Oh boy, what a finish to the season! As the grand sport of hockey is my personal favorite, I thought I’d continue the recent column “Good Sports” – with my personal predictions of how the NHL postseason will play out. I don’t claim to be a complete expert, but here we go:
First Round – DIvisional Finals
1 Montreal vs. WC1 Ottawa
What a great surprise to see Ottawa in the playoffs this season. With Boston falling out of contention, the fantastic rivalry they shared with Montreal will be usurped by this highly Canadian match-up. I’m excited to see how the phenomenal Andrew Hammond deals with the postseason, especially facing off first against likely MVP Carey Price on the opposite end of the ice. There are a lot of rookies in Ottawa, but they seem to have the stamina to pull off a grand upset over the Habs, who are perhaps going to miss leading scorer (and favorite player) Max Pacioretty. I’m calling it Ottawa in 5.
2 Tampa Bay vs. 3 Detroit
Tampa Bay has the depth to face off against another deep team. Detroit is a perennial playoff machine, but they haven’t been able to make it out of the second round since losing the Finals to Pittsburgh in 08, and barely made it to the second round at all three of those years. Tampa Bay simply has better coaching, depth and scoring prowess. They also have Ben Bishop this go around, while Jimmy Howard has had a slightly off-season. The team did almost fall out of the playoffs entirely, if not for the inept Bruins. This doesn’t mean the series won’t go longer than necessary. Lightning in 6.
1 New York Rangers vs. WC2 Pittsburgh
The New York Rangers have won the President’s Trophy this season. Pittsburgh needed Boston to lose to make it into the second wild card spot in the East. Earlier in the season, I would have pegged the Penguins for a much better postseason, but injuries have ravaged the blue line and the typical scorers just aren’t up to snuff. Sure, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby are their usual selves, but their usual selves for the past few postseasons are simple chokers. Shame, because I had a Ducks-Penguins final planned before the season started. Rangers in 5.
2 Washington vs. 3 New York Islanders
This is easily the tightest match-up in the East. The Islanders were flying high in the Metro Division in the beginning of 2015, what with the acquisitions of Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy paying off dividends in front of an actual goalie, Jaroslav Halak. But inexplicably the temper has cooled off, and the team nearly fell to a wild card spot with Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, Washington surged behind the play of Braden Holtby, who led the league in games played. Alex Ovechkin was a terror himself, leading the league in goals and missing out on the scoring lead because Jamie Benn had a hat trick on the final day of the season. Anyway, this really could go either way, and I love that Washington is probably a better team. But I’m going with Islanders in 7. They have the youth.
Second Round – Semi-Finals
Ottawa vs. Tampa Bay
As many others have predicted, this may be where Ottawa’s steam runs out. I will always have the Colorado Rockies’ magical run to the World Series in October 2007, where they swept three teams in the National League before being swept themselves by the Boston Red Sox. I’m not sure if that was running out of steam, but this analogy is comparable – Ottawa was basically out of the playoffs with a month to go in the regular season and eked by with hours left. Not only did they get in, they got to a better wild card spot. Unfortunately, I had Tampa Bay pegged to win this division outright due to their speed, depth and overall experience. Barring any injuries like last year, such as Ben Bishop’s season-ending injury, the Lightning should win this. They’re simply better than the rest right at this moment. Tampa Bay in 5.
New York Rangers vs. New York Islanders
Similarly to the other tired teams, the Rangers may have played too much hockey in the past calendar year to keep up with the youth and rejuvenation found over in Hempstead, Long Island. I don’t want to call the team too long in the tooth, but they do have Martin St. Louis and Rick Nash in comparison to John Tavares and Josh Bailey. That hopefully won’t be a problem, as I’d rather the Rangers win than the Islanders. These are both two of the best teams respectively that I’ve seen each organization assemble, so this is one of the tougher match-ups I’m covering in this article. I’m going to lean the way of the deeper team, though, and hope that the team I prefer is the team that pulls through. Doesn’t much matter for who I think wins the East anyway…. Rangers in 7.*
*-I almost just said New York in 7 to leave it ambiguous, because the next matchup is set already in my mind.
Third Round – Conference Finals
New York Rangers vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
I’m not even going to try and hide it: Tampa Bay has this locked up for me. They’re the deepest team in the East, have a fantastic goaltender who’s actively healthy, and are boasting one of the best young lineups in hockey today. Steven Stamkos is hungry for a Stanley Cup, and he’s experienced enough to lead the team there. I’m also interested to see this matchup in the Eastern Conference Finals because it’s basically New Rangers vs. Old Rangers. Anton Stralman, Brian Boyle and former captain Ryan Callahan all ended up in Florida over the past year and some say that Callahan is a little bitter about being foisted away from his captaincy. Stralman, meanwhile has developed into one of the best defensemen in the East after NJ discarded them to the Rangers and they in turn, allowed him to escape to Tampa. He backs up a blue line that has Matt Carle, Braydon Coburn and Victor Hedman. This may very well be a duel between two fantastic goalies, as Henrik Lundqvist barely tasted glory last season, and Bishop never even got a chance. I’m leaning towards Tampa though. Tampa Bay in 5.
First Round – DIvisional Finals
1 St. Louis vs. WC1 Minnesota
St Louis has a very interesting team, and I feel like they always get the short end of the stick this time of year. Similarly to the San Jose Sharks of years past, the Blues keep skipping out in the first or second round. Minnesota is on a run similar to Ottawa with its fantastic goalie Devan Dubnyk. Never did I think I’d write those last four words, but here we are. The man ran a 27-9-2 record once he came in to literally save Minnesota’s season. Beyond that, the blue line is supported by Ryan Suter and the forwards have the leadership of Zach Parise, Thomas Vanek and Mikko Koivu. They may not be as flashy as their neighbors, but they’ll up-end the West with their goalie and defense. Minnesota in 6.
2 Nashville vs. 3 Chicago
Nashville certainly has sputtered after the All-Star Break, and their positioning proves that they should have taken the better matchup by winning their division. Chicago is always dangerous these days, and Patrick Kane returns tonight with fresh legs, having healed from a nasty injury that sidelined him since February. If he isn’t rusty, this series is over immediately. Corey Crawford has rebounded fairly, while Pekka Rinne has faltered as of late. That may prove to be the tipping point, and Chicago ends up in the second round easily. Chicago in 4.
1 Anaheim vs. WC2 Winnipeg
Anaheim was my pick to win at the beginning of the year, and while they fought mumps and carrying Dany Heatley, they seem to have shed all that iniquity and proved that they were the best in the West for the rest of the regular season. Winnipeg is one of those plucky picks that pundits will likely enjoy imagining they could take out the Ducks. However, the flying V will certainly prevail again this season. The team is too good for a team that hasn’t yet won a game in the postseason. That doesn’t mean they won’t, of course. The MTS Centre will almost certainly be the loudest stadium to play in this April, but it won’t really get to see May. Anaheim in 5.
2 Vancouver vs. 3 Calgary
Other than that potential New York re-match, this is the tightest series to predict. Vancouver is solid, and Calgary should on paper be worse. But they have the spirit to fill in for players such as Mark Giordano on the blue line as he’s out for the season with injury. Players like Sean Monahan and likely Calder nominee Johnny Gaudreau have stepped up and look to lead the team to the second round for the first time since they lost the Stanley Cup to Tampa Bay. They lost the next four quarterfinals after that and never appeared past the first round again, until now. Sorry, Sedins. At least you’ll put up a fantastic fight. Calgary in 7.
Second Round – Semi-Finals
Minnesota vs. Chicago
The years won’t look kindly on Chicago, and much like New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Pittsburgh – the Blackhawks will look tired. It’s time for a new team to start winning perennially and I believe it to be Minnesota. If Dubnyk can continue his great run, he’ll overshadow Andrew Hammond to be the best story of this postseason. I love what Chicago has done the past few years, but it’ll be nice to see Parise and Suter honor their fathers by making it to the Conference Finals. Minnesota in 6.
Anaheim vs. Calgary
Anaheim will hopefully be on a roll at this point, and having to face their former goalie, Jonas Hiller, won’t do anything to help Calgary’s case. The hole Giordano left will finally be punched through by Ducks such as Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. Shame, because this will be the farthest a Canadian team will make it in my predictions. I really hope that isn’t the case, as I’m always looking for Canada to win for the first time since 1993, and I started paying attention. But given that two of the series host all Canadian teams, we’re really looking at a 3 in 8 chance. Unfortunately for those 3, they’ll also likely play better teams such as Anaheim. Ducks in 5.
Third Round – Conference Finals
Anaheim vs. Minnesota
Hey, look! It’s the re-match of the 2003 Western Conference Finals! Maybe I did that just because I love seeing stuff like this work out. Or maybe I believe in Dubnyk’s play and Anaheim’s depth. Speaking of that depth, it’s going to be too much for the Wild here. The Ducks are simply the best team in the West and are going to ease into their third Stanley Cup Finals. Hey, at least half of my pre-season predictions will remain intact. Ducks in 6.
STANLEY CUP FINALS
Tampa Bay vs. Anaheim
I like this matchup because they seem to be the best two teams in the NHL right now, especially in depth. If a goalie goes down, however, the teams are in trouble. Look for this to be a high-scoring affair, but high-spirited. Several players here will be getting their first taste of the Finals, but Tampa will step up and Steven Stamkos will deservedly get the Conn Smythe. I do think this will go the distance, though, and it will be very close. Tampa will shine in the final game, though. Tampa Bay in 7.
Playoffs start tonight, so I hope you all enjoy them with me!