Saturday night, the Detroit Red Wings and Minnesota Wild slipped into the post-season and the Columbus Blue Jackets missed a spot by the thinnest of margins.
This past week, the Chicago Blackhawks clinched the President’s Trophy, the Winnipeg Jets missed the playoffs before they could play the third period of their final game and the Boston Bruins blew a chance to fly past the Montreal Canadiens and into second place in the East. Instead, the Habs finished second and Boston will face the Leafs after losing 4-2 at home to Ottawa.
It was a great final week in what turned out to be a quick but exciting 48-game season (all seasons should be 48 games long).
Now, the real season starts. It’s time for Lord Stanley’s little May-June tournament where the first team to 16 wins takes home a large and historic silver bauble.
The whole thing starts on Tuesday night and will end sometime before the 2013 draft.
Let our annual look at the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs begin right now:
The NHL Western Conference
No. 8 Minnesota Wild (26-19-2) at No. 1 Chicago Blackhawks (36-7-5, Central Division Champions and President’s Trophy winners)
This won’t last longer than five games. The Hawks are significantly better although the Wild did win one game against Chicago this season. The Hawks goaltending was a surprise this season, but that doesn’t mean Corey Crawford and Ray Emery won’t continue to be lights out in the playoffs. The Wild have a team that tends to collapse when it matters, evidenced by that 6-1 loss to Edmonton at home when they could have wrapped up a playoff spot on Friday night. Chicago has too much offense, too much defense and Joe Quenneville is a much better coach than Mike Yeo.
Chicago in four games.
No. 7 Detroit Red Wings (24-16-8) at No. 2 Anaheim Ducks (30-12-6, Pacific Division Champions).
One might argue that Detroit was lucky to make the playoffs, but one can’t argue with this simple fact: the Red Wings have some very skilled and talented players and now that they’ve made the playoffs they are a legitimate threat to go deep. No, they aren’t as good as they were a decade ago, but they are good and players suck as Franzen, Zetterberg and Datsyuk will make them a threat every night. The big question is this: Can Jimmy Howard get the job done in net? The Ducks have size in Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry, speed in Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu and Kyle Palmieri and goaltending with Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth. Everything points to Anaheim making quick work of Detroit but I’ll always worry about an upset when the Red Wings are involved.
Detroit in six games.
No. 6 San Jose Sharks (25-16-7) at No. 3 Vancouver Canucks (26-15-7, Northwest Division Champions)
Sorry, despite a solid season, Antti Niemi is not the answer. I’ve seen it before and I wasn’t impressed. When the chips are down, I can think of a dozen goalies I’d rather have in my net. Meanwhile, the Canucks have the Sedin Twins, Derek Roy and a bunch of ex-Manitoba Moose up front, Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis on defense and both Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider in goal. Despite the fact only two points separated these teams in the final standings, I just think the Canucks have a better club.
Vancouver in six games.
No. 5 Los Angeles Kings (27-16-5, Defending Stanley Cup Champions) at No. 4 St. Louis Blues (29-17-2)
The Kings are the defending Stanley Cup champions and know exactly what it takes to win in the post-season. It’s hard to discount a team when it has Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Justin Williams, Dustin Brown, two great goalies and a lights out defense with Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov. The Blues have David Backes (the hardest working player in the game), David Perron, Alexander Steen and a couple of decent netminders, but do they have the experience that the Kings have in the playoffs? No. I love this Blues team, but I like the Kings just a little bit better.
Los Angeles in seven games.
The NHL Eastern Conference
No. 8 New York Islanders (24-17-7) at No. 1 Pittsburgh Penguins (36-12-0, Atlantic Division Champions)
The Islanders return to the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and they might be the best eighth-place team in years. Too bad they have to face the Penguins. With Evgeni Nabokov in goal, the Islanders played well all season and with maturation and progressive development of young players such as Matt Moulson, John Tavares, Josh Bailey and Travis Hamonic, the Islanders might be a legit contender, but they face the second-best if not THE best team in the NHL in the first round — especially if Sidney Crosby makes it back. Even without Sid the Kid, Pittsburgh went 8-2-0 in their final 10. The Penguins have way too much despite the Islanders heart and hard work. Pittsburgh won the season series 4-1 and after the Islanders won the first game of the season series 4-1 in late January, the Penguins won the next four games by a combined scored of 16-5.
Pittsburgh in five games.
No. 7 Ottawa Senators (24-18-6) at No. 2 Montreal Canadiens (29-14-5, Northeast Division Champions)
The Senators won their final two games of the season, 2-1 in overtime in Washington and 4-2 in Boston to finish seventh and draw the Habs. The Sens are playing well. However, Montreal beat Winnipeg 4-2 in Winnipeg and Toronto 4-1 in Toronto to finish the season so clearly, both teams are red-hot heading into the post-season. Ottawa and Montreal might have two of the best coaches in the game in Paul MacLean (Senators) and Michel Therrien (Canadiens). The Habs have more on-paper talent and probably more speed, but the Senators have heart, toughness, good goaltending and Erik Karlsson. The teams split the season series so this will be a terrific match-up.
Montreal in seven games.
No. 6 New York Rangers (26-18-4) at No. 3 Washington Capitals (27-18-3, Southeast Division Champions)
If Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is hot, the Rangers will win. However, on a man-for-man basis, the Capitals are a slightly better team. That’s mostly because of the presence of the sensational – and likely NHL MVP – Alex Ovechkin. During the season, the Rangers were 2-0-1 against the Capitals and both teams are playing extremely well down the stretch. The Rangers went 10-3-1 in April while Washington went 11-1-1. The Caps are a tiny bit hotter, but not by much. This will be close.
Washington in seven games.
No. 5 Toronto Maple Leafs (26-17-5) at No. 4 Boston Bruins (28-14-6)
The Bruins went 3-1-0 against the Leafs this season and are bigger, stronger, faster and have better all-around goaltending than Toronto. Boston has Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask and three tough, fast lines. Toronto has Nazem Kadri and James Reimer and Phil Kessel and while the Leafs have had a sensational season and are back in the post-season for the first time since before the lockout (not the latest lockout, the 2004-05 lockout), they just don’t have the size, legs or experience that the Bruins have. Boston won the Stanley Cup two years ago and a lot of those players are still wearing the Bruins Hub logo. This should not take long.
Boston in five games.