agency)
National hockey columnist Chris Stevenson breaks down all eight NHL playoff match-ups ahead of the second season.
Detroit Red Wings (Wildcard 2) at Boston Bruins (1)
Season series: Detroit 3, Boston 1
The Early Word: This series has so many great matchups, beginning behind the bench with the coaches. Detroit’s Mike Babcock and Boston’s Claude Julien are two of the best and Julien was on Babcock’s staff when they won gold with Team Canada in Sochi in February. The Wings have been banged up all year and you have to wonder how effective forwards Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg (back issues, may be back at some point in first round) will be. Julien has defenceman Zdeno Chara and Selke favourite Patrice Bergeron to smother whoever he feels is the Wings’ biggest threat, which at this point is Gustav Nyquist (28 goals in 57 games). The Wings played the Bruins tough this season, but this is the Boston’s time of year.
Stevenson says: Bruins in six.
Montreal Canadiens (3) at Tampa Bay Lightning (2)
Season series: Tampa Bay 3, Montreal 1
The Early Word: The Lightning took the season series in which the Habs scored only one goal in each of the games (the Canadiens’ lone win came in a 2-1 shootout victory). This could come down to the Habs being disciplined and being able to control Tampa’s Steven Stamkos and the Bolts’ power play (the Canadiens have the fifth-ranked penalty kill this season). Tampa scored 16 power-play goals in their final 17 games. There are questions about the health of Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop, Tampa’s most valuable player, and even if he’s available for Game 1 you have to wonder if he’s going to be at the top of his game. The Canadiens got their even-strength scoring going down the stretch and goaltender Carey Price looks like the pivotal figure in this series.
Stevenson says: Canadiens in six.
Columbus Blue Jackets (Wildcard 1) at Pittsburgh Penguins (1)
Season series: Pittsburgh 5, Columbus 0
The Early Word: The Penguins are to the Stanley Cup playoffs what Lady Gaga is to show business: you never know what outrageous development is going to take over the stage. Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury played himself out of net last year, a season after having a meltdown against the Philadelphia Flyers. He’s had an outstanding regular season, but you just know everybody is waiting to see how he handles the first couple of tough shots he gets from the Blue Jackets. The Jackets are in the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history and look like a handful. Forward Ryan Johansen, 21, is having a beast-like breakout season (33 goals) and Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky (.923 save percentage) will help make this series way closer than some might expect.
Stevenson says: Pittsburgh in six.
Philadelphia Flyers (3) at New York Rangers (2)
Season series: 2-2
The Early Word: The Rangers got things sorted out under new coach Alain Vigneault and wound up fourth in the league in goals allowed per game (Philly was 20th). The Rangers did a good job in that department by keeping the puck away from their net quite a bit (second in the league in shots per game at 33.2) while the Flyers gave up just slightly more than they took. The Flyers were the most penalized team in the league (the Rangers were the ninth). You put those things together and it looks like the Flyers, who have lost eight straight at Madison Square Garden, will have to overcome some fancy stats and the work of Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to make this a series, which they will do.
Stevenson says: Rangers in seven.
Minnesota Wild (Wildcard 1) at Colorado Avalanche (1)
Season series: Colorado 4, Minnesota 1
The Early Word: The Avalanche had a marvelous turnaround season under rookie coach Patrick Roy, going from 29th in the league to Central Division champions. But the Avs allowed the most shots of any team in the playoffs (32.6 a game; Montreal is next at 31) and the outstanding work of goaltender Semyon Varlamov was critical to reducing the impact of that stat. Hey, your goalie is part of your team, too. The Wild didn’t do much better. They were outshot by an average of one shot per game over the season. The Avs are comfortable playing it close. They led the league in performance in one-goal games, going 28-4-7.
Stevenson says: Avs in six.
Chicago Blackhawks (3) at St. Louis Blues (2)
Season series: St. Louis 3, Chicago 2
The Early Word: At the beginning of the season, if you were just going to pick two teams that you thought might deserve to be in the Stanley Cup final, it might have been these two. Thanks to the divisional-based playoff system, one of them will be out in the first round. Fair? Fair doesn’t have anything to do with it and that’s what makes this playoff format so compelling. The Blues have been ravaged by injuries down the stretch and lost their last six games going into the playoffs. The defending champion ’Hawks are expected to be healthy for the post-season and that’s going to be too much for a Blues team that has difficulty carrying regular-season success into the post-season.
Stevenson says: ’Hawks in seven.
Dallas Stars (Wildcard 2) at Anaheim Ducks (1)
Season series: Dallas 2, Anaheim 1
The Early Word: If there’s a team ripe for an upset in the first round, it just might be the Ducks. Coach Bruce Boudreau, going back to his days with the Washington Capitals, hasn’t had a lot of success recreating regular-season excellence in the post-season. The Ducks were the second seed last year in the Western Conference and lost to the Detroit Red Wings in the first round. The Stars have a couple of dynamic young stars in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin (combined for 163 points) and they will be a handful for anybody. I’m not sold on the idea the Ducks defence has anybody who can go up against them and shut them down. Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen played well down the stretch (he won eight of his last 11 starts).
Stevenson says: Dallas in seven.
Los Angeles Kings (3) at San Jose Sharks (2)
Season series: Los Angeles 3, San Jose 2.
The Early Word: These two teams met in the second round last spring as the sixth (Sharks) and fifth (Kings) seeds and it was a seven-game beauty with each team winning once in the other team’s barn before the Kings finally prevailed 2-1 in Game 7 in L.A. The Sharks are sixth in the league in goals scored, the Kings, 26th. The Kings are first in the league in defence and the Sharks are fifth. This is going to come down to Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick coming up with a performance like he did a couple of years ago when the Kings won the Cup and he won the Conn Smythe. The Kings just seem to have that little bit more grit and the addition of scorer Marian Gaborik might have the same effect in boosting the Kings’ meager offence as the arrival of Jeff Carter two years ago.
Stevenson says: Kings in six.
What do you think of Stevenson's picks?
He's way off