Unlike last season, we’ve had a full 82 games to get us to where we are now: the Stanley Cup playoffs. But before we get any further into predicting who’ll win what, a quick reminder that this year’s format is different than before. The first and second placed teams in each conference still play the bottom two as before (though the latter pair are now wildcard teams), but from there, it breaks into divisional match-ups, with the second- and third-placed teams in each facing off.

With that covered, let’s get to what really matters: the match-ups.

Eastern Conference

Boston Bruins v Detroit Red Wings

Boston is undoubtedly the heavy favourite in this Original Six series (the last time these two teams met in the playoffs was 57 years ago). The Bruins finished atop the league this year, with 117 points, and a fairly impressive goal differential, scoring 261 and only allowing 177. They had an amazing March, winning 15 of the 17 games they played that month, outscoring their opponents 61 to 28. But April was a bit different, where the Bruins went two for seven. Maybe the surge came too early? There will be a lot of pressure for Boston to again reach the final, and while they seem capable of it, handling those expectations will be difficult. Look to the usual core group – Milan Lucic, Zdeno Chara, and Tuukka Rask (who walks into this post-season with a .930 save percentage), along with Jarome Iginla, who’s had a stellar year – to fight hard.

Facing that, Detroit will be in tough. The Red Wings struggled this year and only barely made the post-season, having spent much of the last eight weeks on the cusp. They will have to rely on their deep defence and a few key performances from promising youngsters like Gustav Nyquist to compete with what at the moment looks like a Bruins juggernaut. But the Red Wings were in a similar situation last year in the Western conference, facing the Anaheim Ducks, and handily dispensed with them. So, who knows?

Prediction: Boston in five

Pittsburgh Penguins v Columbus Blue Jackets

Pittsburgh finished the year sixth overall in the league, but second in the East (which ought to give you some idea of the West’s relative strength). Likely the Blue Jackets won’t pose much of a problem for the Pens, but keep in mind the last time these two teams met (March 28), it was no blow-out. Pittsburgh walked out of Columbus with a 2-1 win, having been kept to a 0-0 tie until the third period (over their five meetings, for the record, the Penguins out-scored Columbus 16-7). That night, it might be also worth noting, Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury faced 36 shots – probably not something Pittsburgh wants to test again in the playoffs over an extended period. Fleury is, and has been of late, a question mark for the Penguins in the post-season, particularly following his epic collapse in 2012. The Penguins also had trouble last year in the first round against the New York Islanders, another team many expected them to roll by with little challenge. Still, they benefit from those always-dangerous forward lines (Sidney Crosby, Evgeny Malkin, etc.), and are bolstered by the return of Kris Letang at defence.

Columbus, much like Detroit, will hope for some great performances from their key players, including their top forward and defensive lines, but no doubt mostly from Sergei Bobrovsky in net. He’s done well this year, sitting at a .923 save percentage with 2.38 goals against. Firing on all cylinders, perfectly, the Blue Jackets could steal one or perhaps even two from Pittsburgh. It could happen, but sustained perfection would be unexpected.

Prediction: Pittsburgh in five

Montreal Canadiens v Tampa Bay Lightning

Francis Bouillon andDerek Dorsett go at it.
Montreal's Francis Bouillon and New York's Derek Dorsett go at it. Montreal have the edge over Tampa. Photograph: Jean-Yves Ahern/USA Today Sports Photograph: Jean-Yves Ahern/USA Today Sports

Tampa Bay goes into this series on a four-game winning streak to end the season, two of which came against other playoff-bound teams (Philadelphia and Columbus). The Canadiens, on the other hand, had a mixed finish to the year, beating the Rangers in their finale, but losing a tough one in overtime to the Blackhawks a week ago. Overall, though, these two teams are very closely matched. Montreal will count on Carey Price to backstop them as well under pressure as he did Team Canada at the Olympics, but Price (while sometimes carrying the squad) is always better when he seems confident in what’s happening in front of him. That means he’ll rely on guys like PK Subban, for instance, to make smart decisions.

On the other side, the Lightning will be without the leadership of Martin St Louis and will look to Steven Stamkos for energy and, obviously, goals. But can Stamkos be the leader this team is now missing? The theory was they’d get that in a younger version with Ryan Callahan, but he’s so far not been as effective. Tampa Bay has had the better of Montreal this year, winning three of the four games they played against one another, but the Lightning, like the Habs will also have to hope their power play finally clicks, as it’s been in the bottom third overall this season.

Prediction: A close one. Montreal in seven

Philadelphia Flyers v New York Rangers

Before we go any further, let’s take a moment to remember just how awful the Metropolitan division was at the beginning of this season. Sean McIndoe at Grantland accurately re-named it the Division of Zeroes in November, calling it “terrible”, “horrible”, “abysmal”. At the time, the overall record for all eight teams in the division was 49-58-11, with only 109 points over 118 games. At that rate, McIndoe calculated, the entire division would have accrued only 76 points over the season.

But now four of the East’s finalists hail from the Metro division – a healthy 50% – including these two, the Flyers and Rangers. And, as NHL.com helpfully points out, the “biggest key” to this match-up might be the road games. “In four regular-season games this season, the home team won each time,” the league site informs us. “The Flyers have won three in a row against the Rangers at Wells Fargo Center, and the Rangers have won eight in a row against the Flyers at Madison Square Garden.”

Going only on that, perhaps the money’s on New York, but Philadelphia can prove difficult in the playoffs. Biggest question marks: can new signing St Louis step up to lead the Rangers? And will Steve Mason truly prove himself as the Flyers’ first string between the pipes?

Prediction: Flyers in six

Western Conference

Colorado Avalanche v Minnesota Wild

No team had a bigger turn-around from last season to this one than the Colorado Avalanche. They finished last year dead last in their division. This year: first in the West. One could point to the leadership of Patrick Roy behind the bench to explain it, and maybe that’s all it took, but whatever it was, it was magical. The Avs are now surely the team to watch in this post-season: how could they not be poised to impress yet again? There have been some key factors to this run – namely their talent up front and the great play of goaltender Semyon Varlamov between the pipes. Watch for Minnesota to attempt to exploit what remains Colorado’s only real (though relative, really) weakness, which is its defensive lines. But even then, the Wild might have a tough job – the Avs swept the Wild 4-0-1 in the season series between the two teams this year.

So that leaves Minnesota with a major challenge, and not one that will be easily overcome. In net, Ilya Bryzgalov has yet to prove he is a legitimate clutch goaltender (again, we look back to that 2012 series against the Penguins when he was in Philadelphia). So it means the Wild will have to lean heavily on that pairing they paid so much for not long ago: Ryan Suter on defence and Zach Parise up at forward. Those two will have to have stellar games for the Wild to have even a remote chance. And even then...

Prediction: Colorado in four

Anaheim Ducks v Dallas Stars

Teemu Selanne: Anaheim's star
Teemu Selanne: Anaheim's star. Photograph: Gary A Vasquez/USA Today Sports Photograph: Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today Sports

Anaheim quietly slipped into its role as league leader very early on this year and calmly sat there, winning game after game, swatting away (most) comers, and finishing the year second only to the surging Bruins with equal wins (54) but just one more loss (20), and short only one point from taking the Presidents’ Trophy. Expect more of the same in this first round. The expectation for this series is a fairly simple one: Anaheim will take it, probably at a walk. The Ducks boast a formidable duo up front in the form of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, along with the Ageless Wonder, Teemu Selanne. Even their fourth line had a good year – Daniel Winnik and Kyle Palmieri managed to hit 30 points this year. This is what has led them to such great heights this season, as it did last year … but then, we remember last year, right?

Oh, right.

The Ducks should have been able to take on the Red Wings pretty easily, but as it happened, they fell apart completely. Could the same thing happen this time?

If there’s any chance of a repeat, it’ll start in goal, where Kari Lehtonen has been a true star (sorry!) for Dallas. His save percentage is an impressive .919, with a goals-against average of 2.44. At the other end of the ice in the Ducks’ net will be Jonas Hiller – no slouch either (.911 save percentage, 2.48 GAA) – but who’s only played 50 games versus Lehtonen’s 65. More importantly, though, is Hiller’s recent troubles. Hiller lost his last three games in net for the Ducks and isn’t actually expected to start Wednesday. He may be passed over for rookie Frederik Andersen, who has played well, but whose inexperience risks making him a liability.

All of which means Dallas, itself boasting some power up front in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, could make it interesting – and have us all paying close attention.

Prediction: Anaheim in six

St Louis Blues v Chicago Blackhawks

St Louis was an impressive team this year for a number of reasons, but the way they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory as the season ended might have been one of the more surprising ones. The Blues finished the season with six straight losses, pushing them down the standings and out of first place in the West (handing it to Colorado). The second in that string of defeats came at the United Center in Chicago, to the Blackhawks – and it was one the Blues should have won, given they way they completely befuddled the Blackhawks for the first 20 minutes. Though the loss was a bad one for St Louis, it was ominous, too, as it came to a Chicago team that lacked its two top forwards, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Both, as it happens, will be (or so the team says) back from injury for the playoffs.

Which means if you’re a Blackhawks fan, things are looking up. A full roster along with a rested duo of Toews and Kane bodes well for the long haul into the post-season. But the Blackhawks can’t take the Blues for granted – yes, they are on a losing skid, but those first 20 minutes in early April on home ice showed Chicago how tough St Louis can be, particularly on the forecheck. At the back end, too, the Blues are formidable opponents for the defending Stanley Cup champions. In arguably the biggest trade deadline deal, the Blues picked up goaltender Ryan Miller, who is very capable of keeping them in games they might otherwise find themselves out of. And, of course, there’s guys like TJ Oshie and David Backes up front, always capable of finding the net.

Still, Chicago has been down this road a few times lately, and been successful at it twice recently. They’ll rely on the stalwarts – Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford – to once again step up. The experience on this team can’t be ignored. They are serious contenders.

Prediction: Upset. Blues in six

San Jose Sharks v LA Kings

This is the kind of thing the NHL was going for with this new playoff format: close, familiar divisional rivals facing off in the post-season to stoke the rivalry a bit more. Not that it was really needed in this case. The Sharks and Kings met last year in the second round, and it was a showcase for the kind of hockey the Western conference is known for: tough, grinding, low-scoring but full of heart. The Kings and Sharks went the full seven games, with five of those being decided by only one goal. LA eventually won out, perpetuating San Jose’s reputation as perennial chokers, but there wasn’t much doubt they’d given it their all.

With that in mind, count on some score-settling this time. The Sharks won’t want to go down to a regional and divisional rival twice in two years in the playoffs, so will likely be even more motivated to win. Against them is an impressive and tough Kings team that, while not necessarily having a Season Of Record, nevertheless can be counted on yearly now to put up a strong showing in the post-season.

The keys to this series might be two names: Tomas Hertl and Marian Gaborik. Hertl started this season on a tear, scoring six times in his first three games. He continued that terrific pace until mid-December, when a knee-on-knee hit against Dustin Brown put an end to his season. But he’s back now, and no doubt looking for revenge. That could be a dangerous element in the Sharks chemistry in this round.

On the other side is Marian Gaborik, who joined the Kings this year from the Blue Jackets. Since coming aboard this winter, Gaborik has been OK (only five goals in his 19 starts, but with 11 assists), but can usually be counted on to come up with some magic.

Still, on balance, these teams are a very even match. And with plenty of recent scores to settle, this could be the best series of the bunch.

Prediction: Kings in seven. Again.

• This article has been amended since publication to make clear there are no shootouts in the playoffs, and to clarify that the Avalanche finished last in their division last season.


Colin Horgan

The GuardianTramp

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