By Mike Ivcic and Alex Rajaniemi
After a quick, 48-game sprint to get to this point, the NHL will roll out the red carpet this week for the single best postseason in all of sports. To help you get ready for all of the sick goals, spectacular saves, and multiple overtimes, I’ve once again teamed with Alex Rajaniemi to give you two different perspectives on the upcoming first round series – just in case you’ve read my other previews and know it’s usually better to take advice on predictions from someone other than me. But it also puts a little bit of bragging rights on the line, which only ups the ante for Alex and me. Scoring will be a point for correctly picking the winner of the series, and an additional point for correctly picking the number of games. Alex, you’re going to owe me dinner after this is all said and done! And with that, here we go…
Note: All times and networks are courtesy of nhl.com. Additional time and network information will be released as the first round begins. The odds next to each team are Bovada’s odds to win the Stanley Cup.
1 Pittsburgh Penguins (7/2) vs. 8 New York Islanders (40/1)
G1 – Wednesday, May 1 @ Pittsburgh, 7:30pm (NBCSN)
G2 – Friday, May 3 @ Pittsburgh, 7:00pm (NBCSN)
G3 – Sunday, May 5 @ NY Islanders, 12:00pm (NBC)
G4 – Tuesday, May 7 @ NY Islanders, 7:00pm (NBCSN)
*G5 – Thursday, May 9 @ Pittsburgh, 7:00pm
*G6 – Saturday, May 10 @ NY Islanders, TBA
*G7 – Sunday, May 11 @ NY Islanders, TBA
Mike: We’re starting off this preview with the team that made all the headlines this season and may have the most loaded roster of any team in the NHL. The names read almost like an All-Star team: Sidney Crosby. Evgeni Malkin. Jerome Iginla. Marc Andre-Fleury. But it’s the last name that should at least give some pause to everyone assuming the Penguins are the de facto favorites to win this all. Does anyone remember last year’s fiasco against Philadelphia where the Flyers lit up Fleury like a Christmas tree? I think the Penguins win this series, Alex, but I really like this Islanders team – especially MVP candidate John Tavares – and I think this will go a little longer than most Penguins fans would like.
Pick: Pittsburgh 4, NY Islanders 2
Alex: Mike, I understand your concern with Pittsburgh and Fleury’s recent playoff woes, but you have to understand that this Pens team is not only the most loaded roster in the NHL, but they’re quite possibly one of the best assembled teams in the history of the game. They have TEN Olympians, most of whom own a gold medal. And even if Marc-Andre turns into Marc-Gone-dre like he did last playoffs, Pittsburgh’s stellar front office just went out and picked up a Hobey Baker finalist who just happens to be 6’4” in Eric Hartzell. The dude single-handedly carried Quinnipiac to the final, so I’d put him in over a rapidly aging Vokoun any day. This isn’t to say I don’t like the Isles either – it’s awesome that the Coliseum is going to be able to see another playoff series, and this team should give Long Island a lot to look forward to in the near future. Tavares is a scoring machine and a leader, but I just don’t see the depth coming through. Evgeni Nabokov can only stand on his head for so long, and I don’t think that even counts for one regulation win if that at all.
Pick: Pittsburgh 4, NY Islanders 0
2 Montreal Canadiens (10/1) vs. 7 Ottawa Senators (28/1)
G1 – Thursday, May 2 @ Montreal, 7:00pm (CNBC)
G2 – Friday, May 3 @ Montreal, 7:00pm (CNBC)
G3 – Sunday, May 5 @ Ottawa, 7:00pm (NBCSN)
G4 – Tuesday, May 7 @ Ottawa, 7:00pm (CNBC)
*G5 – Thursday, May 9 @ Montreal, 7:00pm
*G6 – Saturday, May 11 @ Ottawa, TBA
*G7 – Sunday, May 12 @ Montreal, TBA
Alex: This is a really, really tricky one. The Montreal Canadiens have been one of, if not the most, consistent teams in the league this entire season and have the best home ice advantage in the game. I love the way Carey Price has taken a death grip on this defense and Montreal has an incredibly balanced attack – look for rookie American, Alex Galchenyuk, to have a breakout series here. The Canadiens have one big problem to look out for here in the Senators though. Craig Anderson, when healthy, has been an animal for Ottawa all season, and although his intangibles don’t add up to his counterpart’s in this series, I think he can lead them to a stunner. You can’t tell me a 1.68 GAA doesn’t scare you, Mike. Couple that with the fact that the Sens are returning the reigning Norris Trophy winner and quite possibly the most talented offensive defenseman in the world and the Habs will have more on their plate than they would’ve hoped for. This being said, the Senators can’t score with the amount of injuries they’ve had this season, and if you can’t score, you can’t win. This’ll be a defensive spectacle, but I’ve got the Habs in seven. Lever le Flambeau!
Pick: Montreal 4, Ottawa 3
Mike: I love your enthusiasm for les Canadiens, Alex, and I’ll take it a step further in saying I think they win this series in fewer than seven games. You mentioned Anderson and yes, he does scare me because I remember watching the Rangers last season in the first round pushed to the brink specifically because of the play of the Ottawa netminder, but you also mentioned scoring, and how little of it the Senators actually do. Montreal struggled down the stretch, sure, but this is a very talented team that only won the deepest division in the league, so clearly they did something right. The trio of Pacioretty, Subban, and Plekanec trump whatever three players from Ottawa you’d like to match up against them, and something tells me Price is going to have a big series. Plus, they do have some veterans that have had deep playoff runs, and don’t think guys like Brian Gionta and Jeff Halpern (even with his diminished skill) can’t make a difference in the dressing room. Yes, the Sens will be buoyed by the return of Karlsson, but I just don’t think it’s enough to lift a team with only three players in double-digit goals to four wins in seven tries against the most storied franchise in the game.
Pick: Montreal 4, Ottawa 2
3 Washington Capitals (16/1) vs. 6 New York Rangers (18/1)
G1 – Thursday, May 2 @ Washington, 7:30pm (NBCSN)
G2 – Saturday, May 4 @ Washington, 12:30pm (NBC)
G3 – Monday, May 6 @ NY Rangers, 7:30pm (NBCSN)
G4 – Wednesday, May 8 @ NY Rangers, 7:30pm (NBCSN)
*G5 – Friday, May 10 @ Washington, 7:30pm
*G6 – Sunday, May 11 @ NY Rangers, TBA
*G7 – Monday, May 12 @ Washington, TBA
Mike: This was a classic series last year that went the distance with every game but one decided by one goal – and one the Rangers won, which is why I was hoping against all hope that this would be the Islanders, Maple Leafs, or Senators. The Caps are possibly the hottest team in the entire postseason – as late as April 4th they were still outside of the playoff picture. But without a true offseason or preseason, it should have been expected that Washington would have an adjustment period under new head coach Adam Oates, but they have clearly embraced his system and are better off for it. This is the best power play in the game and after years of “playing defense” in Bruce Boudreau’s smothering defensive system, it would appear that Alex Ovechkin is back to his elite goal-scoring form after netting a league-leading 32 in the shortened 48-game season. For the NHL’s sake, Alex, I hope this series duplicates the excitement and intensity of last year’s match up, and I always pick with my head when I write these previews, but maybe this time I’m also picking a little bit with my heart.
Pick: Washington 4, New York 3
Alex: This series has been an absolute blast to watch these past two playoffs and it is easily my most anticipated matchup of the first round. It seems that Alex Ovechkin has returned to Rocket Richard form with 18 goals in his final 16 games and Mike Ribiero is finally starting to come around as the complementary center, but there’s a massive flaw in this team, and that’s goaltending. Holtby cannot and will not return to his other worldly form from last year, and I’m afraid that Michael Neuvirth will fall into the same category as both tendies have posted GAA’s near 3.00 this season. The scoring prowess is there, but you also have to realize that the Caps went 1-2 this season against the Blue Shirts and scored only one power play goal on ten chances. Hank’s got their number. This Rangers team is a defensive enigma to many teams, especially of late (plus they’re scoring goals at a torrid pace). You have to have a huge night to put more than three in on Lundqvist, and most of those are going to come off tips and screens, so if Washington wants to have a chance here they need to utilize the extra man and take away King Henrik’s eyes. The Rangers just look a lot like the Lighting team that Brad Richards and Torts took all the way to a Cup title back in ‘04, and I can’t bet against it. I just don’t see Oates’ boys coming through here as the Rangers will take it in six.
Pick: NY Rangers 4, Washington 2
4 Boston Bruins (9/1) vs. 5 Toronto Maple Leafs (20/1)
G1 – Wednesday, May 1 @ Boston, 7:00pm (CNBC)
G2 – Saturday, May 4 @ Boston, 7:00pm (CNBC)
G3 – Monday, May 6 @ Toronto, 7:00pm (NHLN)
G4 – Wednesday, May 8 @ Toronto, 7:00pm (NHLN)
*G5 – Friday, May 10 @ Boston, 7:00pm
*G6 – Sunday, May 11 @ Toronto, TBA
*G7 – Monday, May 12 @ Boston, TBA
Alex: This matchup isn’t so tough for me. I love Boston and I love the emotion that the city is carrying behind them as of now. I understand they’re limping into the playoffs with a few losses, but this team is a playoff hockey team with a playoff tested head coach. They’re big, physical, play rock solid defense, and aren’t afraid to get mean in any situation. Zdeno Chara shines in the postseason and Tyler Seguin looks like he’s back in 2011 again, so prepare for fireworks. Toronto is a solid team with a perennial all-star in Phil Kessel, but when Ben Scrivens and James Reimer team up for your goaltending tandem it just spells disaster. This Maple Leafs team is talented, but they’re incredibly top heavy scoring wise and that first line does get scored on quite a bit as Kessel and JVR are in the minus column. The only way Toronto stays in it and makes the series go more than five is if they can continue to shut down Boston’s sickly powerplay– and with players like Jay McClement and Tyler Bozak they do have the recipe for that. However, I just don’t like this matchup for Toronto, but congrats to them for bringing playoff hockey back to this historic city.
Pick: Boston 4, Toronto 1
Mike: I will ignore the temptation to comment on your clearly poor judgment in the Caps-Rangers series and instead concur, for the second time, with your assessment of a series involving a Canadian team, with one small exception – I think you underestimate James Reimer, Alex. Every time I turned on NHL Network this season, I seemed to watch Reimer make amazing save after unbelievable save and carry the Leafs to victory. Plus, did you not watch the Bruins down the stretch? They needed to win at least one of their final two games to capture the Northeast Division championship and lost to the Caps in a shootout on the road before giving up a late goal to Ottawa in the makeup game Sunday and missing out on the chance to avoid the Penguins until the conference finals. This year’s Bruins look a whole lot like last year’s Bruins, who were quite frankly the better team but coughed up a winnable series to the Capitals in the first round. I don’t think Toronto has enough firepower to outlast a Boston squad that, as you astutely pointed out, is joining with the Red Sox to carry an entire city to a better place emotionally, but I’m just not really sold that this Bruins team is capable of beating three quality playoff opponents, in succession, over the span of six weeks, so this may be a one-time pick for me here.
Pick: Boston 4, Toronto 3
1 Chicago Blackhawks (15/4) vs. 8 Minnesota Wild (22/1)
G1 – Tuesday, April 30 @ Chicago, 8:00pm (NBCSN)
G2 – Friday, May 3 @ Chicago, 9:30pm (NBCSN)
G3 – Sunday, May 5 @ Minnesota, 3:00pm (NBC)
G4 – Tuesday, May 7 @ Minnesota, 9:30pm (NBCSN)
*G5 – Thursday, May 9 @ Chicago, TBA
*G6 – Saturday, May 10 @ Minnesota, TBA
*G7 – Sunday, May 11 @ Chicago, TBA
Mike: Alex, I was rooting for the Wild and Blue Jackets both get in and end the Red Wings streak of consecutive playoff berths, as I’m sure you as an Avs fan were probably hoping for the same thing. Still, the Kings won the Cup out of the 8-seed last year, and I feel confident in saying that this group in St. Paul could do the same thing. The problem is that this year’s Blackhawks aren’t last year’s Canucks. Chicago was the league’s top defensive team and second in scoring behind the Penguins. They are loaded up front with Kane, Sharp, Hossa, Toews, Stahlberg, Bickell… it’s a long list. The Achilles heel might be goaltending, because I’m not necessarily sold that Corey Crawford or Ray Emery are Stanley Cup-caliber goaltenders, but their defensive zone play more than offsets any weakness. They lost back-to-back games in regulation only twice all season, and I just don’t see how this Wild team that limped into the postseason with a 5-8-1 record in April – even with the likes of Suter, Parise, and Koivu leading the way – can beat Chicago four times in seven games.
Pick: Chicago 4, Minnesota 1
Alex: Don’t bring up the Red Wings to me Mike, please? Listen, I love the Wild even though they’re a formidable Avalanche rival. They’re got stellar homegrown American talent in Suter and Parise, a balanced offensive attack with size on defense, and also have Nicklas Backstrom as a backstop. They know how to win gritty and grimy hockey games (problem is, that isn’t Chicago’s style) especially at home at Excel with the entire “State of Hockey” behind them. This all being said and repeated from above, they’re not beating the boys from the Windy City. This is an historic NHL team with monstrous amounts of offensive talent and boasts names like Keith, Hjalmarsson, and Seabrook on the back end. I agree with the fact that Crawford and Emery are suspect goaltenders, but the way that they’ve been playing off of each other’s hot streaks this season is really something special. Joel Quenneville may have another ring on his finger here. Locking you up on this one.
Pick: Chicago 4, Minnesota 1
2 Anaheim Ducks (12/1) vs. 7 Detroit Red Wings (28/1)
G1 – Tuesday, April 30 @ Anaheim, 10:30pm (NBCSN)
G2 – Thursday, May 2 @ Anaheim, 10:00pm (NBCSN)
G3 – Saturday, May 4 @ Detroit, 7:30pm (NBCSN)
G4 – Monday, May 6 @ Detroit, 8:00pm (CNBC)
*G5 – Wednesday, May 8 @ Anaheim, 10:00pm
*G6 – Friday, May 10 @ Detroit, TBA
*G7 – Sunday, May 12 @ Anaheim, TBA
Alex: This could be a trap. The Ducks are darn good, Mike, darn good. They score, skate, and play the type of Boudreau hockey that got the Caps into the playoffs for the past several seasons. I love Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth as a tandem too, they had literally identical numbers this year which means a decent chemistry between the two and, more importantly, fresh legs. The problem is that Boudreau’s teams haven’t fared well in the playoffs as of late. Plus, the Wings are looking like the Wings again as they continued their playoff berth streak and have Henrik Zetterberg skating as well as ever. We all knew losing Nick Lidstrom would hurt the Wings (since when have we seen Detroit have to clinch on the last day?) but I think Mike Babcock has a great team to work with here. Jimmy Howard is sensational. 21 wins and 5 shutouts can tell you that any day. They know how to win in the playoffs and they have players that shine brightest when in the spring. Johan Franzen is one of those guys to look for here. From 2007-2010, Franzen had 59 points in 51 playoff games, so don’t think the Mule can’t get it done. I see the Wings using their battle-tested game to overwhelm Anaheim, winning in six. I may be falling into a trap here.
Pick: Detroit 4, Anaheim 2
Mike: Consider yourself hook, line, and sinkered here, Alex. Your first line should have guided your pick – the Ducks are good, and they will continue to be into the second round of the postseason. I think you may be picking on past performance instead of looking at the current resumes posted this season. I agree that Franzen, Holmstrom, Datsyuk, and Co. are all very good players, but this is a Detroit team that never seemed to catch the proverbial “fire” that everyone was waiting to witness. Instead they rallied by winning their final four games just to clinch the seven seed. Meanwhile Anaheim, they of the loaded offense with the likes of Getzlaf, Perry, Koivu, Selanne, Ryan, Palmeiri, and Cogliano, can see the Red Wings offense and raise them a better goaltender in Hiller. Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t buy Jimmy Howard as an elite goaltender, and I don’t see him being able to duplicate the likes of Brodeur, Quick, or Giguere and win a Cup virtually by himself. Better offense and better goaltending is a simple equation, bud. It’s called a series win.
Pick: Anaheim 4, Detroit 2
3 Vancouver Canucks (14/1) vs. 6 San Jose Sharks (16/1)
G1 – Wednesday, May 1 @ Vancouver, 10:30pm (NBCSN)
G2 – Friday, May 3 @ Vancouver, 10:00pm (CNBC)
G3 – Sunday, May 5 @ San Jose, 10:00pm (NBCSN)
G4 – Tuesday, May 7 @ San Jose, 10:00pm (CNBC)
*G5 – Thursday, May 9 @ Vancouver, 10:00pm
*G6 – Saturday, May 11 @ San Jose, TBA
*G7 – Monday, May 13 @ Vancouver, TBA
Mike: For a lot of pundits, this was a matchup they expected to see in the Western Conference finals, not the first round. Both teams are loaded with talent, but the Sharks had a terrible stretch in February, losing 10 of 12, and they actually struggle scoring even strength (ranking 6th in power play but only 24th in goals per game). Conversely the Canucks are just 22nd on the power play, despite having both Sedins and Ryan Kesler, and now they may not have starting goalie Corey Schneider for game one because of an undisclosed injury. Alex, I’m sure you can just imagine the way the Canucks crowd will treat Roberto Luongo if he plays and gives up a weak goal. I was planning on taking Vancouver here, but the more I think about it I just don’t like the psyche of this group. I know the Sharks playoff struggles have been well-documented, but I think Joe Thornton and Antti Niemi lead the way and get it done in round one.
Pick: San Jose 4, Vancouver 2
Alex: This playoff series makes me cringe. My three least favorite sports teams are Detroit, Vancouver, and San Jose in that order. San Jose effectively ended Joe Sakic’s career in the playoffs with a devastating win and I’ll never get over it. It’s painful to write this, Mike, because I have to use the phrases “I like” and “just too good.” Vancouver is simply… just too good… for San Jose to beat. Vancouver has the best goaltending tandem in the league with Roberto and Schneider, two guys who may face off against each other in Sochi. For the first time in a while Vancouver flew under the Western Conference radar, when they’re normally in the conversation for the President’s Trophy. The pressure that’s always there in Vancouver may not be as heavy this year. I think this bodes well for the Canucks and after a dismal loss to the eventual Cup champs last year, this team knows they have everything to prove to their die-hard fan base and the Sedin twins will lift them in this series. This isn’t to say that it’ll be a cake-walk, though, as the Sharks have a lot of recent playoff struggles to overcome. I loved their molten-lava-hot start to the season and their trade deadline deals have worked out in their favor so far, but they’ve gotta rekindle the Marleau scoring machine again. Niemi can be an excellent goaltender in the playoffs, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that Patrick Kane and Johnny Toews won him that ring, and these Sharks are nowhere near as talented as that Blackhawks team in 2010.
Pick: Vancouver 4, San Jose 3
4 St. Louis Blues (14/1) vs. 5 Los Angeles Kings (14/1)
G1 – Tuesday, April 30 @ St. Louis, 8:00pm (CNBC)
G2 – Thursday, May 2 @ St. Louis, 9:30pm (CNBC)
G3 – Saturday, May 4 @ Los Angeles, 10:00pm (NBCSN)
G4 – Monday, May 6 @ Los Angeles, 10:00pm (NBCSN)
*G5 – Wednesday, May 8 @ St. Louis, TBA
*G6 – Friday, May 10 @ Los Angeles, TBA
*G7 – Monday, May 13 @ St. Louis, TBA
Alex: Mike, this is my favorite Western Conference opening round matchup and its going to be incredible. If you watch one series this year, make sure you watch this one. These are two young, talented teams that have had some bitter battles as of late, even with Los Angeles winning all three matchups this season. The Blues look like a team that are poised to make the jump to perennial powerhouse, just like they looked like in the early parts of the 2000’s (when my stellar Avalanche wouldn’t ever let them). There isn’t a part of this St. Louis team that I don’t like. They have young forwards who can beat you around the edges and who aren’t afraid to grit it out in the corners. They have defensemen like Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk to complement those forwards and they just happened to pick up Jay Bouwmeester in a deadline acquisition. The excellent moves in the front office over the past few seasons are paying off and now it’s time to cash in. And then there’s the reigning Stanley Cup Champions to block their way, just like Colorado a dozen years ago. Los Angeles is St. Louis in all respects, just add a better goaltender and playoff tested players. This is why I like the Kings just a little more. Jonathan Quick rose to the ranks of elite last May and June and is slated to take over for Ryan Miller as the US’s top goalie, so I’m giving the defending Conn Smythe winner the nod in this column. The other reason why I love LA? Anze Kopitar, a 6’3” 230lb monster at center who for some reason decided to play hard-nosed hockey last playoffs. The NHL playoffs can be influenced, although not won, by the excellent performance of just one player and I think Anze is that guy for the Kings this year. Look for him to carry the team with some compliments from Brown and Quick to edge out the Blues in a great series.
Pick: Los Angeles 4, St. Louis 2
Mike: It’s interesting that you’re so enamored with this series, because I can’t seem to get excited about any playoff series involving the Kings or the Blues. The last time I remember enjoying a postseason Blues series, Stevie Y (another one of your favorites) was blasting a slapshot over the shoulder of Jon Casey and sending the Red Wings to one of those epic battles with the Avalanche. Clearly, I’m not an advocate of St. Louis hockey, nor do I care to remember watching last year’s playoffs as the Kings smothered and covered the Canucks, Blues, Coyotes, and Devils en route to their first-ever championship. If this series could end with both teams eliminated, that would be my first choice. Instead, I’ll watch two talented but boring teams skate up and down the ice trying to score on all-world goalies who only seem to get better as the stakes get higher. That’s what makes this so tough for me to pick, Alex – I can’t decide if I like the down-low, side-to-side athleticism of Quick or the technical perfection of Elliott. I guess the determining factor is the same as you – Kopitar, Richards, Brown, and Carter are just a little more intimidating offensively than Stewart, McDonald, Steen, and Backes. I do agree that the Blues have done an excellent job organizationally and will likely be a force for years to come, but they’ll have to wait at least another year to make their impact truly felt during playoff time.
Pick: Los Angeles 4, St. Louis 3
Enjoy the games, and we’ll see you back here for another head-to-head battle in round two!