NHL 2013 playoffs preview: Bruins-Maple Leafs excites traditionalists

The first round of the NHL playoffs pitches Original Six members the Boston Bruins against the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Pittsburgh Penguins face the New York Islanders. Plus a look at all the other match-ups

After a shortened NHL season, the playoffs are here:


Pittsburgh Penguins (1) vs New York Islanders (8)

Credit where it's due: the New York Islanders took what was looking to be a very awful season, and turned it into a playoff berth. The first half of the Islanders' year was basically terrible – they only managed four wins out of 18 games in February, and only one of those came on home ice. Not a great way to say goodbye to Nassau Coliseum. But in the last few weeks of the season, the Iles managed to turn it around, going 8-5-1 in March.

Even still, they probably hoped that Ottawa would lose to Boston on Sunday in order to avoid having to face the Penguins in the first round. The Penguins had a great season, even without Sidney Crosby for the latter part of it, going 8-4 to finish out the season. The Pens also took the season series against the Iles 4-1, outscoring New York 17-9 in the process. Sid's back skating again, and would surely provide a boost if he comes back to play during the first round – another thing the Islanders are likely hoping doesn't happen. Not that it's really mattered of late, though. The Malkin-Kunitz-Neal line has proved very effective.

The only thing the Penguins might have to work on going into the postseason is the penalty kill. From Josh Yohe at the Tribune:

"The Penguins finished ninth, first, and third, respectively, in penalty killing during Bylsma's first three full seasons as head coach. This season, they finished 25th, killing only 79.6 percent of their shorthanded situations."

Not a great stat. Will it matter in this series? Probably not.

Prediction: Penguins in 4

Montreal Canadiens (2) vs. Ottawa Senators (7)

As unbelievable as this may sound, this will be the first time since the revival of the Senators in Ottawa that they will meet the Canadiens in the playoffs. Both teams managed two wins against the other in the season series, with two of those four games going to shootouts.

Montreal's generally had quite a good year, holding on to a top spot for most of the season. But they've been hot and cold against divisional rivals. The last few weeks in particular have been depressing for Canadiens fans, as the team stumbled around before finally ending on a high note against Toronto Saturday night. Up to their last two games of the year, in fact, Montreal was outscored 32-16 in eight games (they lost six of those). The Canadiens are entirely capable of playing some great hockey, but they always seem to struggle if goaltender Carey Price is either making mistakes, or hasn't quite found the right zone. When that happens, the rest of the team has a tendency to look a little shaky. They'll be counting a lot on someone like P.K. Subban to take the lead.

Ottawa offers the Habs a pretty evenly-matched opponent, despite the standings – with a bit of an advantage at the back. Even though he was gone just about half the year thanks to an injury, Sens goalie Craig Anderson still posted a 1.96 GAA and .941 save percentage. If the Sens manage to get star defenceman Erik Karlsson back in the lineup at some point early on, that could give Ottawa a big morale boost (not to mention a nice infusion of talent right when they need it most). Should be a good series, and the Sens could surprise.

Prediction: Almost too close to call, really. Let's say Ottawa surprises and takes it in 7.

Washington Capitals (3) vs. New York Rangers (6)

Henrik Lundqvist of New York Rangers and Alex Ovechkin of Washington Capitals
The New York Rangers and Washington Capitals exchange pleasantries during the epic 2012 playoff series. Photograph: Scott Levy/NHLI/Getty Photograph: Scott Levy/NHLI/Getty

A re-match of a great second-round series from last year is bound to be good again. The Caps are recently resurgent, thanks in part to a re-energized Alexander Ovechkin (now back at atop the league's scoring list), and some more consistent performances by guys like goalie Braden Holtby, who showed marked improvement after the first few weeks of the year, and some improvement on defence (Mike Green has started showing up again).

Where the Caps might prove to be most dangerous is on the power play, where they managed to score 26% of the time during the season – the best record in the league. The Rangers, on the other hand, struggled all year on the power play, sitting at 23rd in the league at only 15.7% productivity with the man advantage. It's not much better on the penalty kill, either. They need to be very wary of a Caps team that will likely try to frustrate them and work at drawing things like retaliation calls.

The Rangers had a weird year, especially after finishing so well in 2012 and adding Rick Nash to the lineup for some firepower up front. As good as the Rangers can be up front with guys like Nash, Brad Richards and Ryan Callahan, New York is lucky to have picked up a guy like Ryane Clowe at the trade deadline. In his first 11 games as a Ranger, he nabbed three goals and five assists. Only problem? He's injured. At the back end, the Rangers need to count on Henrik Lundqvist to stay to form and not have a relapse back to his play for the first part of this year, where he was sluggish.

One of the biggest question marks all year around the Capitals has been the Southeast division syndrome. That is, it's reasonable to wonder whether the Caps are really as good as they look on paper, of if they've simply just benefitted from getting to play the Lightning and Panthers all year. This will be an opportunity to see what the Capitals are really made of – and one would imagine they'll be very prepared to take on that challenge and prove themselves.

Prediction: Capitals in 6

Boston Bruins (4) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (5)

This will be a great series for a few reasons, including the fact that it's an Original Six rivalry. It's also the first time the Leafs have been in the playoffs for the first time in nine years. So, expect the crowds to be heavily invested in this one, and expect the games to get pretty physical right from the start.

This is also a series that Boston will probably be expected to win, thanks to having beaten the Leafs three of four games this year. However, at the moment, Boston isn't looking terrific. They've given up seven of their last 10 games, including a 4-0 loss in Ottawa on Sunday evening that solidified the final Eastern standings. Since the 17th, the Bruins have played every second night, so they might be pretty tired, too. But Boston is still a threat, with plenty of potential for goals up front from guys like Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin. In recent games, Milan Lucic has also looked better, too, after being in a serious goal and fighting slump for weeks earlier this season. He managed only 7 goals and 20 helpers in all 46 games he played this year. Not great. He's often a big part of getting Boston energized.

In Toronto, there was going to be a question about goaltending at one point, but after the trade deadline came and went without either Roberto Luongo or Mikka Kiprusoff reporting at the ACC for training, the Leafs were left to bank everything on James Reimer. And, really, it feels as though that's how it should be – he's inexperienced in the offseason (no kidding), but he's proved himself so far this year. There's no reason to think that won't continue. Up front, the Leafs will be looking for Nazem Kadri to continue what has become a coming-out season for the youngster alongside Joffrey Lupul. As for Phil Kessel? Who knows.

Bottom line is probably this: Despite their recent play, the Bruins are still largely a similar squad to the one that won the Cup two years ago, and that again made the postseason last year (in which they dropped the quarterfinal 4-3 to the Capitals). Point being that by and large, Boston has an idea of what it takes to win these days in the postseason. The Leafs have no idea what they're getting into, really. The team is generally inexperienced in the playoffs (obviously), so how or whether that becomes a factor is anyone's guess.

Prediction: Bruins in 6


Chicago Blackhawks (1) vs. Minnesota Wild (8)

The Wild are finally back in the postseason – and probably a good thing, too, considering how much the organization put into exactly this goal. Picking up both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter last summer was specifically designed to push the team back into the playoffs. Adding Jason Pominville at the trade deadline was an additional smart move, especially considering Dany Heatley is still out. But do they stand a chance against a team that was as dominant this season as the Blackhawks? At NHL.com, Mike G. Morreale posits (at least in the title, anyway) that the Wild could win the Cup, based on those new strengths. "Now they will hope to emulate the path taken by the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference last season, the Los Angeles Kings."

Well, yeah, wouldn't everyone?

The teams met three times this year, with the Wild taking the first game 3-2 in a shoot-out, and Chicago grabbing wins in the next two, 5-3 and 1-0, respectively. Something to keep in mind: during those three games, the Blackhawks went 0-7 on the power play. That stat will need to improve in this series. On the other side, however, the Wild need to find a way to score goals, and they'll look to guys like Parise for a bit of a boost. Problem: Parise only had three shots against Chicago in all three games combined.

Prediction: Chicago in 6.

Anaheim Ducks (2) vs. Detroit Red Wings (7)

The Red Wings of 2013 are not the Wings we're used to seeing. They squeaked into the playoffs this year, and throughout the season were hot and cold, never really settling into a kind of sustained run. Still, the team boasts a talented bench. Guys like Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen and Pavel Datsyuk should never be written off. At the back end, however, the Wings have to rely on Jimmy Howard to hold the fort. They don't have any other option, really.

On the other side, the Ducks have put together a very impressive season, basically under everyone's noses. While all the attention was on the Blackhawk's near-historic point run, the Ducks kept just winning games, getting the job done. Consistently. It's funny to think that just over a year ago, it looked as if guys like Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry might all leave the team. They're still there, and things are looking better than ever in Anaheim. All three combine to make the team a serious threat – even before you add Teemu Selanne and what's been great goaltending from both Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth into the mix.

Still, the Wings actually came out on top in the three games the two teams played against one another this year. The Ducks took the first game 5-2, but the Wings grabbed the last two wins 5-1 and 2-1. The Wings have been scoring lately and the Ducks are certainly capable of it. Bound to be a good series.

Prediction: Anaheim in 7

Vancouver Canucks (3) vs. San Jose Sharks (6)

The last time these two teams met in the playoffs was in the 2010-11 Western Conference final, which got off to a chippy start and ended with the Canucks taking the series in five games.

As if you even had to ask, but one of the biggest issues hanging over this series already for Vancouver is about its goaltending. Right now, Cory Schneider is being listed as day-to-day for... something (the Canucks aren't saying exactly what's sidelined him), so Roberto Luongo is set to start in Game One. Obviously, it'll be interesting to see how Luongo performs, and if it's good enough to win a game or two, what the Canucks then decide to do with him when Schneider returns. The Canucks are looking healthy otherwise, with plenty of scoring potential.

The Sharks are, as always, potentially capable of going all the way. Every year seems like the Sharks' year to finally make a serious play for the Stanley Cup and this one is no different. They've also had the Canucks' number all season, winning all three meetings between the two. And, like the Canucks, the Sharks are on a hot streak, finishing the season 12-5-1. However, the Sharks are now missing a few key pieces like Ryan Clowe (to the Rangers) and Michal Handzus (to the Blackhawks). Will that matter in the end?

Prediction: San Jose in 7

St. Louis Blues (4) vs. Los Angeles Kings (5)

This is probably the most difficult series to predict out of any of those in the West (or the league, really). These teams met last year in the post-season and L.A. made quick work of what looked like a pretty serious Blues team, sweeping them 4-0. One assumes the Blues are slightly better prepared this year.

The Kings won the season series 3-0, but of late, the Blues are playing their best hockey of the year, and have now strengthened their back end with Jay Boumeester and Jordan Leopold. What happens behind them for the Blues will be interesting. Brian Elliott is, at the moment, a great goalie. That wasn't always the case this season. Erick Duhatschek broke it down earlier this month at the Globe and Mail:

"All of this fabulous work raised Elliott's stats to 8-6-1 on the season with a 2.68 GAA and an .892 save percentage, which overall isn't all that remarkable. And it's all because, back in late March, Elliott some of the worst numbers in the NHL: a 3-6-1 record, a 3.65 GAA and a .851 save percentage. Elliott had essentially lost his job to the Blues' rookie Jake Allen."

Which version of Brian Elliott will the Blues get in round one?

It's not as if things are all rosy on the other side, though. Lately, the Kings are looking a lot more like the team that stormed to the Cup final last spring, but it was a bit touch and go for L.A. this year – particularly with Jonathan Quick, their Conn Smythe trophy-winning goalie. They'll need him to be on his game if they want to repeat that Cup win.

Prediction: L.A. in 6

NHL playoffs bracket


Colin Horgan

The GuardianTramp

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