With incumbent champions the L.A. Kings failing to reach the playoffs, a new team will lift the Stanley Cup this year. Will it be the Presidents’ Trophy-winning New York Rangers, who lost in last year’s Cup final, or scrappy upstarts like the Calgary Flames? All we know for certain is to expect the unexpected. There are plenty of story lines and key players to watch for as eight post-season matchups commence.
Let’s take a glance at those first-round series you’re going to want to watch on a big screen TV when the puck drops Wednesday night:
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Rangers
If you’re looking for star power, the Penguins and Rangers first-round series is set to shine. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will lead Pittsburgh into Madison Square Garden, where elite goalie Henrik Lundqvist and power forward Rick Nash await with the best regular-season record in the league (53-22-7). The Rangers are looking to correct mistakes from last year when they lost in the Cup final to the L.A. Kings. The Penguins, meanwhile, barely squeaked into the post-season with a desperate win over lowly Buffalo on the final day of the regular season. These two teams don’t like each other, as evidenced by their playoff match up last year when New York rallied from a 3-1 deficit to bounce the Pens.
Key to series: Crosby and the Pens will continue their late season slump and make a quick exit.
My prediction: Rangers in 5
Ottawa Senators vs. Montreal Canadiens
The Ottawa Senators have been the Cinderella story of the past two months, going from a draft lottery team to blazing through a 23-4-4 record over their final 31 games. That red-hot run was fuelled by goalie sensation Andrew Hammond, aka the Hamburgler. But at the other end of the ice will be Montreal’s Carey Price, arguably the best goalie in the NHL and lock candidate for the Vezina trophy. The Habs won the Atlantic Division with the second best record in the NHL (50-22-10), but the Sens, a wild card entry, own the season series against Montreal 3-1.
Key to series: Habs goalie Carey Price will pour cold water on the Sens red-hot run.
My prediction: Canadiens in 7
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Detroit Red Wings
It seems as sure as water will freeze in sub-zero temperatures, the Red Wings will make the post-season. Detroit is in the playoffs for the 24th straight year, an impressive streak that tends to get overlooked, but this time will face a team managed by a very familiar face. Former Red Wings great Steve Yzerman is Tampa Bay’s general manager and he’s hoping his team can build on its three victories over the Red Wings during the regular season. Look for Bolts star Steve Stamkos to take advantage of Detroit’s unstable goaltending situation between Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek.
Key to series: Stamkos and his Tampa teammates will expose Detroit’s suspect goaltending.
My prediction: Lightning in 6
Washington Capitals vs. New York Islanders
The historical Nassau Coliseum will see NHL playoff action one last time as the New York Islanders face the Capitals in the post-season for the first time in 22 years. The Islanders are set to move to Brooklyn next season and wouldn’t mind rewarding their long-suffering Long Island fans by hoisting the Cup at home. But they will have to get through NHL goal-scoring leader Alex Ovechkin first. Ovechkin, the Caps captain who scored 53 goals in the regular season, has never made it past the second round in 10 seasons.
Key to series: Another post-season flop for the Caps as John Tavares takes the Islanders into the semis.
My prediction: Islanders in 7
Anaheim Ducks vs. Winnipeg Jets
The Winnipeg Jets are back in the post-season for the first time since moving from Atlanta four seasons ago, while Anaheim enters the playoffs with the best record in the Western Conference for a second straight year. Winnipeg booked its playoff ticket with a wild card spot and its home games at the MTS Centre are expected to be raucous to say the least. The heavily favoured Ducks will lean on captain Ryan Getzlaf and his team-leading 70 points, but have some question marks in goal with the inexperienced duo of John Gibson and Frederik Andersen. The Jets will need defenceman Dustin Byfuglien and his 2010 Cup-winning experience with Chicago if they hope to pull off the upset.
Key to series: Anaheim will show its class despite Winnipeg’s rocking arena.
My prediction: Ducks in 7
Minnesota Wild vs. St. Louis Blues
The Central Division-winning Blues head into the playoffs looking to make amends for their first-round collapse last year against Chicago. They look well equipped to do so with a deep lineup that boasts seven forwards with at least 40 points and blue-line stars like Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo. The Wild, who are coming to the playoffs on a wild card entry and 12 straight road wins, are hoping goalie Devan Dubnyk will keep up the incredible play he’s shown since being acquired in a mid-January trade with the Arizona Coyotes.
Key to series: St. Louis’ offensive depth will prove too much for Minnesota.
My prediction: Blues in 5
Chicago Blackhawks vs. Nashville Predators
After two seasons out of the playoffs under former coach Barry Trotz, the Predators are back in the post-season under new coach Peter Laviolette. Chicago is familiar with Laviolette, having played against him and his then Philadelphia Flyers in the Cup final in 2010. The Blackhawks won that series in six games. Chicago has made the playoffs for the seventh straight season, but this time without Patrick Kane. The star forward has been out with a collarbone injury, but could return at some point in the playoffs. Expect Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa to carry Chicago’s offensive load in the meantime. Nashville, meanwhile, will rely on its elite defence with Shea Weber and goalie Pekka Rinne, while Swedish rookie Filip Forsberg could continue his breakout season leading the Preds offence.
Key to series: Predators will find another gear and surprise the Blackhawks.
My prediction: Nashville in 6
Calgary Flames vs. Vancouver Canucks
Calgary stunned many when it locked in a playoff spot as the Pacific Division’s No. 3 seed at the expense of reigning Cup champions the L.A. Kings. The young Flames haven’t seen the post-season in six years and many had them counted out when star defenceman Mark Giordano suffered a season-ending injury during the regular season. The Canucks are back in the playoffs after missing a year and come in with higher expectations, considering the off-season acquisition of goalie Ryan Miller. Vancouver’s top line of the Sedin twins with team goal-scoring leader Radim Vrbata has clicked all year and the Canucks are hoping that chemistry continues deep into the hunt for Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Key to series: Vancouver shakes off past demons and capitalizes on Calgary’s inexperience.
My prediction: Canucks in 7
As you can see, the playoffs are wide open this year with lots of teams able to make some noise. Lower seeds like Winnipeg, Calgary and Ottawa are carrying momentum into the post-season while favourites like the New York Rangers, Montreal and Anaheim must deal with higher expectations. Anything feels possible and it’s going to be a great chase for the Cup.
All photos courtesy of NHL.com via Getty Images.